It's About the Right to Invention of Identity
In the Great Pseudonymity Debates of 2011, the use case that gets the most attention is that of the activist or other individual whose life would be imperiled if their true identity were known. It's a nice and sympathetic use case—I have no interest in seeing activists detained or abuse victim stalked—but it misses the larger issue: the right to construct ones own identity.
As someone said (yesterday, but I can't remember who), water wets and data leaks. A person who considers a pseudonym to be protection against an oppressor needs to know the limitations of that protection and needs to know it quickly. Even if data doesn't leak, a persistant identity can create a public trail leading to a person very quickly. Pseudonymy provides some degree of protection, and if great care is taken and the oppressor lacks sufficient technical resources, that protection can be significant, but if a person acts as though they're given a free pass, the consequences could be disastrous.
So to me, at least, the question of pseudonyms is not about protecting the oppressed, lofty a goal as that may be, but about something more fundamental. Perhaps there is a regional difference, or a difference associated with some identities, but I see much greater use of pseudonyms and nicknames-incorporated-into-legal-names on Facebook amongst my New York friends and acquaintances (who tend to be more cis queer) than amongst my North Carolina friends (who tend to be more cis straight).* Notably, despite Facebook's anti-pseudonym policy, no one I know personally has ever had a problem with their account related to this policy, even at the height of the fad of adding "Equality" as a middle name to signify support for gay rights.
The reasons for adopting pseudonyms amongst my friends and acquaintances, none of whom in NY are avoiding oppression or abusers, is diverse. For some, it is because they want to avoid the flock of friend requests from people they haven't seen since high school; for others, the nickname is how they are universally known and to use their legal name would be to render them significantly harder to find (not less, as many people seem to think). For others, this is just who they are now. New York's population of domestic and international immigrants has always placed a high premium on reinvention of identity, since so many are fresh off the boat (even if that boat came from Iowa).
Especially in an age when anyone's electronic history can be accessed with a fast web search, an age that Google largely created, reinvention of self can be difficult without the use of a pseudonym, even if the intent is never to fool another person into thinking that is the person's "real" name. The stakes in this use case might be lower than for the abuse victim, but that does not diminish the importance of being able to reinvent identity for many people.*Which is to say that this is not a question whose application to sexual identity is limited to people who are trans, another use case that gets mentioned often.
With huge thanks to +Jillian C. York
and +Edouard Ravel
, both of whom have helped clarify my thinking on this issue.