Identity, Pseudonymity, and Social Media Networks


This paper explores the topic of identity in communities and social networks, specifically, how pseudonyms are used by social media users to control what is revealed about their identity (and to whom), for political dissent, to explore identity, and for freedom of expression. Examining published research by Hogan (2013), Marwick and boyd (2011), Papacharissi (2009), Smyth (2012, Lee and Liu (2016), Baym (2011), Christopherson (2007), Farrall 2012), Schäfer (2016), and Wielander (2009), this paper argues that the individual and societal benefits of pseudonymity far outweigh any harm. While there is evidence that pseudonyms and anonymity might lead to bad behaviour, the evidence also suggests that pseudonymity allows social media users to avoid context collapse, facilitates free speech, democracy and political dissent, affords teenagers the ability to experiment with their identity, and facilitates freedom of religious expression as well as freedom of non-religious expression.

Keywords: online identity, anonymity, pseudonymity, privacy, social media, social networks, online community, context collapse, political dissent, identity play, non-religious expression, religious expression.

Identity, Pseudonymity, and Social Media Networks

The purpose of this paper is to explore the topic of identity in communities and social networks, specifically, how pseudonyms are used by social media users to control what is revealed about their identity (and to whom), for political dissent, to explore identity, and for freedom of expression. Facebook users are told not to sign up for accounts with pseudonyms, but are required to sign up with their real names, that is, “the name they go by in everyday life” (Facebook, n.d.). Mark Zuckerberg believes that using a pseudonym to represent your identity is misleading and deceitful, saying, “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (as cited in Van der Nagel & Frith, 2015, para. 7). On the other hand, Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan, believes “Zuckerberg’s totally wrong on anonymity being total cowardice. Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, raw way” (as cited in Hogan, 2013, p. 292). Hogan defines anonymity as “a state implying the absence of personally identifying qualities” (Hogan, 2013, p. 293),whereas pseudonyms “are a practice, which is often meant to facilitate nonidentifiable content” (2013, p. 292). The two are very closely linked, with pseudonyms being used to represent a particular type of identity, or to obscure identity entirely, facilitating anonymity. Many people agree with Zuckerberg, in that anonymity prevents accountability, enabling people to behave badly on the internet (Christopherson, 2007; Van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). However, this ignores the many advantages that pseudonymity affords both individuals and society as a whole. In this paper, I argue that pseudonymity in social networks protects privacy and empowers freedom of expression. Firstly, I will discuss pseudonymity with regards to context collapse. Secondly, I will discuss how pseudonymity facilitates free speech, democracy and political dissent. Thirdly, I will examine how pseudonymity affords teenagers the ability to experiment with their identity. Finally, I will discuss how pseudonymity facilitates freedom of religious expression as well as freedom of non-religious expression.

Context Collapse

Pseudonymity allows social network users to avoid “context collapse” (Hogan, 2013, p. 300; Marwick & boyd, 2011). People’s lives are made up of different parts, which involves different activities, and participation with different types of communities, and the way we behave and present our identities varies according to the context (Hogan, 2013; Marwick & boyd, 2011). We present ourselves differently to our friends, families, and work colleagues, and there are details of our lives which we may feel comfortable in sharing with one group, but not with another. It may be especially important to keep our personal life separate from our professional life, especially if there is a fear that details of our personal life may impact our professional reputation, even if it is doing something some people might perceive as being harmless. Similarly, Papacharissi describes the internet as a place where the barriers between public and private have been removed, or where there is a “confluence of private and public boundaries” (2009, p. 206). This has resulted in the need for individuals to “adjust their behavior so as to make it appropriate for a variety of different situations and audiences” (p. 207). For many, this can be difficult to achieve, and as noted by Marwick and boyd, some people attempt this through self-censorship (2011, p. 125). Although Papacharissi notes that some people create online boundaries by using privacy settings to control who has access to information on their social media sites, for many people, this may not go far enough. As Poole states, despite social media networks like Facebook enabling you to separate your audience into groups or lists, “the core problem is not the audience, it’s your context within that audience. It’s not who you share with, it’s who you share as” (Poole, 2011, 0:49). This, as he explains, is because our identities are “multifaceted […] like diamonds” (2011, 1:20). In other words, even though we still have just one identity, we present ourselves, and express ourselves differently in different contexts, and in order to maintain that degree of separation, people sometimes need to use pseudonyms when engaging with others on social networks.

