What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

Summary: Pick wisely folks...Unless you're John Smith, your name just might be your best online identity.


For a long time now, I've been mrdatahs. It's my ZDNet handle, my Twitter handle, my Facebook profile, my primary email address...you name it. It all started not long after I began teaching at our local high school, when a student suggested that I get a Gmail account. It was invitation-only at the time and when he made me a member of the exclusive little Gmail club, it didn't occur to me that chris.dawson@gmail.com would be a good idea. It had to be something interesting, right? I hadn't even started blogging yet and, in Internet years, 2004 is ancient history.

So I picked mrdatahs for my username. Most of the students either called me Mr. D or Dawson and I was at Athol High School, so mrdatahs seemed a nice fit. And after I started blogging for ZDNet and Jennifer Leggio introduced me to Twitter, it still seemed apt, so I became @mrdatahs.

Suddenly, I was writing for ZDNet, had thousands of followers on Twitter, and was building a professional following and digital footprint that had much more to do with me as Chris Dawson, writer/blogger/Ed Tech guy/Google Fan than it did with me as Mr. Dawson, Athol High School Teacher and Tech Guy. And then I started co-writing the Google blog, taking me farther from my AHS roots.

And then I wasn't even a teacher at the high school anymore. I was technology director for the district and worked out of the superintendent's office. It might not seem like a big deal, but a remarkable amount of my online presence was wrapped up in me being Mr. D at AHS. It didn't feel authentic and it certainly felt out of date and out of touch with where I stood professionally. People still said "Hi, Dawson" or "Hey Mr. D" when I'd go to the high school, though, for whatever crisis happened to be plaguing their network, so it was sort of OK.

I even thought about ways to re-parse my online identity. Mr. Data something...What could that HS mean? My mom suggested "helping students" but it was just too cheesy. So I ignored it. It was just an email address and Twitter handle, right? As long as people had me in their contacts or were following me on Twitter, did it matter?

Also see "Fun Friday: Hello! My Name Is @xStephenChapman!"

Next: Yeah, it matters... »

And then I resigned from my job with the school district to start my own consulting business. I was still consulting largely in educational technology fields, but was no longer affiliated in any way with the district containing the high school that inspired my moniker. In fact, it was time for a rebranding, a chance to reach out to potential customers, reinvigorate my interaction with Twitter (for too long, it had become a place where I posted links to my blogs and where I had followed so many people, I could no longer distinguish the signal from the noise), and make it clear that I was Chris Dawson, Ed Tech Consultant and Freelance Writer.

And I just couldn't do it. I didn't interact with Twitter as much as I should have, but a lot of people either reach out to me or link to my articles through the service. Would they make the switch to a new handle? Or even know that a new one existed if they didn't previously hang on my every Tweet (yes, my tongue is definitely in my cheek there, but I think you know what I mean)?

And what of my email? I have an email address for my company (of course, I set up a Google Apps account for the domain), but I still get 95% of my email (about 200 messages a day, not including spam) through my old mrdatahs Gmail account. This includes press contacts, professional contacts from my pre-consulting days, and countless other people that I just don't feel like migrating to a new address.

Even the new address is based on my new company name. What happens if that company name changes in 3 years? This new address is what's on my business card, but that original account is still my electronic lifeline.

Maybe it doesn't matter, but I'm inclined to think that it does. When a new business contact looks for me on Twitter, they don't identify that handle with the brand I want them to associate with me. The handle is meaningless to them. And yet I've invested quite a bit of time in my old identity. And we all need an identity online that can stay somewhat constant even as jobs come and go.

For now, for better or worse, I'm sticking with mrdatahs. It certainly points to my roots, at least. Yet if I had it to do over, I'd be chris.dawson@gmail.com. My name, at least, will probably not change. For those of us who might change our names, though, whether through marriage, adoption, or choice, how long do we want to be known as our old name online? If there's a messy divorce involved, probably not very long. So what's the solution?

I'm not 100% sure there is a silver bullet here. The message, though, is to choose wisely. Your online identity, just like your digital footprint, will follow you for a long time. And I'll probably be Mr. D. at AHS long after every teacher in that building has retired.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Browser, CXO, Collaboration, Outsourcing, Social Enterprise

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    The only thing that worries me about your little pearl of wisdom ("The message, though, is to choose wisely.") is that this is generally only going to help 12-13 year olds.

