A long long time ago, my main source of social interaction online was AOL Instant Messenger. IM was a big deal. It was where all the cool kids were. I remember eighth graders talking about it on the school bus and me thinking, “Dude, I really need to be a part of that.” The best part about IM, like most online interactions back in the day, was that you got to choose your name. You didn’t have to be boring old Spencer. You could be anything you wanted! The purest form of self-expression was now open – choosing your identity.
Choosing your screen name was a bit like getting to choose your own nickname. For people who talked to strangers in chat rooms in those early days, your screen name could be a way of making other people like you – if it was edgy enough, smart enough, witty enough, or cool enough, people might like you better. At least that’s what we though.
It’s really interesting to go back and think about what we thought was important back then. My screen name was golfhawk09. ’09 was my high school graduation date. Golf was my big extracurricular activity and place where I could express myself. And hawk was a way of remembering my recently deceased grandfathers. Obviously, I would never choose golfhawk09 as a screen name today. But it still says important things about my identity even now.
I am always concerned with the next chapter of my life. In junior high, that meant high school graduation. I like to believe I am dedicated to the things I do, so much so that they are synonymous with me. And I like to believe that I am aware about other people.
The thing about names and identities is that when you choose one, you are choosing a story. You are saying to the world, “This is how I want to be seen. This is the story I want to occupy.”
The other thing about names and identities is that when you choose one for someone else, you are choosing how you hear his or her story. That’s why labeling someone by his or her race, gender, sexuality, politics, or church/theology is bad. You are limiting that person’s whole existence to one label. It’s as if all of the Conservatives in the world chose to have their screen names be Conservative1, Conservative2, and so on. That’s not true. Let everyone choose his or her own screen name.
How do you name yourself? How do you identify others?