Free Speech, Democracy and Political Dissent

Furthermore, pseudonymity also protects free speech, democracy and political dissent. Whistleblowers and activists may fear that criticising governments, politicians or corporations will lead to reprisals. Silencing protestors and whistleblowers means that corrupt or bad behaviour will continue, without any accountability, and with no hope for democratic reform. As Joichi Ito said in the New York Times,

The real risk to the world is if information technology pivots to a completely authentic identity for everyone. […] In the U.S., maybe you don’t mind. If every kid in Syria, every time they used the Internet, their identity was visible, they would be dead (as cited in Sengupta, 2011, para. 14).

The Arab Spring demonstrates how social media can be used to organise political protest and “for the promotion of free speech” (Smyth, 2012, p. 928). Protesters can use the Internet, mobile phones and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to quickly communicate with many people at one time, facilitating the dispersal of information as well as facilitating the organisation and mobilisation of protests (Smyth, 2012). But as Ito suggests, social media can also be used for surveillance and “to identify and punish dissents” (Smyth, 2012, p. 929). Equally important is Lee and Liu’s argument that the use of pseudonymity and anonymity is as important in a democracy as it is “in a repressive authoritarian society” (2016, p. 19). Even in places such as America and Canada where free speech is enshrined in law, pseudonymity and anonymity protects free speech and democracy by allowing people to express their views or criticise governments or politicians without fearing punishment.  Hogan exemplifies this with a case in Canada, where the mayor of Aurora, Phyllis Morris, lost her election campaign because of anonymous critical comments on a blog. She tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the commenters and the website, but the anonymity of the commenters was protected by law. However, as Hogan states, if they had been forced to reveal their identities, they may not have felt as comfortable about giving their “pointed, but legitimate, criticisms” (Hogan, 2013, p. 290). In light of this, it is inadequate to say that anonymity is not necessary in a democracy, because democracies can easily become authoritarian when individuals lose the protective cloak of anonymity which enables them to hold their government to account.  Pseudonymity, particularly when attached to anonymity, affords whistleblowers and dissenters a level of protection, which leads to a freer society.

Teenagers and Identity Play

Equally important, pseudonymity affords teenagers the ability experiment with their identity. This is what Baym calls “identity play” (2011, p. 387). Using the internet to explore or play with their own identity can benefit teenagers’ personal development (Christopherson, 2007, p. 3042). Pseudonyms release teenagers from any pre-conceived impressions or expectations their peers may have of them, giving them a clean slate to express themselves any way they like. Christopherson reports that one teenager claimed that pseudonymity meant he could talk to whomever “he wanted to talk to without negative social consequences… [and] people on the internet tended to be more expressive about thoughts and feelings than in FtF [face-to-face] communications” (p. 3042). Someone previously known as being introverted might be more expressive and communicative on online social networks such as discussion boards or chat rooms because they do not feel pigeonholed by their previous social reputation, allowing them to break free from any previous baggage and explore a new identity. Christopherson also noted that gaining confidence over the internet can also lead to greater confidence in offline, face-to-face environments (p. 3042). It appears that identity play is even more important for Chinese teenagers. A poll conducted in 2007 showed that Chinese teenagers “showed a 2 to 1 greater interest in anonymity” (Farrall, 2012, p. 435) compared with American youths. Additionally, twice as many Chinese youth admitted to experimenting with how they present themselves online, adopting “a completely different persona in some of their online interactions, compared with only 17 percent of Americans” (p. 435). This suggests that teenagers feel an enormous pressure to fit in and conform to a social group, which may be driven in part by “a need for a sense of belonging” (Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 14; Riding & Gefen, 2004). Pseudonymity means that teenagers can experiment with their identity in a socially supportive online community while maintaining their privacy and avoiding negative social consequences in their offline environment. Fear of negative social consequences can deter teenagers from expressing their individuality and exploring their identity. Pseudonymity thus allows teenagers to play with their identity and discover themselves, building confidence and leading to greater personal development.

