While researching ideas for my website, I read a number of blog posts where authors had written about the importance of maintaining personal websites instead of existing entirely within the walled gardens of social media networks. You've probably heard some of the reasons: the preservation of the small web, room for personal creativity in visual and UX design (however "bad"), not being subject to the whims of network censorship, writing practice, etc. I had known going into this endeavor that these were important to me. What I felt was missing from the posts I read, though, and what I was particularly interested in, was commentary on the nature of web authors' identities as conveyed by their personal websites.
The UX of the larger social networks tends to encourage the use of one's real-world identity by nature of the connections they facilitate with other users and by the types of content users can share. I don't have data to back this up, but I would hazard a guess that real-world identities make up the majority of active user accounts on big social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But the personal websites I browsed seemed to be more evenly split between presenting the authors' real-world identities and chosen pseudonyms (even accounting for obvious self-identifying content). As I thought about the prospect of my own website, the question emerged of how I should identify myself in this published, public space.
Social media and real-world identity
I'll not try to paint myself as some Internet OG, but I've been around long enough to remember a time when the norm in joining communities and being social online was not necessarily focused on revealing who you really were. When I first got online in the late '90s, topic based forums and chat rooms were prevalent. To participate, you simply needed to register an available username and start posting. There was nothing about the UX that incentivized you to reveal who you really were. In fact, I would say that it was preferable not to. Joining an online community was in a way like going to college; you had a fresh start and could craft an identity almost from scratch.
I also remember the beginnings of the current form of the web with its focus on social networks and the use of real-world identities that they promote. When Facebook started expanding beyond the Ivy League .edu domains into other universities, it soon came to mine. There was a buzz about Facebook among my fellow students unlike there had been for anything else online. Even AIM, which many of us had used extensively in high school (to a lesser extent at college), hadn't ever generated so much interest. I was skeptical of Facebook specifically because it asked that users identify as themselves and not a pseudonym. But for others, this was part of the attraction. Facebook pulled our collegiate social lives onto the Internet where we were spending more and more time anyway due to academic work. It functioned as a natural extension of the self.
I succumbed to the pressure to join Facebook but eventually gave it up in the late 2000s. It just didn't represent the side of the Internet that I felt most comfortable inhabiting. The identities of others that I interacted with weren't simply leveraged for interesting conversations. They came to represent lifestyles I was jealous of. I felt anxiety about connecting with enough of them. I had FOMO if I didn't check in regularly. I hated the stress of curating just the right content that I knew would reflect on my real-world self.
I don't think I have to explain what Facebook has become in the years since and why the way it's operated can be problematic at best. The same goes for Twitter, Instagram, Nextdoor, and other social networks where people directly expose their real-world identities and then battle with the forces of advertising, news/update feeds, politically opposite acquaintances, bullies, etc. Participation in these networks without revealing yourself can be tough. Rich media such as photos, video, and voice now makes it harder than ever to establish an online identity without leaving an obvious trail of breadcrumbs back to your real-world identity. To be sure, there are other networks that don't actively encourage the use of true identities, but these tend not to be as magnetic to people in general (Reddit being a possible exception). I think it's safe to say that, at this point, most people primarily present on the Internet as themselves.
The value of a pseudonym
It is, of course, still possible to maintain relative anonymity online through the use of a pseudonym and corresponding identity. Since my website is going to focus partly on video game emulation, I want to highlight an example from that world: byuu. If you're unfamiliar, byuu is/was a prolific emulator developer intent on achieving perfectly accurate software emulation of the SNES. Besides spearheading the development of bsnes and later higan, the benchmarks against which SNES emulation has come to be measured, he wrote eloquently and extensively about the importance of striving for emulator accuracy. A couple of months ago, byuu said his goodbyes as he abandoned his longstanding online identity. Though he was somewhat notorious for dramatics and had made attempts to leave the scene in the past, including a recent switch to the pseudonym Near, it appears as if this time he truly intends to go.
byuu had been bullied and harassed, apparently for political views and lifestyle preferences besides philosophical disagreements regarding emulation that he had engaged in during his 20+ years of activity. It's a shame that byuu felt he had to call it quits (to say nothing of the shitty people who pushed him towards the edge), but one of my reasons for bringing him up is that he was somebody who combined the type of singular online identity that modern social networks encourage with the type of fragmented, community-specific, and interest-focused identities more common of the late '90s and early 2000s. A huge portion of the glue holding his identity together across multiple parts of the Internet was his personal website.
I went back and forth for years on the idea of starting my own website/blog. At first I conceived of it as something to aid my professional development, but I became worried that maintaining it would feel too much like an obligation. I didn't want to get stuck writing about my industry all the time; I have other interests that don't pay the bills but matter just as much to me, if not more so. On the other hand, I never had to question whether I'd tie my real-world identity to a professionally focused website. Ultimately, I decided that LinkedIn already serves the professional purpose. That and it's the one social network I can't pragmatically avoid.
If I were to build a space where I could express my interests and thoughts plainly, I had to consider the risks to my real-world identity. What if I expressed political preferences? Would clients take me seriously if they knew I was a gamer? What if I wanted to write about my emotional state? How much swearing could I get away with? Etc., etc. But with an Internet-specific identity I wouldn't have to worry so much about all that, right? I could still reveal my real-world identity to people I trust, but to most I would simply remain my pseudonym.
This brings me back to byuu. As unfortunate as it is that he felt he had to quit his identity, the key point is that he could. To most who crossed paths with him in the emulation community, read his articles in Ars Technica and elsewhere, used his emulators, and browsed his website, he was simply byuu. He definitely sacrificed a lot of social capital by ditching his identity, but I suspect he's relieved not to be haunted by it in real life as a teenager bullied on Facebook might be. He has a chance to start over and build a new online self, to fragment himself among multiple communities, or to escape the social scenes of the Internet entirely. That's the value of a pseudonym.
Update July 16, 2021: Please see my reflection on byuu's death as an addendum to the above.
What I'm after
So why the website and why identify myself as zcal? Well, both the site and the identity bridge my existing participation across a number of services/networks/forums. The site provides a place for me to pull together thoughts that would be inappropriate for, unappreciated in, or get lost in the shuffle of other forums. I can actively play a part in the small web, which I think is really important. Perhaps I'll connect with a few more people to share ideas with. And I mean, even with a pseudonym, doesn't everybody want to be famous?