I’ve been asked recently why I never use a handle when I’m posting on an online community. Beyond the communities that pretty much force you to use you real name (Facebook, G+), my username for other networks are equally as bland. On twitter, I use “jwoody”, on reddit I use the more identifying “jeromewoody”, and most blog and systems out there, I’ll just either identify myself as jwoody.
In the wilds of the web beyond the curated control of the major social networks, the idea of using your real name in online communities may seemed odd to people, or even a bit frightening. It’s been drilled into us by the media and popular culture that the Internet is filled with people who shouldn’t be allowed to know who you really are in real life. Perhaps another user or troll will take something you said online personal and tell you what he thinks face to face, or some cyber syndicate will use your name as a means to steal your entire identity. Many may just want to have the cloak of anonymity to say what they whatever they want.
My first online community that I was truly engaged in was back when I was a teen. I got an account on “The Well” back in 1996 after reading an article about the board system in Wired. It was at that time that I gained access to other systems and became more active in computing in general. On the well there was a general rule call “YOYOW”, or You Own Your Own Words. Coined by Well founder Steward Brand, the term has had many interpretations over the years but from what I took of it, it meant you were responsible for what you say in any forum. When I’m online posting a comment on either wired.com or slog (The Stranger’s Weblog), I want people to know that those comments were written by me, Jerome Woody, for I’m not going to communities to just drive by with some comment without a way to trace it back to me, I’m there because I committing myself to that community and want to participate in discussions, both deep and trivial.
I admit that without the cloak of a handle I do feel more exposed, and I tend to manage the way I am to other users online, and for the most part I believe that’s a good thing. I’ve always been one to freely give my opinion and haven’t turned away from a controversial subject, but I believe that using my name makes me a bit more considerate of other users comments. The urge to go all 4chan on a thread is gone completely since I don’t want to be known as “that asshole Jerome Woody” on reddit.
Although there are limits to this philosophy. As the web has deeply become a part of my public life, it has become a part of my private life as well. Like many people there are things that I do online that I would be embarrassing about if gotten out in the open, and in those occasions I will use some handle or attempt to mask my activity completely. But I believe that associating with most comment based communities is a public act, like going out to a public gathering or a bar. In real life, we don’t walk about among the masses with fake glasses and a mustache, we are who we are, and even without giving our names, our physical presence alone codify our identities.
On a web filled with flame wars, trolling and online bullying, I think if more of us decided to own our own words, to take responsibility to what we say and how we interact with others, we could have a web infused with more social respect and engagement.
But if you like your vanity name I respect that, it’s hard to be out there naked. You can just like to be known that online and I respect that too. But when you see my name on some anime forum or android mailing list, I’m not trying to be arrogant or naive. I’m just being me.