What’s in a (user)name?


Like most students, I’m no stranger to procrastination; it can be incredibly hard knuckling down to one task when there’s just so much interesting stuff out there. One morning not so long ago, I was finding it particularly difficult to focus. I’d already checked my emails, caught up with the latest news (via both the BBC and Facebook) and ‘spent’ an impressive £300 I didn’t have browsing on ASOS. I knew I should be starting my assignment, but no. Instead, I told myself ‘just a couple more minutes’ and turned to one of the most dangerous sites known to modern procrastinators: Youtube.

In my defence, I wasn’t intending to just trawl aimlessly through videos of animals looking cute and people making fools of themselves. I was simply going to log into my account, check my stats, and log out again. However, when I logged in and found (much to my amazement) that I’d topped 1,000 subscribers, my plan went out the window. 1,000 people, all interested in my videos! I had to take a closer look.

As I scrolled through my list of followers, I found myself thinking more and more about the usernames people had chosen. What did they say about their owners? Was ‘John123’* really just an average, slightly unimaginative bloke called John? (Quite possibly.) Was ‘catwoman23’ really the batty old lady with 23 cats who immediately popped into my head? (Perhaps not.) Names ranged from fairly unremarkable to a bit quirky to just plain bizarre, but they always, always seemed to cause me to make some sort of general assumptions about character. And those assumptions fascinated me.

Offline, we have relatively little control over our names. But online, we are given chance after chance to come up with our very own label. Pretty much every major website seems to require a username in some form or another, and in choosing that short combination of characters, we’re influencing the way we are going to be seen.

On sites like Youtube, most people won’t suffer any real harm from posting under a slightly questionable username. Okay, so a more outlandish choice might spark the odd curious/bemused/witty comment from a fellow user, but as long as it’s not offensive, it’s unlikely to cause any real problems. Elsewhere, though, and a username might be really quite significant. Take ebay, for example. Common items can be listed by hundreds of different people, all competing for business. When prices and ratings are comparable, how do you choose where to go? Personally, I look at the names. Whoever I get the best vibe from, I buy from.

It’s quite frightening, really. There are so many possibilities, and even subtle variations might prompt very different judgements. What makes it even more complicated is that it’s all so subjective. A name that sounds clever to one person might make another immediately conclude, ‘try-hard’. A more fun, playful name might seem plain childish to somebody else. It’s impossible to know how much or in what ways our usernames influence other people, but it’s worth thinking about. They may not seem like much, but at the end of the day we’ve singled out those specific combinations of characters to represent ourselves. As with all our language choices, it would be foolish to think that they don’t have any consequences.


*All usernames in this post are fictitious and are not intended to bear any resemblance to real online users.