Freedom of Non-Religious Expression

There is also evidence of pseudonymity facilitates freedom of non-religious expression. Schäfer (2016) writes of a case in Indonesia, where Alexander An was imprisoned for promoting atheism and attacking Islam on his Facebook page. Schäfer notes that in Indonesia, “where religiosity is the norm” (p. 253), and where there is “growing intolerance […] for expressing non-religious views” (p. 254), a growing number of atheists are using the internet and social networking sites to communicate and build a community of support. In most cases, they use pseudonyms on Facebook and Twitter to disguise their identity while still allowing them to be visible as a group. Schäfer points out that although it is possible for state authorities to trace the offline identities of social media users, it is really the general public who call for atheists to be held accountable. Since the average person does not have the technical means to trace the identities of the atheist internet writers, pseudonymity means that atheists can express their views without fearing a backlash. An chose to use his real name on his Facebook page, and was only arrested after members of the public tracked him down (Schäfer, 2016). These members of the public exemplify the physical local community who have created “an imagined community of sentiment, based on its opposition to others” (Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta, & David, 2004, p. 336), with the “others” being the atheists. However, it is also clear that even the anti-atheistic community is mediated by technology, and that the atheistic and anti-atheistic communities are both physical and virtual “hybrids” (Katz et al., 2004, p. 337). Schäfer (2016) confirms this by noting that online discussions and meetings can carry over offline, even between the two. While using his real name was An’s choice, if everyone were forced to use their real name, there would be a significant decline in the number of people in Indonesia willing to express their anti-religious views online. So even if a real name is required to become a registered Internet user, the ability to use a pseudonym online protects people from harm, and enables the freedom of non-religious expression. This is also true for religious minorities in societies where non-religion (or a different religion) is the norm.

Freedom of Religious Expression

On the other hand, pseudonymity facilitates freedom of religious expression. China is an example of a “tightly controlling state” (Schäfer, 2016, p. 259), where the government has become increasingly wary of the growth of Christianity. Since 2013, Christian churches in China have been forced to remove their crosses, and some buildings have been demolished altogether (Goldman, 2018). More recently, Christians have been forced “to remove images of Jesus and replace them with pictures of Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping” (Maza, 2017, para. 1). This type of anti-Christian government behaviour has driven many to join underground “house Churches” (Wielander, 2009, p. 166). Just as the internet and social media networks are used by Indonesian atheists to build a visible online community profile, Chinese Christian online publications such as Aiyan have been used to build a Christian community identity in China (Wielander, 2009). Wielander notes that most authors who contribute articles to Aijan avoid identification by using pseudonyms such as Christian names instead of their real name (2009). The online edition of Aijan also publishes readers’ comments, or “reaction to articles […]  therefore, while not having the immediate nature of a chat room, there clearly does exist a certain amount of exchange and interaction online between members of the community (Wielander, 2009, p. 170). This demonstrates how Chinese Christians can use blogs or other social media networks for communication and mutual support, but pseudonymous activity seems to have become increasingly stifled by China’s more recent changes to the real name internet policy. In the past, “real name registration was […] ‘encouraged’ rather than mandatory” (Farrall, 2012, p. 434). However, in 2011, Beijing became the first Chinese city to require micro-blogging service providers to “have their users register using their real names and personal information” (Li, 2012, para. 1).Whereas atheistic Indonesians are less concerned about real name registration because they are more fearful of offending fellow citizens rather than their government, the significant decline in “politically sensitive microblog posts” (Lee & Liu, 2016, p. 21) in China since 2011 demonstrates that citizens fear being punished by their government. This will impact Chinese Christians who are no longer able to use pseudonyms to protect their identity. Pseudonyms allow persecuted religious minorities in authoritarian societies the ability to gather in an online community of support and express their religious beliefs.


