Why You Don’t Need to Hide Online Anymore…Or Do You?

By Ryan Holmes | 3 years ago | 7 Comments

Ryan Holmes LinkedIn Featured image

By Ryan Holmes, HootSuite CEO

Think back to your first computer. Was it a PC or a Mac? (Maybe it was a classic 8-bit Commodore 64, even an old Altair 8800, which you had to assemble at home.)

Mine was an an Apple IIc that I won in 5th grade through a district-wide school programming contest. At $3000, it was a mind-blowing possession for a 10 year old.

Early tech geeks like me might remember a time when everyone hid behind handles, or made-up user names. Anytime we chatted or shared tips on forums, we all used these to conceal our true identities. My handle was ‘Invoker’ on paintball forums and programming chat groups. (Yes, paintball.) For years and years, I was free from prying governments and identity thieves. The real Ryan Holmes was nowhere to be found on the Net.

Ryan Holmes Twitter

Even when the consumer Internet emerged a decade later, anonymity and handles were still the standard.

How many usernames have you used for your various online accounts over the years?

But is all this paranoia and precaution still necessary? Has social media changed the way we think about anonymity?

How Social Media Killed Big Brother

Anon Mask

The first place where I freely volunteered personal info to the public was LinkedIn, which launched in 2003. Here was a serious tool to connect you with colleagues and employers. Your name was your business card and nobody was going to call themselves Invoker on LinkedIn and expect to be taken seriously. So, for the first time, Ryan Holmes—the real person—took the plunge on the Internet. Looking back, those early LinkedIn days were a turning point.

The Internet was no longer an anonymous playground without consequences and social rules. This was big. And all of this was helped along, of course, by enormous improvements in security and encryption.

Credit Facebook with taking this concept a huge step farther. A few years back, Facebook boldly pioneered its real name policy and pseudonyms and the like were explicitly barred.

Ryan Holmes Facebook


Social media has helped make online transparency mainstream, and all the benefits that go along with it, like increased accountability and civility. Think about all of those online comment forums, cesspools where the lowest common denominator hide behind handles, thriving on spewing out insults and engaging in meaningless disputes. Anonymity, unfortunately, can often be an excuse to bring out the worst in yourself and others.

Real names on online social networks foster stronger professional and personal communities that transcend computer screens. Volunteering real first and last names has actually made everyone feel safer—not less safe. You know exactly who you’re connecting with—not some sketchy virtual proxy—and can establish real, personal connections. Relationships made online now have real world implications.

Big Brother hasn’t swooped down to censor our thoughts. Quite the opposite—debate and dissent have flourished as the electronic curtain has been lifted.

A Word of Caution

Of course, a different set of concerns has surfaced about how much information we’re now volunteering on social networks and the long-term impact on privacy.

Online transparency is a double-edged sword that needs to be handled carefully. On the one hand, more information equals more useful services and more efficient transactions. The more completely you fill out your LinkedIn profile, for instance, the better you’re able to connect with colleagues and employers. The more you contribute and volunteer on Twitter, the richer your connections with your followers. On the other hand, it’s critical that we understand exactly what we’re revealing and who will be able to see it. Plain-language disclosures, as well as user education about privacy concerns, are both vital pieces of the equation.

This post was originally published on the LinkedIn Influencer blog, a new resource that brings together regular insights from hundreds of thought-leaders around the globe. To find out how you can follow world leaders, educators, industry experts and others (including HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes), read this post: “How to Follow Richard Branson, Barack Obama and…Ryan Holmes on LinkedIn

Written by

Jean Christophe Cerouter
Jean Christophe Cerouter 5pts

Using a username at this period was a security, as when you was chatting, sharing on IRC server you had not a lot of chance to meet one member of your family, your neighbor, your boss, a bad boy which want steal something. The only track you had was an IP address.

Using a username now, is still a security I think. I saw this on a social network specialized on Audi car. For some car's owner posting their location and their full name was like an advert for "Home-jacking".

"Constant" changes of usage and confidentiality rules in some social network , how many time the publication will stay available, and facility to delete your own publication are important in the choice to use anonymity or not.

Next step of "To hide or not" ? Associating my image with my full name.

Davide Di Prossimo
Davide Di Prossimo 5pts

Hello Ryan,

Very nice article indeed.

Well my first computer was a PC, with a Windows OS, and I do not even remember the version. Anyway, yes you absolutely right, when I was younger I sort of tried to hide my identity when using computers, but today, well…it is actually the opposite. We all do our best to be discovered and known on the web.

And I agree with you when you say that we made the big jump when security measures improved, otherwise we would have never given away so much information about ourselves.


Kathy Hadley
Kathy Hadley 5pts

Yes, you are correct. I remember the days of forum usernames. It is nice that most of the time people are using their real name.

Allan Blair Beaton
Allan Blair Beaton 5pts

Great post Ryan. What if you have a common name like John Smith? Its difficult to retain your unique URLs on the various social networking sites when you are a John Smith.

I think your points about earlier exploration of the internet using alternative handles holds a point, but only so far. I guess I am one of the lucky ones as I was able to grab @ and /allanbbeaton on all of the platforms that I wanted.



Neil Warner
Neil Warner 5pts

Lets face it LinkedIn aside social networks want your real name because your identity is the only saleable capital they have. Google make it almost impossible to keep your work and private life separate, constantly trying to merge my work and private accounts. Facebook just want your details to focus their pernicious advertising campaigns.

For sole traders or people whose identity is their brand this is not a problem, per se. For those of us whose family and friends are just that not an advertising stream it is a royal PITA.

After 26 years in the military the people who actually knew my real name were few, the vast majority knew me by a nickname which was my Avatar handle and for the genuine friend an easy one to find. People who search for me by name get an Irish photographer, a non exec director as well as all the spurious links to no one in particular long before they get to me.

My private life and my work life are separate. My personal friends no more want adverts for SEO, Chinese glove manufacturers and other moon on a stick traders than I want feeds from whichever thing they are into this week. My customers don't want links to reunions, movies and obscure food suppliers. The social networks dont care about this so as an individual I have to. If I didn't need it for work I would leave facebook today, explaining to friends that I am tired of it's race to the bottom and lack of user focus. Still each to their own.

Paul P Mosley
Paul P Mosley 5pts

I just shared this to my updates on LinkedIn so people in my network can be made aware of this article.