What's In A Name? Real Names vs NickNames On Social Networks

Remember when the Internet first emerged in the late 90s and "email" was the new shiny thing? So new and so shiny - that while we gravitated toward it's light likes moths to a flame - we were leery of revealing our true identities. So what did we do? We invented nicknames to protect our anonymity.

However, over time, as we started conducting business online - we learned that using our real name was more the norm, than the exception. This same phenomenon occurred when social networks came on to the scene - however the transition this time moved at a faster clip - as many of us today are represented by our real names on Facebook, Twitter and LinkdedIn.

Last year, Chubb & Son's ran a survey that showed that smaller and smaller percentages of social network users are still going by their nicknames. In mid-2010, only 13 percent preferred using a nickname, in most instances.

For brands, the risks were greater when nicknames were the norm. Jon C. Bidwell, Chubb's senior vice president of innovation made point in an interview how things changed when we moved from e-business to the 'mebusiness.' "The transition in power from the company and their messaging a decade ago transitioned to the consumers controlling the dialogue with the brands, as a result of social networking," he noted.

Our current user-generated society "presents risk and opportunities, where brands need to mitigate the liabilities while ramping up their brand messaging," Bidwell added. When users used nicknames, they could complain and criticize with impunity where the brands were always put on the defensive. Today, real names at least allow the brand to rectify or address complaints on an equal footing with customers who are represented by their true identities.

In the States, similar to emails, Facebook and Twitter users have become more comfortable in representing themselves with real names. However in China, since censorship is still a major threat, many networks are actually known as either "nickname" or "real name" social networks.

Kai LukoffKai LukoffIn talking with Kai Lukoff, co-founder of the Chinese tech blog, TechRice, he notes that on sites like Tencent's Q-Zone in China, the younger demographic prefers to communicate under the cloak of anonymity with nicknames.

Kaiser KuoKaiser KuoWhile Sina Weibo (China's Twitter) has both real name and nicknamed users, Kaiser, Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu (China's Google) feels that those that prefer nicknames do so because, "there's a lot of flame wars that go on, on Sina Weibo, and people do tend to say things they wouldn't feel comfortable saying in a real-name situation."

However, the tide is changing in China as leading social network's such as Renren - China's rendition of Facebook - is strictly a real-name social network and is so successful, it will IPO later this year (for more on this topic, see my previous post, "Social Media Copy Cat Renren Could Beat Facebook to IPO").

So if you're asking yourself "what's in a name," it depends on who you're talking to. In the case of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg doesn't like nicknames. Most recently, in enforcing his social network's real name policy, he actually closed a Chinese blogger's account for using a pseudonym.

While a good number of his 600+ million followers still use nicknames, he made an example out of Zhao Jing Zhao JingZhao Jingwho established his account under the name of "An Ti." Jing refuted the charges indicating it was not a "fake name" and actually was a moniker that he had used in his professional life for a good number of years. When FB was questioned as to the rationale, a FB spokesperson refused to say why Jing's account was singled out - only indicating that a "real name culture" creates more accountability and is a safer, more trusted online experience.

So is what's good for the goose, good for the gander? Apparently, not! Zuckerberg's nickname for his dog is "Beast" and he not only has a whole fan page devoted to him, but the mutt has actually attracted over 93,000 fans, including Z-Man (aka Mark Zuckerberg) himself, and his main squeeze, Priscilla Chan.

Mark Zuckerberg's Fan Page for "Beast"Mark Zuckerberg's Fan Page for "Beast"