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When it comes to identification on an online community, usernames tend to be the convention of choice, providing people with the option of identifying themselves as they choose (within the community guidelines, of course).

But, for some communities, it may make sense to require real names or, at least, the display of real names. This can be both detrimental and beneficial and there is no right or wrong answer – it all depends on your unique situation.

In order to help you tackle this issue, I have put together a list of pros and cons, based on my answer to a question on Quora, that asked about the advantages and disadvantages of using nicknames as opposed to real names.

Here is how it breaks down, in my eyes. If you have any further pros or cons, please be sure to leave them in the comments.

Usernames

Pros (vs. Real Names)

  • Allow people to use a consistent identity online. If they already go by their real name online, they can use that as their username, right? But if they don’t, if they go by something else – like beley or iFroggy – then they are allowed to do so on your site, as well.
  • Provide for a wider selection of unique names. As Mike Warot eluded to, plenty of people are named John Smith. Not many people are TopekaBizDev. With usernames, people are allowed to create a more unique brand on your site.
  • Provide members with the freedom to name themselves what they would like, rather than being set into one particular standard. Usernames encourages their creativity.
  • Allow them to be anonymous to a point. This is an advantage if you view it as one – if your community has a reason to be anonymous or if, for example, you want to provide people with an escape to their real world ties.

    I would not consider usernames, in and of themselves, to be anonymous. After all, plenty of people are easily tied to their usernames online. For instance, I use iFroggy as my username in many places. If you run a Google search, you’ll be able to pretty easily find that it is me. Usernames are a means of identification which means they are not completely anonymous – they go by some sort of moniker.

    But, at the same time, people can choose to make that moniker something that allows them to be anonymous, in the sense that it will not be tied to them personally.

Cons (vs. Real Names)

  • Decreased accountability. When someone is not personally tied to their account and feels as though there is no real world repercussion for what they do, good or bad, that increases the likelihood that they will do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, if they were talking to someone who knew their name. In a sense, this can be valuable. In other senses, it is destructive.

    What this means, in simple terms, is an at least reasonable increase in moderation workload. People who feel they are anonymous do crazier things, generally speaking.

  • (Somewhat) less professional appearance. That’s not to say that usernames are unprofessional. But, a community where everyone uses their real names, especially a community targeted at professionals, can give you that extra oomph, appearance wise.

Real Names

Pros (vs. Usernames)

  • Increased accountability. When people have their contributions tied to their real name, they are more likely to consider the repercussions of their actions and what they post within your community. As Hans Leijstr√∂m said, this can lead to less moderation workload. I wouldn’t say no workload, just less (probably substantially less).
  • More professional appearance. A community where people use their real name will generally appear more attractive to a professional audience than a community where people go by a moniker. If everyone on LinkedIn had a username listed, instead of a real name, how would that affect your perception of the site? I’m not saying it would be huge, but it is worth noting.

Cons (vs. Usernames)

  • Force people to fit into a particular box regarding how they are identified on the site. If they go by a moniker online, they can’t go by it on your site. They have to alter their generally accepted identity. If there are 30 Patrick O’Keefe’s on your site, I am just one of 30. I don’t have any creativity or flexibility – I must go with my government name.
  • You can’t really be anonymous. This is an advantage for some and a disadvantage for others. But, if it’s a disadvantage, it means that people will feel less free to share something that may come from a good place, but would cause them personal repercussion if it were found to be tied to them. So, because they are going by their name, they’ll keep it to themselves instead of sharing it.

I am sure that there are more (please leave them in the comments). But, these are some of the big ones.

Really, at the end of the day, it is all about what you are looking to accomplish. Personally, I have usernames on all of my communities. They are focused on the martial arts, Photoshop, a type of forum software and community management. In my case, I view usernames as a good thing and not worth changing, at this time, even if there might be some potential benefits.

Usernames will work well for most communities. But, if you have a good reason, real names may be the way to go.