    Unless your readers are in their (very) early teens, they're all in the same boat - an old identity (mine goes back about 17 or 18 years now) that we just can't risk letting go of.

    I'd love to shake the online name I picked from a Forgotten Realms book nearly 20 years ago (apols for the geek-out), but how?

    I saw your headline on Twitter and hoped for an answer, but now I see that, just like a tattoo, the only way to change an online identity is through an expensive, time-consuming process.
    • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

      @korvan Considering I believe people should get a chance to put their teenage years & antics behind them and start anew, I think it's even more useful information for high school seniors, who are going to be entering the professional world soon.
      Still, I do agree that it's already too late for most of this article's demographic. Hopefully it helps some people who are at the right point in their lives to build a new brand for themselves.
      Garrett Williams
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    Hi Chris,

    Here's a silver bullet on the email front:


    For $35/yr, gives you a personalized email address that gracefully survives email service and/or job changes, and you don't need your own mail server or even your own domain. I use it, it's great. (Disclosure: Hover sponsors TWiL, TWiT, etc.)

    And here I thought you were a guy who just really likes data aaaah. :)

    Denise Howell
  • When I was a teen I used a Handle called

    Spider, based on a nickname in HS, but then when I graduated from College, I knew I would need to use something else if my resume submissions were going to be taken seriously. So that is when I left the old identity behind, and went with something that more resembled my name such as first initial last name or first.last or last.first.

    Then as I became involved on employment committees, it basically reinforced that if you have something odd ball for e-mail, then the resume can and does get sent to the don't bother pile. Seen some crazy e-mails on resume's, some to do with certain bedroom acts, or particular body parts, and it just isn't professional.
    • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?


      Quote: Seen some crazy e-mails on resume's, some to do with certain bedroom acts, or particular body parts, and it just isn't professional.

      And a name like Snooki_smoosh_smoosh is supposed to fill us all with confidence?
      • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

        @mmeade@... I was gonna say, that's just NOT an improvement over Spider.
  • Only you know what the handle means

    You described what mrdatahs translates to. But that translation is just for you. For most people mrdatahs is you, and you are mrdatahs. No different than being Chris. The only diference is that it is unique.

    I chose rarsa as my online handle about 20 years ago as semi-acronym of my name. Short and unique. Easy to remember.

    Some people that know me from my online identity call me "Rarsa" even in person. That's because that's the association they've made.

    If you do web searches with my name, you "may" find some of my contributions. If you search by my handle you WILL find my contributions.

    When people choose their handle based on something they are right now, they are risking obsolescence as we change over time. skatebord-guy@gmail.com, won't last for too long.

    FirstName.LastName are not always unique: I have another email address with my first and last names and I get some email intended for my homonyms.

    So, rest assured that your handle is like your name. For the rest of the world it has stopped meaning Mr. D at AHS. Now it only means "you". A synonym of Chris Dawson that writes for ZD Net and does consulting.

    I have a better one for you. Next time you introduce yourself you can say: "Chris Dawson but you can call me Mr. D"
  • It's all associative

    I've considered changing my primary on-line handle several times. 80% of my posts are pretty much garbage. 16% are worth reading, once. Another 3 percent are worth reading more than once. And that last 1% are worth saving or remembering.

    But is it worth dumping that 20% of value just to get rid of the 80% millstone?
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    Great topic and comments. The point about resumes is so true. We recently posted for a position and I read a few hundred resumes. "Dramamamma" "blondetrekkie" "parsleysagelady" and "ohuknowitsme" were not considered as seriously as those who simply used john.doe@. At minimum those seeking employment should set up a separate one they use in their job search, if their current handle is too cutesie, revealing or otherwise would be disregarded. So I'm photogirl to my friends and family (and some colleagues), I'll live with it.
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    I have been warning my daughter of this for the past 4 years...at least. She is now a Junior in college and glad she dumped her childish identity and email name long ago. While she's decided, for time being to hang on to her hotmail address at least it's understandable (first initial, lastname@hotmail.com). She has since registered her own domain and is ready to start using her professional identity and even dump the Hotmail address. Personally, I've never saw the draw of having a cutesy moniker. Somehow, to me at least, it takes away from the person's dignity to a point. People always remark how easy it is to remember my email or how to get a hold of me. Years ago I popped for the $10 to register my own domain / email. First initial, last name at first initial last name dot com. It doesn't matter whom I work for or what I'm doing at the time, it'll always fit. My suggestion, set up a professional identity, forward what you can from the old identity, post messages on all the old sites pointing users to the new sites, use auto responders when you can to update users to the new identity and go forward. A year, maybe two, later, dump the old completely and focus on the new.
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    Well... I started using an email that didn't have to do with my name, that was in Yahoo! and I was also trying to be 'creative' so my online identity had nothing to do with my real name. Over time, though, I kept finding that I needed people to remember that this strange screenname was, in fact, me, so at the end I had to do the switch.

