Most people, especially in tech, can benefit a lot from having a professional online presence to display their competence.

By writing blog articles, creating side projects or contributing to open source projects you can greatly improve your own career prospects.

Building up this online presence under your real name might have some risks for you.

If your employer doesn't want you to work on side projects or if you are looking for another job and don't want your employer to know. Your employer could find out just by searching for your name on Google.

Or maybe you don't want to have crossover between your professional and personal online presence when your name is searched on Google and want to separate those two.

Whatever your situation, using your real name online might have some unwanted downsides that could prevent you from building up this online presence in the first place out of fear.

Can you build up your online presence while minimizing the unwanted negative side effects? There are some options.

Staying Anonymous

One of the easiest ways to minimize any negative effects is to stay fully anonymous. Use a nickname, don't use pictures, no personal info.

Although that's a safe option as nothing can be linked to you, your building up a professional online presence and thus need people to know that it's you that has the expertise.

Under an anonymous identity, you can't take credit for any content you put out without fully de-anonymizing everything you've done under that identity.

If no one knows you are behind it, you also don't get the credit when you want it to be linked back to you. A potential employer, investor or client will never know it was your work if you published it anonymously.

If there is no way for you to take credit for what you put out there you negate any benefits of building this online presence in the first place.

Especially if you built up this online presence while staying anonymous, you might not have been as careful as you would normally have been when you know people can hold you accountable for everything you did or said.

Staying anonymous is a safe option but if you want the benefits, people need to know it's made by you so they can attribute it to you and you can get the recognition.

Does that mean you need to use your real identity if you want the attribution?

Not quite.

The Goal

The value you get from your professional online presence comes from displaying your expertise and others recognizing that you have that expertise.

The value is in the link between the work you put out and you as a person.

Although we usually associate these two by name, that isn't the only way.

The name is just a way we as humans remember and address a person more easily. It doesn't matter if that happens to be the same as your real name or not.

Many programmers know who "Patio11" is and what he's done. Of course, that isn't his real name but his audience can associate the work and the person just by the nickname.

As long as your audience can link your work to you, you can show off your skills and expertise and be recognized for it.

We can just as easily create this link with something else, like a pseudonym.

Use a Pseudonym

Using pseudonyms is more common than you might think. Ashton Kutcher, Christiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, George Orwell, Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling to name just a few.

You might not even have been aware that some of these people were using pseudonyms instead of their real name!

Each of them had different reasons to use a pseudonym and some of these might not apply to you, but there are plenty of good reasons to go with a pseudonym online too:

  • Hide your real name which can easily be linked to other personal information or personal social media accounts.
  • Easier to rank for in Google if you have a common name or one that's shared with a famous person.
  • Easier to get a good domain name because the .com and other popular extensions are already taken for common names.
  • Easier to get the username on online platforms.
  • Easier to build a personal brand. You can make your name more memorable, and keep a consistent online presence with the domain and usernames.

Using a different name also helps with consistency when your real name changes, for example when you get married or divorced and you start or stop using your partner's last name.

Whether you choose to use your real name or a pseudonym, the most important thing is consistency. Choose one and stick with it because if you change it, you'll loose a lot of the recognizability you've (hopefully) built up.

You should also plan for what other people will use online. Can coworkers find your LinkedIn profile if they search using your real name they know you under.

What happens if other people mention you online and use your real name? Does that mean only other people's mentions show up in Google for your real identity and you don't have control over what gets displayed in Google?

Online Privacy is Hard

An important side note about using a pseudonym online is that you can not expect your real identity will remain secret.

There are many, many ways someone can find your real identity.

You might make a mistake yourself by using your real name where you wanted to use your pseudonym or you might be forced to give your real information (for example when legal action is pursued).

Companies like ClearView AI even use facial recognition to uncover all your online activity so they can find all your online activity, despite posting things under different online identities

Keeping your real name hidden from everyone is pretty much impossible and you should not expect your identity will remain secret. No matter how careful you are.

That isn't risky by default. The danger lies in the information you share under that name.

If you write on that you love walking your dog "Fluffy" in the forest on the About page of your blog and the security question for your ISP is what the name of your pet is, you can see how that could be bad.

It's the information that can be used for social engineering and other actions that could negatively impact your life. Not the name itself.

Conclusion

Having a body of work online that's yours is a great way to display your competence and increase your career prospects but building up that online presence under your real identity also has some risks. The risk however is not in using your real name, it's in the information you share under that name.

You can use a pseudonym to separate your professional online presence from the rest of your online activity. They're very common and have a lot of other benefits other than just privacy and security but don't use it solely for privacy as you can not expect your real identity will remain secret online.