AVATAR

No, not the movie …

I mean the cute little drawing/caricature/picture I use as a profile picture. I found it on Yahoo360 about 6 years ago and was able to save it when Yahoo360 went AWOL on its users … At the time it enabled me to at least mentally stay 20-something forever without disclosing my ASL to my readers and followers. Most of them knew me as alternative_be a social worker/amateur linguist from Belgium/Europe and NOT the capital of Brussels. (It is the other way round, in case anyone should wonder)

Nowadays, almost nobody seems to be in favour of using aliases or avatars. Since we have ‘nothing to hide’ we all are ‘encouraged’ to use our real names. In fact, in some cases, not using your real name may lead to having your account deleted …

Yet, at the time I started using the internet, using your real name was something ‘just not done’ according to the netiquette. Netiquette told us to be cautious when it came to disclosing personal details over the internet. In those days people were weary of posting their real name, address and phone number online.

This environment provided some of us with a certain amount of safety, in order to express some of our thoughts online. It assured us that we would be judged by the content of what we wrote and not by who we were. As I recall, these were real times of freedom.

Somehow, we seem to have lost that kind of freedom, somewhere along the way. Suddenly social networks emerged and on joining them we suddenly were asked to fill in our real names. When you look at some of the goals of networking: to get and stay in touch with friends, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues and business partners; this all seemed to make sense. Many of those people might not know your alias. On countless occasions I have sent my alias with a friend request. That is the least of my worries.

What does worry is that while losing our aliases, we seem to have lost part of our freedom of speech.
Some claim that those who hide behind aliases are trolls or people who have something to hide. Of course: there are trolls out there who hide behind aliases. When their accounts are deleted, I tend to say: ‘Good riddance!’

However I am not talking about trolls here. I am talking about people who have no other alternative than using an alias online: for reasons of personal safety, in order to express your thoughts in such a way that you are judged on your thoughts and not by your name. In fact, organizations such as ‘Reporters without borders’ advise people living in undemocratic countries to use an alias when blogging or reporting about their country.

Since democracy seems to be on the decline in countries that formerly were known as democracies, I wonder how long it will be possible to express our thoughts online.

Denise Hendrikx,
Brasschat, Belgium

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