This is the second part of Growing Up with a Digital Identity. If you want to read part one, you can read it here.
Today, we take technology, identity, and social media for granted. My brother was more comfortable with the internet at the age of fourteen than I was at the age of twenty, and in some cases, even today. Earlier, I wrote about how I made my first screen name in AIM, and later how I started registered for forums. Over time, I became comfortable with these new identities, getting used to the fact that people would call me by my screen name instead of my real name, but I had a problem.
When I first started signing up for forums, blogs, and chat rooms, I chose a new name on each site. At the time, I wanted to make a name that matched whatever the site was about. So if it was a gaming website, I wanted my name to be something related to that game, or if it was a political forum, I wanted something that let the world know what I thought about politics. So after a year and a half of forum surfing, I had well over a dozen different names. Most of them were defunct, but I had six active ones, and I didn’t like keeping track of who I was.
My first attempt at some unifying name was to simply add “.veritas” to the end of my user names, or in my signature. Even though I was tired of keeping track of each user name, I didn’t want to give them up entirely. Some of them I had for more than 2 years and I didn’t want to start off as a “new user” again.
Developing a pseudo-name
I kept this naming up until I graduated high school and went off to college. When I got there, I decided to stop posting on most of those sites. Most were teen-focused, and several had an age limit. Besides, when I got to school, I wasn’t on the web all that much. Instead, you could find me in the student center playing Citizen’s of Catan with my friends, or sitting in the coffee shop playing Euchre. If I did go online, it was for the frequent Counterstrike/Age of Empires games the dorms put together as part of a competitive ladder.
The only thing I did online regularly was talk with my family and friends via AIM, and play ladder games with my dorm mates. They all had nicknames for their “gamer tags” and so I decided to create a whole new user name to use as my tag, and got in the habit of using this new name for any sites I did register for.
I’m not exactly sure when I stopped thinking of that name as a nickname and started thinking of it as an “identity” but I think it was sometime during my last year at school. When I switched my major from Writing to Marketing, it added another year until I could get a diploma. I enjoyed my classes a lot more, but it meant that when most of my closest friends graduated, I still had to show up for classes the next fall. This meant I was spending a lot more time at the computer chatting with them on AIM or (the still new) Facebook.
Sitting at the computer meant I spent more time surfing sites as well. I started actively reading “blogs” for news instead of just going to CNN and started registering on these sites to comment on them, all using that same nickname. A few times, I found the name already registered (it wasn’t super unique, just odd for tech websites) so I added a modifier to the end, but tried keeping it as consistent as possible.
With the exception of my Facebook profile, I never used my “real name” online after college. I used that same nickname on every site I posted on, and people actually started recognizing it across sites. I’m not trying to say that I was famous or anything like that, just that people would see the name and send me a message asking me if I was the same person who used that name over at another site. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was the first time having a consistent identity did more than helped me remember what everyone knew me as.
I wasn’t the only one discovering the benefit of having a single identity online. Websites like Gravatar, Disqus, and many others helped users manage their identities across any website that uses them. You can even “authenticate” sites that don’t (such as Twitter) so that you can have a landing page, somewhere people can go to and see all the sites you’re active on.
The concept of ”anonymity” online is something that a lot of websites and people are actively discussing. On one hand, being anonymous allows the user to express themselves without having to worry about their opinions getting back to people they know in real life. This can me vital when discussion sensitive subjects like sexuality, politics, or policies at your work. Laura June, over at Engadget, wrote a great piece a few months ago about why anonymity can be so important online.
The downside to anonymity is that it allows users to say anything they want, even hate-filled rants, without any real consequences for those actions. Sure, they might get banned, but all they have to do is register a new user name and they can start posting again. Sure, I’m unlikely to do this since I’ve had my online identity for so long, but few people keep their user names active for as long as I do, and there’s nothing preventing me from creating a second identity just for the purpose of trolling.
It’s a touchy issue, one that I can’t really tackle here, but hope to sometime in the future. I had a few reasons for staying anonymous for so long online. When I graduated college, my first job was in the cellphone industry, so I joined a handful of phone-specific websites to try and learn as much as I could about the products I sold. When I wanted to comment, I knew that having my real name could cause issues. I never broke a confidentiality agreement, and I never leaked information, but I knew that my employers might still frown on my posts because I often advocated buying phones sans-contract.
I found having an “anonymous” username online allowed me to honestly answer questions people had, without letting the “corporate line” get in the way. But I think another reason I used my nickname for so long is that I became comfortable with it. Switching to my real name meant dropping all of those connections I made before, starting from the ground up online. A new twitter account, a new Disqus profile, a new blog. So what made me make the shift?
Forming my new identity
If you couldn’t tell my now, my real name is Jason Lee Bauman, and that name is what makes up the URL for this site. After spending a majority of my digital life posting through a pseudo-name, I’ve made the switch to using my “real name” online.
It’s something I’ve considered doing for the past year, but through a series of quasi-related events, I finally decided to make the jump. For those of you who know me, you know that I was fired from my old job back in February. I won’t go into the details here, but that experience made me realize that retail sales was not the environment for me. I no longer had to worry about my employers finding out that I posted online, and I didn’t have to worry about unintentionally violating an NDA.
Then sites like TechCrunch switched to using Facebook for their commenting system, Google launched their new (and amazing) social network Google+, and I started going by my real name on websites I wrote for. I found myself in the awkward position of trying to juggle two different identities online, and I found out I didn’t enjoy it. But what finally pushed me over the edge was my job hunt.
One of the things I did while hunting for a new job was read articles about hunting for a job. Without exception, all of these articles stressed the importance of networking online, and how social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn played an important role in finding your next job. I thought it would be awkward giving potential employers a pseudo-name to contact on twitter, so I decided to create a fresh digital identity, this one linked wholly with my real name.
Sure, I could just rename all my previous accounts and put my real name there, but I’d rather start fresh. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I said with that old user name. Most people who know me in real life know who I go by online. It’s just that I want this to be a fresh start, a clean slate. Who I was in the past is not who I’ll be today, and while I can’t escape the influences that past will have over me (as the name of this blog implies) I can do my best to make this new space my own.
And there you have it. My wordy history of growing up with a digital identity, and the events that caused me to go by my real name. What about you? What made you choose to go by your real name? Or if you use a Pseudo-name, what caused you to choose that instead?