There’s been a decent amount of talk lately centered around the humble pseudonym, primarily in relation to sites like Facebook and Google+, which specifically require people to use their “real” names, sometimes in relation to work or parts of who they are that don’t necessarily mesh with their real lives.
Authors, artists, musicians, and so forth are affected by this policy, but even more are the people who are concerned about privacy or safety. Imagine living in a country where to express an idea can lead to criminal and/or inhumane punishment. It is still illegal to be gay in dozens of countries, for instance. To express unpopular political beliefs can be a death sentence in some locales. Even in the USA, people have been threatened and terrorized for disagreeing with fanatical belief systems and institutions. Authors of books that criticize religion, political movements, governments, and more have been harassed, threatened, and even killed.
And even when human lives don’t hang in the balance, consider the impact on a person’s livelihood if he or she teaches grade school and makes a little money on the side writing erotica or dark fantasy. Consider the impact on a teenager who is found out as being gay or an atheist or a democrat in certain families where such individualism or diversion from the family ideal is squashed. Kids and young adults have attempted and succeeded at committing suicide over being accidentally or forcefully outed on the internet.
As an author, I fully intend to use a pen name when and if I publish. Why? Because I am a nurse and I don’t want those two career paths to overlap. Because I live in the Bible Belt and a lot of the things I write about would be condemned by my neighbors. Because my neighbors’ kids have already shown time and again that they’re willing to punish my son for anything they see as deviant, and having a mom who writes “those” books is something he shouldn’t have to endure. Because certain quarters of my family wouldn’t understand that I can write about violence, magic, and alternate worlds and religions without being evil. Because my mother and brother are evil, awful people who have no qualms about using social media to stalk and harass anyone they can make miserable by doing so, myself included, and I’d rather not having their vile tongues wagging in the direction of my professional life as a writer.
The pseudonym question will be very important to me someday, but even if it weren’t a personal issue, I think there’s a lot to be said for the ability to separate our internet personas from our real life roles. The freedom to express ideas is inherent to the modern culture of the US, though there are limits even to that, just ask Penn & Teller, Larry Flint, or Molly Norris. Anonymity on the internet allows people to be jerks and jackasses in ways they might (might) hesitate to be if they were associated with their real names, but the detriment to free expression and the danger to those who choose to follow the rules of corporations who are incapable of providing protections to these same people far outweighs the benefit of holding human detritus (aka internet trolls) accountable for their comments.