Monday, March 31, 2008

Getting a Handle on Usernames

Online usernames differ from real life names considerably. Three key differences can be seen between online and real life names: names are required for all social participation, users choose their own names, and users can easily change names. These differences entail significant ramifications for identity perception and development.

In our offline society everyone has a name, although these names are not used in all contexts. It is possible to have social interactions and relationships in real life without knowing someone’s name - such as friendly banter with the coffee shop cashier. Appearance is arguably the most important identity-discerning factor in offline interactions, whereas online it can often be one’s username. In many online environments usernames are not only required to join, but one’s name is constantly visible to other participants. In text-only environments, such as chats and MUDs, using a name becomes the only way to specifically address a message to another user. Even users in graphical online spaces, where avatars and proxemics are fully capable of indicating the target of messages, often use names in messages.

Being given a name is a hallmark of real life identity formation – and it is an act where one is powerless. In contrast, online life typically begins when users choose their own name, thus forging their own identities. Real life names are a reflection of one’s parents, culture, and socio-economic group; online users are free of these constraints and can choose names inspired by literature, pop-culture, mythology, or character qualities. Real life Marys and Johns are replaced by more evocative Merlin, Blackwinter, chupchups, and Satan. While my username is often just my name, glen farrelly, usernames can offer anonymity. The anonymity of usernames with no ties to offline identities permits the adoption of new personae that safely permits exploration of identity issues with little chance of repercussions.

Users may wish to change their online identities. In most online services name changes are quick, simple, and free, whereas changing one’s name in the real world is a time-consuming, legal process that is rarely used (except with marriage). Online users may change their name to start a new persona, to work through new issues, to present a new facet of their personality, or to remove baggage amassed with prior persona. The freedom to easily change one’s name is key to facilitating an environment with little social risk to one’s actions. While this has both positive and negative outcomes, it does allow users to explore aspects of their identity. The chance to start over again with a new name and resulting new identity is readily available.

Names in real life may reveal qualities of one’s background, but do not afford much opportunity for using one’s name to develop identity. The easy adoption of online identities via choice of usernames appears to have the potential of encouraging people to break free from some of the cultural and gender baggage forced upon them by their real names and fosters positive identity development.

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