Online Identity

Maybe it’s a result of my unabashed geekdom, but I’m increasingly aware of how few of the people I grew up with seem to have embraced technology. While I’m sure they are still out there, it does seem sometimes as if most of them have dropped off the face of the planet. On the rare occasions that I meet up with anyone from school, I come away with the distinct impression that they are by and large rather unsure and worried about this newfangled interwebs thing…

This amuses me on several levels – not least of which is that home computing was in its birth throes just as I was growing up. I might therefore imagine that my generation might be more likely to have grabbed hold of and embraced computers and the online life that has grown up around us. Apparently not, even among those who showed an interest at the time.

At age eleven, my school had a couple of ZX81 computers in a fledgling computer lab, and at home we had a Dragon32 and later a BBC B micro that I played with and even tried to program on. My dad and I both had an interest in making these remarkable things work for us, and we pored over the BASIC manuals, swapping insights and working out ways that these strange things could be more than doorstops.

Then I fell out of involvement with computers as there weren’t any O levels or GCSEs at that point to take, and I ended up flirting with the on-line world when I got to university just as on-line MUDs and bulletin boards started to spring up. It wasn’t a huge part of life, but I remember it being significant enough that I adopted an on-line identity at the time that matched my tabletop D&D interests.

Not too long after I graduated and started to work, this strange thing called the Mosaic browser was released, and modems began to appear in the shops. My work place very reluctantly invested in one or two for individual machines about the time that I moved away from working on the library frontlines and into backroom systems support. I eventually got involved in writing web pages for people because I’d happened to pick up an HTML reference book and started to toy with files in my spare time. I worked a lot of evening shifts by this time, and was largely unsupervised, so finding ways to make HTML mark-up do interesting things was a good way to pass the time. I again started to have an occasional on-line identity, using nicknames and eventually a recurring name based on a character I’d made up for a series of doodles.

When I eventually arranged to have the internet at home, this on-line identity carried me along into all sorts of boards and chat rooms, but it became increasingly hard to leverage this nickname/handle into something professional. As a result I had to start running multiple email accounts and identities to cover professional and casual life and it all started to get a bit complicated, especially when those worlds intersected. Even then the debate about identities was starting to hot up, and on one memorable occasion I was threatened with a lawsuit over opinions stated in a private mailing list.

As my then-undiagnosed clinical depression grew into cyclothalmia, and I developed diabetes (talk about everything hitting at once),  life became very difficult and I largely withdrew from on-line life apart from using Facebook and continuing to dabble in playing EVE Online and using my professional email address to search for work.

The eventual path this brought me to was the beginning of writing to try and make ends meet. It forced me to make a number of decisions about my relationship with the on-line world. What this essentially boiled down to was that I needed to make a conscious decision to manage my on-line identity – reputation management as much as anything else – which is why I’ve thrown myself into trying to claim and be active on-line under my own name rather than using on-line nom-de-plumes. From Twitter to Tumblr I’ve been slowly claiming my name, or at least amending the details of things like my XBox Live identity to include my real name.

In part this accompanies work done while in therapy on owning the consequences of my own decisions and words, and in part it is a bit of brand management. I try generally not to say things I couldn’t live with seeing on the front page of a newspaper, for example. It’s not always easy and I trip every now and then, but its curiously satisfying. From a mental health point of view it also helps me keep a tight observation on my own behaviours and attitudes, giving me far less places to hide from myself.

If this sounds a brutal way to manage my own mental health, you’d be right, but it works for me. One of the ways that my initial deterioration went unchallenged was in having a hugely compartmentalised life, especially on-line. Removing those compartments now that I’m in a healthier place helps keeps me honest. It can be a scarily vulnerable place too, but I think it’s worth it.