Fun With Real Names In Online Communities

If you force everyone to use their real names be aware:

1)  People are afraid to ask questions that will make them look bad in front of friends/colleagues.

2)  It’s common for people to search for website activity of their boss, colleagues, recruits, friends, and relationship partners.

3)  Many languages use letters and diacritics that don’t appear in the English (or even the Latin) alphabet.

4)  The EU’s right to be forgotten law technically requires you to delete the entire history of contributions of inactive members after a specific period of time.

5)  People often change their names when they get married.

6)  People often used shortened versions of their names in everyday life. Should they use their name on the passport or the name they most commonly go by?

7)  Some cultures have multiple names or naturally use pseudonyms.

8)  Many people will share the same name. What should they do?

9)  There isn’t much data to support the supposed benefits of using real names (seeming more professional, greater trust, and better familiarity are largely unproven).

10)  …Yet, in many industries, seeing a response from ‘KitchenDad44’ would seem strange.

11)  If your data is hacked, your problems are much worse with real names.

If you want real names, I’d suggest you use a nudge (default) but don’t force it. Be prepared for each of these challenges.

(p.s. Jeff Atwood blogged about this problem in a post a few years ago I can’t find, sorry Jeff).


  1. Sarah Hawk says:

    I’ve ranted about this topic before, but it’s one that’s close to my heart.

    I’ll add another reason to the list.

    I don’t think anyone has the right to dictate what someone wants to be called/known as.

    I’m known as Hawk to most of the people in my life and have been for years. I don’t have a problem with Sarah, but it’s not who I’ve grown up as. I reckon it’s my right to choose.

  2. Richard Millington says:

    That’s an interesting argument. I can the value of it. I have a slightly different take though.

    I think the challenge with the argument is it can be applied to any rule you try to enforce within a community.

    For example, some people frequently use bad language. Do we have any right to dictate how people speak? What if someone people lives in one place but want their profile to state they list in another? Or professions etc…? Or profile photo etc?

    Ultimately, I don’t feel communities are dictating what someone wants to be called/known as. They can still do that in their lives. But if they choose to join and participate in a community they have to abide by the rules of those communities - even the ones they disagree with. If people disagree with it, they can exercise their free will and leave. No-one is forcing them to join after all.

    They have to appreciate the rules are there which prioritise the group more than the individual and if you make exceptions for one person you have to make exceptions for every person and that can lead to a community where no-one is using their real name and you can’t verify the accuracy of information etc…

    I appreciate though there are many shades of nuance within that.

  3. Sarah Hawk says:

    Hearing you.

    I don’t agree that letting someone use bad language (which affects others) is in the same category as expecting people to use a name that they don’t identify with though.

    You can enforce the use of a real name for sign-up but not expect people to be publicly displaying it.

  4. Robert McIntosh says:

    That is what we settled on. The community is for a wine retailer, so we need people’s real names in their accounts for legal and financial purposes, and then with SSO this information is carried over to the community. However, we will allow them to choose their own username for the community where they are interacting with others, rather than with the organisation. We will always know what their actual details are, so they are never truly anonymous, and in fact their real names will appear on the details of their profiles, but that will not be their primary identifier (and we will hide that profile from anonymous users).

    I think that this is a good compromise :slight_smile:

  5. Kristen Gastaldo says:

    We also ask for first name, last name, but there’s no way to verify that. So people can put in whatever they want in those fields. For the most part though, I see real names on profiles. Your username is the one displayed when you post though. I run a developer community so some of those people are better known by their username (which they use on github, stack overflow, etc) than their real name!

  6. Duncan Field says:

    This has been a real struggle for me - my higher ups are pretty set on real names despite my protests.

    We’re also partnering with some other groups and they feel the same way, so I’m afraid i’m being outvoted. My hope is that because we’re limiting our membership to a specific set of groups that people will be more open.

  7. chiprodgers says:

    I’ve always preferred real names and photos for a few reasons:

    • Online conversations should be about people exchanging ideas. Real names and photos (rather than cartoon avatars) enhances the experience of real people engaging

    • Real names connect people to their online brand – and encourage people to think about their brand before ranting as a more anonymous user

    • In the SAP community, we maintained a strong connection between the online experience and our real-world events for customers and partners. Using real names is a continuation of that philosophy making a more seamless experience online and offline.

    I realize there are differing opinions, but I fall strongly on the “real names and photos” side of the argument.

    Thanks for the opportunity to join the conversation!

  8. chiprodgers says:

    Hi Sarah, Yeah, I am sure it does! In my case, I’ve worked with enterprise B2B customer/partner communities where members tend to be technical professionals, developers, business process professionals, customer end users, business professionals, consultants, etc. So they are more on the professional side. I could see communities of purely developers, gamers, hackers, etc are probably more familiar (and comfortable) with unique and colorful names, avatars, and provocative conversations. :wink: I’m sure there are other examples as well! Good point Sarah! (Or should I say Hawk? :smiley:)

  9. Piper_Wilson says:

    Back in the dark ages, they would tell single women to not list their phone numbers in the phone book.

    In this day and age, anyone with enough tech savvy can glean an amazing amount of information about a person from the internet.

    I’ve had security issues in the past and I also received a couple of NOT CREDIBLE death threats in my last position. While those threats didn’t scare me, the were indicative of how much some people’s high emotions can cause them to make poor decisions.

    I use my real name in real life. I use a pen name online. I use my real picture and make no effort to hide the fact that I’m using a nom de plume. I just want to make sure I am protected.

    My last boss thought I was weird for being so cautious and he looked down on it. So, I am aware that the two name thing can work against me but that’s a conscious choice that I’ve made and I am willing to live with the consequences.

  10. Carmen Taubman says:

    Interesting topic… I am fine with our online slack community choosing their own name, and the more creative the better. But we can always look up the email address behind the profile name, which discloses exactly who that person is in our company. Also - one of the members in my community has chosen 6 numbers as their name, it’s very random but I don’t want to tell them to change their name as they perhaps feel more comfortable “hiding” behind numbers instead of a name…

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