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As a programmer, do you see any professional or other advantage in using your real name in online discourse, versus an invented handle? I've always gone by a single username and had my real name displayed whenever possible, for a few reasons:

  • My interests online are almost exclusively professional and aboveboard.

  • It constructs a search-friendly public log of all of my work, everywhere.

  • If someone wants to contact me, there are many ways to do it.

  • My portfolio of work is all tied to me personally.

Possible cons to full disclosure include:

  • If you feel like becoming involved in something untoward, it could be harder.

  • The psychopath who inherits your project can more easily find out where you live.

  • You might be spammed by people who are not worth the precious time that could be better spent writing more of the brilliant software you're famous for.

  • Your portfolio of work is all tied to you personally.

It seems, anyway, that a vast majority of StackOverflow users go by invented handles rather than real names. Notable exceptions include the best-known users, who are typically well established in the industry. But how could we ever become legendary rockstar programmers if we didn't get our names out there? Discuss.

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This question is off-topic: questions on Programmers.SE must relate to software development and programmer-related issues. –  user8 Oct 3 '10 at 3:08
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@Mark Trapp - Software developers frequently contribute to sites such as StackOverflow, and may contribute to open-source sites, using either real names or handles. –  fennec Oct 3 '10 at 3:10
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@Mark Trapp: This is a programmer-related issue. As a culture, we are responsible for the creation of the Internet and were among its first users. Technical discourse about programming is carried out almost exclusively online. How should programmers maintain a professional online presence? –  Jon Purdy Oct 3 '10 at 3:15
    
Related: stackoverflow.com/questions/2446438/… –  sylvanaar Oct 31 '11 at 13:37
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closed as off topic by Thomas Owens Oct 23 '12 at 14:48

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14 Answers

up vote 106 down vote accepted

The biggest thing I can think of is both an advantage and a disadvantage: everything you put online under your real name will follow you. This is good when you are posting good, constructive things. It's bad when you post a picture of you from that night or when you say something offensive or just plain stupid.

I find that using my real name helps keep me in check -- I think more about what I say and how I say it. But it has on occasion been inconvenient when using my name invited personal attacks for various reasons.

All in all, my approach is to use my real name when dealing with professional-ish stuff and to use a handle for personal interests and things I might not want to be as easily searchable.

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+1 Anna's response is exactly what I'd have said. Cheers! –  Christian Oct 3 '10 at 12:24
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+1 Same sentiment here. I use my real name for professional-style postings so that I can be found and it keeps me in line with what I say and how I say it. Coming onto a site like this with a made up name and spewing embarrassing remarks seems a total waste of time to me. Too many other things in life besides trolling. –  Todd Williamson Oct 4 '10 at 13:56
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+1 After all. If you stay professional (mostly), then you have a huge distributed CV all over the internet –  Lukas Eder Jan 13 '11 at 19:23
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+0 cause i dont want to break the 69 vote (yeah i'm that immature). I tend to be 'trolled', disliked, liked, found controversial and really would like to be left alone. Which is why i use an alias. –  acidzombie24 Jul 6 '11 at 7:01
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If you're using your real name for publishing smart, objective, funny, creative, constructive, useful, interesting content on the internet using your real name, gosh, then you will have an awesome, persistent CV in the cloud as we'd say today (or in the mainframe, as this funny chap calls it).

If you're using your real name for utter crap, stupidity, boring, wrong, destructive, racist, neanderthal, unfair, illegal stuff, well, then you will still have that CV in the cloud. Might not be as awesome, though.

EDIT: See how I'm subtly advertising myself as being smart, objective, funny, creative... ;-)

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SnOrfus is right, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. When you post something online, it suffers from the following drawbacks:

  • Your online statements will probably last forever. If you formulate something undiplomatically, it will haunt you for the rest of your life. Or if you write something that is just plain wrong, the internet will help everybody to remember this mistake, forever. This is especially a problem for younger people.
  • Your opinions are available for the whole world to see, even if you intended them only for a specific audience. For example, if you publish an article on this site in which you discus a stupid habit of your manager, not necessarily to attack him, you don't want him to know it is your post. Or if you write an article on how much you hate programming language X, a future employer that is ready to offer you a programming job in that language might change his mind after reading it, even if you are really prepared to embrace the language in order to get the job.
  • There is often too little context so it can very easily be misinterpreted. For example: the prehistory of a certain statement is often not available for the reader; irony that is mistaken for serious-mindedness; your future employer will read all the mistakes you've made when you were a mere beginner without realizing it was written 10 years ago and you've morphed into a different person in the meanwhile; etc...

