My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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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.

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30 comments to a few thoughts on name changes & reputation

  • I completely agree with your statements on reputation, which makes what Schmidt said quite interesting. Not only does he think that people will be changing their names, but that they will be “entitled” to it, as if their name and past is like some public profile they can delete and start all over again. The Internet is the world’s largest archive (with Google contributing a lot of that legwork), so to think that name changes will be more common in order to remove the trials of youth, much less be entitled or even expected seems outlandish. I would hope that younger generations are learning that as society is evolving and the Internet has matured, we must be more transparent about our actions, which are not only visible to those in our immediate vicinity, but often to anyone in the world.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the link.

  • Funny approach… as you say, connecting old names with new names will be even easier than tracking down people’s online persona.

    I’ve seen any number of instances where people have been tracked by a semi-committed group of people who wanted to find our what a given person did in real life (usually after that person had done something particularly annoying or unacceptable)

    More likely, there will be a return to the acceptance that young people are young and we will see childhood hijinks as just that. The same way that people are slowly starting to understand that the reason *most* of what is written online is banal is that most of what we say to each other is banal. We will slowly adapt to having our lives recorded and brought back to us at strange times. Indeed, those of us from small towns can still be reminded at a summer party of things we did when we were 12.

    :) city slickers getting a chance to taste what it’s like to live in a small town where what you’ve done never goes away. I had a girlfriend in high school (20 years ago) that some members of my family still refer to as “that girl who was found drunk in the post office”.

  • I completely agree with you that name changing is not the solution and will bring forth issues of its own. I think Schmidt’s comments were just not well thought through. Simplistic, really.

  • My favorite name-changing story:

    When a heterosexual couple gets married, the forms have a spot for the bride to change her name.

    There is no equivalent for the groom. If they are both changing their names to a hyphenated combination (how progressive!) he has to take the normal legal name-change route.

    I can only imagine how much more retarded this gets with same-sex couples.

  • Wow. I changed my name recently (well, I’m still working on getting it adjusted on all of my pertinent documents), but I did so to more closely align myself IRL with the identity I’ve crafted online — not to escape it (as if).

  • Tim Maly

    Leaving aside the obviously insurmountable hurdles towards this being a reality (I mean, has this Schmidt guy heard of Google?) there’s something really compellling about this as a kind of science fictional scenario.

    You can imagine a world where ubiquitous social networking and permanently invaded privacy leads to a cultural rite of passage where we sever all ties with our past and set ourselves on the public path. Similar to how we purge the criminal records of young offenders.

    There might even be an element of choice in it as young people grapple with when they will leave the nest. Similar to choices like marriage and school. Of course, for this to work, we’d need a way to have a social severing. So you’d have to leave behind your old life and friends. How long do you stay adolescent? Is there a pressure from your parents to grow up? Do you stay young extra long, knowing you have a one time get out of jail free card? Analogies to baptism spring to mind.

    There’d be all kinds of elements of etiquette. Of course, smart people could link your past to your present but it would be seen as unbelievably rude. And how do you handle encountering old fiends, enemies and paramours from a different life. You recognise each other but no one is allowed to say.

    The Fables comic series with the general amnesty sprigs to mind.

  • I’m pleasantly surprised that Eric Schmidt has such a visionary thinking. His ideas are probably not mature, but he’s thinking in the right direction. One of the main issues about our future is the issue of Identity.

    IMHO, in the future we will have multiple identities. We will not change identity, we will just keep all of them.

  • sieciobywatel

    In 20 years discussions about privacy, identity and reputation will be like genealogy and coats of arms for us today. We can’t expect that labels we use now (due to habit, lack of alternative) are going to fit in completely different reality.
    Two, three hundreds year ago you didn’t need ID to prove who you are. Everyone you’d meet knew you, and everything about your family (unless you were on of those few lucky bastards that had a chance to travel more than few hours long trip at some point of their live).
    My guess is that what is going to matter in future is trust, much more than it is now. But it is going to be contextual thing; even now we don’t have just one, single reputation. The future generation probably just embrace this fact and take it as obvious.

  • Jon

    No sure if he wasn’t taken out of context there, still I suppose that thinking about these sort of problems will probably be necessary in the near future.

  • What Eric Schmidt is proposing is utterly insane.

    I spent a few moments over the weekend to add another thought to Jeff Jarvis’ “The Price of Privacy”.

