I remember Hackers, the awkward mid-90’s movie, fondly.
It represented a do-it-yourself future in which those who understood computers could game everyone else. And, for the most part it got that right. It also figured out that the hacker culture was going to drive an open source understanding of information and responsibility. We are all in this (online communities and privacy issues) collectively and no one person should wield too much power online. The part that it didn’t get right (and maybe it didn’t really attempt to) was the idea that we would all need handles to protect our identities (and to be cool). As one character put it:
I need a handle, man. I don't have an identity until I have a handle.
And with names like Crash Override, Acid Burn, Cereal Killer, and Lord Nikon how could you argue. Their handles, or usernames, seem to represent a time in which we couldn’t share things out in the open. It represented a time when social networks didn’t exist and all forums and chat were done in pseudo underground spaces that only those with access and interest could take part in. Grandmas (mostly) weren’t online posting pictures and blogging hadn’t happened yet. Usernames were the ways that we separated ourselves from “real life” because we could choose them. We didn’t have to worry about being ourselves because this was a world that rarely crossed over into people who were honest with one another about their true identities. The two spaces were separate and we liked them that way.
At the time of watching Hackers in 1995, my handle was The Atomic Angel. Seriously. I was convinced that it made me cooler and more respectable than just using my name to identify me. I used it on Bulletin Boards and in AOL chat. In short, I was awesome. And now, I look at what I use and it pales in comparison. I am Ben Wilkoff pretty much everywhere. Online and offline, I don’t have a single space that I am not completely me.
That is incredibly satisfying in some ways, but also a little terrifying. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not and I don’t have to splinter my personality for every given account or service I join. But, I can’t get away from my own identity either. There is no hiding from my history and my mistakes. I have to take responsibility for all of it. I also don’t have the choice to leave and remove myself. Google remembers me.
The username is dying because of Facebook. We are who we are on there. We can pretend, but it is hard to pretend an entire life. It is hard to fake pictures and videos and a network of people that you communicate with. We always end up just reverting to ourselves. We are people, not handles, not usernames.
We aren’t there completely, but with things like Google Profiles, Facebook Connect/Platform and Open ID, we will have a single login to rule them all. We will be able to share our network and our connections with every new application built upon the single authentication device. And when that happens, we will no longer be setting up new identities for each new thing that comes along. It will all be tied to a single name, our own. It isn’t the one we chose, but it is the one that we must use in this new space where we can’t hide behind a fictional character or absurd nome de plume.
Hackers didn’t get it quite right. I have an identity without a handle. Sometimes, though, I’m not sure I want the identity I’ve got.