As a happy medium, I chose to use my surname and the initials of my family name. This way, my pseudonym sounds more personal while still preserving my privacy.

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My name is not unique, it's pretty much a 'John Smith' type name, so using that to search uniquely for me is pretty useless.

However, my alias is unique (and I hope to keep it that way, 7 years and going strong), and given enough tech savvy, you can work out who I am anyway (not that that would get you very far, as my name is a dime a dozen). However, I like to think of my alias as a pointer to my real self. Before facebook, there was no pointer to this real me (apart from FB, no website holds my real name attached to my alias). I like to think that my alias is my name (and in several computer-related circles, it is) because it's unique in a world of johnsmithery.

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Exactly this. In the years since I made the concious decision to use my real name online, two more prominent Paul Butchers have appeared. If you choose a sensible unique alias, it's easier to maintain your personal brand. –  Paul Butcher Jan 6 '11 at 10:35
    
@PaulButcher except when you find that one site you haven't signed up to where your "unique alias" is already taken (I tried to sign up to reddit, my username was already taken) sigh. –  glasnt Jan 10 '11 at 22:43
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I use my real name for any sites where content is publicly posted that I wouldn't mind a potential employer seeing (because they will), for example my StackOverflow answers or my technical blog.

I use a pseudonym for sites where I'd prefer it not to become part of my meta-resume. Not necessarily that I am embarrassed about anything I post under it, just that I don't want it to float the top of a Google search on my name and crowd out things that help my chances for a job. For example, I use a pseudonym any political discussion sites, or my personal blog.

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I'm not sure what my real name is anymore. Seriously: there are people I know mainly in real life, who I rarely talk to online, who still know me as TRiG. (They'd know my real name too, usually.) And there are people I know mainly or exclusively online who'd still know my real name. The two identities blur together, especially since the nickname TRiG is in fact derived from my initials.

Edit to add: You could find my online postings across a lot of forums very easily if you found a case-sensitive search engine.

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I do my professional things under my real name and always have even back to the days of newsgroups. I also use an email address that clearly is related to my business: gregcons.com is Gregory Consulting. My Twitter handle is gregcons because KateGregory was taken. I've been doing this since before there was a World Wide Web at all and recommend it. I definitely find significant advantages to having a consistent professional profile. You think before you write - it's going to stick around forever under your real name. People can check you out and confirm that you are capable. I find no shame in the possibility that someone will see I didn't know everything at some point in the past. If anything it shows I was always learning.

That said, I do some personal things under a pseudonym. FlyerTalk for example. If I'm going to post about getting away with something, I'd rather the airlines weren't able to look up my record and investigate it. And on the stalker front, we often post rather specific travel plans on FT and I don't really want those associated with my real name.

The creepiest correspondence I have ever received was a paper letter that came to my house from someone in a nearby jail who was reading my Visual C++ programming books and wanted to stop by and meet me when he got out. I realize that doesn't set a very high bar for creepy especially since he never wrote again. Perhaps that's why using my real name online doesn't worry me. For over twenty years it has brought me nothing but good.

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"gregcons" made me think "greg cons people" as in "con-artist." ...Something to think about. –  Ben Jan 6 '11 at 17:35
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Obviously putting stuff online under your real name can give you some sort of profile, and I've recently had people at work recognise my name on StackOverflow. I don't see this as particularly good or bad.

A benefit of having high visibility online is that people can more easily contact or find out about me. Google and there are relevant results: I get calls from recruiters who find me on LinkedIn, and someone with a non-work related opportunity actually googled me, found where I worked and then called reception to speak to me. Maybe some people would find that annoying, but it hasn't annoyed me yet - instead I've had a few good outcomes from it.

I personally like the fact that someone can google me and see what I am up to - at least, the things that I put into the public sphere.

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If you feel like becoming involved in something untoward, it could be harder.