    I had posed a question to Jeff regarding consequence, safety and his family, where he replied “Yes, I have a family and, I’ve said here, it is vital that I not bring them into my glass house.”

    So I gave some more thought to the conversation and realized something was missing. Why is it about public and private? Most other complex and important topics are never defined as being black or white. Why on earth are we then trying to draw distinct lines in the sand for this one? Why is it a matter of just public or just private? Why must my lifelong reputation be at stake in the course of conversation?

    The Internet is a highly interactive, on-line world of relationships, some fully public while others anonymous.

    What it lacks is the ability to explore your true and often contradictory self. Where you can be, express and connect different aspects of your personality with different individuals and groups of your own choosing. Where you can find others that share your views and thoughts. Where you can be what you can be. No limits. Necessarily anonymous.
    But that doesn’t fit well into Google’s business plan.

    Oddly enough, a platform that I am working on, designed to provide privacy aware, targeted advertising, addresses a very personal, real life need not met by today’s Internet. We all want to access, explore and learn from a full range of possible relationships…professional, social, sports, cultural, etc. But it is impossible and impractical to relate to everyone. Nor would we want to. We want to choose what parts of our “inner-self” we share and with whom we share it.

    Just as marketers want to reach a well-defined subset of individuals on my platform, users know something about who they are connecting with. And the users mutually decide, as in their real lives, what parts of their passions, thoughts and personalities they want to share and relate with…anonymously or otherwise, one-on-one or as part of a like-minded group.

    How I define and portray myself to co-workers is very different than how I want to or need to portray myself amongst friends, family or in the course of an online discussion.

    I believe that in the end it comes down to being offered choices and controls. We don’t need government regulation to define it. Don’t we, as consumers, need to demand it?

  • Joe

    I think changing one’s name is a strange behavior.

    It would be interesting to know the real reasons for name changes: credit/ debt, lousy relationship with parents, past trangressions.

    I don’t know anyone who has changed his/ her name outside the above reasons.

  • I think it is too bad that good film noir isn’t more widely watched. Anyone who’s seen “Out of the Past” would laugh at the idea of a name change allowing you to avoid even the most trivial of things, like someone from your old identity recognizing you while on a road trip. With Google, and all the iPhone snapshots in Facebook’s archive, there is especially no way to erase who you were.

    But I think there will be immense change nevertheless: when every voter and every political candidate has nearly naked pictures as a teenager on the internet, it won’t be a scandal at all. :P

    @Megan The marriage forms in Iowa, as of 5 years ago, at least, had blanks allowing the simple change of both names. I have some heterosexual friends who picked their new last name and both changed!

  • Siderea

    In fairness, he made a prediction about future norms, that is, he’s said how he thinks our society will behave. That’s not the same thing as saying that what society will do will work to any particular end. I don’t know how he intended the comment to be taken, but I know I make predictions all the time about how society will behave that in no way are predicated on the assumption that those behaviors will be good or effective.

  • My guess is that Schmidt’s mental model is framed by a number of obvious things like share price and being provocative to get attention. But also very significantly by the threats posed to Google by government and Facebook.

    So he says something he thinks governments want to hear in that extraordinary, end of privacy, quote: “The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

    The interview says “[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.” But note the apparently may be significant. Was this a side swipe at Facebook?

    Speaking as an engineer who spent many years working on algorithms I find a number of his utterances quite sad, frankly. Like this one: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions,” he elaborates. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” It seems to be a purely engineering outlook: Everything can be solved to an algorithm. Blimey, where is the human element to this. No wonder Google keep messing up their attempts at social innovations.

  • George Hokenby

    And now guess whether the identity I used to post this comment is my real identity or not.

    That’s why I hate all those stupid people who promote the use of real names and ban of pseudonyms in the Internet. Those guys obviously don’t understand life in the digital age.

    Nuff said.

    George AKA Whoever

  • Cujo

    A little known fact (as per @Megan Taylor above): Even within the institution of marriage, changing your name is a huge pain in the ass … if you’re a man. I know, because I did it.

  • Verging on ludicrous. But then again, one could postulate a future where your choice of name for your newborn child is denied because it is already taken. Or you are issued a .name url at birth… etc etc.

  • In reading Eric’s words on this matter, my initial reaction was visceral and similar to how I felt after reading Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on privacy. Only a few days earlier I saw Jeff Jarvis’ comments which had stirred me up as well. It frustrated me, but mainly because of all of these changes happening without us having a grip on the rules of engagement. Perhaps also the idea that we were tricked into playing and providing our information to these services before fully understanding what could or could not be done w/this info. It just feels like the room is spinning around us now. At times I think to myself, “where’s the adult supervision in all of this?”. Daniel Solove’s white paper (“‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy”) which I have taken to quoting of late, has been helpful by virtue of breaking down the issues into his taxonomy of privacy (problems).

    The big problem I believe we’re all trying to grapple with here seems to be the privacy issue around aggregation of our information. Transaction costs of compiling our information before the Internet, were high. If an employer wanted to do a background check on a prospective employee the costs of doing so would be relegated to only the most senior positions. Hiring an investigator, registering to access various databases, and bringing all of this information together in a way that made sense, would be costly and very time consuming. With the advent of the Internet this all became easier and easier, and today w/social networks and blogs, it’s actually a fairly cheap and not nearly as time consuming.

    In the old days, my activities from another state stayed there and when I moved it’s like I started anew. Moving from one job to another rarely carried baggage unless it was to a competitor in the same industry or a very high profile position. Now, no such luck, it’s all a few Google, Linkedin, and Facebook searches away. Not to mention the fact that my view of what should get mentioned about online is very different than what some of my friends to choose to discuss (and invoke my name along side of theirs) online. I can also access paid services via sites like pippl.com, Rapleaf and others, to compile online and physical world info about a person.

    Now flip to Wikileaks, and how in effect, “the genie’s out of the bottle”, and governments will have an increasingly difficult time keeping secrets. And for all of my liberal perspectives, it strikes me that the same principles that are at work creating transparency around corporations and governments, despite their reluctance to embrace these, are also now at work forcing transparency on all of us whether we like it or not (note, that Facebook’s reclassification of some of our info from private to public (ie. friends list), remains as such today even w/their new privacy settings in effect). Where the software biz used to be about creating structured apps with the data heavily reliant on the apps’ structures for its usefulness, the search engines and social networks, decoupled process and structure from data and have driven their businesses more from the data they collect. I don’t think we saw this coming fast enough. Without any rules on how this data is combined, aggregated, and interlinked, I’m afraid that things are going to get a lot more uncomfortable for everyone before new norms or rules emerge to give us back our humanity (by “humanity” I’m referring to the fact as humans we err, we experience happiness and frustration, and none of this is held against us, it’s just part of how we are).

    All this talk about transparency reminds me of Jim Carrey’s movie “Liar Liar” about a guy who couldn’t lie, and why that wasn’t exactly a good thing. The one difference that I see between personal transparency and the one we frequently demand from governments and corporations, is that these institutions operate at our behest and in service of their constituents and shareholders, not the other way around, (as I typed these words, I had a flash that a constitutional scholar would call me out for not acknowledging that corporations are “virtual persons” endowed with all of the rights that “natural persons” have ;)

    With full on transparency, what happens to common courtesy? What happens to empathy and sympathy? What happens to context? All of this seems lost until there’s a way to come to terms with the rules of access and aggregation. Good luck to us all ;)

    Sorry for the long comment, just have had a lot on my mind on this issue.

  • I think you should nip the problem in the bud. I.e. for me the one about the enlightenment of all this newly-created problem of online reputation. Both youths and adults must understand that we are often unable to clean up our traces left in the internet. They are now for “always” online. Second, I recommend that at least in social networks in a contrived identity set. One is long on the safe side, because once you have your name on the network and you are dissatisfied with your reputation, it is difficult to re-establish a good image. The only way is online Repuation management. In any case, should bring the Online Reputation and more into the focus of businesses and individuals. This becomes more and more attention. And why not just use these times way to create a very good own reputation?

  • Tingo

    It’s very country-dependent, this name-change business. In Denmark, 20 years ago or so, it took me about 3 (three) weeks to get the procedure through and done with. No kidding, and no big deal. Granted, every single citizen of that country, already back then, was registered on the computers of Big Brother and his sisters… But if I had to change my name again, I’d go back and live there, as recent laws have even widened the possibilities.

