A Brief History of Who I’m Not

Cheeseburger Brown, self-portrait

I keep trying to trace this affliction. It goes further than I forget.

When did I first start to un-use my name?

(This is me speaking – the author, the actor, the liar – whatever it is I do. Don’t be confused. This isn’t an installment in a multi-part serial; this is just my life.)

Our story starts with impossible blue. Impossible blue is a hue near indigo which, to some people, seems to scintillate or glow weirdly when seen in the world. Sensitivity to impossible blue is rare in my experience, but I have encountered a handful of individuals other than myself who notice this effect. To the vast majority of observers impossible blue is not optically remarkable.

As a mild synaesthete the perception of impossible blue can sometimes trigger in me a feeling halfway between taste and smell and just around the block from sound. I didn’t know about synaesthesia when I was a kid, but I did know it was cool when your brain did weird things. For a time the colour obsessed me – unmixable, indescribable, unworldly.

Now I’m being frank when I tell you that when I was a kid I was a spaz (and when I say “was” I mean that ambitiously). I wanted to connect with impossible blue by wearing it, but no such clothing existed. In my search, however, I came upon the next best thing: fluorescence. And so, as a young spaz, I took to wearing only fluorescent clothing.

Four paragraphs in I get to the point: when I switched schools nobody bothered to learn my name – they just called me “Mr. Fluorescent.”

I liked that. It tickled me for some reason. I really didn’t see any need to supply them with a better name. I enjoyed being recognized in the halls, and never having to introduce myself.

(If you’re socially impaired, never having to introduce yourself can be a sweet, sweet narcotic.)

That heady feeling wore off when I tried to sign my schoolwork with my new moniker. The fourth-grade teacher was not impressed. She said nicknames weren’t appropriate outside of recess. She said it was disrespectful, and also intimated that being called Mr. Fluorescent was beneath my dignity.

I sank lower in my desk and set to work erasing.

Mr. Fluorescent died then and there. I told the other kids to call me “Matthew.” The big guys who used to give me high-fives in the corridor now just chased me around and tried to beat me up at recess, just like they did to all the other spazzes. My use of fluorescent clothing ebbed.

In the seventh grade a friend of mine I’ve referred to previously as Rockstar founded an alternative student paper at our alternative school. Instead of rallying school spirit or reporting on upcoming events or transmitting messages from the principal, Rockstar’s yellow journal dealt in gossip, slander, amusing lies and outright malarkey. For obvious reasons, those of us who wrote for him did not credit ourselves with our proper names.

Rockstar’s dad was the mayor. We photocopied and stapled the newspapers together at his office a few blocks away from the school, in order to remain covert. Neither the school faculty nor the city taxpayers were ever any the wiser.

We could print what we wished with impunity. We mocked, we razzed, we poked. Satire profited from anonymity not only because we could escape consequences for what we wrote, but also because the targets of our fun wouldn’t hesitate to speak in front of us.

I wrote under the pen name “Mr. Naked.”

Mr. Naked died when the newspaper died when the alternative school rotted out from under us because our teachers all got AIDS or quit or whatever and Rockstar’s dad wisely transferred him to a more stable institution. (I would hold out there for some months further before being expelled for unrelated mischief.)

In the ninth grade I undertook the production of a grand satirical film with an unmanageably large cast, an unfinished script and very little idea what I was doing. My primary objective for the project was to end up dating one of the girls in the cast. The final result was the loss of my virginity and a terrible, terrible movie.

I credited Mr. Naked with the screenplay and direction. I don’t really know why. It wasn’t that I wanted to Alan Smithee it – that is, I wasn’t driven to hide my part in the production. I was such an idiot I actually thought it was pretty funny and also watchable (neither of which were true). When people asked me why my name wasn’t on it I didn’t have a good answer. The question embarrassed me. I blushed and mumbled something evasive.

Who was Mr. Naked, and why did he want to lay claim to my work?

I didn’t know.

For a while after that I used my proper name for my writing and paintings. I created a memetic brand by incorporating all of my middle names into an unwieldy name-train whose form was always recognized if not its content. “You’re that guy with the really long name,” people might say to me at a student art exhibit.

I’d nod. “That’s me.”

It was preferable to me to be known as “that guy with the really long name” rather than be called “Michael” or “Mark” as is the inexplicable fate of many people who share my given name. Though it isn’t an unfamiliar one, by and large people seem to prefer the alternatives.

“That’s a very interesting painting, Martin.”

“Thanks.”

