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The Other Girl With My Name: Online Anonymity and Owning Your Own Voice

Some time ago, a close friend’s name popped up in the search terms for my blog. Somebody had found their way here by searching for her (not, I hasten to add, because I had written her full name anywhere, but because she had commented using it). When I mentioned this to her, she was unsurprised; she told me she had found it herself. She was job hunting at the time and wanted to check that potential recruiters wouldn’t find anything embarrassing by searching for her.

That’s an old story. I might have told you it before. The point is: online anonymity has been on my mind a lot recently.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about personal identity on blogs and on Twitter of late, but most of the opinions expressed are absolute: you must not ever under any circumstances give the slightest hint of who you are, or, you must at all times use your real name and reveal your true identity.

I understand both sides of the argument.

Maintaining your anonymity makes you that bit safer from overly zealous readers and gives you the (illusion of?) freedom to complain about whatever you like without getting the sack/dumped/written out of somebody’s will.

Revealing your true identity, meanwhile, makes you more accountable for what you’re saying, (hopefully) encouraging you to put more thought into what you’re putting out there – is this something you want your parents or your clients to know about you? Is this an acceptable way to talk about another human being?

But I come down somewhere in between.

I do use a pseudonym for my blog and any related social media. “Rooftops” is not my real name (I just live way, way up in a very tall building). I am careful not to give any identifying information about myself or any of the people in my life – surnames; employers; addresses – because it’s not my place to give my loved ones’ personal details to the world.

As somebody who writes and maintains websites for a living, using a pseudonym for my blog also draws a nice clear line between work I’m creating as an employee and pieces I’m doing just for me; I like to have that distinction.

On the other hand, I am under no illusions of anonymity. If you know my real name, my blog is a couple of clicks away, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to work backwards from my blog and find out who I am either. If you know Aberdeen, you may have figured out roughly where I live. If you work in the same sector as me, you might have guessed where I work. There are enough pictures of me on here that I very, very occasionally get recognised.

And that’s fine (although please don’t turn up at my door – THAT’S NOT OKAY!).

I write as though everyone in my life – and everyone in my friends’ lives – is reading. No matter how bad a day I’ve had or how angry I am about the way a loved one is being treated, I don’t put it out there on my blog for everyone to read. It’s very tempting sometimes, but it’s not worth the risk. I even schedule my posts to publish outside working hours because I don’t want to give the impression I’ve been skiving.

I would do the same even if my blog was anonymous – there's enough whining floating around the internet already; I want to use this as a positive space, not as somewhere to bitch.

But being identifiable was a conscious decision – my blog is part of my portfolio; it’s proof that I can write and design and I’m not afraid of the internet. But more than that: I think being identifiable pushes me to create better content; if people are going to recognise me, I want them to recognise me as someone whose blog is worth reading; if I’m going to write an opinion piece, I’d better have thought hard about my views and be prepared to defend them.

Anyway, the original point of this post was that I googled myself recently and, while a lot of what I found was the real me – work publications; that exhibition I had; every sponsored event I've ever done – there’s another girl out there with my name. She’s only a couple of years younger than me and lives within commuting distance of Aberdeen. And we have distinctive enough a surname that people could be forgiven for assuming she must be me.

And this girl can’t – or won’t – spell. She has no idea of punctuation. Her very public Facebook is covered in brags about pulling sickies and punching folk whilst drunk.

And part of me wants to write all over my CV: “SHE IS NOT ME!” Because, if I’m being careful about what I write online and I’ve thought about how my social media presence portrays me to the people I need to impress, ugh!, I don’t want it all to be undermined by that one other girl with my name.

24 comments

  1. Love your thoughts as always. Sometimes I'm worried about the fact that my blog can be found by searching for me, but then I realize that I don't really write anything that I'd be ashamed to show a future employer.

    I know your pain to some extent though - back in my old town (pop 7000!) there was a girl with my maiden name, Caitlin Sullivan, same age, who was arrested for stealing drugs.  People at my old job saw it in the newspaper and wondered if it was me! Thankfully my name is different now, but cripes Caitlin, get your shit together.

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  2. Oh gosh, that's a difficult one, and something I'd never really considered. I mean, we all know that prospective employers etc will Google us, but what if they find the wrong person? Up until recently, I was the only person on Facebook with my exact name, although there are a couple variations of it. Recently, though, I noticed someone called Amber married someone with my surname, so now there are two of us, and I must admit, I was oddly affronted by it. The cheek of the woman, stealing my name!

    I use my real name everywhere I post online, but I've always taken exactly the same approach as you, in that I assume everyone I've ever met will read it at some point. Even without using your real name, it's so easy to be identified, as you say. For instance, for the past year, I've had a troll who keeps coming to my site and leaving comments which are presumably supposed to be hurtful to me. She thinks she is anonymous, and makes up fake names and emails to "trick" me, but what she doesn't seem to realise is that she's commenting from her employer's IP: a few seconds on Google and their website and I know exactly who she is (and if I was feeling vindictive, could very easily contact her employer and let them know how she's using their internet). Quite scary, really and another good reason why I think you should always use the internet under the assumption that everyone will know who you are, even if you're "anonymous".

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  3. Great blog post. We can control what we put on our blogs but we cannot control who reads them, its something I am mindful of. 
    There are 1000's of girls with the same name as me, I have the opposite problem that no-one can find me on Facebook!

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  4. I know of at least one place where my blog is linked to my real name, and I've definitely considered trying to have that corrected. I don't care about having total anonymity, but I'm not sure how I feel about future employers reading my blog. (Not that there's anything particularly scandalous there, I'm just a somewhat private person.) It doesn't help that I'm the only person with my first/last name combo. There are times I wish I had a more common name just so that I could "hide" a little better on the Internet. I know it's silly, but I also grew up in the "don't ever tell anyone online your real name ever, ever, ever" era (i.e., the early days of the Internet). So, to make a rambling comment short--I totally get where you're coming from with this post. :)

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  5. thislittleinfinity25 January 2013 at 00:59

    I googled myself when I was job hunting last year too. To my horror, there is a girl with my same name (and I have an uncommon surname) who frequently posts skanky party pics of herself on twitter. Luckily her middle initial is different from mine so I make sure to put my middle name on all my resumes and cover letters!

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  6. Oh no! I'm sure no-one would mix you up though as you will look different and have different info etc. Upsetting though, I would be worried by someone having my name (Googles:None!) 

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  7. This is so interesting - I'd never thought of it that way (I do have a pretty unique name though, and have never come across anyone with the same name as me). I do worry about people finding my blog though, not because I think the content is inappropriate for anyone to find, but simply because I think many people just think it's plain weird to write a blog at all!

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  8. Oh dear, a drunken name doppelganger! My maiden name was less common, am sure there are loads of "me's" out there. I don't blog, but I do write/have a profile on a few review sites. Which are always asking me to post to fb (thanks to fb nosing in on every other site it would seem), which I do not. I do feel facebook linking to everything about you is the beginning of the end of all semblance of privacy. It's none of your business what I'm up to on imdb facebook! (gr....sorry facebook rant over). I think your take on blogging is the wisest. It's probably why I don't blog, I don't know if I could show such self-restraint. Writing about stuff outside my personal experience (in a way) feels "safer". If that makes sense. Don't worry too much about stalkers though, were they ever to find you they would be far too out of breath to do anything! You would have to make them a cup of tea ;-)

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  9. Yes! I know a girl from a very, very small community; there was another girl the same age as her with the same name who kept getting arrested - it would appear in the paper and cause all sorts of awkward confusion! Sort it out, Other Girl!

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  10. Ugh, what a nasty piece of work! I wonder if she does it to other bloggers, too?

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  11. *checks Facebook* There are four people with my name (and three "Sara"s) but I know at least two of them are second or third cousins of mine. My surname's THAT unusual!

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  12. Ha ha - thanks! I do worry about starting new jobs where EVERYBODY has already read my blog and thinks they know everything about me (of course, they wouldn't - there's a lot I don't share on here); it makes me feel a bit self-conscious sometimes.

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  13. Yikes! Good plan! Do you ever want to message her and say, "You're putting my career at risk!"? Because I do...!

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  14. Yeah, I'm sure most recruiters know enough about the internet these days to realise she may not be me!

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  15. Yes, I think that, too. Then I remember that most of the people I know have at least one hobby which I think is totally bizarre (running, mostly) and I just shrug and leave them to it; I assume they can do the same for me and my blog.

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  16. I actually laughed out loud at that - very true!

    And you know I welcome all Facebook rants, too.

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  17. OH NO that is so frustrating. Luckily for me, with the name Nova and a totally crazy last name as well that will (hopefully) never happen. I guess you could fight it back by making a fully public blog or website with your name and details and look very professional on it.

    I do the same thing, I use a fake last name even on Facebook and stuff but it wouldn't be very difficult to figure out that I'm Nova "Rella" and "nova is awesome" since I talk about my work and my city and my very identifiable dog all the time everywhere.

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  18. Yeah... that thought fills me with terror... I guess there's some self-consciousness behind my pseudonym, too, like my blog identity's worth listening to but my real self is still not sure she's interesting...! Does that make sense?!

    Ha ha - yes, you're pretty distinctive!

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  19. This is a difficult one and something I still struggle with. On the one hand I want to be known, as I would like to get somewhere with my writing eventually but at the same time I prefer using my pseudonym on my blog etc, not because I want to hide behind it but I agree with Courtney's comment about not really wanting potential emplyers to read it. Plus there are folk I know in real life who I'd rather didn't read my blog (not because they're stalkers or anything, its just I have no desire to know them better and don't really want them to know me better either!). My surname is very unusual so I'd be easy to find on google, plus my job and place of work are both quite unique. There are others with my name but I think its fairly obvious which one I am as the others aren't in the UK. I do try and assume that my blog may be read by people I know or potential employers so I keep this in mind when I post.

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  20. I've never googled myself before, but I just did. I use a semi-pseudonym for my blog and online persona too, it's just easier that way. Luckily my name is pretty unusual, however I did find a super Twilight youtube fan with my name (sigh). There didn't seem to be any links to any of my online stuff so I'm pretty pleased! 

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  21. I've thought and thought and thought about it and I still sometimes think I'm getting it wrong - I get paranoid that people are reading who I'd rather didn't, or I feel silly for hiding being a pseudonym. But the wanting to be known as a writer aspect is interesting...

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  22. Super Twilight YouTube fan? Oh no...

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  23. Whoa - that's not good!  I try to hide my real name but I know it wouldn't be hard to track me down from the "clues" on my blog.  I avoid F-book for this very reason, and my design work is in my previous name ... but yeah.  It's a tricky one.  I like to think that people from school think I am a lecturer living in France (the other "me"!) so they will get a surprise when they bump into me in Aberdeen!

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  24. There's a fantastic local photographer with my surname - and his website is JUST my surname. People keep asking if it's me (ha!). I'm sometimes tempted to say yes.

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Please play nice.