Recently I had a little conundrum about what persona I wanted to present in some online communities I’m in.
When I first got online – around 1989 – this wasn’t really a concern. I mean, it was for some people, I’m sure, but for most people the need and the tools weren’t really there. I didn’t participate in any dial-up BBSes, and on USENET and on mailing lists it was usually the case that your e-mail address and real name were right there in anything you posted. By today’s standards those communities were very small, and safety and privacy was not much of a concern for most people. There were a few communities which developed anonymizing posting systems, but they were in my experience very much the exception.
I had a brief fling with changing my display name on USENET in college to “Night Watchman”, because I was often online late at night posting stuff. It seemed cute at the time, but kind of dumb now.
(I have one friend who to this day refers to me as ‘rawdon@rex’, since ‘rex’ was the name of the machine I posted from in college. Machines in Tulane‘s computer science department were named after Mardi Gras parades.)
I’ve never been shy about posting under my own name, on USENET, on mailing lists, on social media, and on the web, including my journal. The one thing I’ve generally avoided doing is posting my address and phone number. Not that these things are particularly private – I have a listed phone number1 – but I figure that a lot of shenanigans and mayhem are largely because of opportunity and convenience, and I can save myself most of those potential headaches by not making it trivial for people to find me. (Of course I have no idea whether these precautions have had any effect at all.)
People who want to remain anonymous or appear under an alias is much more common today – and often for good reason – but it’s still not really a concern of mine. What triggered the recent conundrum is the growth of services where you only appear under a “handle”, which by convention tends to be short and memorable. The two sites I was interested in were Magic: The Gathering Arena and Twitch, which only show users under their chosen handle. I think this grew out of online video games of the 1990s and 2000s, and a lot of people who were active in those communities have consistent and often (?) memorable handles. I wasn’t active, and so I don’t – and I kind of envy them.
I could have simply used my name ‘MichaelRawdon’, as my handle – and on Twitch I did for a while. The advantage on Twitch is that when I interact with a streamer they could call me by my name. The disadvantage is that almost no one else uses their name as their handle, and so it felt out of place and a little lame. I also wanted both of those to have the same handle, so in the event I interacted with the same people on those platforms they would possibly recognize me.
My first attempt at a distinctive handle was ‘mRawd’, but that didn’t feel right. After several months I hit on the following: My account on Twitter is mrawdon, and I realized I could capitalize it like “MrAwdon”, in theory pronounced like “Mister Awdon”. That felt a little clever and a little more sensical, so that’s what I went with.
It’s worked out… okay. A couple of Twitch streamers end up calling me “Mister”, which is a little odd but at least a name they’re not stumbling over. So I think I’ll stick with it for a while.
(Why didn’t I go with ‘rawdon’? Mainly because it’s already taken on Twitch and on Twitter, and maybe even on Arena. It’s an uncommon name, but common enough that it’s already taken in many online sites.)
I wish Twitch did what Discord does, which is allow you to choose a default handle, but then to customize your display name for each channel. I’d definitely make use of that by having a recognizable handle for Twitch channels who know me from other area (e.g., who I interact with on Twitter, or support on Patreon), but having something else for most streams where they have no reason to know me.
Anyway, maybe too many words about too small a subject. I bet hardly anyone else ever worries about this sort of thing.
1 Kids, ask your parents what a ‘listed phone number’ is.