July 24th, 2009

Remember last month when the world frantically scrambled to their grab their respective Facebook usernames/URLs? I for one had not just the date but the exact time the name free-for-all would start written down. It wasn’t that I was worried I wouldn’t get facebook.com/bonnieruberg (seeing as how the only other Bonnie Ruberg I’ve ever been able to track down recently retired from a long career as a janitor); it was the rush, the need to burst out of the gate with the rest of the known world, which seemed collectively convinced this would change everything.

Six weeks have passed, and it’s changed… nothing. Sure, Facebook profiles URLS are now more easily communicated, but that hasn’t changed the way I’m using the network, and I don’t know anyone for whom it has.

Well, to be fair, there is one thing the URL scramble has changed: the separation of online and offline identities. Follow me here, if you will. Instead of going with variations of their given names, lots of Facebook users chose to use their online handles. For those people, the switch has represented a conflation of their internet personalities with their real-life ones.

For example, instead of using “BonnieRuberg” I could have used “MyOwnVelouria.” My Facebook page, my most “realistic” online facsimile — itself a sort of avatar of me, with info about my work, photos of me getting married, comments from friends I’ve had since preschool — could be summed up under a username, an assumed identity, instead of my given one. And that’s, to be it simply, odd.

All this might seem like a moot point, since other social networking sites have had this feature for years, and in some ways it is. Facebook profiles still feature real-life names prominently, relinquishing usernames to an almost inconsequential string of characters in a URL. Still, the site has always put a strong emphasis on verification, on transparency, on the internet being a mirror for life, not the other way around. That usernames have now entered the picture signals not that Facebook is compromising its values, but that as a wired culture we’re thinking about identity differently.

We don’t play a role online, represented by a handle. We are that role. That’s us. Conversely, the version of ourselves we present to the internet, even our “real” selves as on Facebook, always has an element of performance. Our new URLs are simultaneously not us, and just as much us as any social networking profile could ever be.

Tags: avatars, Facebook, social networking

3 Responses to “On Facebook usernames and conflating identities”

  1. Chiaki Says:

    I didn’t think of facebook usernames this way. I always kept my facebook as a “for real life” network. I had my real name on there, the bulk of people I’m “friends” with are colleagues at my college or work, and the information I placed on it was mostly a live resume.

    Now I share a lot of photos that perhaps my employer shouldn’t be seeing, but I still kept facebook in a similar fasion.

    But I find this an interesting concept. Would you say that as we become more connected on the ephemeral world of cyber space, we’ll become as much our online counterparts as the people we are in real life?

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Would you say that as we become more connected on the ephemeral world of cyber space, we’ll become as much our online counterparts as the people we are in real life?

    Definitely. The question is, which form of ourselves are we adapting? Are they just blending? Are we shifting online to be more like we are in real life? Or are we allowing ourselves in real life to act more like we would online? In my experience, and maybe it’s just within my tech-centric group of friends, it actually seems to be the latter.

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