(It also baffles me how the general public struggles with my surname, despite it being phonetic, not uncommon and only two syllables long. For some unfathomable reason getting it right is beyond the power of most mortal human beings outside of my family. The most common modifications are pluralizing it or adding the unwarranted suffix “-way.”)

I should tell another story at this point, before I go on. I should tell you about how my father has one of those given names that is tricky and Celtic and thus reliably misparsed by nearly everyone. When he became irritated by this he used to take his brother’s fake name, and tell people to call him “Kenny Baxter.”

For example, one of my father’s early music recording companies listed Ken Baxter as a member of the board, in order to fill out the roster and make the outfit seem like a going concern.

Time was his brother used this alias for various purposes including but not limited to practical jokes, prank telephone calls, discreet hotel reservations and evading justice. Its origins are unknown to me. He used to call long-distance in a funny voice and tell me to tell my dad that “Ken called, looking for Ken.”

Anybody could be Ken. My uncle was Ken. If he was talking to you, you were Ken. Kenny Baxter was a shared cloak for any interested party.

When the Internet became popular my dad explained to me that people used “handles” like truckers on the citizen band, and so his first email account was in the name of Ken Baxter. When I moved out to Nova Scotia I registered at my local ISP and wrote home under that name, too.

Dear Kenny,

Did you know there are pictures of naked people on the World Wide Web?

Yours in Christ,

Ken

When the Web started to become more interactive many sites began asking for named accounts. I tried to register on Slashdot so I could make my various witty remarks available to a larger audience, but it seemed like every handle in the universe had beat me to the punch. In frustration I typed random words into the text field and hit the submit button repeatedly until something finally stuck: I would post as “Cheeseburger Blue.”

Then I forgot the password and I couldn’t guess it, so I had to register a new account as “Cheeseburger Brown.”

It was the early noughties, and Rusty Foster’s Scoop content management software was helping to turn the Web into a bi-directional conversation where content was generated by and moderated by the users themselves instead of simply consumed from established content providers. Sites like Kuro5hin, Satanosphere and Adequacy provided a platform where one could “weblog” for free to an audience larger than an unadvertised personal home page was ever likely to attract, with little or no editorial interference.

Pseudonyms were an entrenched part of the culture on those sites. Partly this was because of many users’ roots in the heavily pseudonymed Usenet space, but also because using your real name meant risking the receipt of real world mischief from trolls and/or the mentally ill (the populations of both groups being very high on Scoop sites).

I also had a third reason, personally. I was writing stories drawn from life and using a pen name helped avoid certain complications.

You see, everyone remembers events differently. Memory has notoriously poor fidelity coupled with a very convincing sense of verisimilitude, the net result of which being that everybody tends to think that their own recollections are much more accurate and trustworthy than they really are. Furthermore, in order to be a compelling yarn sometimes certain elements of a story have to be purposefully reworked.

What this means is that if you write stories from life under your own name, you get a lot of grief from people burning to tell you how you got everything wrong.

They were often indignant and righteous, their principles of absolute honesty and integrity stung when they felt they had been associated with poor behaviour they disavowed or having said stupid things they’re sure they never said — though, curiously, these same scruples remained untriggered when the person was associated with impressive deeds or hilarious sayings that were not their own. (In the final analysis, integrity in storytelling only seems to matter when people feel slighted by it.)

I also wrote about my contract jobs as a freelance commercial artist, detailing the absurdities of the studios I worked in and the industry in general. This was yet another argument for continuing to ascribe my output to Mr. Brown. (For instance, I wouldn’t want that leather-skinned bitch at Cuppa Coffee Studios knowing I called her a leather-skinned bitch, because she probably wouldn’t hire me anymore.)

In 2005 I started writing my semi-demi-famous satirical romp The Darth Side on Hulver’s Site under the auspices of Cheeseburger Brown, and so when I moved the series to its own blog and got Slashdotted the relationship between my science-fiction work and Mr. Brown was pretty much cemented. Riding that wave of visibility, it would have been unthinkable to start my next project — a serialized novel called Simon of Space — under any different brand.

Five years ago I registered CHEESEBURGERBROWN.COM, and have been posting my stories, essays and articles at that domain ever since. By this name I can be followed on Twitter or friended on Facebook. My entire body of work can be easily Bung.

But it’s a different Web now. Again.

Fledgling social nerd network Google+ has renewed the debate over cybernyms versus legal names online after a spate of high-profile account suspensions. Some countries have even considered writing anti-anonymity clauses into law. There’s talk of validated accounts and electronic passports and all sorts of other schemes designed to unswervingly associate one’s online words, music, pictures, purchases, comments and videos with the identity of a real world citizen.

The long and the short of it is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to operate under an alias.

