Well, not really. As far as I know, I cannot physically wake up one day and end up with a totally different face and body, and a totally different identity (as much as the whole body swapping thing happens in the movies), nor can I suddenly introduce myself with a different name than my own and expect to avoid strange looks from my friends.
But if, say, I went to someplace far from where I live now, a place that I didn’t recognize anyone in, and nobody recognized me in. I could theoretically craft up a whole new identity for myself, a new name, new hobbies, and new associations, and essentially become a different person. In practice, there are always official papers and documentation tying us to our identities, and so it is difficult, if not impossible, to just disappear off the face of the Earth and come back as someone totally new. Even so, most people aren’t going to do extensive background checks on everyone they meet, so given a new name and a foreign land, it is entirely possible for me to generally assume a new identity.
And then there’s the internet. Which, to me, always seems a bit like a distant land that I am always a part of. The internet has been known as an anonymous place; there are no faces there to identify people with, and the names we use on the various sites we frequent do not have to coincide with the names our friends call us in real life. Instead, we’re often identified with our usernames and our avatars, which can be whatever text and image that we decide to represent ourselves as.
Throughout the various forums and sites I’ve visited, I’ve managed to use at least four different usernames. If I counted chats, then even more. I’ve even, on one occasion, been mistaken for someone else who frequented similar sites – just because of the name I’d used.
Names are, in a sense, very powerful words. People give names to their children and their work, organizations and companies spend thousands of dollars on brand identity…when a name becomes famous enough, it gets its own set of associations and implications. Especially on the internet, where we do not have a face (usually) to match to a name, the names we use become the entirety of our identities.
But then, what is the purpose of having an identity? Identities are never really for ourselves, but rather for the people around us. My friends and my peers use my name far more often than I ever will. The people around me use my name and my face to distinguish me from other people, much like how the people on the internet use usernames and avatars to distinguish individuals.
Identities serve another purpose, too: to determine when words or actions were said and done by a single individual (or entity), or multiple people. By writing all of my pieces under the name of Adam Lung, I associate the work with myself. Apple brands all of its products with its name to assure customers that the same company is producing the product, that the quality and build of each item is to the standards that the company exacts. We have identities to claim ownership, to make sure that what is ours is credited as being ours, and so that people can recognize that we are the same people that they know, and not someone totally different.
Ultimately, we are defined by how others perceive us. It is just that online, we can always start over and get a new first impression. By using a different name, and a different avatar, I can become a totally different person; for the typical browser, there will be no way to confirm that Adam is the same person as trueAlias or Arigon, or whatever other name I’ve managed to use over the years.
And, on that same note, it can be very easy to be more real under the relative safety of the web, simply because identity is so easy to change there. Mistakes are permanent, words are never deleted, but they won’t even be associated with the author if his or her identity becomes something else entirely. Maybe this fluidity of identity can inspire creativity, as people can take risks or express themselves in ways that they might not wish to associate with themselves too closely – although I’m not exactly qualified to speak on that subject, nor do I believe that that is always a good thing.*
I have just come to realize: I can be so many people, but at the same time, I can only be myself. I just use my various identities on the internet to figure out what kind of person I am offline. They are all different identities, but all unmistakably mine.