In summary, pseudonymity in online social networks protects the identity of users and facilitates freedom of expression. While some believe that accountability can only be enforced when people use real identities online, and that anonymity facilitates bad behaviour (Van der Nagel & Frith, 2015), Lee and Liu emphasize that, even when people use pseudonyms, their identity is still traceable (2016, p. 5). This means that anonymous social media users are still ultimately responsible for bad or illegal behaviour, but it also means that authoritarian societies can trace dissenters. However, even in these societies, pseudonymity still provides some level of protection. The evidence suggest that pseudonymity allows social media users to avoid context collapse, facilitates free speech, democracy and political dissent, affords teenagers the ability to experiment with their identity, and facilitates freedom of religious expression as well as freedom of non-religious expression. These advantages benefit not only individuals who are using pseudonyms but society as a whole through the promotion of a freer society.



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© 2018 Sandra Endresz. All Rights Reserved.

11 thoughts on “Identity, Pseudonymity, and Social Media Networks”

  1. Hi Sandra, I really enjoyed reading your paper. As you mentioned in your comments on my paper, there are many connections between your paper and mine. I agree fully with your arguments on “context collapse” and Pseudonymity. I really liked the examples you gave as they supported your arguments well. You gave some great examples from overseas around political freedom. I think even in Australia this can be a real issue.

    A great example I think would be a career public servant who is not a political appointee (in a minister’s office), but rather someone within an actual department who is apolitical and just carries out their job daily no matter who is in power. For that person throughout their career they would be serving governments that shared their personal values and those that didn’t. There would be times when that individual may not agree with an approach a government is taking in some areas. That public servant like the rest of us is entitled to their opinion. They also (like everyone else) get to vote at the ballot box as to who is power. Unlike authoritarian countries in which speaking out against the government could get you jailed or killed, there still nonetheless is the risk of losing your job or having employment opportunities denied to you. This happens in the private sector, but I think it is more pronounced in the public sector as disgruntled public servants will make the news. This is one area where your argument around the use of pseudonyms is really relevant. We live in a country that embraces freedom of speech, but yet for everyone if we publish our opinions to the world, there can be consequences. Not just around employment, but also the loss of actually losing friends over a opinion you may have.

    In your research did you find the use of pseudonyms more prevalent in some social media platforms than others? I would have thought the use of pseudonyms more common for example on Twitter than on Facebook.

    Great work

  2. Hi Julian

    That is a great example of why someone might want to protect their identity, and it shows that this is as important in democratic countries as it is in authoritarian countries. Good question about whether pseudonymity is more prevalent in some social media platforms than others. I didn’t research that specifically, but it would be interesting to know, especially regarding how prevalent it is on Twitter. What I did read is that reddit and 4Chan are on one end of the anonymity social media spectrum, where users can remain anonymous, and Facebook is the other extreme, where users are required to sign up for accounts with their real name (Van der Nagel & Frith, 2015; Hogan, 2013). Interestingly, I also read that during the Arab Spring, some people signed up for Facebook accounts with pseudonyms to avoid identification, as do some people in Indonesia (Schäfer, 2016; Smyth, 2012). So maybe Facebook’s real name policy is easier to enforce in some places than it is in others.

    Hogan, B. (2013). Pseudonyms and the rise of the real‐name Web. In A companion to new media dynamics (pp. 290–307). Retrieved from

    Schäfer, S. (2016). Forming “forbidden” identities online: Atheism in Indonesia. Austrian Journal of South – East Asian Studies; Vienna, 9(2), 253–267.