I’m not a whistleblower standing up to a corrupt government or business. I’m not a victim of sexual assault. I’m not a repressed minority and I don’t espouse politically controversial views. I’m not blogging in contravention of my religious or community standards. I have access to no exclusive leaks. I am not the husband of a public figure or civil servant. I have not, to date, been a target for mob justice.

Basically, any of the really principled defenses of anonymity don’t apply to me.

So why am I still Cheeseburger Brown? Is my pitifully-eroded PageRank score worth the trouble of maintaining this identity?

I don’t know.

I don’t know in part because I don’t know why I was ever Mr. Fluorescent or Mr. Naked or Mr. Baxter. I don’t know why artists who create through constructed personas fascinate me. I don’t know why I find my own name – inoffensive as it is – so distasteful to use. Really, there’s nothing wrong with it other than people’s total inability to recall it correctly.

“I quite enjoyed your latest article, Marcel. Some day the name ‘Henningway’ will be famous!”

“You’re sweet for saying so.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I’m far too obscure an artist to make a credible case for clinging onto my cybernym brand, but I also find myself unwilling to let it go. Once a year or so I waffle over the issue of rebranding under my legal name, fail to reach a conclusion, then forget about it for a while. I suppose I’m only weighing the issue again now because of Google+ and the worry that a suspended profile might also impact my access to Gmail and Blogger. Erring on the side of caution, Cheeseburger Brown has opted out of Google’s new game.

Of course, even if I do decide one day to assassinate Mr. Brown it’s clear there are a few chores he has yet to complete before retirement, principally the completion of The Secret Mathematic. This task is well underway. Perhaps when all is said and posted I’ll find myself mulling over this topic once more.

Do any of you readers still employ a cybernym? If so, why? What do you think of the trend toward Internet presence tied to legal identity? Is it a panacea for online obnoxiousness or just another way to sell our details to marketers?

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. John says:

    I have written books as John F.X. Sundman, John Compton Sundman and John Damien Sundman; in each of those the “John Sundman” states explicitly or implicitly that at least one of the other two is a fraud or a fiction. The whole Hoftstadterian subtext of my work seems to be “what constitutes a self?” In one sense, that’s all I ever write about.

    On a cool listserv I’m on, a debate recently raged about Google+ and the real names/nym/pseudo/etc issues surrounding it. It went on for a long time, had many participants (not including me) and got quite heated. Eventually the “list mom” (Keith Dawson of TBTF & /. fame) shut down the thread with the comment “identity is fractal”.

    I liked that line so much that that I wrote to him that I was appropriating it for my next book. He answered that the line originally came from a friend a few decades ago, when the topic was abortion. Curiously enough, abortion & identity was the subject of my first, short conversation with Douglas Hofstadter, when we chatted briefly at a reception following a reading at Tufts in 1980.

  2. Helen says:

    I’ve followed much the same path of Internet pseudonymity, except that I developed several online personas originating in MUDs, then took the most blank-slate-like one of them all when I made the leap to the Web. (That name had some remarkably good Google-juice for a while, due entirely to the power of Scoop sites and through no effort of my own, until both my declining activity on such sites and the rise of a certain language in the Goog’s index pushed me down to the level of obscurity I deserve.)

    My real name is common enough that even if some Google Ad claims “We found Helen Michaud” it probably doesn’t have the right one. (Although I suffered through people wanting to pluralize my maiden name, maybe because of a certain series of riots in the ’60s. I find the fact that people have trouble pronouncing my name a useful tool for detecting telemarketers.)

    I too have wavered between enjoying a certain anonymity in my Internet activities due to the constellation of pseudonyms trailing behind me and wondering if I shouldn’t claim some of the artifacts of those activities. At some point I encountered Chris Messina’s argument for using real names and that made it more of a conscious decision for me — real name or nom de plume? — each time I created an account or commented on a blog. I can’t say that I have a methodology for answering that question in a way that’s more consistent than a coin flip, though. And in many of the places where I maintain a pseudonym I’ve become pretty open about my real identity. (This is also due in no small part to having met people from those communities and attaching real identities to their previously virtual personas; for bonus points, ask John what my answer was when I first met him and bought a copy of Acts from him and he asked “To whom should I inscribe it?”) For me I find that I go back and forth between being weary of having to choose between identities and being glad to have a stable of handles that I can slip into.

    In closing, I dunno. I’ve been wavering on G+ for many reasons, of which their name policy is probably the least significant.

    Also, John: I like “identity is fractal” very much. When you’re done with it, can I steal it too?

  3. Let’s all steal it together!

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