Friday 12 August 2011

A Brief History of Who I'm Not

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.”


(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,

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?


Sheik Yerbouti said...

I think internet pseudonyms are an infantile cry for attention, and I certainly would never use one.

pso said...

I like both "Cheeseburger Brown" and "MFDH" - I like their irreverence. When fully spelled out, your name sounds a bit pretentious to my ear.

But, I'll happily take the next chapter of the secret mathematic by any name :)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik Yerbouti,

I am shocked to learn after all these years that you are not necessarily a middle eastern oil prince of some kind. I am disappointed, because I thought maybe if you died you'd leave me a fancy car or an island.

Not that I wished you any ill will, of course. Though I really could use an island.

If you did give me an island I'd move there with my family and undertake an earnest but ultimately futile attempt to sculpt a trouble-proof utopia where people are decent to one another and hot dogs don't give you ass cancer. There, we would see out the rougher parts of history while also refining various arts, like lovemaking and physics. Later, after the golden era, my secret police would smash down your door at midnight and put a bag over your head you seditious treasonous rat. How dare you speak against the island? You'll work off that revolutionary attitude in the coconut mines!

On second thought, please do not give me an island.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear pso,

So far as using the entire train goes, I wouldn't go back to it. Looking back now, I'm not even sure why I thought my name needed just gussying up. Teenagers are weird (and I can say that now because I am quite perfectly normal, unweird and properly well adjusted in every way as a mature adult and person who has no outstanding parking tickets at this time).

Your handle always makes me think of "Psst!", as if you've always got a secret. Whatever you're saying, it's discreet. I mean, there are no capitals. That implies a certain calm.

In contrast, I think when we are not imagining that Sheik Yerbouti as a middle eastern oil prince we must imagine him dancing. Or at least jiggling. In motion, at any rate. Posterially, if nowhere else.

In real life I have a problem with names. In real life I'd look you in the eye but I'd rarely succeed in using your name. I know using names is important, but still I seize. Isn't that funny? Names.

Cheesebungler Bruin

Zach said...

Names are a funny thing. I'm using my real name here, which links back to my real identity and personal webpage. However, other places I use a pseudonym which I have been using online since the early 90's. I couldn't tell you why I use one or the other, except that it depends on which one feels more appropriate.

I think the sense of dishonesty comes from the worry that people are using multiple accounts to interact with the same services. While I sometimes use a particular pseudonym, I would never dream of interacting with the same group under a different pseudonym. I was trying to articulate why that is to my decidedly non-technical therapist and not having much luck, beyond the question of honesty and integrity.

Maybe that's what it really comes down to. People believe that if you force people to use their real name, they will be forced to have honesty and integrity. Mark Zuckerberg has said as much, when he said that the use of anything but your legal name shows a lack of integrity. However, I believe there is room for pseudonyms and integrity, and that someone who has built a reputation around their pseudonym has more integrity than someone operating under their real name for the first time.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

B-league hockey team, or Yogi Bear's inept apprentice?

BTW, CBB (PDQ) -- you may be amused to learn that the only reason I joined Google+ was because I didn't want to seem rude by ignoring your invitation. Now people keep adding me to circles; it's rather dizzying. I think I'll hop a private plane to my fifth-best island to recuperate.

Tolomea said...

I think I agree with Zach.

There are differing usages of pseudonyms. And they have differing interactions with notions of honesty.

The most benign is just an alternative handle to the same person, this is what Tolomea is to me, there is no one who is aware of Tolomea and Gordon who isn't also well aware of the fact that they are both the same person. One name or the other is more appropriate in certain situations, but they are essentially interchangeable and it is easy enough to find Gordon given only the name Tolomea. I see nothing dishonest in any of that.

Then there's pseudonyms for the purpose anonymity. I think there is still value in this, we do not live in a society where it is acceptable to speak openly and honestly on all subjects. Is speaking honestly while hiding your identity always less honest than not speaking out of fear of the consequences? If you can't provide a compelling argument to that effect then you have to grant that there may be value in anonymity.

And then there are pseudonyms for the explicit purpose of multiple participation. The ability to interact with someone as two different people without them knowing the two people are really the same person. This I'm a lot more dubious about, I find it hard to conceive of a reason why you would want to that that isn't inherently dishonest.

Also I realise there are cases where the second and third overlap, it's a question of intent.

Bridget said...

