My Dear Mr. Duk

Voice Card  -  Volume 21  -  John Card Number 3  -  Fri, Aug 30, 1991 5:02 PM

This is a response to VC 21 Paul 5 ("AOL data")...

Alert Archipelagoans will no doubt be wondering why Paul signed his fifth card "P King Duk." As it turns out, there is a logical explanation for this odd behavior. This summer Paul joined Betsy and me on the America Online (AOL) computer network. In honor of the occasion, I took the liberty of designing a kind of letterhead or banner for our dear Mr. Duk (shown at left).

The issue of screennames (and aliases in general) is an interesting one. When joining a network like America Online, everyone must first assume a ten character screenname. This name will appear in all public room transcripts and e-mail messages; it is the name by which each member is known and will also create a first impression in each new online encounter. An important decision, and a telling one!

I have observed that the screennames in America Online fall into three basic categories: computer-assigned names like Member3045, actual names like JohnCartan, and aliases like P King Duk.

The first category is not particularly interesting. Due to an unfortunate bug in the initialization procedure, many people have trouble choosing a name for themselves and so let the computer choose one for them. Such names say little about the person behind them, and are often discarded after the person learns to choose his own name.

In choosing a name, the first critical decision is whether to adapt your real name, or to devise an alias. Do you come to the party as yourself, or do you wear a costume? I gave this matter a lot of thought long before I joined AOL. I decided to come as myself for two reasons.

First, I hoped to make some professional contacts through the modem and using a "straight" name seemed more, well, professional. The second (and more important) reason was that I wanted to send a message of openness and self-confidence. I wanted to say, in effect, "Here I am, warts and all. What you see is what you get." Using my real name is like personally signing every utterance in a public room. It's an act of faith and trust that I hope will elicit trust in my listeners.

I do not mean to suggest, however, that aliases are only for the cowardly or sneaky. There are many legitimate reasons for choosing an alias. Many women find it prudent to disguise their full name or even their gender. Although quite rare, there are a few nuts loose in the online community who will fixate on a woman and try to track her down. And even the harmless attempts to "hit" on a woman can become annoying; many public rooms assume a singles bar kind of atmosphere with men circling around the women like sharks. Women who grow tired of this can greatly alleviate the problem by simply choosing a sexually neutral alias.

Some members maintain a whole "closet" full of screennames, and use different names for different situations. An alias enhances the intoxicating anonymity of online interactions. It can be fun to disguise yourself. Men can assume female names and hang out in the "Women only" room, or vice versa. And with an alias you can have conversations with friends (and enemies) without them realizing who you REALLY are.

Many members choose aliases for their shock value or as a way of getting attention. There are a lot of very funny screennames out there, so it's hard to really get noticed. Those who wish to flirt may gain an important headstart by choosing a flirtatious name like "LacyGarter" or "TallnDark."

Other members use screennames to advertise their personal interests. A trekkie might choose an obscure name from the Star Trek series, like "Sarek" (Spock's father). Dungeons & Dragons players may use their favorite character names, usually something involving a princess or wizard or orge. Some adopt the name that evokes their favorite rock star. And some, with an interest in, say, oriental cooking, may choose a name like P King Duk.

In choosing aliases, many people reveal more about themselves than they may intend. I can often (but not always!) estimate a person's age and level of sophistication by the name (s)he chooses. Crude people tend to select crude screennames.

But enough of this. I will close with a list of typical screennames. I assembled this list by simply stopping for a moment in the Lobby and sweeping my mouse over the names of whoever happened to be there at the moment. So this is a random (and not particularly interesting) list, but it should give you some idea of what kind of screennames are out there:

  • AllTimeHi
  • JohnCartan
  • Dolphid
  • Michae1963
  • EULA1
  • Minty
  • MasterXXX
  • Montecruz
  • Yes 4ever
  • Bymyhand
  • Twink6
  • JosephP68
  • Procyon
  • Jimlaw
  • Quickbird
  • IC Gerry
  • NoClass Jr
  • JerryType
  • Beethoven2
  • RandyB27
  • Clarence6