    Having been there and done that, I guess this is the best you can do, at least with your email and twitter accounts, from my experience:

    1) Twitter: Add a small note in your BIO telling your soon-to-be new screenname. Tweet once or twice a day about your new screenname for about a week. The day you change your screenname, change ALL the links in your blogs and such pointing to the old screenname and tweet about the change. Everyone following you already will still follow your new screenname automatically. For those who don't, you can add something in your BIO like "previously known as @mrdatahs...". Done.

    2) Email: Here things are a little more tricky. In my case, I used Yahoo! and Yahoo! allowed for the possibility of creating a second screenname associated to the same Yahoo! ID, so basically I just created a second screenname with my real name without losing the first, 'creative' screenname. In your case, using Gmail, probably you use more services like Calendars or Apps or Docs, and if you use an Android smartphone, your phone probably is also related to your old Gmail account. In that case, I'd create a new Google account (since now they are open) and migrate calendars, contacts and other settings from one account to the other. Then, I'd set the old account to forward EVERYTHING to the new account and deleting it from the old one, and also autoreply with a message telling your contacts about your new account. That way you won't lose your new emails and tell everyone that you have changed accounts. You might be interested in these two links:
    - http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=10957&cbid=c21dy5gn99x&src=cb&lev= index
    - http://mail.google.com/support/bin/static.py?page=guide.cs&guide=25413&topic=25415

    That way, in both cases (Twitter and email), you can migrate to a more permanent screenname without losing your roots, so whoever looks for you in your old screenname can still find you, but will know how to contact you now.

    Good luck if you ever decide to migrate! It's really worth the pain in the donkey!!!
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    Well, this would be why, back in the 90's, I registered my lastname as a domain name. So despite having various email addresses associated with magazines I've written for, everything since I went completely independent a decade ago has been redirected to david@chernicoff.com with any response I sent using that email address and sig.

    Guess I was just being forward looking. ;)
    David Chernicoff
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    @Chris Dawson , laughs that was fun an so true. It is hard to find the right nick that fits everything. especially the way accounts are tethered together these days my facebook , my live , An when i am on modern warfare 2 geek nerd just doesn't seem to be brutal lol or guitar hero warriors of rock the nerd is standing beside nirvana. Mr.HSdatamorph ? :)
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    In the "Conan" stories, when he was a pirate he was known as "Amra the Lion" (someone once told me that "amra" means "lion", but I don't remember what language it was)...and I am a Leo. Online, I always have been, and always will be, Amra Leo...
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    i am glad i didn't pick an identity that associated me with a particular thing, such as a book or a club or anything else.
    sure, both my online identities might sound weird, but both are unique, and searches for both give results relating only to me. so i am not planning to ditch my identities any time soon!
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    With identity theft on the rise, and with employers becoming more savvy, checking online for people's myspace, twitter, facebook accounts, one would be wise NOT to use their real names!
    I figure my personal life is MY personal life. My professional life is my employer's and clients life. Never should the two mix.
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    Hello My name is @banallcomputers.

    Here to spread the message

    Computers are a waste of time and will lead us to Soylent Green in the end
    • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

      So, quit using a computer...simple. Your choice. A message is not what you're spreading...
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    @LegendsOfBatman that is so true ,
  • RE: What happens when your online identity no longer fits?

    It's hard to say. I find that clever names people come up with and use tend to stick longer then what someone else comes up with. Unless it's a variation of your name, kind of like abreviations for email addresses. Or like a friend named Dale that I know of who uses "Eladem", meaning "Me Dale" spelled backwards. I had to have name that was less then 8 characters also back in the old DOS days.