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Your handle, yourself: On the Internet, no more reason to hide

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When services like Gmail offer only a meaningless set of digits to those who want to use their real names online, some have suggested using creative work-arounds like "thereal," "theoriginal" or "thetrue" to assert one's identity. (Screengrab from mail.google.com)

In the 1998 box office hit “You’ve Got Mail,” the anonymous screen names of Meg Ryan (Shopgirl) and Tom Hanks (NY152) turned unwitting foes into paramours, giving Americans their first dose of a digital-age romantic comedy.

Early AOL users may chuckle now at that signature dial-up modem din: a strung-out chorus of pings and bleeps interrupted by the fuzz of static and white noise. And these days, handles like Shopgirl and NY152 seem so, well, 1998.

More than 10 years later, Internet handles are practically second to one’s identity. They signal our arrival in e-mail inboxes and can often be the first impression we make. User names of yore—college-era holdovers or an inscrutable series of computer-generated numbers tacked on to one’s login—are increasingly frowned upon as unprofessional and frivolous.

Though the World Wide Web is still littered with aliases and anonymous monikers, today’s tech-savvy users have shunned going incognito and are signing on with their real names. As the Internet has evolved into a crucial professional, socializing and marketing tool, it has also created an imperative to be oneself online.

“Your real name tells people, ‘I want you to take me seriously,’” says Mike Gaines, a software engineer who co-hosts a podcast about social media. One’s real name is not only easier to recall, it also connotes accountability. Early Internet users were mostly of the hacker variety and had reason to hide behind code names.

These days, using one’s real name can alleviate suspicions that a spammer lurks behind a seemingly nonsensical string of letters and numbers. A recent analysis of more than 1.7 million Twitter profiles by Internet marketing company HubSpot counted 59 followers for the average user. That number dropped to 47 when the user name included an underscore and down to 29 when numbers were used. Underscores and numbers can also carry the stigma of being a latecomer to the digital age, according to the book “Twitter Revolution.”

For Joe Cascio, who began on Yahoo as “jc091447” in 2000 and evolved to “joec0914” when he signed up for Gmail in 2006, Twitter was the impetus to abandon a decades-old alias comprising his initials and birthday digits. “I noticed people weren’t getting the handle right,” says Cascio, a software developer from Stonington, Conn., and he was missing out on his Twitter messages. He ditched his cyborg-like handle and is now registered under his real name.

“It was this kind of gradual process of becoming yourself,” Cascio says. “JC could be Johnny Carson, Jesus Christ,” he says of his old formula. It also recalled a nameless and faceless “bot” or “some kind of a droid that works for IBM,” he says. Now anytime Cascio joins something new, he makes sure to sign up as “joecascio.” Corporations like Comcast are doing it too, allowing their employees to blog or Twitter as themselves, eschewing the ethos of the nameless corporate identity.

Though there may not be a flood of Joe Cascios rushing to register on domains across the Web, not everyone is so lucky to snatch up their given names. For years Mike Volpe’s nom de Internet was “mvolpe70.” It originated in the AOL days, when “all the names were taken,” Volpe says. But having those double digits appended to his user name wasn’t so bad. It was his jersey number in the glory days of college football, and “mvolpe70” was always his for the taking whenever there was a new account to sign up for.

“It didn’t really matter, because e-mail addresses didn’t replace your name,” Volpe says. That is, until two years ago, when he got on Twitter. “People start to call you by your Twitter name,” says Volpe, vice president for inbound marketing at HubSpot in Boston. He’s now simply “mvolpe.”

“ ‘Mikevolpe’ wasn’t available,” Volpe gripes when recalling his identity change. Someone beat him to it. “I’ve actually tried to contact him,” Volpe says of his digital doppelgänger. “I’m looking at whoever it is. He only has 13 followers, and he hasn’t updated since October 2008,” he says with a hint of exasperation.

Michael Gray, an Internet marketer from Long Island, New York, says choosing a handle wisely can also be a pre-emptive strategy to securing your established handle as Web sites proliferate. Gray’s virtual nickname is graywolf, which he has been using since high school and now represents his personal brand online. Graywolf is not just a nickname but also his recognizable cyber identity.

Though pseudonyms were preferable in the early days of the Internet for reasons that still apply—in order to gripe freely without being identified, out of safety concerns and to prevent identity theft—a shift from anonymity to accountability indicates that these days people want to be found.

“I personally don’t see why you shouldn’t be yourself,” says David Pogue, New York Times tech columnist, in an e-mail. He even wrestled “DavidPogue” back from an impostor on Twitter. “I always use my own name as my handle. If you have nothing to hide, why not?”

Christine Cavalier, a freelance writer from Philadelphia and one of Gaines’ podcast co-hosts, took that idea further.

“How is your long-lost cousin going to know what your user name is?” Cavalier says—not to mention old friends, employers looking to hire and even potential love interests.

“If you don’t want to be connected to anybody ever again or any group whatsoever, if you’re totally antisocial, don’t go on the Internet,” Cavalier says.

Staking claim to one’s Internet identity is so crucial that Volpe’s taking it into consideration for his progeny. Though not currently expecting, Volpe knows that when he and his wife settle on a name for their yet unborn child, he “will register everything for the kid.”

“My wife will kill me for saying this,” he says. “If we ever have kids, I’ll only name them something if the domain name is available.”

E-mail: jct2136@columbia.edu