It’s too late now but would have been a good idea.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- Way back when I first started blogging in 2005 I knew that it was stupid to write online using my actual name. This was long before I began writing for big media — long before people started being denied entry to countries or deported based on what they post on social media or published in articles, way before countries all over the world starting purging foreign content creators so they could more easily deliver to the world their own hand-crafted message. I began my career in the Wild West days of media — where the internet was free and open and nobody took it seriously.
But it was still obvious to me that using my real name was stupid.
That’s why I began writing this blog under a pseudonym.
I’m sure nobody here remembers this, as it only lasted for about a week or two in 2005 — it only lasted for about a week or two until my best friend found out what I was doing and started picking on me:
“Dude, why are you calling yourself Jack? I’m going to start calling you that hahaha. Jack! Hahaha.”
I promptly retreated to my real name.
While I’ve had many big opportunities arise because of this blog — a book deal, Forbes, offers to write for other magazines, etc — I don’t believe that using my real name had anything to do with it. It was more about the content and what I was doing rather than the “brand” behind my name — which didn’t really swing a very big bat at that time. Now things are a little different… I’ve gone too far with “Wade.” There’s no turning back now.
However, I admire the strategy of using a pen name. Authors have been doing this for a really, really long time for a reason: A pseudonym allows a writer to be honest; to not be hamstrung by the fleeting morality, worldview, and government of the time.
But pen names are not so common today — in a day and age where such buffers for content creators are actually more needed than ever.
We now live in an age where even benign technology bloggers are being denied entry to countries and editors of British financial publications can’t even go to some places as tourists. Just yesterday Russia passed a law making online “fake news and insults” illegal. Fake news and insults is, of course, a euphemism for anything the government doesn’t want to be published.
We are entering a new intellectual dark age.
If you write you willingly provide the bonds of your own repression.
It is inevitable that I’m going to become blacklisted from a large array of the countries in the world, simply because of the fact that I write and shoot video.
I imagine that the technology is getting to the point where I could be denied entry not only at the point of arrival but at the airport on my way out:
The airline swipes my passport and I get a “Sorry, sir, but they’re not going to let you in.”
I’m going to ride this train out for as long as I can, but the writing is on the wall: the governments of the world have figured out how to control their own message. If they want to make a major international publication watch their mouth they deny their reporters visas for a while. China did it with the NY Times and Bloomberg; India did it with the BBC. After serving their punishments, the publications tend to fall in line with what the respective government’s wishes. Self-censorship has become the rule of the day.
Now, as far as the usefulness of a pseudonym goes, if any immigration department decides to do a deep dive into their intelligence files (or whatever) on you it’s going to be more or less useless. The thing is that such deep dives are not common, and, generally speaking, if you’re name clears a normal Google search, you’re in. A pseudonym gives you a certain degree of keyword subterfuge:
If I kept calling myself Jack nothing that I’ve written would show up in a search for Wade.
Oddly, at the same time that nets are tightening around the ability for creators to observe and report on the world they travel through, we also have this big push for transparency — for using real names and identities online. Facebook, Google, they all want our real names. While we’ve been told that this is somehow more ethical and safer, it gives governments, tech companies, law enforcement, employers, and the general public super simple ways to track us, advertise to us, and ban us.
English Teacher X — the mysterious man behind what was probably one of the best travel-related blogs ever written — kept his true identity a secret for a reason. He knew that there was no way that he could write freely using the name if he ever wanted to get jobs or visa again. He would either need to provide a vanilla take on life or create a separate persona. He went the later route, and even after blogging for 15 years and authoring numerous books his literary infamy never caught up with him.
The same can’t be said of William Powell, the guy who wrote The Anarchist Cookbook using his real name when he was 19 years old. For this guy’s entire life he was haunted by it, losing jobs, being ostracized, and forced to live on the run, settling into each new stop with the knowledge that the past would eventually catch up with him.
English Teacher X once joked something to the effect of, “Maybe he should have called himself Anarchist X?”
Maybe I should have called myself Vagabond X?