The Stages of My Life in Usernames
"Who knows what people are doing in real life so long as they present their purest front online? What is the opposite of catfishing?"
Illustration by Ellice Weaver.
This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
I am born with a full head of hair, and when my name is first whispered to me, I do not recognize it as my own. By age four, I can read short books by myself; the first is Fantastic Mr. Fox. I like drawing and imitating my parent’s cursive with endless crayon squiggles. I frame the upstairs neighbor’s kid for stealing toys from my Hong Kong kindergarten.
St. Louis kids think my body hair is really funny, so I start wearing knee-length socks. I go through popular kid tryouts and fail, but I hear a lot of sordid stuff in my weeks hanging with the mean girls. I doctor a note to Ken, the “hot” Asian kid, warning him that they’re debating who gets to “have” him. He freaks out because of cooties. Mean girl Ellen tries to match the handwriting on the playground. Lucky for me, I have already perfected four different hands.
I have an AOL account. I turn off the dial-up to call Sara to ask her for her email, and then I turn it back on and email her. I make a Neopets account. Abhijeet insists I make a password mocking my younger brother. My mother finds it and assumes it was my idea. I write poetry to my Grundo; I send it to a vanity press where it gets accepted, but I can’t afford the required $70 fee to receive a printed copy.
I sign up for my first email account on Yahoo. I like the sound of my first and middle names strung together—it’s a strange sort of aural dissonance. I can finally email my friends I left behind in the US when my family moved to Rajkot, India, but they don’t respond often. I can access my email once a week at the internet cafe walking distance from our apartment for 20 rupees an hour. I never have more than 20 rupees, so this hour is crucial, and internet speed is slow. When I arrive at the cafe, some men “accidentally” leave porn open on the screen for me to see. I write long emails baring my soul to people: friends, family, pen pals.
Everyone wants to know your a/s/l now, so I waste my precious hours at the internet cafe trolling pedophiles. I pose as a 16/F/USA despite being a 12/F/India, and pose as easy, impressionable bait in AOL chat rooms. After men like 38/M/California incriminate themselves with extremely sexual, disgusting content in private chat, I reveal myself to be a child. Maybe it is curiosity. Maybe it is vigilante justice. They freak out, and I report them. Were they even 38-year-old men? Were we all just baiting one another?
The internet at the cafe is a little faster, and soon we will have broadband at home. Everyone’s on Yahoo! messenger or AIM. I change my status every week to my new favorite Nickelback lyric. I start creating more fake messenger accounts, some with boy names. This is the innocent catfish era. I befriend my real-life bullies only to belittle them over chat. Someone in my school catfishes me, pretending to be someone else to lure me into a video chat. It’s a live video of them jerking off. I am too young for this to be happening, but nothing fazes me, the supreme catfisher. I know who the classmate is, and I never confront him, though I eagerly spread gossip about him when I can and eventually block him. I subtweet people on Orkut before the term has even been invented, and I get into wall-on-wall fights. On Facebook I take and share endless quizzes to prove how high my IQ is.
I move to New York, a little young to be starting college. Suddenly, I remember how brown I felt in Missouri. They pronounce my name Adeetee. They call me a FOB. They call me crazy. Weird. Things I would later take to heart and turn into power. I get into online television streaming. I buy ten pairs of heels online from a site selling “$50 shoes for $10.” I imagine myself becoming fashionable. When they arrive, I can’t walk in them, and I throw them all away. I post sad Facebook statuses about how much college sucks. “Aditi is hating everything.” “Aditi is Britney bitch” “Aditi is trying to write!!!!” Then they remove the “is…” format so I can’t use gerunds anymore. Then they add likes so I can see how few people care. FML speaks to me. Stumbleupon makes up for the time between the most necessary work for class. I Skype with my friends back home in India whenever the time difference allows. I spend winter break alone in my dorm room, Skyping through the night, staying awake for Indian Standard Time during the coldest, darkest time of the year.
Work life in Middletown, Connecticut, has gotten to me. I feel like I’ve been broken down and built up all wrong. I ask my co-workers to call me by my middle name. I’m not assimilating—I’m hiding. I spend hours a day on Facebook Messenger with friends who do not live in the same state or often the same country. I am denied a Fulbright scholarship to translate the diaries of someone who might have been abused by Gandhi. Months later, I get into a fight with someone on Facebook who calls Gandhi a fascist, racist rapist. I point out at least two of those are not true, and they call me a stan.
ADITI NATASHA KINI, 2017
I’ve moved back to New York, and I now live near my friends. On the internet, “identity politics” is a catchphrase used mostly as a weapon against the left, and I start to notice that my intersecting identities seem to matter more on social media than in real life. I start writing articles under my “real” name after much consideration. There’s the online rage cycle that encourages me to say something every time something happens in the news related to any of my identities. It’s news commentary through the lens of experience: What do I think of the colonial pandering of “Victoria & Abdul”? Not much at all, but the internet has given me so much more than my own lived experience. I have found other weirdos on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook. I have friends from all sorts of Facebook groups where we constantly check ourselves and others in a public forum. Don’t use this word, don’t be flippant, don’t be lax. It’s backward praxis. Who knows what people are doing in real life so long as they present their purest front online? What is the opposite of catfishing? I waste time online but I justify it by calling it research, which is how I end up writing about men’s rights forums. I get doxxed and soon someone calls me saying he’s outside my old apartment. I am called a feminazi. I write a popular opinion piece about brown men falling in love with white women on TV and movies, and then someone writes a defamatory fan fiction piece about me not getting any attention in college. Every single exposed identity is up for dissection, censure, attack. Someone seems to get mad at me on Twitter after misunderstanding a tweet of mine. I am afraid because I have applied for a program she runs. Where I once catfished and shit-talked, I have to be proper, more proper than I’ve ever been in my life.
Nan, or nanu, Gujarati for small, is what I call myself after my brother loses his stuffed animal bearing the same name. I am 18 at the time, but I feel like I have been nan my whole life—I’ve always felt small. My friends call me nan. I chat with my friends online and make new friends every month as nan. I am nan in real life, and nan on the internet. By manifesting babyhood and smolness, I continue to grasp at curling tendrils of childhood—a time when I did not know my own name