I've had a few cybernyms. They came with the Usenet and MUD/MUSH territory of the Early Years (tm). A few years back, I stopped using them. At a certain point, I decided that since anything I ever posted on the internet could, in theory, be around forever in some way, archived by some misguided yet well-meaning cyber-archivist, and that someone, somewhere could always link it back to me if they tried hard enough. Therefore, whatever I posted should be something I am content to say to anyone in person, including my parents, family, co-workers, friends and any other potential future acquaintances.

That made cybernyms more of a pain than a help for my already addled brain. I was beginning to lose track of what name I used where, so I pretty much said, "Fuck it." It wasn't a matter of wanting to use my real name for 'integrity' - I just couldn't keep track of shit, so I simplified. Marketers can do whatever they want with my 'details'. They have them all anyhow. I suspect Columbia Record House made sure of that in the 80s. Visa and Mastercard have surely taken care of whatever remnants of 'personal detail privacy' I ever had.

I have no issue with people using cybernyms, of course. I don't because I mostly can't be bothered. Although I've often said if I ever published a non-academic work, I would do it under my maiden name rather than my married name. I like the sound of it better.

Of course, this means I don't always post what I'm really thinking. Also, I do my best to be just uninteresting enough to not attract the kind of attention one might want to use a cybernym for.

I've made one exception to this. I maintain an pseudonym on one site, where I occasionally post stories which I like to think don't suck as badly as most of the things posted there. But then 1) I don't really care if it sucks or not enough to solicit opinions from people who don't use pseudonyms themselves, and 2) I recognize that there is always a chance that, should I become suddenly (in)famous, my identity could be quickly uncovered.

I mean, hey, I've *watched* MI-5. They can find out whatever shit they want about anyone these days, right?

*shrug* Que cera, cera.

Should you decide to kill off Mr. Brown some day, I will raise a drink to him, and then continue reading whatever you publish, no matter what name you publish it under. Providing I know it's you, of course. I will look for you on the same shelf as Hemmingway.

Ross said...

All of my online gaming identities are CBB characters. Pish was a gnome rogue many years ago, and Simon enjoys first-person shooters as well as minecrafting.

I use my real name for non-game related things, like email and skype. It seems weird to communicate with people I know using anything other than my actual name.

My habit of using CBB characters as identities makes posting here something of a dilemma.

Anonymous said...

Anonymity is beautiful, especially for the free exploration of ideas. is where it is at.

Mark said...

I never blogged anonymously, but sometimes wish I had. I was too paranoid to believe that nobody would find out who it was, so I just kept posting things as weird as I dared (voice-over for cups trapped in a water runoff, anyone?), with hopes that nobody would fire me over it.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Ross: I started naming all my virtual servers after Burgerverse characters. It began with a host OS called Zoran and VMs named for Executives, but eventually I had to branch out. A throwback XP machine had to be named Lallo, and so on.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

Well, you should know a Googlebot sort of did that on my behalf and went all nutty on my contacts before I could interfere and slap its hand. Never hesitate on account of taking a bot's feelings into account…well, unless it's very well armed or spontaneously asking for mercy.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


You're certainly right that sock-puppetry -- as such multiple account usage has been come to known in most circles, I think -- is definitely something worth trying to build against. Other than the less than 1% of occasions where sock-puppetry might help execute a particular witty joke, most of the time sock-puppeteers are those shrill, all-caps idealogues.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Bridget said, in part:

Of course, this means I don't always post what I'm really thinking…

This is a valid point of argument, to be sure. Sometimes in all the debating over this subject (and other social media related subjects) some commentators seem to lose sight of the fact that there is no inherent human right to complain out loud. Even the most soft-hearted cultural relativists at the UN understand this to be the case, admitting that the right to speak out improperly should be predicated on a very noble foundation -- like exposing corruption, stopping abuses, setting free important data, and so forth.

Obviously Bridget doesn't think of expressing her negative feelings in public as an inalienable right, but there is a significant faction of people who do -- especially some younger people, who have grown up with different assumptions about public communication than we have.

Sometimes, circles or no damn circles, it simply isn't wise to make known what you're thinking. This kind of strategic reticence may become a lost art if you don't stop to think about it now and again.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Ross, Sheik:

That's awesome!


Big t said...

I grew up with a name that was easier to spell out than listen to someone butcher.

You are Cheeseburger Brown