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There has been some recent contentiousness (well, ok, a minor discussion between maybe four people, but on Twitter, sometimes that can seem really loud) on the subject of authenticity and whether or not you’re obliged to use your own name /image for your social network identity to be considered truly real.

So it seemed like time to haul this post out of the recesses of my mind….

The reason for choosing a nonsensical user name and avatar for most of the social networking sites I use was clear and defined in the beginning. Now the waters have become a little murkier.

First up, while my username may not represent my full official moniker, it doesn’t signify a lack of authenticity: I’d argue the opposite. My given name might tell you about my gender, race…maybe my age and the aspirations of my parents, but it doesn’t give you any insight into who I really am (we are not all lucky enough to be christened something as beautiful and evocative as  this or this. Creating a persona /avatar/ username that represents something about you, or that you choose to be associated with  is actually more transparent still – you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve, setting an intention for your practice.

Inauthenticity occurs when you seek to obfuscate, deny or distance yourself from your username or content. I have my twitter name on my business cards; I attend tweet ups; I’m transparent about who I work for and what I do there…there is not a moment where I am inconsistent in on vs off line presence.  It’s utterly simplistic to insist on  people using photos in their profiles; as any Gaydar.com user will tell you, a hot pic guarantees nothing.

Online (or at least in text based communities) you are only as good as your word.

I consider it somewhat akin to a branding exercise.  Packaging oneself, what one stands for, one’s values etc. in a way that is attractive to the consumer is natural behaviour in an attention starved world (disclaimer – if that were literally true, you can call me a wanker and punch me in the face when next we meet – it’s really more of an analogy, ok?)

In the noisy world of online communities – or indeed the physical world, isn’t it better to use a name / slash ‘branded avatar’ that speaks of you and your values?  I’m pretty sure last time I drank a Coke, I didn’t think of the Schweppes Pty parent company…You?

I studied cyber utopianism at university and was enthralled by the notion of creating interactions that were not informed or prejudiced by gender, ethnicity, appearance and whatnot but directly through a meeting of minds. I was young, I was naïve, I was enthused by the egalitarianism of online communication…I was probably off my face.

But what freedom, what unfettered potential; to be unencumbered by our limited and immutable physical selves, to be able send one’s intellect soaring to dance among the stars.

The reality was a little different. My first experience using IRC in the late nineties (using a non gendered, non-culturally located handle) was that all conversations were either unutterably banal or sexually predatory.  Often both.

The gap between the potential and the actual was so large and so depressing that I abandoned all interest in online communities and went and lived exclusively in the real world for a while. It’s ok, I’m back now.  But that experience informed my usage of digital communities, causing me to choose a theoretically genderless avatar, avoid using my own name etc.  I simply didn’t anticipate how twitter would work – and neither did you, if you’re honest.

Have I changed my mind about this? Somewhat.  But as it stands, I’m not hearing a huge clamour of people demanding I change my username or picture (hat tip to www.twitter.com/firstdogonmoon) so I’m going with the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ option. If you disagree, you may implore me to take action via the comments forum, if you’re not Mark Pollard.

For your edification and delight, I thought I’d get down and dirty with a little semiotic analysis of the whole cat /tree thing.  Yeah, I know, always a crowd pleaser.
My idea was that the name and image were quirky/ funny/ surreal at first glance (denotation). In the second layer of meaning, ‘a cat in a tree seems’ like a comfortable juxtaposition but in fact connotes a disconnectedness; an animal outside its usual habitat.

“A fish out of water, a cat in a tree” conveys a sense of alienation. The symbolism of the tree implies a sense of spectatorship, detachment; perhaps even judgement – the cat looks down at you, the onlooker.  The cat’s inscrutability is softened by the absurdity of the suggestion that perhaps the cat is stuck. Fire brigades will be called; an undignified rescue attempt made; fur will fly.

Are you feeling it? Yeah, you love the cat!  Who’s with me? 😉

5 thoughts on “what’s in a name?

  1. Be whoever you want to be and call yourself anything you want. It’s part of who you are. I adore the cat! May she never change.

  2. “The reason for choosing a nonsensical user name and avatar for most of the social networking sites I use was clear and defined in the beginning.”

    Yep, agreed, especially in the early days of IRC & multiplayer gaming.

    However, now that social media is mainstream, our online nicknames can be a hindrance IRL settings. I have always used the handle ‘shor’ online, particularly in gaming circles. But in a professional setting, it did get awkward to introduce myself as ‘shor’ to a prospective employer, client or peer that doesn’t understand that back in the good ol’ days that’s how people named themselves.

    That being said, a unique and memorable username like acatinatree, graywolf or randfish (why do we SEOs love our animals?) can also help you standout from the crowd, so… each to their own!

  3. Pingback: 14 pretend-real Twitter ‘people’ to follow

  4. Pingback: the year of the cat | a cat in a tree

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