    Smyth, S. M. (2012). The new social media paradox: A symbol of self-determination or a boon for big brother? International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 6(1), 924–950. Retrieved from

    Van der Nagel, E., & Frith, J. (2015). Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity: Examining the social practices of r/Gonewild. First Monday, 20(3).

    1. Hi Sandra, I think it really just demonstrates that the use of pseudonyms really depends on what type of connection are you trying to make with others on that particular platform. In other words, what is your purpose? It’s quite easy on various platforms to determine whether or not you use a pseudonym, except I think for Facebook as you point out. Facebook merges every aspect of your life as it joins your ‘friends’ world with you ‘work’ world, and then again with your ‘personal interests’ world. It goes to the heart of your argument. That’s why so many people have problems. What do you think the solution is for how might Facebook allow us to balance being ourselves and being anonymous? Should we increasing our efforts in educating people to be more responsible with the content they publish? After all, it is the individual who is responsible for what they do online.

      It’s really interesting to think about one’s life in the offline world. We have no problem separating our social life with our work life and with our extra circular activities. It is just when we try and do it online. It is easy to say that to solve the problem we should just get off social media, however may be social media platforms should just get back to basics in terms of their functionality, rather than merging these worlds together?

      1. Hi Julian,

        You raise some good questions. I’m not sure what the Facebook solution is for allowing us to balance being ourselves and being anonymous, but being able to sign up for an account with a pseudonym might help. That way, we can reveal our pseudonym or real identity to who we like, allowing us to connect with online communities, while still protecting our privacy. I also think they need to make sure their users really understand how to use their privacy settings. From my readings, particularly one by danah boyd (2010), I’ve learned that many people don’t fully understand Facebook’s privacy settings or how they work, so they don’t use them to full effect, or they are unaware of who exactly can see their page. However, as you point out, individuals are still ultimately responsible for what they do online, which means they have a responsibility to be informed. With teenagers, however, I think they need to be educated about how to be responsible with social media, and schools might be a good place to do this.

        boyd, d. (2010, May 14). Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant). Retrieved May 23, 2018, from

  3. Hi Sandra,
    I really enjoyed reading your conference paper. It made me realize few things about how pseudonymity and anonymity could be great for non-religious and religious freedom of expressions. You brought forward examples to support your main ideas to make readers understand what is going on behind this idea of anonymity.

    The part of teenager and identity play can fit in my conference paper as well. I talked about identity, participatory culture, and youth. Your paper makes me realize that i could have put forward this idea of anonymity as well.

    However, it is not totally a good thing though for teenagers building this double life. While growing up this can affect their professional life as well. Nowadays a lot of companies build up their confidence on their employees by having a look at their Facebook profile for example and if those teenagers don’t have a real profile, the employer will ask the person in question so many questions about why you are not on facebook and so on. I don’t know if you get my point.

    Anyway, this was just a small personal opinion about anonymity & pseudonymity. In general, your paper is very well constructed and there are very good ideas and examples.

    Good Work

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your comment. You make a good point about employers looking at their employees’ (or potential employee candidates) Facebook pages. These days, knowing how to effectively manage and use social media is an important job requirement. Libraries, for example, use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to communicate with their communities and promote their services. I remember reading in Lamn and Phile (2009) that employers search job applicants’ social media sites to see if they contain anything that might be embarrassing for the company, or to see how well the applicant manages their own social media profile. So, you are right, teenagers, or anyone, need to be conscious of the fact that social media can help showcase their skills for future employment, or can help build a professional network, and for that you need to be identifiable online. But in some cases, people may not necessarily want their employers, or others, to see all their online interactions. There is still a need to keep your work-life and private-life separate, and this is how pseudonymity helps prevent context collapse. So maybe there is a place for both. Maybe it’s possible to use your real name on some social media networks, and use a pseudonym on others. I also don’t think pseudonymity necessarily means that you are creating a double life, it is more about keeping different parts of your life separate online (like we do offline).

