Every time I go to a blog to leave a comment, this pops up: "choose an identity," and every time I read it, I can't help but think how often people do just that on the internet: choose an identity. The internet allows for constant reinvention. It lets people be anonymous, and to therefore say whatever they please without facing real-world consequences for their words.
It can be liberating and exhilarating to do just that--choose an identity. Sometimes, our real lives are constraining; we are unable to express beliefs and opinions openly because we face rejection, scorn, or worse: ostracizing. Choosing a nom de plume to do one's writing under is a way of expressing opinions that family members, friends, and community members might give us a hard time about in the real world.
Going online, choosing an alternative identity, can allow us to say what we really mean, be who we really are. Sure, we face other people attacking us, but they're attacking our online personas, not who we are in real life. There's a buffer there that protects us, distances us, from the rhetoric. We can, if we're smart enough, even refuse to read our critics--it's the most expedient way of not having to deal with other people's crap (especially if they choose to be surreptitious on their own blogs). It's a whole lot easier, though, when they flat out tell us, like I had one commenter at Science 2.0, they've written a whole post criticizing us. We can just not go look. We are under no obligation to engage anyone and everyone on the internet. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to not engage, especially if nothing productive can happen. Not much comes from pissing matches other than using up our time--after all, we can always play Angry Birds if we want to waste our time.
I'm not suggesting, however, that we should avoid all criticism of our writings, as it can be very productive and illuminating to consider other people's takes on our thoughts and ideas because it's only when we are willing to consider other points of view that we can put our own views through the rigor required to see our own biases. Meaningful dialogue and the acceptance that people can hold very different beliefs while still working together on common interests is so important--it allows us to build a larger community and a bigger in-group. We can refuse to pay attention to those things that would place these allies as the out-group. For example, people who believe in vaccine-injury as a potential cause of autism can work arm-in-arm with those who don't believe that to be likely on common goals like eliminating abuse and restraint in schools and institutions, in creating legislative changes that support therapies being covered by insurance, or in working to create viable job training programs and independent living facilities. Just as we can and do all "choose an identity," we can choose who our community members are and how we define our priorities, and depending on the circumstances and the issues, we can always redefine our communities.
Being anonymous or pseudonymous can also let us try on different personalities, reinvent ourselves, cast those aside when we tire of them, and move on to new identities, new personalities and new experiences. I've been around long enough online to see that happen a few times, and to even enjoy reading the reinventions and trying to deduce if a new "character" was in fact someone known to me. Kathleen and I had a blast creating Stink Creek three years ago and Thelma and Louise and writing in the various voices of the Stink Creek citizens, but we always knew they were fictional constructs and made sure to provide winks and nudges to readers from the start. The most fun was had in being both ourselves and the Stink Creek characters in the same posts or exchanges. We even held chats, each of us with two computers so we could do the chats simultaneously. There's nothing like being ribald women of advanced age to make a gal forget her own troubles or at least look at them in a new light. That and the raccoon and the chickens and priapism in elderly gentlemen; I've never laughed or had so much fun as when Kathleen and I were writing the Stink Creek stories.
So there's definitely something positive about choosing a persona and allowing a buffer between us and others as a way to express controversial or even unwelcome ideas. There is a downside, too, though, I think, in that it is so easy to discard a persona and move on when things get too hot to handle.
I started on the internet with my real name, connected to my real world activities, and it's forced accountability over the years that a pseudonym would not have. It's caused problems at times, but, on the whole, I wouldn't have it any other way. You get the real deal--and I hope that there's a great deal of consistency between what I write and what I say in the real world--for example, I wouldn't write anything I wouldn't want a student (or one of my children) to see, or my mother and father, for that matter.
There's something to be said for authenticity--as much as there is for choosing an identity. For the most part, although sometimes I long to do just that--to choose an (other) identity-- I settle for being me, whoever that really is, and instead tinker with my identity by changing hair color and styles like some people online choose identities.
So, some days that means you get a me with long, curly burgundy hair.
And sometimes you get mermaid hair.
Sometimes it's purple!
And some days you get me just as I am, with no fancy colors or styles.
So whatever it is you personally choose to do, whether it's to write under your own name, a pseudonym, or go anonymous (or all three), here's to finding an identity that makes you happy and whole and a community that provides you the support and kinship we all need.