Being Yourself Online (of usernames and avatars)

In the last two years or so, I’ve made a radical change in how I use the Internet: I try to be myself. This doesn’t mean that I’ve been shy about my love of Twitter or that I’ve tried to pretend to be something other than an academic who likes music. What being myself online has meant to me has been achieved through using one username across most of the Internet and one avatar. Oh, and that username is my real name.

I made this decision after using a handful of other pseudonyms around the Internet since the mid-1990s with an eye towards hacking Google. As I was busy on the academic job market, I began to realize that while I had invested a large portion of my life into the Internet, that there wasn’t a way for anyone to find this material. And let’s face it: as someone who needed (still needs, by the way, for the 2010-2011 academic year, in case you’re looking) a decent job, I wanted to give people a way to find me. Being anonymous wasn’t going to help me.

The result was a revamping of almost every account I have online to use the same standard username. In many places, I found that I could use an OpenID linked to one of my other accounts. This not only continued my drive to use one name, it also saved me time in registering with new sites (and gave me less passwords to remember). I also updated my Google profile with information about me. I also went so far as to register my own domain…and yes, I did the vanity thing and named it after myself. If you don’t want to host your own domain, you can use a service like Interfolio or to create an online portfolio.

Once that was done, I came up with an avatar that I felt comfortable using everywhere I went: my face. (This took many more attempts than I’d care to admit.) I uploaded the photo to places where I had accounts, and then I created a Gravatar account. When I register at many other sites using email addresses that I have linked to in Gravatar, my chosen avatar is brought into the new site quickly. (In fact, this is how readers here at Prof. Hacker can get their avatars appended to their comments.)

Of course, I can’t pretend to have started this movement to be yourself online. In many ways, the power of Facebook is linked to the pressure the system exerts on its users for them to be themselves and to use their real names on the service. Look at the panic that came with the great Facebook land grab this June. Still, I find that many of my colleagues are reluctant to have a presence online or to be themselves. Although there are of course some privacy concerns connected with being indexed by Google (or even Bing or Cuil), I believe we can and should take control of our identities online. And it turns out it’s not that hard.

What are your thoughts about being yourself online?

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