This one is a little more complex than what you feel about something - it's not whether you think it's untoward that's relevant, it's what everybody else thinks. For instance I might not think that attending a political rally in support of voting reform is untoward, but others may. On the other hand, many people might not think being actively involved in an evangelical church is untoward, but it may, if I knew nothing else about them, negatively impact my opinion.

Despite all this, I think there's value in being honest, both online and offline, and I think knowing that what you say online can be tracked back to you offline can have a civilising influence.

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Hmm, this question got me thinking here..

I always use my invented name. why?

  • Seperation between personal and Work. I find this very very important! (I do have my real name on the internet, but ONLY on a social network. (Hyves, And that account is also locked if your not my friend.)

(I am thinking about putting my real name on stackoverflow)

  • If you do become famous, you can enjoy all of those benefits/downsides even with a invented name. people will just know you by that name.

  • As snorfus pointed out, stupidity is something I am good at. :) Mostly because I am only just began programming (3 years)

  • Isn't internet all about privacy? :)

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I see more disadvantages than advantages, which is why I generally don't use my name online.

  • Stalking: I've never had a stalker (we're talking, creepy phone-calling, stealing your mail, hacking your e-mail kind of stalking), but it's happened to both of my siblings and is more common than you think.

  • Dumb Stupidity: it's going to happen, I will say something stupid. In the ideal case, it won't be intentional. But with so many eyes, writings can be mis-interpreted. A perfectly normal and acceptable opinion now, may not be in a few years and writing on the internet is eternal.

  • Not-Dumb Stupidity: There are times, where if you look through my SO question history, I will have brain farted and asked a ridiculously stupid question that I already knew the answer to. I reserve the right to do that without the potential for persecution from my peers.

The only upside I can see is building a positive reputation, which can have great ramifications, but I'm an average nobody software developer. So that doesn't really apply to me. It might to you.

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"There are no stupid questions" - every teacher, lecturer, and employer that I've ever had. –  Kirk Broadhurst Oct 3 '10 at 11:32
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"Just stupid people asking them" - everyone else in the class. –  Shog9 Oct 3 '10 at 20:00
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One advantage to using my real name: A high school friend was able to get back in touch because I made enough apparently interesting posts on a language forum to put me in several of the top 10 google results for my name.

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Glad to hear it! –  Jon Purdy Oct 3 '10 at 3:54
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Two big down-sides for me:

  • The name I use to sign checks isn't unique. Even in the mid-90's, I was already getting email from people who'd seen my name on a newsgroup somewhere and assumed I was someone else. My name isn't even terribly common - but The Internet is a pretty big namespace...

  • It increases the temptation to self-promote. I've seen this a lot - folks go job hunting, change their online IDs to reflect the name they're putting on resumes, and their whole act changes. You might consider this a good thing, encouraging a professional attitude and such... But I have little desire to interact with people who are constantly in "interview-mode", and even less desire to spend time there myself.

Your online identity is what you produce, not what you name it. Getting hung up on a name is as silly as getting hung up on an avatar photo... Which, incidentally, do not usually correspond to the "real names" they're attached to.

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Another great point about self-promotion. I enjoy the ability to goof off and be myself online under my real name without fear of professional ramifications. Not that I do anything wacky in the first place. Nothing that gets on record, at least... –  Jon Purdy Oct 3 '10 at 3:48
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Another way to view this question is what name do you consider to be your identity. For example, my full legal name would be "John Brock King II" while most people call me JB and there are several nicknames I have had over the years, some stemming from various interpretations of JB like James Brown, James Bond, Jim Bean, etc. while others have other stories behind their origin like Boogus or Funkmeister. I choose to identify with my name as JB rather than John as this is what I was called growing up and my name is similar to my fathers except I have a II at the end of mine. "John King" can be a rather common name as there is a CNN correspondent with that name among others. I'm often asked for my date of birth at the doctor's office and pharmacies because my name matches so much. Even "JB King" can still match some stuff like a shipwreck so it isn't totally unique unto myself.

Some people are known by part of their name and others like to create their own identities. After all, what are the odds Lady Gaga would actually change her last name to Gaga? I'm thinking slim to none but maybe that's just me.

I do consider J.B. King to be my real name though for legal matters it isn't always adequate.

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You bring up a very good point. The notion of professional versus personal life is very much an issue of identity. In a world where you can be anyone, how do you want to be known? –  Jon Purdy Oct 3 '10 at 3:28
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