I changed my Twitter name from @pastaqueen to @jennettefulda not long ago, and was sort of surprised this didn’t seem like a big deal. Here I was, using my REAL NAME online, something that ten years ago was recommended as much as driving drunk, huffing paint and popping pimples. (And please, don’t try to do all three at once, especially if you’re using your real name.)
Back in those days (the NINETIES) we were warned that the Internet was full of dirty old men pretending to be 16-year-old girls who wanted to molest you or steal your credit card number. We’re still warned about that today, but people don’t seem to be as worried as much as they used to about using their real names online. When did this happen? Why didn’t I notice this sooner? Sometime in the past decade the Internet has become accepted as an extension of our “real lives” and not just an escape where you can pretend to be somebody else. You get to do both now! You can be your real self or your fake self. You be real when being your fake self, or fake when being your real self, you poser, you.
There are now realms of the Internet where it’s considered relatively safe to use your real identity. Twitter. LinkedIn. Facebook. They’re the good neighborhoods. Yes, there are privacy concerns about these social networking sites. Facebook knows far too much about your bad taste in music, and the Google cache and Archive.org will never forget that stupid thing you said on that forum that one time where you compared someone to the Nazis. But millions of people are using their real names in large numbers in these places, suggesting that they don’t deem those risks that serious. It’s like driving a car. Yes, something bad could happen while you’re doing it, but hopefully it won’t.
Plenty of people still use made up handles and fake names, too. They use them in the bad parts of Internet town, where people don’t use their real names. File sharing web sites. Porn portals. Illicit IRC channels. Or they use aliases when they’re doing bad things, as occasional commenter firstname.lastname@example.org surely knows. Even in the good neighborhoods some people stay anonymous so they feel free to talk about sensitive subjects they might not otherwise feel able to (says the weight-loss blogger who kept her name pseudo-secret for years). I still use dummy information whenever I have to sign up for a news site before reading an article. Take that, New York Times online!
Still, we’re using our real names online more and more. It makes me wonder if the next generation will have different ideas about what should be private and not. How much will seem normal to know about each other ten years from now? I hear that in small towns everyone knows what’s going on in everyone else’s lives. It seems like the bigger the Internet grows, the smaller our cyber town is getting.