Oh no, it’s another 90s nostalgia think piece about the Internet! Yeah, I apologize in advance. But as an older millenial, I can’t help a certain fascination with how we used to construct our online identities, and how we do it today. There’s at least some claim now to truth or authenticity in the construction of the digital self, but I think it’s still a veneer–and interesting to consider the merits of either approach.
When I first became a digital citizen, back in the halcyon old days of AOL chat rooms, it was relatively common to operate under a pseudonym online. Screenames were rarely someone’s legal name, and I’m pretty sure at least 75% of the social internet was lying about their age. But also, you didn’t expect people to be truthful. There were enough security concerns that using your real name on the Internet seemed sort of stupid, and so it felt less like you were “lying” if you changed details about yourself, and more like you were telling a story.
In the early 2010s, I briefly dated someone I met online and was warned by a mutual friend that they’d constructed certain parts of their identity and represented themselves as someone they were not for many years online. While I was wary of certain things about this person, I couldn’t actually blame them very harshly for the invented details of their life. After all, they’d started building this persona in the early 90s, and as it traveled with them, the standards for truth-telling online had changed. I don’t think that many of us actually maintained a single identity online for 20 years–I could see how it would be awkward to backpedal and announce “yes, so actually, all these things about me are false, and here’s who I really am! Surprise!” Since they’d let their persona travel with them, they’d also become a bit trapped by changing expectations and had left the window for graceful transition over to a “real life” identity.
These days, we’re expected to “be ourselves” online, with many platforms adopting (terrible) “real name policies,” but of course these versions of ourselves are still something of a fiction. We post our best moments, present the parts of our lives that are for public consumption, and aren’t seen as deceitfully “hiding” if there are some things about us that remain private. The line between “lying” and “constructing a personal brand” isn’t actually all that concrete.
I think I got a lot out of being able to come of age on an Internet that didn’t expect all this realness. My parents certainly didn’t know what I was getting up to online, but that allowed me to explore my identity and make my own mistakes. I didn’t need to build a personal brand that would follow me into adulthood–in fact, I don’t even remember most of my early screenames. There’s probably some really bad boyband fanfiction still hosted somewhere that thankfully has no connection whatsoever to my real name, and while writing that crap was an important refuge at the time, I’m glad that it doesn’t haunt me into the present. That style of Internetting also offered a refuge for those recovering from trauma, looking to explore different gender identities, or hoping to escape an abusive situation. And while you can certainly re-invent yourself online now, I think the expectation that you “are who you say you are” makes this here series of tubes a very different place.