Coding Horror

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Our Fractured Online Identities

Anil Dash has been blogging since 1999. He's a member of the Movable Type team from the earliest days. As you'd expect from a man who has lived in the trenches for so long, his blog is excellent. It's well worth a visit if you haven't been there already. I was recently reading through his 2002 blog recommendations and marvelling at the hardy few who survived through five long years of the internet. The way I figure, that's equivalent to thirty-five people years.

I also noticed something interesting lodged in the sidebar of his blog. A long list of Anil Dash's many online identities, spread across no less than 29 different websites:

Anil Dash's many online identities

Laurel Krahn created one of the first 30 weblogs back in 1998. Her home page paints a similarly fractured picture of her online identity. I count 21 different websites that represent some part of Laurel:

Laurel Krahn's many online identities

There's no way any one person could truly keep these 20 or 30 websites up to date. So which one of these websites represents the real Laurel Krahn, the real Anil Dash? Or do all these tiny fragments of identity cumulatively sum to a whole? Browsing around their sites, it's fairly easy to determine what is getting the lion's share of attention, and pare away the neglected parts. Still, it's unclear.

I suppose my online identity is similarly fractured, although somewhat less so than Anil and Laurel. I obviously have this primary blog, which represents me professionally. But I also have a twitter stream, which I alternately treat as my inner monologue, a link blog, and as a form of public instant messaging. Then there are my Vertigo blogs, a handful of online games I play semi-frequently, and various other online forums that I regularly participate in for particular special interests. All these things are me.

But which one is the real me? Is my online identity even a reasonable approximation of who I am? I think it could be. What you read here is mostly what you get, minus some corner-case peculiarities that probably aren't interesting to anyone but me (and my wife, but she's bound by law). It's reassuring to have a single central authoritative place that represents me online.

Mostly, I'm just amazed that these veteran bloggers feel they can actually maintain twenty or thirty different facets of their identity across all those disparate websites. I certainly can't. I struggle to write one lousy blog four to five times a week. I'm more interested in shrinking my focus into an ever narrower and sharper point than I am in diluting my effort across dozens of different websites.

There's no right or wrong answer here, of course. You should follow your interests wherever they lead you, and to as many different websites as necessary. But I do think building a strong online identity is an important strategy for distinguishing yourself in an increasingly online world. So choose carefully, and focus on those things that best represent you.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror