The other day I was walking home alone (I'd gone out alone, just to take few summery breaths) at circa midnight, maybe one. I was the only woman I saw on my entire walk, and while I remained conscious of the little I know of self-defense (stay in lighted areas, make eye contact and project confidence, etc.) I didn't sense among any of the men I saw a desire to kill or maim me. Some of 'em sought conversation: there's a pubs about a block from my building where college kids go for Bud and burgers (the neon sign says; I consume neither, but the red-blooded American in me loves those places and the people who patronize them with an obsessive, if distant, devotion).

Anyway, I was on the last leg of my walk, eating a fruit pie from Circle K, and this guy was standing out in the middle of the street in front of that bar, and he asked me my name.

I had to get him to repeat the question for the drink was running his words together. My name. My name. I get it. My name.

I said, "Josie," and I continued walking home, to make it clear I wasn't interested. He said, "Nice meeting you, Josie," and it took too long to register he was talking to me (rather, my back) to say, "Thank you. Nice meeting you, Mark" in return.

Listen. People have the right not just to privacy, but to anonymity; they also have a right to free expression and celebrity if they want it. And look at how many noders are in their late teens and early 20s - a stage often associated both with destruction and development, and I think an essence to this is the reinvention of oneself for whatever purposes. One of my friends (who I consider a sister, though I really only know her through e-mail) took up with a man she met on the world's lamest "Internet" service, and don't pretend you know what I'm talking about, and he hurt her in ways no person should ever be hurt, and since then, has been all over in the New York press - in connection with what he seems to have done to someone else. Whom he also met online.

A person will choose a nick or handle as a means of protecting himself or herself; she might be protecting her body, and he might be protecting his soul. Sometimes the fantasy life we lead online (go read all the nodes about E2 culture and you'll know exactly what I mean) can supplant the life we lead in the physical world, or upset it, or supplement and enrich it. And sometimes we do it out of whimsy; I took the nickname Molli around the same time I became a geek, not because I was afraid of stalkers, but because I hated my given name (Christen; everybody either spells or pronounces it incorrectly) and because I was young enough (and still am young enough) to feel my identity was fluid and evolving. I've grown fonder of my real name in recent years (I was told Christen *******, in all its clickety-clack alliteratedness, was a great reporter name, and nearly swooned for my delusions of Lois Lane), and while I'm not averse to Molli, or being called Molli, I very rarely introduce myself as such.

In short, identity is a fluid and ambiguous thing; you are free to hide underneath layers and layers of abstraction, and just as free (if you're legal, and so so inclined) to put in a webcam and never wear clothes.

For myself, I know I'll never have a black-and-white answer. As a writer - one whose habits have largely been shaped by online culture - I swing (like a pendulum do) between a desire to hide and sink myself in the world of words, and that to use words for purposes of connecting with other people. The issue has been complicated greatly by the lack of safe spaces in the world, especially for women, and my desire to reclaim every space as safe, because so many really are and can be.

Most of us are adults here; all of us have tough choices to make about these issues. My advice for choosing a nick, though, is to be conscious of the fact that people are very easily manipulated, and most of us are not immune either to becoming predators or prey, on whatever scale, if we spend too much time doing something that is not fundmental to us as humans (writing, staring at a computer screen, has got to be the least natural and least healthy fixation in the world). Blah blah blah blah blah. Hiding and laying yourself on the line are equally valid options, each with their own unique consequences. You know: Be cool. Participate in your own manipulation. Everything is what you make of it.

Also, realize that if you name yourself after something even vaguely phallic, or post your photo or node your bra size, you're bound to get some undue and very bizarre attention in IRC and Chatterbox. Not that I mind a bit of it. I'm gonna marry thefez and you're ALL invited, after all; it's only fair.