Saturday, June 05, 2004

Mistaken Identity

You can say one thing about your name: it’s yours and unlikely to change. True, you can adopt a new one it if you wish. It might be for religious reasons, as in the case of Cassius Clay becoming Mohammed Ali. It might be appropriate for artistic purposes: witness Frederick Austerlitz becoming Fred Astaire. Or maybe family situations could have an impact: when Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner had a kid, they called him Leslie Lynch King, Jr. But a divorce and a remarriage later, and his name was changed to the one he is more well-known by, Gerald R. Ford, Jr.

And yet, while your friends and associates might know you by the label that your parents gave you, it’s no longer good enough in this interconnected globe. That’s because the proliferation of email has led to each of us having to choose another handle by which to be identified. And while the simplest approach might be to simply replicate your existing monogram, it’s not always possible.

That’s because unlike in the real world, where there can be a thousand people by the name of “Alice” or “Bill,” the nature of the internet is that everyone has to have a unique address. Otherwise, there would be no way for all those Viagra ads and mortgage offers to find you. And so while the first people to sign up were able to go with the names that were on their grade school diplomas, the rest have had to assume a nom de net. (Not to brag or anything, but as one who was early to the party, I was able to stake my claim to the very straightforward and simple Yes, I know that that and $3.25 will get me a tall decafe latte at Starbucks, but you have to take pride where you can.)

Additionally, the nature of the beast is that people shift email suppliers on a regular basis as they find a better service or a better price. But once they sign on with a new company, they find that the easy, good names are all taken up. Test it for yourself: go to any internet service provider offering you an account, and try and register. Odds are pretty good that the first 5 screen names you try to use will already be in use. The system will, however, return some helpful suggestions: Dave167X, Susan3298 or Mathew32AB. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t they?

And so people resort to using pseudonyms in their personnel correspondence that means something to them. That’s why you find when goes home and goes online, he morphs into TennisGuy40. Likewise, you find bankers named DogLady and sales executives known as KindaKrazy. It makes it all seem sometimes that you’re exchanging emails with the fraternity from Animal House.

The flip side of this situation is that having an alter ego might actually be a good thing. While it would surely be simpler to have one way to be identified, the very nature of cruising the internet calls out for a shield to hide behind in the form of an alias. That way you can go where you wish to go, and not give away any more of your personal data than you want. And in a climate where identity theft is said to affect nearly 5% of the population, with losses exceeding $5 billion, that’s not a bad idea.

The problem comes in that it’s tough to keep track of who you say you are, and even harder for those with whom you want to stay in touch. Even if your homies know you as SugarSweety at one place, when you shift over to your new broadband connection, you may find that someone else has gotten there first. And so you have to come up with a new moniker, and communicate it to your circle. Unfortunately, if you don’t do it before you make the switch, there’s a good chance that spam filters will kick out your announcement to your friends… and so they will never know that the GitarMan of yesterday is the RockAnnimal of today.

That was the situation I was confronted on the receiving side. As I was working online recently, at least half a dozen times a little bell went off, and a notice popped onto my screen. It seems that I was being approached to have an instant message session with someone called JerzyGrl345.

Now, not recognizing the name, and having been the target of many a scam, all of which I dodged, I wasn’t stupid enough to say yes. So I dismissed it and went on with my business. A few weeks later, the same approach ensued, followed by the same soon after that. On the last occasion, I was surrounded by some coworkers. I called their attention to it. One laughed, and commented, “It’s probably a hooker. Make sure you respond with your credit card number!”

Turned out to be my 11-year-old niece.

Her folks had switched internet providers, upgrading to a high speed connection. But true to form, all the obvious names had been spoken for. So when Jen tried to get “Jen” or some obvious variation for herself, nothing was available. She opted for the very grown-up JerzyGrl345, and passed the word onto her friends… but forgot to tell me. And so I confused my pint-sized relation with the Olsen Twins poster on her wall for a $100-an-hour call girl.

Jen was mad at me for snubbing her and calling her a hooker, though she’s gotten over it. And now I know that an exchange with JerzyGrl345 is more likely to be about who won “American Idol” than about sex. I’ll put her on my buddy list… but unless I want the same to happen to me, I have to remember to tell her that I’m contemplating changing my own handle to CuddlyBear99.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can barely remember his own name, let alone those he uses online. He has a printed list to help. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.