The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Alias Anonymous

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for almost two years, and one of the first people I met here was Jack. We became Twitter friends when I started following his blog, and when I relocated from Los Angeles a couple of months afterward, Jack invited me to my first Brooklyn-roof barbecue. I arrived at his place and Jack gave me a hug and put a drink in my hand. I sat in the sun sipping a cocktail, and Jack introduced me to the couple sitting opposite me, two of his oldest friends. When our host wandered away, one of the couple asked, “So how do you know Erech?” Who?

 Oh. Duh. Jack is a pseudonym. I smiled on the outside but I felt stupid and vulnerable. He’s protecting his privacy. I got it, but I didn’t appreciate it. I wondered: what am I doing at this guy’s house; he never even told me his name.

But the more people I met, the more people I encountered who used aliases. I know a consultant who made an anagram of her name and acted out a different gender role, not on stage but in everyday life. Fueled by curiosity, she performed social experiments with people she encountered on the street.

Culture is evolving in a way that makes all of us public figures faster than we can adjust to the floodlights from databases programmed never to forget us. We are all in plain sight with nowhere to hide, and the new paradigm has tangled us up in questions about identity that lack simple answers. Striving to balance a need for expression with the erosion of our privacy, the solutions are as paradoxical as they are logical. To create a second or even a third self is now a way to maintain integrity—and bloggers lie in hopes of facilitating honest communication.

As subcultures go, hackers and street artists tend to be even more cautious than bloggers about protecting their “real names.” I imagine it would be glamorous to be a grown-up with a secret identity, like realizing a childhood dream to join a family of superheroes. But to me, it also seems like it could quickly become exhausting.
For instance, I went to an art opening in SoHo a couple of months ago. Kesting/Ray was packed for a show of Robyn Hasty’s work. When I arrived, my friend QRST was getting out of a taxi with one of the guys from ASVP, an art collective whose stickers and posters blanket Brooklyn and Manhattan. The party was overflowing onto the sidewalk and many of the artists who attended have names that are more recognizable than their faces, like Gaia, who gave me a “do I know her/does she know me?” glance. I saw street-artist Elle, whom I recognized from Facebook. I introduced myself. She said hello to me and to the guy from ASVP.

Through the window I saw my friend, the artist Gilf!, standing near a huge cut-paper artwork by Imminent Disaster. I squeezed through the crowded space to ask if she could point out Robyn Hasty to me. I introduced Gilf! and QRST to each other by first names. Each nodded and said hello politely. I was puzzled: they knew each other’s work, had exchanged emails. Oh. I looked from one to the other and said, “QRST, this is Gilf!” “Hello!” they said again. And a conversation began.

After a few minutes I went outside, where Gaia was talking with a girl I know, Rhiannon. I think she uses an alias, but she hasn’t told me what it is yet. I introduced her to QRST and both wore the same blank expressions, until I reintroduced them mentioning his two aliases. “Oh!” she said, “I just emailed you this week!” Then she turned to the artist from ASVP and said cautiously, “You look familiar…do I know you?”

I sometimes feel like the only person I know who doesn’t have a second self. I care about my privacy too, but I guess I care more about the privacy of my personal data than I care about creating a history-free version of myself.
For instance, I’m stubborn when I visit a website that “requires” me to provide personal information before I can interact with it. I can’t imagine entering a store and being asked for my mother’s maiden name before I’m permitted to buy something. Sometimes I offer misinformation: my previous phone number, a friend’s birthday. My passive-aggressive hope is that when all the data about me eventually aggregates into a giant clump of terabytes, no one will really know anything.

In my ideal world, private information is private—shared voluntarily, when necessary, at mydiscretion. Like new lovers revealing old stories to each other: slowly, and with context. But this is not the world we live in, especially when it comes to dating. In our post-ironic, Google-saturated world, dating may be the best argument yet for creating an alias.

A search engine is like the bratty older sister who tattles to your date about your other dates while you’re in the bathroom. Or gives away your age, your occupation, confides how often you changed majors, and shows him pictures of your bad-hair days. All of them.

When the question comes up on a date, “What do you do?,” we’re about two exchanges away from the bratty sister’s entrance. “I write about personal experiences,” I say. It then occurs to my date that a “personal experience” is basically what I am having at that moment. With him. If he hasn’t already, he probably makes a mental note to Google me. When he does, sometimes Google tattles on him with information it collects about visitors to my website.

Once a date tried to negotiate privacy rights, along these lines: “Promise you’ll never write about me…unless you don’t use my name…but then if you want stories to write about, ask me. I have tons of stories. You just can’t use my name. Maybe we could sign something.” I struggled to focus on the shape of his mouth or the form underneath the fabric of his shirt, but after contract talks started, the mood was gone.

Dating is a process of choosing when and how much to reveal yourself to someone else, so I really don’t want a bratty sister around. Even if a date is intrigued by what he learns secondhand, sifting through random debris scattered around the Internet is a poor substitute for quid-pro-quo personal disclosures that can be intimate, like a private striptease.

Ironically, the more common it becomes to communicate “openly” via public networks, the greater the lengths we go to preserve a core of privacy, to shield what’s sacred in ourselves from the very overexposure we are creating. Social media has exacerbated the tug-of-war between a need for privacy and a longing to express ourselves in a community.

But what is the end, to which separate selves are a new means? If someone creates a persona, is the alias the “real” self, kept protected and pure so we can express ourselves truthfully? Or is the alias just another mask we construct that flattens a fully realized, fully flawed human into a one-dimensional platform? Is an alias the “real” person, or just the superhero costume?

 I talked with a friend who started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings recently. He met a well-known street artist at one of the meetings, and I came up in their conversation. The artist was someone I’ve never met, my friend said. I was flattered, yet the one-way mirror of his gossipy remark was a little unsettling. “What did you talk about? Who was it?” I wanted to know. I wasn’t expecting to discover the person’s “real” name. I assumed I would only recognize the artist’s alias anyway. Or was that the real name?
“I can’t tell you,” my friend replied, protecting even the alias. “A.A. is confidential.”

I was annoyed at first, but resigned myself to letting it remain a mystery. After all, I just remembered I used an alias, too. Only once. But I can’t tell you where.


Robin Grearson


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues