Gone are the days of a/s/l

2:27:00 PM

One of the early virtues of the Web back before its widespread adoption was the notion that you could be anything or anyone. That is, it was somewhat understood that you could represent yourself in whatever form you pleased. 

In 1990, your best bet for a social Web were text-based chat rooms. Even when AOL was emerging, it was likely your identity was crafted out of your screen name rather than your personality. My first screen name, "elo," was chosen simply because I liked how the letters sounded together. I found out as time went on that using the screen name repeatedly by way of forging an online brand for myself in the rooms that I should have been a fan of the Electric Light Orchestra. Those were the folks - fans as well - who were drawn to engaging in chat with me. When I replied "Huh?" it was a conversation breaker.

It was some years later that I finally listened to the music I had been assumed to champion. Thankfully, I had already noted that any future screen names should try to capture my essence a little better. "Elo" was not me - not in the slightest.

In the "Hot Tub" chat room, it was not uncommon to get asked a sizzling question: "a/s/l?" That was short-hand for age, sex, location. Most of the time, I answered truthfully, and the calls to my screen name at the time had me idle in the chat room i.e. no one cared to chat with a dude. The techie ladies - the presumed minority demographic - were too busy clamoring with the roosters' calls to pay me any mind. I timed out of the chat room scene, and a common refrain those days from my buddies was wondering if the "sexy" photo that was e-mailed after a particularly salacious private chat was a real representation of a new found cyber love affair. The ones sent by my buddies to their online partners certainly weren't.

In one, final stab at trying to get a buzz - just one good gab where I (with a capital "I") was the center of the room; the life of the party ... I checked into a room called something like "Hot Sex" with a screen name that had "grl" in it (back in 1993 when AOL was paid for by the minute over a 24k connection). Behold! the question came almost instantly - a/s/l? -, and I replied to it saying that I was a buxom teenage girl from France or Sweden or someplace exotic like that. The hot and bothered geeks were vying to have me reply, and I was, for better lack of a word, a capable, transgender cyber sex partner. I got into character and rather guiltlessly got their keyboards all gluey with insinuations of an erotic journey. The ecstasy was punctuated by odd ASCII characters, and I promptly logged off when telephone numbers were to be exchanged.

Even screen names were disposable back then. It was the wild, wild west of the world wide web. A chat room was kind of like some ugly rendezvous at the back-stall of some out of the way truck stop on the information super highway; didn't matter who or what the deed happened with, just that the conversation went on. Imaginations were ablaze. Those were the days, I suppose.

Today that anonymity or misrepresentability has, for lack of a better term, become civilized. Since participation in the social Web includes adding gender, location and age as part of the sign-up process, nothing short of a concerted campaign to create and sustain an alter ego - one that will post updates with a fair amount of consistency and have a back-story that matches the message - is going to make anyone a believer of that online personality. And who has time for that anyway if you want your "real" identity to get it's fair shake of connection to friends and family through these tools?

To a degree, those days of vetting indiscriminately are over. God forbid a real-time Web search reveal a compromising set of comments linked to your Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Google and so on's screen name. Your online identity and screen name is, truly, an extension of your real life relationship with friends, employers and the world-at-large. Opprobrium and disgrace in the real world are certainly a civilizing force to what was once a free-for-all of what you might be able to be in cyber-space.

These days you might be able to get by with a flattering photo of yourself taken five years ago as your profile image, only to be betrayed by a friend's "mobile upload" of last-weekend's BBQ. You were tagged in it. Identity revealed.

Forget privacy issues and who or what agency is tracking you online, my friends. Every status update is a paper trail that can't get shredded, and heaven help those whose social sphere is flagged for a thorough investigation by any sort of agent.

Truth of the matter is, if you don't regard your online activities as an extension of your "public self" (whatever that may mean to you) then whatever you say or do can and will be used against you by someone whose opinion you care about sooner or later.

The only privacy left these days are all those wonderful, haunting ideas and visions that remain, respectfully, shut in one's mind.

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