In my last post I mentioned betting on my reputation by using my real name online. My anonymous Twitter friends boggled: your real name, in this economy? There are good reasons for both anonymity and onymity, and people in different situations will make different choices. But I’ve made my decision to put Jacob Falkovich at the top of everything I write online, and this post will explain why.
First, I want to make it clear that this is not universal advice. I had an anonymous blog when I was in high school and many anonymous online handles since. I started blogging and tweeting under my name at age 28 after I had time to develop my thinking, make friends, and build career capital. A personal online identity is a bet with both risks and rewards, a bet that should be made only when you have a sufficient edge and bankroll.
A Single Mind
The obvious reason to use the same identity everywhere is that I can bring my whole brain to every interaction. I can bat around an idea with friends, workshop it on Twitter, develop it on my blog, send a link later to a colleague or my mom. Having to tightly control what each of my identities is allowed to know and think about sounds exhausting, but is probably necessary to maintain true anonymity. I’m a lazy person. This compartmentalization would require so much mental effort of me that I would have none left for actually thinking of things.
Another immediate benefit of revealing my identity is that I don’t have to fear that my identity will be revealed. I don’t stress that someone will recognize my writing style or that a friend will spill my secret. I don’t have to use a fake account for my PayPal, or a fake name to register the domain, or one of the twenty other things that I didn’t think of without either of which a determined hacker could easily doxx me. I can invite the New York Times into my apartment, instead of fearing that they’ll invent a real-name policy just to mess with me.
People’s identities get revealed online all the time (especially if they’re psychiatrists). I imagine this causes a lot of anxiety to people trying to build a reputation while maintaining anonymity. I don’t want that anxiety.
I still have to worry about other things: mobs and harassment and general hate and craziness. This year for the first time someone told me to kill myself online and described exactly how I should do it. But such is the price of admission, not just online but everywhere where humans are. I don’t think that living in fear would do much to protect me.
What if my boss reads my blog? I don’t know, maybe he does. I have mostly very positive things to say about my employer, and if I didn’t I would be looking for a new job by asking my blog readers for recommendations — it’s easier to recruit a man with a face and a resume.
And yes, this is a particular privilege of my chosen career direction. Putanumonit probably precludes me from being a senator, a secret agent, or, as it turns out, a psychiatrist. But I write about a variety topics through an analytical mathy lens, and I worked in a variety of industries doing analytical mathy jobs. If I look to work in data science, in finance, in research, in Effective Altruism, as a psychedelic applied rationality shaman, I could point employers and collaborators to my posts. Some of them have read my posts and reached out to me already.
If my online presence is a disadvantage for some jobs and a boon for others that’s a win for me overall. Jobs are like wives: I only need a few to like what they see and don’t care about the others.
My name and face makes it a lot easier for people to befriend me, date me, make bets with me, make plans with me. Just in the past month (since NYC hit <1% positive test rate for COVID) I went on a date with a girl who filled out the dating form, hung out with 3 people who filled out the hangout form, hosted a friend who discovered me through my blog, and attended a small party with Twitter mutuals. A lot of my social life is now driven by people who find me online and feel safe and welcome to reach out to me because they know I’m a real person with friends and a wife and guinea pigs, not a catfish or an ax murderer.
Freedom of Speech and Silence
The benefits I listed so far are incidental to the main point of writing online in the first place: having my voice heard and my ideas out there. Don’t the potential threats to my reputation limit what I say online? Yes, of course they do. But it is too simplistic to assume that restraint is always a drawback.
First, one must give the proper due to Penny Arcade’s GIFT:
My real name doesn’t prevent me from saying shitcock online, but it keeps me from being one. It keeps from dunking, dragging, or harassing others. It makes me think twice before tweeting back in anger. I’m not saying that every anon is a shitcock, or even that anons are shitcockier than the average. But I know that the temptation for me personally would be greater, and that I would be worse off for succumbing to it.
This extends to a more general intellectual humility. If you think that I run my mouth on too many topics I know nothing about as it is, consider how much worse it would be if I didn’t have a name to protect. Yes, I’m still often wrong about things, and having my permanent name attached means I have to apologize and update publicly instead of moving on to a different name. This is good. I want the internet to keep a record of how I’ve grown and learned, not just what’s on my mind today.
What about truths that must not be spoken? There are topics, such as the police violence protests, on which any opinion whatsoever will invite animus from a large number of people. I have chosen not to express my object level opinion on the topic, but only to talk about expression in general. This silence is in part because I’m not confident in my opinions on this hypercomplex issue, but in part I also don’t wish to court unnecessary controversy. Isn’t truth-speaking always good?
Sometime, but speaking censored truths is often unproductive. Facts that become censored are very rarely novel. A truth is discovered, then it is explored by experts and enthusiasts, then it gets discussed by the public, then the media catches wind of it, and only then it becomes politicized and taboo. In the meantime, anyone who would benefit from knowing about the idea (mostly the experts and enthusiasts) has had the opportunity to hear and debate it.
When I write about touchy subjects like sex and politics I try to contribute new or under-explored ideas. I also try to keep the affect neutral — people spiraling into oppressive gender ratios as a result of extreme gender politics can be a cause for glee or for compassion; I won’t tell you which one to feel. It’s the affect-laden and timeworn talking points that generate more outrage, and little is gained by repeating them whether they’re true or not.
It can be important to create common knowledge about unspoken truths, to let everyone know that yes, lightning comes before thunder but we can’t talk about it just yet. But these critical moments are rare. If you want to break out an important truth when it’s time comes, it’s useful to keep your powder dry.
Skin in the Game
This brings me to the most important benefit of writing under one’s real name — people take you seriously when you have reputational skin in the game. Readers take my normative advice seriously when I show that I live by it myself. Readers trust when I write about personal experiences, since those are easier to verify. Readers know I’m less likely to write things just to troll or make someone angry since angering people carries more consequences for me. I stand behind what I write in a way that an anonymous person usually can’t.
Ideas can never be entirely disentangled from the identity of the speaker, despite the protestations of my decoupling tribe. It is actually reasonable for people to trust my opinions about immigration (since I’m an immigrant twice-over) more than my opinions about transgenderism (since I have neither personal experience nor expertise). At the very least, the speakers’ identity affects which ideas people should prioritize examining. A valuable reputation can of course be built under a pseudonym, but a real identity always gives it extra weight.
Aside from personal considerations of making friends and getting job, I think that the simple goal of truth is better-served by me at least writing under my own name. If I have to be cautious about broaching some topics, that is offset by being taken more seriously when I do broach them. And it allows people to engage in dialogue with me, to build on or critique my ideas, online or over a beer.
And ultimately, despite what Sneer Club will tell you, I and most Rationalists don’t believe in anything particularly evil or hateful. I like most humans and feel compassion for all. I want to build rather than to destroy, to uplift rather than to diminish. And since I came to the internet under my real name with love, the internet has so far shown me a lot of love back. If you’re looking for some love from the internet too, consider taking your mask off.