Roberto Selbach

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My need for anonymity

Much has been said about the pros and cons of anonymity lately, prompted by Google+ TOS which require the use of one’s real name. No pseudonyms allowed, except apparently if you call yourself Lady Gaga or 50 Cent.

I have seen many kinds of arguments both for and against the use of aliases and I will not repeat them here. There is however one use of aliases that I haven’t seen stated anywhere and that coincidentally affects me personally. Perhaps this is so because the problem I am about to present is not so common after all. Or perhaps it is common but people decide not to talk about it. I have no way of knowing.

Anonymity is a vital necessity to people with a certain kind of disability, a mental disorder. I am such a person. As some of my friends know and others mock, I suffer from a mental condition called social phobia, also known as social anxiety. I take medications that help me overcome some of the most serious effects and that allow me to do things like write about it on this very blog.

Social anxiety manifests itself in varying degrees in all kinds of social interactions. And the levels of manifestations are not what you might expect. I regularly make presentations without a second thought. I’ve given talks to hundreds of people. And yet, ordering a pizza over the phone is terrifying experience to me. No matter how many times I’ve done it, I still have to “prepare” myself every time. I rehearse, play several unlikely scenarios in my head until I finally get the courage to dial the number and talk to the person on the other side. One characteristic of this anxiety disorder is that rationally I know that there is nothing wrong; there is no risk in calling the pizza place. But the brain acts as if there were. But I digress.

I love coding. I have been doing it since I was a kid and it’s the best thing I know how to do. And then there is open source. Open source projects should be the perfect venue for me to have fun. Except I am scared stiff by the idea that someone might laugh at the code. It came to a point where it is impossible for me to contribute. Then I’ve come up with a solution: an alias. For the past several years I’ve lived two different lives online: one as myself and another as an alias. I keep them strictly separate.

Using the alias, I actively contribute to several different projects. And I enjoy it all. And it would be impossible for me to do that using my own name. My pseudonym allows me to work around my condition. It allows me to live my life.

I understand the rationale behind the requirement for real names on Google+. But I also know that the requirement makes it impossible for people like me to be really free on the Internet. So far, Google hasn’t figured out my alias. Hopefully it never will.

(Photo by Abhishek Singh)