When I set up my first Xbox Live account years ago, I made the questionable decision to do so under my own name. Having heard stories of virtual abuse in online games, I naïvely imagined that the choice would keep me—and maybe those I planned to interact with—honest. I quickly learned the error of my ways when one of my teenage antagonists on Halo 3 put a bullet in my avatar’s head. “Jacob Brogan,” he hissed, voice cracking, as he dashed past my still-twitching digital corpse. Moments later, his teammates joined in, repeating my name like an asynchronous chorus of cantankerous bullfrogs: Jacob Brogan. Jacob Brogan. Jacob Brogan. Jacob Brogan.
Chastened, I logged off and immediately changed my screen name to Gift0fD3ath, or some variant thereon. This had the advantage of seeming vaguely badass while also referencing the title of a minor Jacques Derrida book, lending it a faint whiff of inexplicably reassuring pretension. It wasn’t concern for my safety that inspired this change so much as my sense of shame. If I was going to be this bad at these games (and I was), I imagined it was best to do so anonymously.
In the internet’s early days—whether because of fears about privacy or a vague sense of embarrassment—we assumed monikers that drew a line between our online selves and our “real life” selves. As was the case for the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa—who wrote under an array of “heteronyms,” imbuing each with a personality and literary style of its own—our mirror selves gave us the freedom to play, even if we weren’t feeling playful.
When Slate’s Dana Stevens—herself an erstwhile scholar of Pessoa—first began to write about film on her blog, the High Sign, she did so under the name Liz Penn, an alter ego that helped her distinguish her new work from the academic studies she was then completing. “The reason that film blog took off is I discovered a different voice because I was writing behind a mask,” Stevens told me recently. Years later, when preparing for a Culture Gabfest segment on Twitter, she would reappropriate the name of her blog to create her first and only handle on the site—@thehighsign.
“I assumed that I would hate Twitter and wouldn’t use it for long. As a salute to my old self, I took the High Sign as my screen name,” Stevens said, before immediately adding, “As you know, I became addicted to Twitter.”
Though her real name appears beside her handle on the site, Stevens still tweets from @thehighsign, even though people have advised her that it would be better to use her own name exclusively. As she puts it, “It was too dear to me to change it. I like it better than my old name.” It also maintains a suggestive resonance for her: A high sign is, she says, “a coded bit of language between people that exchanges information.”
Many of our early screen names similarly promised the comforts of community, even in unfamiliar rooms. As our lives have grown increasingly digital, however, that function—along with the sense of awkward shame that necessitated it—has faded. Our assumed names have also begun to disappear, often with the assistance of the companies that rose up in the intervening years: Though Facebook’s “authentic name” policy is often criticized—especially by the company’s trans users—it has also taught us to expect that the people we meet online will be who they say they are. Twitter, meanwhile, remains blessedly replete with secretive weirdoes, but many of its most popular personalities are celebrities and journalists who’ve used the service to amplify their public identities.
Here and there—on Reddit, 4chan, Tumblr, gaming platforms, and their ilk—older norms of pseudonymity persist. But on much of the mainstream web, screen names linger only as a sort of distant echo of the ways we once were when we first went online. Screen names, especially on services such as Twitter where most no longer use them, increasingly feel like half-remembered dreams. Like all dreams, they are dense objects—“overdetermined,” as Freud would put it, with often conflicting currents of information. Sometimes our handle on one service makes its way to another. The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion, for example, told me that he’d ported his Twitter handle, @netw3rk, over from Xbox Live, and that he’d kept it for the sake of “branding.”
Like Stevens, writer Rebecca Schuman’s primary handle—she tweets from @pankisseskafka—echoes the title of a blog that she’d begun long before she created her Twitter account. The name itself is not, she told me, a reference “to the goat-god fellow,” but rather to a line from a Mr. Show sketch in which David Cross hits Bob Odenkirk with a pan while exclaiming, “Pan kisses you!” She chose it because of what it signaled, she said: “I was 26 at the time, and it was very important to me that everyone know how sophisticated my comedy tastes were.” Today, comedy nerds have mostly moved on, and Schuman blogs less about Kafka than she once did, but, like Concepcion, she maintains the moniker out of a concern that not “enough people are invested in the Schuman Brand to start following @rebeccaschuman950 or whatever.”
For others, an eccentric screen name can be still more like a frozen moment, an artifact from one’s own digital past. Sometimes we stick with them precisely because the internet moves on too fast for us to keep up: Slate’s Ruth Graham started tweeting as @publicroad—a Walt Whitman allusion—in 2009 when she was planning a solo road trip across the United States. “A few years into tweeting, when it was starting to become more important for me professionally, I noodled around to try to find something more straightforward,” she told me. “But by that point I would have to settle for something hideous like ‘RGraham927.’ So I just stuck with what I had.”
The 25-year-old comedian Demi Adejuyigbe, who tweets as @electrolemon, explained in an email that he had chosen the name when he was in sixth grade. “I’d noticed a trend amongst the coolest of my friends where their AIM screen names were something food related,” he wrote. “I wanted to be cool, so I copied that—and came up with ‘electro lemon.’ Don’t know why, really.” When the cool kids abandoned the trend soon after, Adejuyigbe stuck with it for fear that they would think he was copying them again.
AOL Instant Messenger, now in its twilight days, was the source of screen names for many others as well. In a recent article about the service, Slate’s Henry Grabar writes, “The girls I knew in high school still call me by my first AIM screenname, ‘henbod,’ whose origin story is, I assure you, even more embarrassing than it sounds.” (He still declines to share those details with his colleagues, though he recently admitted to me that it was a Calvin and Hobbes reference.) Meanwhile, the technology writer Clive Thompson settled on his own eccentric moniker, @pomeranian99, when writing about AIM in 1999, as he once explained to Alexis Madrigal.
“I kept using Pomeranian99 for every service as it came along,” Thompson told me. On Instagram, he says, it regularly inspires Pomeranian owners to follow him, and though he doesn’t have one of his own, he follows them back. “Some of it is path dependence. There’s a part of me now that wishes I was just CliveThompson. I’ll probably go to my grave as Pomeranian99. Whatever post-singularity, chip-in-my-brain social network that we’re living with, I’ll be Pomeranian99.”
There are advantages to a silly screen name, of course. As Thompson knows, they can be disarming, but there’s also, he suggests, a kind of wit embedded in them. That’s not true for all of us, though: Former FBI Director James Comey—whose once-secret virtual presence had been dug up months ago—recently changed his Twitter handle from the merely suggestive @FormerBu to the more recognizable @Comey. I, for my own part, long ago abandoned my own first humiliating screen name, borrowed from a powerful wizard in the game Magic Candle 2.
In one way or another, all screen names are embarrassing, perhaps because we often chose them before we knew what we were doing. They expose us to our naiveté, reminding us that we were once the kind of people who talked about “surfing the web” without irony. Where they may have once armored us against our former uncertainty about the internet, today they unveil it. Even when they seem to hide who we are, they tell our stories, reminding us that we have not always been the people we now claim to be.