      Lamm, S., & Phile, R. (2009). Still got that picture of yourself chugging a Brewski on Facebook? Better listen to us and take that pic down! – A look at when social networking sites and Human Resource recruiting collide. Retrieved from

    2. Hi Sandra,
      you are right when you say it’s maybe better to keep different accounts. People are losing their jobs because of posting stuff on their pages and they didn’t know that this could be harmful to them. An example is the case of Rachel Burns (McDermott, 2017). “She posted a photo of a singalong at work on her Facebook page, she had no idea that her actions would end her career.” This is very sad for her, and this is where private settings enter the game or simply as you said use pseudonymity. Sure, it does not necessarily mean that you are creating a double life, but we should not forget those psychopaths as well. People need to be very cautious online. Web 2.0 might be very dangerous for upcoming generations. If you have time, have a look on my conference paper:
      I put forward the aspect of how youth build their identity through participatory culture.
      Thanks for responding to my comment

      McDermott, S. (2017, November 6). I lost my job over a Facebook post – was that fair? Retrieved from BBC News:

      1. Hi Mary, thanks again for your reply. Rachel Burns’ story is really sad. You are right, there are psychopaths out there who use pseudonymity for all the wrong reasons, but I think pseudonymity can also help avoid some of those psychopaths. I read your paper and I will add a brief comment in your thread.

  4. Hi Sandra,
    I really enjoyed your paper! As someone who mainly traverses the internet with a pseudonym, I might be biased in agreeing with a lot of your points and side with being pro pseudonym.

    I can definitely see my unconscious decisions in taking up a pseudonym, however have to add to the point you made where pseudonyms allow oneself to create a new identity. Personally, I do not think I have created a new identity, or it might have merged with my existing in real life identity. This has even extended to the point where my real life friends know my pseudonym and don’t question it when they see my usernames on social media.

    I have brought up pseudonymity often in tutorial discussions and seem to be the only one doing it and almost have felt a little embarrassed at times as I felt like I was being judged. However, I do believe there is a point and place for it, and your paper brings up many good points of why it is a key tool in helping people explore their identity while protecting themselves in dire situations.

    I think more could be explored in how others in real life view pseudonymity and their perceptions on it. 🙂

    1. Hi Beatrice,

      Thank you or you feedback, it’s good to hear from someone who uses a pseudonym on social media networks. Your comment about your friends knowing your online pseudonym demonstrates that pseudonymity still allows people to connect with online communities, which are often an extension of offline communities. I could also see this when I was researching my paper. The atheists in Indonesia and Christians in China who use pseudonyms to protect their identity online know who they are connecting with in their online community because they also know each other offline. There may be some cases where they do not know the real identity of the person behind the pseudonym, but they are still able to connect with each other in a meaningful way because they understand why there is a need to remain anonymous. I’m surprised of the feeling you get from others in the tutorial. I would have thought that there would be more people who use pseudonyms on social media, or at least see the value of it, but I guess not.

  5. Hi Sandra
    Excellent job on the paper!! You raised some very interesting points, most of which I agree. But in your paper, you discussed the positives about Pseudonymity and anonymity. I’d like to specifically discuss your paragraph on Teenagers and Identity play, and how this can be used to negatively affect the lives of others. Such as the elimination of the sense the sense of accountability online, as they can be anyone they like. Meaning people can cause a lot of conflict between people/groups without any consequences. A simple example of this would be a Cyber-bully or a troll.

    Obviously, there are pros and cons to both side, and to be honest I’m not sure which side is completely right, but do you think that by using Pseudonymity and fake accounts you are risking the health of others (through cyberbullying) for the safety and protection of the bully themselves.

    Kind Regards


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