In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there was a very cool time in computer history. The BBS scene.
People logged on to the online services. Only 1 person at a time could use them. Think the Internet, but it only allows 1 person on at a time. There you go- that is a BBS. They were incredibly slow- downloading a 1mb file took a little over an hour on a good day- that is about the size of today’s selfie. There were a handful of these online services in each city. Those were the good old days.
In the BBS era “handles” (nicknames) were widely used. People hand names like Murray the Moose, Cycl0ps, or Joe77. In fact, on many boards using a real name was frowned up and many systems did not even allow real names.
When the Internet took off many people were forced to update their nickname. Cycl0ps had to become Cycl0ps90211 because now there were many people using the name Cycl0ps. Some IRC users had special bots they used to reserve their nick.
People continued using nicknames on AOL IM and ICQ and various chat apps. I missed much of Six Degrees and Friendster but I can tell you that LinkedIn allowed the use of real names and people started entering them there, although it would be years before the site took off.
MySpace was pretty big and not many real names were used there. The exodus from MySpace to Facebook happened practically overnight in 2008. I was shocked to see people using their real names on the Internet so freely. It felt very foreign to me. Facebook would go on to consistently abuse their user’s privacy and the CEO once said people who trust him are dumb f**ks. That worked out well.
Present Day (2015)
These days whenever someone asks me for advice about their kids getting online I strongly recommend they lock down their social media accounts from “randos” and use pseudonyms. There are a lot of freaks on the web. Unless you are an attorney or real estate agent there are usually more reasons to not use a real name than to use one. Of course on Facebook the vast majority of people do use their real name and that is fine, assuming you don’t mind what they may do with your data in the future or are just completely ignorant to their data policies. Of course, there are still plenty of websites, such as Reddit, the 9th most popular website on Earth, where using a real name is still completely unheard of. And, of course, even on Facebook, using your birth name is not required (as long as your are not impersonating someone or doing something malicious).
Pseudonyms are not just for writers, anyone can use them. These days, most people do use their real names, although nicknames are extremely popular among youth yet again. If I fire up Snapchat and look at my younger friend’s list of names- I see zero that I recognize. In fact instead of seeing a nickname, half the time I see emojis (Eg: Joe77👍¯_(ツ)_/¯ ).
In short, most people began using their real name on the Internet around 2008. But hey, it’s the Internet. It’s not like a few letters on a screen are any sort of accurate representation of the human on the other end- that’s why we have terms like gender swapping and catfished.