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I overheard a conversation recently, where the participants (both infamous Ricochetti) were discussing their reasons for using their real names online. They made a compelling argument for it: standing by what you write and not hiding behind an alter ego. It got me to thinking about the many measures I take to cloak my real identity and to question the premise of doing so for so many years.
You see, I got my start in computer networks back in the dark ages of 2400-baud modems, a magical time when sysadmins would telnet into their WU-FTPd servers as root, and gopher was the standard for information exchange. I had no admin rights to anything, but I did have what I thought was a collection of clever nicks on local BBSes. I have thankfully forgotten all of them.
Nobody used their real name. It wasn’t even considered. You built a reputation around your nick; and on various systems that rep could be radically different. Most of us were punters, just downloading Doom shareware and PKUNZIP.EXE. Some of us built software collections (“l33t warez”) to expand our share ratio and gain access to higher tiers, better perks, and longer online quotas. The truly “elite” were at the top of the pyramid and the rest of us dreamt of getting there ourselves (as many forum participants do today).
On a BBS in the 1980s, the top of the metro Chicago pyramid was to have root access to an Internet-connected multiuser timesharing (usually UNIX) system. This tended to be restricted to kids with brothers who went to a University like Northwestern or UIUC; but a few lucky rogues did have it. My first Internet-connected server access turned out to be on an IBM mainframe running VM/CMS.
Who are you on a mainframe? This version of VM allowed six-character UserIDs and all the good ones (whatever I thought those to be at the time) were taken. So I went with my initials: irb.
This early mainframe access was pretty clunky but I was so happy to finally have access to Internet. Through conversations with other logged-in users (where, having some experience with BBSes I didn’t immediately ask for w4r3z or access) I was offered a login to a much more popular and powerful VAX VMS system. Again I chose “irb” but that’s because I was already known by that on the mainframe.
From here, I built up a reputation as someone eager to learn the system, and perhaps the SysOps saw this with a mixture of pity and relief that I wasn’t just looking to pingflood people; they offered me access to my first UNIX system! It was one of seven NeXT cubes running NeXTStep 2.0. It was awesome.
I’d finally made it, I thought. I spent nights typing in every key sequence I could just to see what they would do: ps, w, top, talk, finger. I started attending local UNIX club meetings and, when it was clear that I wasn’t actively trying to bring the servers to their knees, was even made the backup admin. This meant that every couple of days I had to change the backup tapes at a certain time.
We all knew each other’s real names of course, but none of us used them, even in person. We lived a good part of our lives online and that separation from and connection to these worlds made up a significant portion of our identity. We had access to things the “normals” didn’t even think about and couldn’t connect to if they could. It was a secret society of sorts, and our nicks were our secret names known only to the cognoscenti. Having one meant you had access to something esoteric, mysterious, and (we thought) valuable.
Now, on these UNIX systems we all had the ability to set some of our account information ourselves, and one of the fields we could set was the Real Name field. Almost none of us had our actual legal names in this field. For mine, I set it to “Most Holy”, a reference to a comic book series about a power-hungry aardvark who becomes Pope. People actually called me that in high school so it fit; again, here was a fake name I was more recognized by (to some) than my given name.
Eventually, more people did get online though, through fancy web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape, and Internet services like AOL and NetCom. Websites and blogs became commonplace and users weren’t limited to six- or eight-character usernames as much.
To some extent of course we still build brands or reputations around usernames. “iraqveteran8888” and “gatewaypundit” come to mind; but over the last 20 years or so many people have been using their real names as well: PaulHarrell and @CliffordBrown are a couple of good examples. However, when I got my start on the WWW, I was a bit skeptical of what this thing was and where it would go. I always set the equivalent of the Real Name field to something else, and went for “irb” as a username. irb was my identity online and any “real” name was, as it had almost always been before, a fiction.
Given all this, it may not surprise you to learn that Jarvis Morse-Loyola is not my real name. It is in fact three consecutive elevated train stations in Chicago. I’ve long thought that “irb” is, for Internet purposes anyway, my “real name.” I may not have the reputation of RMS or ESR, Space Rogue or Rasterman, but what reputation I’ve built over the years is tied to the irb username, and that’s always been the more important part for me.
There’s also a certain irreverent history to fudging the Real Name field online, and it’s so ingrained in my experience that I only began to question it recently. Dodging government agencies and creditors never really came into it for me, or if it did (as in the former case), it was a happy symptom. Usernames used to be a much more meaningful symbol of having access to and understanding of something that required expertise to participate in. I’ve been loath to give that up and resistant to corporations that have tried to require it (like the failed Google+).
However, there is nonetheless a perception of value to be attached to the idea that an author is willing to sign (what we assume to be) their given legal name to a piece of writing. My guess is that it offers a sense of accountability, that if a person earned a reputation for offensive behavior, that reputation would follow them around from site to site and into their real lives; they couldn’t just change their name and start over. Too, we probably believe that we could find these offensive people if we really wanted to, unlike trying to get the personal info of someone calling themselves some ridiculous name like “Most Holy.” Again it’s just a perception since a troll or troublemaker could very well call themselves “Leland Mattie Robinson” and we wouldn’t really know.
So, what do you think? Should I come clean and start writing under my real name, or keep up the hax0r tradition of using an alias? I will add tangentially that, if pursuing a higher quality of interaction is your goal, making the site pay-to-post (like this site is) works much better, from what I have seen.Published in