Aug 1, 2011

Everybody wants to be special here (In praise of pseudonymity)

In real life I am who I am. As Boon and Watt once wrote: "Real names be proof."

But does a name, a real name, an identity, capture the full richness of personal self-expression? I'm not sure it does - indeed I believe that one of the promises of the Internet is that online social networks can allow for different personas - ones for different times or different subjects or different modes of expression. And this is an amazing thing, for one identity does not fit all. It's also amazing because it allows for the full spectrum of human expression.

Identity, like most things, is not monolithic. It's rich, varied and textured. And our online modes of expression should allow for that texture, particularly in what we name ourselves while expressing.

I use tumblr to express myself through music - songs, photos, quotes, randomalia. I go by the pseudonym newspeedwayboogie - not using my real name - because, well because I don't want to be Andy Weissman over there. I want to be someone else, the part of me that is obsessive compulsive and ridiculous about another subject matter.

So over there I chose to use that pseudonym, and not be anonymous, but instead to have a persona that reflects that subject and my expression of it - and nothing more. Sure, that expression may have resulted from late night dorm room shenanigans, but so what? And as a service tumblr makes it easy - and in fact I think encourages - the use of pseudonyms as personas. I've met some fantastic friends who use pseudonyms - Miles Smiles, Vast and Grand,Further From Age. Most of the time I have no idea of the real identity of these people, and I don't really care, because I can tell you so much about them and who they are as people. Their identity is secondary - their expressive persona is primary.

Certain services in fact thrive in creativity in proportion to their embrace of pseudonymity. Examples include tumblr, but also many more - Live Journal, Twitter, Canvas.

Chris Poole - Moot - says that anonymity enables users to express uninhibited creativity in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered way. "Anonymity is authenticity" is how he puts it. I think he is really talking about pseudonymity here - as Jyri Engstrom recently wrote: "A service that aims to become the default arena for online social exchange globally should allow pseudonymity (which is really what we're talking about when we talk about anonymity) and, in some cases, even encourage it."

Or, as Jyri also puts it: "Were you ever the nail that sticks out, at some point in your life?" To which I would add, that nail reemerges in life, often and always. People need places to express how they stick out while being able to assume other personas, for whatever reason they think is appropriate.

Paul Westerberg (in perhaps his greatest song) wrote that "Everybody wants to be special here" - which has always struck me as the most astute observation about human nature. The best online services are the ones that allow us to be special there, and name ourselves whatever we want in the process of expressing how special we are.

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