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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musing on child naming and the Internet

I am of the age where many of my friends are having kids and so I’ve been exposed to more conversations about what to name one’s child than I ever could’ve imagined. I’m sure people have always had long contested discussions with their partners and friends about naming, but I can’t help but laugh at the role that the Internet is playing in these conversations today. I clearly live in a tech-centric world so it shouldn’t be surprising that SEO and domain name availability are part of the conversation. But I’m intrigued by the implicit assumption in all of this… namely, that it’s beneficial for all individuals to be easily findable online and, thus, securing a fetus’ unique digital identity is a tremendous gift.

Over the summer, Omar Wasow worked on a project at MSR about transparency and the implications of putting criminal records online. We were both flabbergasted by all of the efforts underway to publish arrest records as well as sentencing records. Omar is interested in whether or not publishing criminal arrest records negatively affects individuals’ ability to rejoin society once they’ve served their sentences. Does this information affect people’s ability to get a job? To rent an apartment? Etc. One thought we had was that it’s a lot easier to live down a record if you have a common name and, thus, are just one of many in a sea being searched.

Most parents don’t want to imagine the implications of searchable arrest records on the lives of their future spawn, but I can’t help but think that it’s pretty absurd to believe that all kids are going to want to be self-branded highly-visible easily-searchable adults. Sure, we all want our kids to be successful, but what if they’re not? And what if they don’t want to stand out? I always thought it was horrific when parents would name their kids ridiculous names that were destined for torturous middle school nicknames, but what does it mean to take it to the next level such that they stick out like sore thumbs online? It’s a lot easier to live down middle school than to live down a persistent digital identity.

I’m not at all sure if it’s better to give a kid a unique name so that they can stand out like a shining star or to go with a more generic name so that they can quietly stay invisible if they want. There’s definitely something to be said for naming a child at puberty instead of at birth, but, well, that’s not really how American society is structured.

Anyhow, I don’t really have any answers on this topic but it sure is entertaining to watch it unfold all around me. If you’ve got any advice that I can offer to my friends from your own experience, please holler cuz it sure is causing lots of folks heartburn.

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27 comments to musing on child naming and the Internet

  • Danah,

    Names play such an insignificant role in who we are. They may identify us, but they are certainly not our identity.

    I had the good fortune of going to college with three additional Jeff Rosens and boy did I get them in trouble. I live within one mile of three additional Jeff Rosens and other than the errant mail delivery, we are never confused.

    Names may be unique, but they do not make us unique.

  • ….OK, that was totally not where I expected that first paragraph to be going.

    As someone around your age, and the parent of a child myself, naming debates have been of great personal interest to me, as well as something I see a lot of. And I’ve definitely heard domain name availability as a criterion (not so much SEO). Me personally, the relevant and transformative techs weren’t that, though — they were baby name message boards (allowing me to massively aggregate and predict trends before they hit full force) and the Social Security data online. (It in fact amazed me that many of my tech-savvy friends were completely blindsided when the “unique” names they picked for their children turned out to be in the top 10 — I guess a lot of people just don’t know about this resource.)

    I have seen a lot of parents securing domain names, Facebook names, etc. for their kids. (I haven’t for mine because I think her digital identity should be hers to define.) I haven’t seen people in my circle pressing hard for internet uniqueness. And, frankly…

    My daughter has an unusual name, but it’s not unique. There are several others online already with the same, or similar names. I, however, have a unique name. Go ahead and check it out attached to this comment. That is my real, legal name. Every single instance of that name on the internet is me. And if someone digs up something via Google I don’t even have plausible deniability. “Oh, that? That’s some other Andromeda Yelton.” Haha, yeah. Right.

    This caused problems at my last job — I was a teacher and some of my students found stuff I’d put on the internet at 16 and used it to make trouble for me. I’ve taken some steps to make certain parts of my digital past harder to google for (e.g. removing my last name where I can; my first name alone, of course, is much harder to find me with). And I’ve been aggressively putting content out there that represents my current identity, to at least dominate the first page of search results.

    But, yes. These people don’t realize that there’s a distinction between being easy to find online if you want to be — and not having a choice not to be. These people don’t realize the tremendous utility of plausible deniability when it comes to Google searches. And they don’t realize that it takes substantially more work to craft an online identity when you have a unique name — that, in fact, you must do that work if you have any online presence at all, and you care about how you are perceived by people who Google you. (And the post-social-media generation will all have online presences whether they put the content there or not, and more or less all of them will be looking for jobs or otherwise interacting with strangers they need to impress someday — so, really, that would be everyone.) My sister-in-law is also jobsearching right now, and, while there’s content online about her, her name is fairly common, the content pertaining to her is hard to find or identify, and she really doesn’t have to do work for online reputation management if she doesn’t want to. I must. Luckily I like this whole social-media thing, and it’s professionally useful for me anyway, or the obligation would get onerous.

