Here’s a famous New Yorker cartoon:
I’ve always loved that quote, and toss it around like it’s a Little Person at an Irish bar in March. On the Internet, you see, you get a fresh start. Your zits, your second head, all that stuff are suddenly irrelevant to anyone reading your words. And it’s your words that count, right? The stuff that comes out of your head and how you present it to the world, which has no idea that you’re a monkey in a lab or my cat Sam typing on my computer while I’m at work. He’s surprisingly articulate for a housecat. In fact I dictated this post to him over the phone this afternoon. He’s a lovely, gorgeous specimen of feline grace, power and intellect. But I digress…
The idea that you are what you make of yourself, through the power of your intellect… gah! It’s life changing! America is famous for the idea that you can be whatever you want to be. But you still came from somewhere, you’re still pasty and weak, you’re still a Dangerous Young Black Male. You have to Overcome.
On the Internet none of that matters. Of course, some people have their sense of self so closely tied to some external “thing” that they have trouble breaking free. You meet them in a chat room, you’re on there as “joesmith99” and they’re “johndoe63” and five minutes later they call you racist… they’re still in their meatspace box. They need to let go and embrace the ether.
If you can keep your own head from falling into your offline past or present, you can have as many fresh starts as you want. You can be the new kid moving to town every day of the week if you want. You can even just wipe the slate clean without changing your identity– new name, same person, most people will get it and screw those who refuse to. You’ve turned over a new lease on life.
And you can pick whatever name you want! A login, a username, a handle, a screen name, if you’ve ever used old-school IRC it’s a “nick.” But you get to pick it. It’s not an alias, you’re not “Also Known As” this thing, it’s a New You. It didn’t have to come from some incident, it doesn’t have to reflect your physical body, you don’t have to be “Shorty” or “Red.” Hell I know a guy whose nick is “_”. It’s an empty shell with a name on it, waiting for you to fill it with whatever personality you choose. And if you screw up and fill it with a dickhead, you can kill it off like a guest star on CSI. Next week: Dennis Franz gets killed in a convoluted dog park insurance scam.
Growing up, nobody really called me “JB” and they certainly (*scoff*) never called me “A1phab3t.” Which is hard to pronounce in real life, if you’re not 1337 like me. So to most of my online peeps I’m JB, and infrequently (mostly on my other blog) “A1phie.”
In real life that nickname has started to creep in to my relations with people, mostly because I’ve integrated it into almost everything I do. My songwriting is as “The John Benjamin Band” or “The JBB.” The people I know from songwriting circles call me “JB” and when I meet them in person they naturally follow the nomenclature. And I like it.
Other people’s nicknames don’t stick quite so well, and we find ourselves referring to them by their “real” names instead of their online self-assigned nicknames. Maybe their nick is too long, like three words, or it’s too gross or we just don’t like it, or even, sometimes, we don’t like them. If you don’t care for someone, ignoring their chosen name is pretty snide. I know, I’ve done it. Buncha times. “I don’t like you, so I’m not going to call you that. I’m going to call you whatever the hell I want. Fuck you.”
Nicks also may not stick if you knew someone pre-nickname. People I knew before the Internet (there was such a time, remember? I kinda do… sorta… it’s fuzzy) call me John. People I meet now offline usually call me John too, unless we then meet people calling me JB and then it gets all confused you know how that goes. It’s easier for me because JB is my initials. It’s actually my name, so although I choose to be defined by it, I didn’t choose for those initials to exist. Unlike “A1phab3t.” Or “Spittoon.”
Yeah, one of my first nicknames was “Spittoon.” And when I used to carouse on the IRC in good old channel #FreeBar I was usually known as “Singrrr.” Because I sing, you know? But I’m not all wussy n’ shit, so you know I’m TOUGH with the “grrr” there you dig?
After having used the Web for a few years, it was interesting to discover that people could discern a difference in my personality from one nickname to the next. Specifically, when I was writing under the name “Spittoon” all of a sudden I was kind of a dick. My girlfriend at the time didn’t like it when I used that name. But I was Spittoon, so I didn’t care what she thought, she could just fuck off.
Whew, it’s easy to fall back into that persona. And that’s what it was, really. It’s an aggressive, ugly nickname, and it fed to those impulses. Like the impulse to fuckin’ swear, you know? I know that should my mother ever read this, she’ll inhale sharply and berate me for my potty mouth the next time I talk to her. But I’m Spittoon. I’m in character and the whole world can shove it!
Isn’t that beautiful? On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog pretending to be a high school principal. Nobody knows you’re a mousy housewife pretending to be a flirtatious young debutante. And yes, nobody knows you’re a damned 49-year-old man pretending to be a 16-year-old girl. I’m tired of that one.
But it does remind me of one of the few funny sketches Mark McKinney was in on Saturday Night Live during “That Year.” He’s this doofus chatting on the Internet one night, in his pajamas. He’s chatting with this old perv who keeps asking what he’s wearing. McKinney’s response every time: “My pajamas!” Eventually of course, there’s some twist at the end that I can’t remember. It was only funny for a few seconds in 1995.