‘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.)

Background (‘real’ names online : part 1)

I’ve been watching the conversations about the new RealID additions on the Blizzard forums with some interest, because they tie into a much larger conversation about online interactions and anonymity and pseudonymity. So, in the next week or so, a few posts about first, some background, and then some specific concerns and considerations around the use of real-world identifying names online.

Why does this matter on a librarian’s blog?

Well, first, because I use the ‘Net, and I’m fascinated by how other people use it, and about how to help give people tools to make informed choices for their use of it.

But also because I think this is one of the major freedom of information issues of at least the next decade: how do we balance a desire for sincere conversation, with meaning and history and in the context of a particular community, with the reality that some people will abuse, harass, intimidate, or otherwise seek to harm others. Silencing those who have minority perspectives of whatever kind reduces the amount of information and experience we can all learn from, so finding some solution seems essential.

To start with, some history

(I’ll be getting into the problems of defining a ‘real’ name in part 2: for right now, please just bear with me.)

The question of whether to use a ‘real’ name online is one that goes far back into the distant Internet past, back to the time when online interaction was almost exclusively via access either at work or through a university, the days of Usenet, the very earliest email servers, and related things.

But as the ‘Net grew, people wanted to talk about things that they didn’t necessarily want to connect to a name their co-workers would recognise. Health issues. Relationship concerns. Religion. Hobbies that – while perfectly legal and reasonable – might not be the thing they wanted to be known for at work.  And so people started using online names that weren’t linked to their legal identities. This got a lot easier once it was common to have more than one email address, and when that email address was no longer tied to where you worked or where you went to school. (My experience was that it got a lot easier round about 1995 or so.)

There’s also the other part – the part that a number of people I know who’ve been online a while – know well enough. That using your ‘real’ name opens you up to a wide range of potential harassment. Everything from having comments disparaged for using an obviously female name to getting a phone call late at night from someone who makes it very clear they know where you live, and that they can get there quite quickly. I’m particularly familiar with it from the ‘being female’ side, but there’s all sorts of other variants.

And even when it’s not harassment in a legal sense, it can often be disruptive to the conversation. Someone who gets hassled even a tenth of the time they’re online is much less likely to be in public discussions online: they’re much more likely to spend their time and energy in smaller, more focused spaces with better control over behavior – not over names. Totally understandable, but it changes the public conversation, all those voices we then don’t hear.

Are these things common? Depends on the person, depends on their online patterns, depends on other things in their life. (Someone living in a college dorm or apartment complex with decent security is in a different setting than someone living by themselves, for example. Someone whose religious choices, relationship choices, hobby choices are very much in the mainstream is in a different position than someone whose choices aren’t.) But they’re common enough that many people – of all genders – find benefit in pseudonymity, for at least some of their online interactions.

Now, over time, various companies have tried different modes of encouraging ‘real name’ interaction. Generally – and this is the part I want to explore in the near future – they say that part of their goal is to encourage a more real and transparent interaction, to provide more authority in conversations online.

A few of these – though by no means all:

And some additional background commentary from the Geek Feminism wiki page on pseudeonymity and another page from the same wiki specifically on conversation around LaunchPad’s (a project management website used extensively for Ubuntu development) policies around names with some excellent illustrative quotes.

The other side of the screen

I’ve been thinking, this morning, about a post I just read from Scott McLeod, called “Can you ever really know that edublogger beside you?” He makes the excellent point that while we can get to know someone online, we don’t know all of them – or their actions.

I’ve heard this conversation go round hundreds of times in the fifteen years I’ve been active in conversations online – first on Usenet and email lists and my college forum system, later on Yahoo lists, on web fora, on LiveJournal, on MUCKs and MUSHes and conversations about MMORPGs. And they’ve all got a seed of truth.

But this particular argument is also missing something.

We all talk about our lives differently in different spaces. At work, we focus on some things, and gloss over others. With friends, we’ll pick different topics. At a gathering of fellow fans – like the one I’m at this weekend – the topics are again, different.

It’s certainly something that can be abused – people can lie, leave things out, or even lie to themselves. But far more often, it’s simply that we’re seeing a piece of what’s going on, not the full picture. As long as we remember that – and as long as we’re aware of how what we put out there shows a slice of ourselves and our actions – we should be just fine.

So, here’s my guidelines for myself, when it comes to online interaction:

1) I make decisions about trust in the realms I have data for.

Online, there are certain things someone might demonstrate. They might show me they’re articulate (in writing), that they think about and respond to criticism or questions in a productive way, that they have a knack for pulling together different pieces of information in a fascinating way.  I may take their suggestion of another blogger to read, or a particular approach to a problem they’ve got a lot of described experience with seriously.

For everything else – all the things I don’t see – there’s a neutral zone. I don’t trust it, but I don’t distrust it, either. I treat it the same way I do a piece of information in Wikipedia: possibly useful, but if I’m going to rely on it for anything other than amusement or transient conversation, I should probably check it out more first.

2) I have realistic expectations.

I’m generally very willing (time and energy allowing) to meet people in person I first got to know online (and I’ve had some amazing friendships and interactions come out of it.) But I’m also realistic: I don’t expect that a meeting for dinner means we’re going to be Best Friends Forever. Mostly, I expect we’ll have an interesting conversation over a nice meal, and both go away with new things to think about.

I expect that there are things that might surprise me. I make sure I can take care of my own basic well-being without relying on them. And I usually come prepared with some stuff I’m pretty sure we’ll mutually enjoy. Most importantly, I assume that we’ll have a pleasant time, but that it probably won’t be one of the earth-shatteringly amazing days of my existence. (It might be, but assuming it will be just leads to disappointment!)

3) Sharing is likely to be unequal.

Online, it’s very easy for the information sharing to be quite uneven. Imagine a prolific blogger: over the course of six months, they might share a fair bit of information about themselves in whatever they’re talking about. Their reader may come to feel they know a fair bit about the blogger.

And yet, even if those readers reply, the amount *they* share may be far less in quantity than the blogger shares. Or it may be in totally different areas of interest. This isn’t bad or wrong – but it does mean that both parties should be aware of what they do and don’t know about each other, and plan accordingly.

4) People can’t see things about me that seem obvious from inside my own head.

I pay attention, when talking to people online, and especially if a meeting is coming up, to what I tend not to talk about.

Here’s a rather odd one: I’m a librarian, and I’m a voracious reader, but I have a long history of not talking about all of what I read – a side effect of having gotten very self-conscious of how fast and how varied my reading was back in elementary school. I’ve been working up to doing better with that (hence the GoodReads widget in my sidebar here), but even that isn’t everything. (For example, I don’t plan to list books I read to deepen my religious understanding there, unless they’re also of wide general interest.)

And so, I also pay some attention to what people don’t say in their own comments, and whether that’s relevant to the ways I know them. If someone keeps a very focused blog, that’s one thing – but if someone wanders over a range of topics, but persistently leaves some out, it’s sometimes worth a little attention if I’m going to meet them face to face.

Being aware of these things means that when they come up face-to-face – as they often do, because some conversations can be much more comfortable with a few people in person than with lots of people in online public space – I can structure what I say better. And I can remember to ask them questions when it’s relevant, about the stuff they don’t talk much about.

In conclusion:

These four guidelines have meant that almost all of my face-to-face meetings with people I know via online settings have been good fun, interesting, and overall enjoyable. I’ve had a handful where we didn’t click (but nothing worse than that), and hundreds, now, of occasions where we became closer, had more to talk about, or deeply enjoyed each other’s company.

(Right now, I am sitting on a hotel couch with a friend I met online. Yesterday, I picked her up from the airport, and we have had lunch with others, and an outing, and coffee this morning, and we are currently sitting on a couch with our computers in hand waiting for more People From The Internet to show up.)

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 Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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