Continuing my effort to clear out my Firefox tabs and my brain, let’s talk about usernames.
I feel like pretty much everything he says can be turned around from a positive into a negative. True, on Facebook you don’t have the problem of signing up only to find your customary username has already been taken. Instead you have the problem of signing up with a name that’s maybe shared by 7,142 other people. An improvement, or only a differently annoying issue? Also, he says you don’t have to use your real name, just a name — but hang on, isn’t that essentially the username thing all over again, except without the restriction that it must be unique? And maybe a requirement that your chosen name has to come in two parts (e.g. Pony McRainbow). If you can still use a made-up name, you still have the problem he describes, of realizing belatedly that somebody you know in person and somebody you know online are actually, y’know, the same person.
But that has an easy fix. If you want your legal name associated with your pseud, put it in your profile or wherever. If you want to keep them separate, you can.
Which is part of Cat’s point. Facebook wants you to use your real name (and other real information) so you can be more effectively tracked: pinned down, advertised to, your information sold to third-party vendors, linked up with things you never intended to touch. Oh, so you’re the Melanie Dunn whose grocery purchases swing erratically between Hostess snack cakes and green vegetables (better sell you some diet aids!), who’s a registered Democratic voter in Kansas (do your neighbors know?), whose medical history shows a procedure at a particular doctor’s office three years ago (and we can guess what that was). So when you go posting on your blog about how you think bigots should get over the whole Islamic community center thing, rest assured people will have an easy time connecting that with your weight and your political activities and the fact that maybe you had an abortion. Aren’t you glad they know who you are?
False names, whether unique usernames or non-unique pseudonyms, can protect people.
But you know, even if that were taken out of the equation, I’d still like usernames, and my reason is the other part of Cat’s point. Choosing a username is an act of identity creation — one we don’t often get to do in modern American society, or (so far as I’m aware) in other high-tech nations. Your parents pick your name, without any input from you, and changing it is a legal hassle. Nicknames are generally assigned by those around you, though you can try to show up to college or your job in a new city and sell people on the idea that while your name is William, usually you go by Bear. We have very few opportunities to choose something that reflects who and what we are, or want to be — or we did, until usernames came along and gave us a whole new field to play in.
The fantasy writer in me can’t help but think about the mystical power of names, and how the process of choice invests them once more with a whiff of that power. They have meaning. How is that not cool?
Is the meaning sometimes stupid? Of course. You may get to a point where you’re embarrassed to be known as shake_that_bootay. But unlike Aschlyee, who’s embarrassed by her parents’ enthusiastic leap onto the bandwagon of “let’s find a totally new way to spell this name!,” you can put it behind you pretty easily. You can escape your party-hard high school years, major in Classics, get involved in radical politics, and rename yourself alecto_reborn. Then, when you’re tired of being a Fury, go into the business world, and settle down as dahlia_blue.
There have been times and places in the world where that sort of change was normal and expected, where having six names by the time you died was nothing unusual. (Read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms if you don’t believe me.) We’ve reinvented a form of that here, and I for one like it.
Celebrate your username! Tell me the story of why you chose it, whether you’re tempted to change it, and if so, what to.