Online usernames and privacy

At the conference I was at last week, there were a couple of talks about online privacy. Which led  to a few conversations about privacy. One of the comments I made, was that, for me, joining grad school meant giving up some control on who puts information about me online. Like many universities/departments, my department has a searchable list of all grad students, which includes your full name, email address and a photo.

It is also highly recommended/required, that as you try to move forward in academia, that you have some CV-like information about yourself online. For example, you probably want a web page (often university hosted) that displays your name, a way to contact you, current degree program, past schools attended (and degree information), grad courses taken, courses you’ve TA’d and any publications you have. You may or may not want to include a picture, after all, a picture may give away a lot of information that a potential employer technically can’t ask about (like gender, marital status, and kids).

Over the years, I’ve been very careful about who and where I give my personal information out to. After all, it was drilled in as teenagers that the internet is a scary place and you should try to keep your personal information private. But, even more so than that, I find it a bit freeing, to be able to join in on conversations where the other participants don’t have any preconceived ideas about who you are, and can’t (necessarily) easily gather any information. Of course, as I’ve used mostly the same (or variations on the same) username for years now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be quite so hard to link together random pieces of information. But, I’ve also never advertised my username to people I know, so many probably don’t actually know.

As I get farther and farther into my degree, I have started to wonder more and more about how much of myself I should start revealing online. On one hand, I have this blog, which I’ve been using under a username. And I like that, because it allows me some freedom to post ideas and thoughts more freely – although there are a few people who do know who I am. But, it also means, should this blog ever become somewhat “popular” that I won’t actually gain any credit from it – although I don’t actually care. I have a twitter account (used rarely), that I used at last weeks conference, and, should people at the conference have been paying attention, somewhat easily gave away my identity. A thought that makes me a bit nervous (although I did know what I was doing when I tweeted) and a bit excited. I view it as a small step out from behind my username.

It’s kind of interesting, because I would say I’m very comfortable online. I’m not “scared” but I also do like the perceived protection a username provides. Will I someday become “exposed”? Possibly and probably. But I’ll probably continue to use my username even then, because, after 10+ years, it’s just as much part of my identity as my real name.

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2 thoughts on “Online usernames and privacy

  1. I’ve recently had this sort of thing on my mind as well, though as you know, I’m not the slightest bit shy of sticking my name all over my blog.

    I imagine we’re from the same generation, the one that taught us “never tell anyone online your real name or they’ll come and kill you”. However, in Academia, like you said, name recognition is vital. It’s actually quite refreshing that some of the professors that I interviewed with had actually googled my name and found my blog, and used that as a conversation starter.

    However, the issue of giving up your anonymity (for me) is that you have to watch what you say a bit more. As an anonymous coward, I can just say “this is something my advisor said” and nobody would be able to connect my advisor to my account. But when I am actually writing under my own name, the phrase “my advisor” immediately links back to someone I have a professional relationship with, and I have to be careful to use their words in a way that doesn’t mislead the reader or suggest endorsement.

    The case gets even murkier with students, because federal regulations (FERPA, for those of us in the US) prohibit us from sharing detailed informtion about our students performance, and should one student feel that an anecdotal quip on the blog reveals something about them, then there may be liability afoot.

    This is why I keep my blog so positive most of the time. People seem to like it when you praise them on the Internet. 🙂

    • “the issue of giving up your anonymity (for me) is that you have to watch what you say a bit more”
      I completely agree. And, I feel if I gave up my anonymity, I’d feel like I need to run a lot of my posts by my supervisor or others. I don’t want something I say to become a problem for someone else. Not that I think I’ve done that. I’ve tried very hard to not post things I think would offend people. But, you never know.
      In fact, I think this article, which I was originally going to link to in this post, highlights how easily it is for people to take the wrong path when giving anonymity.

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