How to choose your Twitter alias
So, I don’t know if you’re aware, but it’s the 21st century – and it’s absolutely essential that we all have constant Wi-Fi, smashed avocado, and intensely-curated social media presences. Whether or not you agree with the first two of those, I hope we can all settle on the idea that any sort of meaningful engagement with the modern Internet world (or at least contribution to it) requires one to have a social media profile. And that’s where language can unexpectedly rear its head. What are we supposed to name our Twitter-selves? What should we pick for our handle? (And did you know that handle, in the sense of a nickname, dates as far back as 1838?) Let’s take a look at the complicated decision process – along the way, I’ll pick some of my favourites.
Keeping it simple
If you’re the sort of person who likes to buy tins which read ‘tea’, ‘coffee’, and ‘sugar’ or who used to name your childhood cuddly toys ‘Blue Bear’ and ‘Pink Dog’, then you’ll probably favour the say-what-you-see approach. If your blog (to pick a hypothetical) is called Oxford Words, your accompanying Twitter presence might go under the name @OxfordWords. If your name is sufficiently unusual to set you apart somewhat, you might manage to get a handle that is simply your first name – step forward @Alanis, @Cher, @Madonna, @Britney… I promise I don’t just follow divas who are a little past their heyday, but you get the picture. (There are @Adele and @Beyonce too! They’re still in their musical prime.)
There are plenty of people – famous and otherwise – who’ve opted for this sensible approach, and it makes you pretty accessible, but it’s hardly going to set the world on fire with your creativity. And those of us with absurdly common names can’t follow this route – no, @SimonThomas is not me, but I’m sure his five followers are thrilled that he and his five tweets are super easy to find. Perhaps I’m a bitter man with an unwanted underscore in his handle, but I appreciate those who’ve tried to mix things up a bit. But before we get to them…
Others who’ve come up against the name-already-taken debacle have tried to find ways around it. One of the approaches that really riles me is perhaps most famous in the form of @realDonaldTrump. Now, you’ll find a fair few commentators across the world who have taken issue with Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, but my problems start just below that verified tick.
If you saw somebody advertising a car for sale with the words ‘real engine included’, would you feel assured? If your lawyer introduces herself with a swift handshake and “FYI, I’m a real lawyer”, is your mind set at ease? For the sake of your automobile and legal needs, I hope the answer is ‘no’ – real is one of those words (like genuine) that can throw into doubt something that should be a given. Popping it at the beginning of your social media handle just makes me think you’re probably a not-very-subtle interloper. But it’s the go-to don’t-worry-guys-I’m-legit naming protocol for celebs as various as @TheRealStanLee, @RealDMitchell, and @RealGrumpyCat (though, in fairness, the last of these could be considered a flat adverb – that is, an adverb used in informal English that takes the same form as the corresponding adjective). I’m assured by football fans that something different is going on with @RealMadrid.
Just the job
I follow quite a few writers on Twitter – that’s right; I’m pretty cool – and I’ve noticed that a fair number of them work writer, writes, or author into their Twitter handle. It’s a fairly bold move to pick (for example) @SimonThomasWrites and not just because it exceeds the number of characters permitted for a handle. Defining yourself by your job is something you might do if you’re very career minded and wear business suits in the bath, but choosing it for your social media persona is very eggs-in-one-basket.
But while I’ve seen writers, editors, and painters use this trick, it doesn’t seem to be used widely. Maybe it’s because job titles are often difficult to sum up in a handful of characters? Maybe it’s because certain professions require a social media presence, while most use social media as a way of escaping from their day-to-day roles? All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen actuaries, admin assistants, or agriculturalists use it in the way that authors do. Of course, some have it both ways – when Donald Trump isn’t being real in one persona, you can find his thoughts at @POTUS, a username handed down from Barack Obama’s tenure. The acronym stands for President of the United States, of course, and has been in use since at least 1895, originally as a code word for newspaper wires and telegraphs (which feels pleasingly appropriate, having come full circle as a way of briefly expressing the term in remote communication). Similar hand-me-down Twitter handles are found at @SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States; found in 1870s telegraphic code) and @FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States; a much later addition to the language – as late as 1983, according to the current OED entry).
Pleased as puns
Puns get a bad rap nowadays. Shakespeare loved ‘em and the first use of the word pun recorded in the OED is something of a victory cry from 17th-century poet John Taylor (‘there’s a Pun halfe a dram better then yours upon Sir Iohn Winter’; I’m left with a gnawing desire to know what the Winter pun was). But Shakespeare isn’t on Twitter, despite what @Shakespeare might lead you to believe, and it takes a brave soul to put a pun right there in a Twitter handle.
Who’s braved possible rejection by the masses? Well, I’m not sports fan and I don’t know who Jason Grilli of the Pittsburgh Pirates is, but I do know that he’s embracing wordplay with @GrillCheese49. Nice work; hope it encourages you when you’re hitting/catching/kicking things. More in my wheelhouse is the comedian and actor Retta, and her @unforRETTable handle. Want to hijack one of the world’s most famous names with your own? Comedian John Early has sidestepped the wordplay his name seems to cry out for – presumably having heard those jokes early and often – and landed on @bejohnce.
Your own name doesn’t need to be involved, of course. Ever wanted to make a sly reference to classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird while also launching a subtle attack on the patriarchy? Of course you have. Writer Julieanne Smolinski is, I’m sorry to say, one step ahead of you with @BoobsRadley. Those are a hand(le)ful of the many pun options out there, but I hope it’s given you some inspiration.
Trying something different
You can’t get your name, or don’t want to. The word real makes you feel like you’re protesting too much. Puns make you feel puncomfortable. (Sorry.) What next?
Why not use the ‘@’ sign as the ‘a’ it resembles? You’ve got to admire the idea behind @ngry, @lphabet, and @nnie. What about picking a favourite (short) saying, aphorism, or quotation? Or perhaps posing an important question – which is just my way of acknowledging that @isacatinthesink is probably my favourite Twitter feed at the moment. Never has a yes/no question been so satisfying.
It’s fair to say that the prosaic currently outweighs the innovative when it comes to social media names – at least as far as brands and famous names are concerned – but here’s hoping that, as time goes on (and as increasing numbers of people, presumably, take up the available options) we’ll see some more variety and linguistic manipulation of this everyday calling card. I certainly know that I’d be more willing to follow an account which put a bit of fun into its handle – and I don’t think that’s just the envy of somebody with a name too common for Twitter.