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What’s In a Name?: Navigating the Internet with a Real Name

My more sensible fellow interns post here under their real names, whereas my WordPress username is a funny, nonsensical “kurquoise.” (Look up, it says “Posted by kurquoise” in light green letters.) This pseudonym is a holdover from when we were first launching the blog, and out of convenience, it has just stuck around, but it alludes to an interesting point.

As the Internet has “grown up” over the past few years, one of the major trends has been a move away from anonymity toward the credibility of real names. That’s not to say anonymous and pseudonymous corners of the web are not still thriving, but simply that there’s a greater movement toward aggregating our various online avatars into one coherent identity. More concretely, what do I mean why this? Services like Friend Connect or Facebook Connect or FriendFeed or DISQUS — essentially services that pull information from across the Internet and feed it into one name. Of course, there’s no digital Big Brother forcing to use a real name, but if you’re going through all that trouble to aggregate everything – from blog entries to Flickr comments – aren’t you constructing digital identity so complete as to almost mirror your nondigital one? In the world of social media, your identity – your real name – has value. I mean this completely uncynically: your name is a brand.

Facebook was one of the first social networks to capitalize on the credibility of real names, and it succeeded precisely because of this. The barriers to online interaction were drastically lowered; you no longer needed to exchange an email or a phone number – just a name was enough. Facebook is a closed system though, and Facebook Connect is an attempt to extend it over the rest of the Internet. But people are already blogging, tweeting, and commenting under their real names – building a digital network that has real value. Using a real name undoubtedly adds credibility to that they do.

Nikki and Diana have both written fantastic posts here on the motivations, strategies, and sometimes of using your real name online. Unlike Nikki and Diana, I don’t own my own domain name (alas, there is a Sarah Zhang more famous and accomplished than me), and I use my real name sparingly online. I’ve often been on the verge of purchasing my own domain or simply keeping a blog under my own name, but there’s something that has been holding me back.

Part of my reluctance to define myself online is related to me grappling with my own shifting identities as a young adult. Forgive me for being existential here, but how do I tell others who I am when I’m not even completely sure of it myself? One of the first legitimate Google hits on my real name is a bio page for an internship I did the summer after my freshman year. The bio, which I wrote as a freshman (less than a year ago), is now completely outdated, listing an different major, activities, etc. In the same vein, my Xanga posts from middle school or Livejournal posts from high school and the other various “blogs” I kept throughout the years reflect a very different person from who I am today. My attitudes and interests change, and I don’t necessarily want my teenage self to exist as a digital representation of myself or future employers.

When are teenagers ready to manage their reputations? It’s a tricky question because my interactions with the Internet, even posting anonymously or pseudonymously, have shaped a large part of who I am. How do you feel about using your real name online? Would you have entrusted your teenage self with your real name?

-Sarah Zhang