‘Real’ names online : part 2 : defining ‘real’

Before we get into the more interesting meat of the topic (which will follow next week), I want to go into a digression about the problem of ‘real names’.

First problem: What does a ‘real name’ look like?

We like to think that we know them when we see them. But really, we don’t. Some names look perfectly reasonable, but might not be real. (People with ‘Smith’ as a last name, and a common first name sometimes have this problem in reverse.) Some people have hyphens in their names. Some people have two ‘last’ names and no hyphen. And of course, many cultures have patterns of naming that do not fall tidily into the English-language derived versions of firstname lastname.

There’s a great post by Patrick, a programmer, talking about the problems simply designing a system to handle names – of all types – appropriately that goes into far more depth. Or, as he puts it, the myths that programmers believe about names.

So, when we’re saying ‘use a real name’, what we’re actually saying is ‘use a name that other people recognise as ‘real’. In which case, we should also realise that that can have its own problems.

Second problem: Is that name actually a unique identifier?

I have a very common first name (Jennifer) and a much less common last name (at least in the US: it’s much more common in Ireland, parts of England, and Australia). But what about all the people out there who really are named John Smith? Or Mary Williams?

Requiring a ‘real name’ in an online setting runs the chance of these people being mistaken for one another very easily indeed. Using a unique username in the system, however – something determined by the person themselves – not only gives a unique identifier to everyone else, but helps people stand out a bit, because their personality shows through in the choices.

I suspect you have a different response to ModernHypatia as a username than you would to JCArnott than you would to MNLibrarian. My name doesn’t tell you a lot about me, and neither does MNLibrarian – but ModernHypatia, I hope, gives you a little bit of a sense of my personality and interests that are still totally appropriate for a professional conversation. And I suspect that, if we have an extended conversation, it’s more likely to stick in your head and be remembered later, for good and for bad, than if I just go by Jennifer. (There being many Jennifers out there in the world.)

Third problem: Does that name really represent us?

Whenever we get our name (as the above link points out, that’s not always at birth!), it often comes before we even begin to develop our own independent personalities.

I’ve talked about one variant of this with friends many times: my parents almost named me Penelope, and my older brother and sister talked them out of it, quite rightly pointing out that I’d get teased through school *and* that at least half my teachers would be unable to pronounce it. (And indeed, a scary number of people think it ought to rhyme with cantaloupe. In classical Greek, where it comes from, it’s pen-EH-lo-pee) These days, I’d love to use it as a name. But I agree with my siblings: it would have been horrible throughout my school years.

Instead, I have the opposite problem: Jennifer was the most common name for girls not only the year I was born, but for five years on either side (and it was in the top 10 girls names for far longer.) That means that there’s a lot of Jennifers out there. There were four in my late elementary school class of about 22 people (half of whom were boys, so over a third of the girls were named Jennifer.) And somewhere around high school – certainly before college – I stopped answering to it reliably.

These days, if you yell “Hey, Jen!” at me, or “Hey, Jennifer!” from across a crowded room, or a field, or anywhere, I’m unlikely to turn around. That name is rarely for me. It’s like hearing a cell phone go off, when you personally don’t get a lot of calls: you don’t bother checking your pocket.

Among my friends, my religious community, my writing – pretty much anywhere other than actual ‘go to work in professional job’ work – I go by a different name, these days. (And that, incidentally, is a name I’ve got paid writing credits for, which is more than I can say for my legal name.) That name also looks quite like a ‘real name’, albeit a much less common one. But I answer to it far better – yell it across a crowded room, and I turn around. Mention it online, and my eyes pick it up far more reliably than to ‘Jen’ or ‘Jennifer’.

So, which one’s real? Good question. There’s certainly a lot to be said for the stability of my legal name, the one on things like my driver’s license, bank account, and so on. But in terms of reputation and social connection and a history I’m attached to (and would not want to mess up – one of the arguments for using ‘real names’), they’re actually both equally important to me. And perhaps – just perhaps – the pseudonym is actually more valuable to me, because I’ve invested a lot more time in developing its history and reliability online (though these days, I’m evening that up with this blog and other professional interactions.)

Fourth problem: The question of history

One of the questions I’ll be getting into next week is *why* people think that a ‘real name’ reduces problems online. (It is by no means nearly as cut and dry as sometimes presented.) But one of the arguments is that people have history attached to their ‘real name’, and they don’t want to mess up that history.

With me – as with a number of other people of my generation, we who got online in the 90s in college, and who are still around, now with a decade or more of online history under our belts – that’s often not the case. I, like many of my friends, actually have far more history under other names than under my legal name – because, in general, I reserve my legal name for situations where it’s relevant. Professional discussions, materials, and related topics – but not purely personal topics, or ones where I want a casual search to turn up material.

There’s the job-hunting argument, of course. But there’s also the reality that for the last ten years, I worked at an independent school with smart kids, smart parents, and plenty of people capable of plugging a name into Google to see what comes up. While I certainly talked about personal topics at work in appropriate ways for a school – religion, politics, hobbies, health and well-being, and many others do come up in a community – I did not and do not want that to be the material that shows up in a casual search on my legal name. I’d rather talk about those things in the context of a specific conversation with specific people.

In person, that’s easy.

Online, I use another name (the name most people know me by these days outside of work, which is really a pseudonym) for those conversations, to keep the distinction clear. I’m not doing anything embarrassing or inappropriate or that I’m ashamed of under that name. Just having conversations in a specific context which would take an awful lot of footnoting to make any sense if people from outside those communities and specific conversations wandered in.

In other words, the non-legal name actually has a great deal more online history attached to it than the legal one, so if someone is looking to try and get a fuller picture of me, my interests, and online history, it’s actually more useful. I am, of course, clear with people who might need to know what my legal name is in both contexts.

Coming next week, a look at the myths around why people think using a ‘real name’ is better, and eventually a look at the legal and related issues around privacy (which are very complex: I do not pretend to be an expert, but do hope to point at some useful resources for further learning.)

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4 comments to ‘Real’ names online : part 2 : defining ‘real’

  • rahaeli

    And of course halfway through your post, I got the Mike Doughty song “27 Jennifers” stuck in my head:

    I went to school with 27 Jennifers
    Fifteen Jens, ten Jennys, and then there was her…

  • [...] of people were rather annoyed that you could only use your own “real name“, whatever that means.  In fact, G+ specifically disallowed people from using pseudonyms, whilst other forums like [...]

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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