a few thoughts on name changes & reputation
I’ve changed my name twice. First, I took my (now ex) stepfather’s last name when I was a child. At 18, I started the process to take my maternal grandfather’s name to honor him and to create an identity that meant something to me. The process was finalized when I was 22. And let me tell you, it was a Pain in the F* Ass.
With this in mind, I nearly bowled over laughing when I read that Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal that he thought that name changes would become more common place. The WSJ states:
“[Schmidt] predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”
This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.
Changing one’s name didn’t used to be a big deal. Hell, if you stepped off a boat on Ellis Island and the folks there couldn’t understand your name, it would’ve been changed for you automatically. Children used to get name changes upon arriving in the US simply to make them fit in better. Today, changing your name is a bureaucratic nightmare (unless you’re getting married in some states). You have to inform the local paper of every place you’ve ever lived. Not just once but thrice. At least in Pennsylvania. You have to contact everyone you owe money to, including all credit bureaus. You have to go through loop after loop to prove that you’re not doing it to avoid creditors or escape legal restrictions. If you change your name outside of the institution of marriage, you are assumed to be a security threat. And boy is it annoying. This has only gotten more difficult over time – why would anyone think it’ll get easier?
That point aside, reputation is built up over time. It can be built up negatively and positively. But even when folks have a negative reputation, they often don’t want to lose the positive reputation that they’ve built. Starting at zero can be a lot harder than starting with a mixed record. Most people who have bruises on their public reputation also have gold stars. Just look at various infamous people who have had their names dragged through the mud by the press. Many have been invited to change their names but few have. Why? Because it’s more complicated than a simple name change.
To make matters worse, changing your name doesn’t let you avoid past names. All it takes is for someone whose motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two. (Personal humor… I thought when I created zephoria.org that I could separate my digital identity from my reputation as a scholar. My blog was supposed to be pseudonymous. Ooops.)
Don’t get me wrong – we’re in for a really confusing future as reputation gets complicated by digital self-presentations and the mouthing off of our friends. I’m not at all convinced that I know the answer but I do know that name changes aren’t going to solve anything.
The thing is… I’m really curious about this strange depiction of Schmidt’s attitude, especially given his previously strange comments on the end of privacy. How does he see privacy as dead while imagining a world in which reputation can be altered through a name change? Does anyone have any good insights into how he thinks about these issues because I’m mighty confused and I’d love to understand his mental model.