In an ideal world, everyone would have a unique name. Identifying someone would be extremely easy because each person would have only one way to be referred to. Sadly, life doesn’t work like that. People have names, whether they be common or obscure. The odds that someone else goes by the same name as you are pretty high. In fact, there are 38 people with the same name as me. This means that on social media, it is almost impossible that your name is available to use as your handle, which in turn means you’ve got to get creative. Hoorah.
Picking a good username is a demanding process; choosing a name for yourself long before you know how the world works can be intimidating. My first encounter with choosing my own handle was when I created my first email account. It took ages, as I was working with a black-and-white Kindle, but I finally made my first email account: firstname.lastname@example.org, based on a pair of troublemakers from the “Ugly Dolls” universe. A strong start, as you can see.
A couple of years later, I had a chance to join Instagram, the prestige of social media back in 2013. Seeing as this was the first real public username everyone would associate with me for the rest of my life, it was pretty much my only chance to make a great username. I absolutely hate what I chose: @maxl2xe. I thought this was a clever arrangement, as Max is my first name, and Lee is my last name, which I cleverly represented as “l” 2 times “e”. Why I thought this was a good idea, I will never know, but nine years later that’s still what it is, as well as my Snapchat and Twitter (Yes I know I can change it, but I’m in too deep already). Personally, whenever people ask me for my username on these platforms, I type them out. I haven’t bothered changing them since seventh grade, but the embarrassment still lingers.
Most recently, I had a chance to select my uniqname as a student at the University of Michigan. This meant it had to be something classy and professional, as I thought I would be applying to jobs and communicating with professors (which I am still working on doing, Mom). I ended up choosing “maxclee,” which ultimately I am happy with, as my name remains recognizable.
So what does this all mean? Is this just a shameless plug? Probably, but I think there is a deeper implication of the evolution of my choices. Young and whimsical me chose my user name based off of something I loved. Angsty teen me chose something I thought was clever, and depressed adult me chose something that might improve my future. There’s a pretty clear correlation between how I viewed the world, how I wanted the world to view me, and what my name was on social media.
Looking at your past usernames is like looking at an old scrapbook, but instead of your mom making it, you get to — for better or for worse. It reminds me of the movie trope where teenagers having an emo phase cringe at it later in the movie when their parents show their significant other the pictures.
Just as scrapbooks show how you can physically change over time, a collection of your usernames represents your mind over time. When I was choosing my first email, thoughts of the future didn’t phase me. I didn’t ask myself: Will I be able to send my boss an email using this? It wasn’t important to me, not because I didn’t know any better, but because I had something I was really passionate about, and nothing else really mattered. After choosing my Instagram handle, did people really think I was clever? Absolutely not. Honestly, it just confused a lot of people, but it made me feel clever in a time where self-confidence was a rarity for me. No longer did I define myself by other things, but by other people. And finally, my U-M email is a culmination of my development into a functioning human being. It’s official, identifiable and something that looks toward the future.
This is my experience as a 20-year-old living in the age of social media. By no means am I the golden standard for handle choices, but I don’t have to be. In fact, everyone will have unique combinations and timings of their handles, because everyone changed and grew in distinct ways.
I think it’s important to note that I still use many of these accounts and names on occasion. I still get spam on my old email, I still use my age-old Instagram account and I still play on my Xbox Live account. To me, handles are much more than a collection of numbers and letters; they are a tracking of my history. Maybe one day I’ll just pick one and stick with it for the rest of my life, but that day won’t be for a while.
Usernames and people are always changing, and I’m not clever enough to come up with something I’d keep forever.
Daily Arts Writer Maxwell Lee can be reached at email@example.com.