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And it entered the lexicon from there.”As AOL evolved, this ethos of personalization began to permeate the entire user experience.

Consider the chat room, or the Instant Messenger buddy list.

“We don't rethink our identities that often: we want to get on with our lives, seldom re-examining them. Still, I couldn’t help but suspect that there was more to the stickiness of these vintage screen names than inertia.

And changing screen names and passwords is a big hassle. ’”Basically, Cheswick was telling me that we’re too lazy to evolve—and that can be a problem. At least you can have different passwords on different accounts, and you really should. And so I went to straight to the source: AOL chief architect Joe Schober, who also happens to be the company’s longest-serving employee.

“The founders of AOL—or really its predecessor, Quantum Computer Services— wanted to build a product that was a little friendlier,” he told me.

“And one of the specific things they discussed was how to sign on.

But because they wanted something friendlier, they came up with the nomenclature of ‘screen name.’ It was just your name on the screen.

Now, nearly two decades later, this tiny remnant of your seventh-grade self is still your default user ID. You use it to read more than 10 New York Times articles a month.

Finally, after a couple of thwarted attempts, a chipper male voice announced that you had arrived. “You’ve got mail.” And with that, you were free to explore the web’s pleasantest walled garden, complete with chat rooms, buddy lists, instant messages, and lots of “new kayaking friends”—at least until someone else needed to use the phone line. (I’m looking at you, nsyncrulz971.) But if you’re an American between the ages of 25 and 35, I’m willing to bet that you still use your original America Online screen name to maneuver around the Internet every day—a slightly misspelled, numerically augmented alias such as lil_cheerio_23 or gettobootie37 that you came up with in 30 seconds one afternoon in 1996 after discovering, much to your chagrin, that every unnumbered, conventionally spelled name you tried was already taken.

I made it in 8th grade (1997) when I got my first cat. That was a lie.”“How crazy is it that many of us have carried those AOL identities with us like a social security number?

I'm just thankful mine isn’t a Dave Matthews Band lyric.”“I am so relieved to know that there are enough people out there who latched onto these to make a story out of it. ”As far as I could tell, only one of my friends had managed to ditch her adolescent alias along the way—and with good reason. “I eventually changed it because I'd frequently get messages from strangers about cocaine.”***As I read all the responses on Facebook, I began to wonder why so many of my peers were still clinging to their original online identities—and what that says, if anything, about my generation as a whole.

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