  • Laura

    his mental state = my ability to rationalize my work > my values

  • Stormy

    I agree that changing your name would only work if you left behind all your friends and family. As soon as they make the connection, the connection will be made some where on line …

  • Sara

    I read about this in the Telegraph and have been mulling it over since. First, it’s interesting that Schmidt names out young people specifically as needing the opportunity to change their name in order to escape a past self. As if only youths are blemishing their reputations through digital means and, by being young, they can more easily shed their identity. As you’ve noted there are clearly issues with this idea of changing names- not to mention that as more of identity becomes presented online and is saved, indexed, and searchable, one’s former name (and all the data to go along with it) can easily be linked to the new name in numerous databases, thus making it difficult to ever escape.

    As far as his mental model, it is clearly a partial mental model (if that) and not a working MM. I imagine his stance is built on the idea of being in opposition to Zuckerberg and others who believe in an idea of “radical transparency” where the world becomes more accepting of people because everyone will openly share the good, the embarrassing, and the mundane about themselves. It is truly complicated and frustrating trying to sort out a mental model that would explain how the social (one’s self identity, social presentation of self and context, legal regulations, institutional organizations, etc) and the technical (profiles, photos, records, databases…) could work towards name changes as a successful distancing from identity or even as this being a desirable trend in the first place.

  • 2am

    also worth noting that, even though your name can be changed, your position on the social graph will likely remain the same. i.e your friends/family/contacts will otherwise remain unchanged and this ‘fingerprint’ can be easily used to link you to your prior name. beyond govt worry, there are currently even commercial systems that use this metadata (i.e your position on the social graph) to uniquely identify you, even with pseudonyms (rapleaf as an example)

  • I have to say, it shouldn’t take a post so long to wonder how a man of such stature can say something that a drunkard would know is stupid… so congrats on being a skeptic and saying: “I’d love to understand his mental model.”
    Going back to him is the only way to tell if he was kidding, but his brain cycles are so fast they ruin the rhythm, if this was nonsense, or if he meant something distinct, like multiple pseudonymity (something needed on SNS, that Orkut finally made somewhat possible).

  • Also, there is a US/non-US dimension to name change. I noticed that I have a fair number of American friends who go by a name, now their legal name, that is not their birth name. Either it’s something else, or they use their middle name, or some variation of it.

    It always gave me the impression that name changes in the US were an easy thing (your story tells me otherwise).

    To my knowledge, I know nobody here (in Switzerland) who has been through a legal name change. Actually, one person, who as an adult took his birth father’s name rather than his mother’s previous husband’s (some silly date thing made him end up with the wrong name at birth). And he told me it was really long and complicated.

    I don’t have the feeling that name changes are considered like “something you do” here — unless there is a very very strong reason to. Not the same vibe I get from the other side of the pond.

  • Jason Smith

    Eric Schmidt is a charlatan — the typical corporate socio-path. He knows quite well that privacy cannot be restored simply by changing your name. He must have laughed at the stupidity of his own assertions. Schmidt has a long term strategy for his business where profits will are based on knowing as much about everyone as Google can store, index and monetize. He’s distracting us from looking at the massive data collection Google is involved in. The more his company can gather now, in the absence of government regulations, the more money he makes later.

  • Hmm, it is quite common in Hong Kong for people to change their “English” name several times as they move from primary school to adulthood. In late teens to early 20′s most stick to one “English” name. Surprisingly, these “English” names frequently become the name people use most widely among family, friends and colleagues. People are allowed to add their “English” name to the official HK Identify Card quite easily. I have a “Chinese” name I use and I frequently get questions about why I would do this. It is all tied up with colonialism and the importance attached to English in HK society.
    Bill Proudfit / 鮑偉霖

  • bob

    For those who say Schmidt’s idea is useless, i would love to hear why. .I see Schmidt’s idea like i see seat belts, condoms,and firewalls— they aren’t intended to make you totally invulnerable, only to add an additional layer of security. Though I imagine, a name change wouldn’t be very successful if people are still dwelling on your past, it might be enough to keep the average creep from googling you right?

    Also to Danah, does changing you name really make you a suspect to national security? how do you know this?

  • @bob

    I think name changes happen all the time but not in real life, they happen in the virtual life. If I scroll through my Facebook Account I have to admit that more than 50% of my facebook “friends” havent got a real name in their social network. So they chance their identity from time to time. I know some of my so called “Facebook Friends” only by their virtual social media name, so I tend to call them in real life with their fake last name. Conclusio: Your Facebook last name becomes your new identity! (as long as it doesen’t says Bob Iwonttellyou, or some laste name that is easily so detect as a fake name)

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