Today, humans stake online claims to their real-life names before they can even form words or survive outside the womb. If only we all were so lucky.
"The other day I made a comment on someone's blog and I noticed I was the only one that put my online pseudonym into the name field," MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey once wrote of the changing nature of online self-identification. Haughey had found himself the lone alias in a field full of real-life, first-and-last-named commenters. "This is one of those moments when you notice you're becoming a dinosaur," he wrote.
That was 2003. Since then, the trend toward aligning our online and offline personas has only accelerated. Today, humans stake online claims to their real-life names before they can even form words or survive outside the womb.
If only we were all so lucky.
Those of us who came of age alongside AOL must contend with something even more incriminating than a lifelong Google profile: A trail of discarded online aliases, each a distillation of how we viewed ourselves and our place in the world at the time of sign-on. The dawn of the Internet was an open invitation to free ourselves from the names our parents gave us and forge self-made identities divorced from our reputations IRL.
So how did I choose to define myself in this new world? I booted up my parents' modem and launched head-first into online forums with an alias inspired by my cat's name. Later, I spent hours negotiating with AOL's log-in field, testing out various combinations of Nine Inch Nails lyrics until I found one that hadn't already been snagged by an equally tortured soul (I was later forced to explain to a college admissions counselor why my e-mail address was ImDrowningIn@aol.com).
I am not the only person on the Internet who thought it was a good idea to intimately identify her middle school self with kitties and/or The Downward Spiral! Below, a dozen first cracks at online self-identification:
User: Edith Zimmerman, Editor, The Hairpin
Why: "Oh lord . . . Because I thought Hannah was the prettiest name, and that 15 and 16 were the coolest ages to be. (Pretty sure I was 13 or 14.)"
User: Cord Jefferson, Senior Editor, GOOD
Why: "I wasn't a very huge fan of Saved by the Bell, but I was trying to think of something widely known in pop culture that would make my friends laugh. This was before The Internet Meme as we know it, so my main reference point was TV. Had I been less afraid of being mocked by my friends, I'd have probably used a My So-Called Life reference. Alas, I was a teenager and went with Saved by the Bell, which was just easier than MSCL in every way. I tried every iteration of Zak Morris that I could come up with, and when that failed I moved on to AC Slater. When those were all taken, too, I went with PrincipalRichardBelding. I figured it was better than Screech."
User: Latoya Peterson, Owner/Editor, Racialicious
Why: "When I was 14, I went to camp, and one of my camp friends was really into cybersex. So one day we went into the library and she showed me what it was. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn't really understand computers, so the yahoo account was already logged in as someone named Punjabichick. So I just went with her name. So I suppose that is technically my first handle. And I deeply apologize for going into a chat room, wherever you are, Punjabichick on Yahoo. That guy was creepy."
Handle: Fink Ployd
User: Andy Baio, writer and tech entrepreneur, waxy.org
Why: "Oh, god . . . I was obsessed with Pink Floyd, and that's about the extent of it. But when I discovered the Internet, I realized that there were lots of people already using that handle, so I had to come up with something more unique. For a while, I flirted with using the anagram 'Flyp Doink' through the mid-1990s, but settled on 'waxpancake,' which I use to this day. It's a reference to vinyl records (wax pancakes, get it?), completely unique online, and has a nice ring to it."
User: Alex Goldmark, Contributing Editor, GOOD
Why: "Darius because it sounded far out and badass, is my guess. 007 'cause that sounded even more badass. I lifted the name Darius from this Super Nintendo video game, which shows how not badass it (or I) was."
User: Mike Riggs, Associate Editor, Reason
Why: "It was a Christian reference, i.e., giving it all up to God. That got misinterpreted in college. My freshman year college friends thought I was a sex fiend, and that people were supposed to give it up to me. . . . I mean, I was a virgin my freshman year of college. I didn't want anybody to give me their anything."
User: Ann Friedman, Executive Editor, GOOD
Why: "After a Joan of Arc song. I didn't even love that song in particular (which, incidentally, spells Anne with an 'E'), but I think it was the only song I knew that used my name. People with large vocabularies would always ask me if I was into birds. The answer is no."
User: Mat Honan, Senior Reporter, Gizmodo
Why: "I used it on IRC first, and then it was my first non-university e-mail address (on AOL!) and I used it all over the Web (and still do) to sign up for things where I want 1 degree of anonymity. I chose it because it's a homophone for my initials—m-t-h—which was something I noticed when I was a little kid."
User: Nona Willis Aronowitz, Associate Editor, GOOD
Why: "I made it when I was about 13. The 'kiwi' was the first thing that popped into my head that I thought was the perfect mix of girlie and quirky. But then when I realized people were puzzled by it and thought it was lame, I lied and said there was a bottle of Strawberry Kiwi Snapple on my desk when I made up the handle. To be fair, I was obsessed with that drink back in the day. The number was because '692' spelled my initials out in phone digits, and believe it or not, someone already had Kiwi692. So I added another '6' for good measure."
User: Mikki Halpin, writer, The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life.
Why: "I chose it because I thought it was as far from my real-life persona as I could possibly get. I am not very cherry!"
User: Matt Haughey, Founder, MetaFilter
Platform: College VAX server, 1995
Why: "I picked out 'mathowie' because I was only allowed 8 characters maximum (thank you 1960s system limitations) and I was tired of people having trouble pronouncing my name so I went with the phonetic 'Matt Haughey' = mat howie = mathowie."
Photo via Flickr, Mister Ketchup, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0