    So, really, there’s my advice. Do they want their kids to be under the necessity of aggressive online reputation management? Do they want things their kids do when they are 16 — or 6 — to influence how people in their workplace interact with them at 30? (Because that stuff’s not going away in the intervening decades. Not all of it, anyway.)

    I thoroughly endorse unusual names. I thoroughly endorse names which give kids the option of uniqueness. And I do love my name — it’s not the one I was born with, I did have it legally changed to this, hence, contra Jeff Rosen, my name is a huge part of my identity. But the unique name has costs, and they’re costs people should choose, not have imposed upon them.

  • Pia

    Hmm… I don’t know that web searchability would ever be a primary consideration for me in choosing a name, but I also think that it’s impossible to predict at birth whether the kid would eventually be better off with a unique or generic name. Will they have a criminal record that they want to hide, or an enterprise that they want to promote? Will they use the Internet as a forum to express themselves positively and share their brilliant ideas, or will they post ill-advised and embarrassing things on whatever Facebook-like thing is out there in the future? It’s also possible that in the future, there will be easier ways to identify people than by just using their first and last names. So I’m not worrying about this… although shortly after he was born, I did sign up for an email account with my son’s name so he’ll be all set when he’s older.

  • Ruth

    The best part of my own name is that it’s old enough that it’s way out of fashion so very few people my own age are named it, but it’s still “conventional” in the sense that there’s a book in the bible named after me. I can hide in the murkiness of the internet, but I still stand out IRL. Win/win! I think the important thing to naming anything is to have a good story behind the name. So that when your kid asks why they were named Ruth the answer isn’t “because we thought it would be easy to register a domain with it”. The name itself just needs to pass some obvious tests: is it pronouncable, spellable, and easily nicknamed but not into something they will get made fun of for.

  • I can echo Andromeda’s comment almost verbatim.

    I wish my name was Joe Smith.

  • I have a fairly unusual first name. A common last name. There is at least one and possibly two (or more) people with the first name/last name combo with serious criminal records. That’s the way it is with a large population. There is also my father and my son who have the same name and both of them are much more impressive (in good ways) than I am. That is also going to happen.
    People should pick names because they like the name, because they want to name a child after someone important to them, or because the name just seems to fit the child. Internet searchabily is just a distraction. I would not take that much into account.

  • Christine

    I’m with Andromeda – that’s not at all where I expected the first paragraph to be heading. It surprises me that the SEO concern would show up on an expectant parent’s radar. There are so many other important things to worry about when having a child: money, parenting style, etc. This seems like a very upper middle-class concern (and a new level of helicopter parenting).

    A baby will have her own personality and wishes for the way she presents herself. Who knows if she will even WANT a web presence, or if “web presence” will exist as we know it today. I would lean toward letting this new individual carve out her own identity, on- and offline, if I were to consider the question.

    This is my related experience (SEO concerns or not): my real name is unfortunately one of a kind. I think totally unique, weirdly-spelled names are okay, but my first name was fairly unusual when my mother named me, and used to be primarily a boy’s name. I personally would’ve given anything to be a Jennifer growing up.

  • I am an outlier in that I have a strong online/digital brand as a young person. I have used it effectively for personal and professional gain. This said, over many dinners I have spent 5 minutes selling a pitch for online branding, and 5 minutes later, I have a group of people ready to go with me to the computer lab and go get started. Seriously.

    My advice to these people would be that squatting on their child’s cyber-identity is a great idea, even if developing it is not. When they grow up they may use it, they may not, but better just to have it in case. Making them findable is another question altogether and is not something I would advocate for very young people.

  • Great topic, danah!

    Having just named my first kid, I can tell you uniqueness was on our list of criteria, but it wasn’t very high up on that list. The overriding theme of our decision-making was that we wanted a name that would give our kid options. We wanted a name that she could grow into and adapt to her needs, whatever kind of person she turned out to be. We didn’t want to lock her into being a weirdo (or rebelling against weirdness) by giving her a weird name, burden her with something hard to pronounce or spell (in either of her parents’ native languages) or lay too much pressure on (so “Jesus” was right out ;-)

    Also, we had my own experience as an example of the great unpredictable future: I was born with a very uncommon boy’s name that became a hugely popular girl’s name a half-generation later. These days, people who have never met me in person often guess my gender wrong, which somehow manages to embarrass just about everybody. So we wanted at least one of her names to be unquestionably female.

    We ended up with a pretty common first name from a couple of generations ago, a completely made-up middle name, and two last names (one from each parent). Depending on which of these names she chooses to go by, she can either blend in with the crowd (in a number of different countries) or join the ranks of us Internet narcissists and become the top link on her search page. If we’ve played our cards right, that choice will be totally up to her.

  • There’s an argument which is quite appropriate here: SEO is bullshit – if the content is good enough, your page should rise to the top anyway.

  • This caused problems at my last job — I was a teacher and some of my students found stuff I’d put on the internet at 16 and used it to make trouble for me. I’ve taken some steps to make certain parts of my digital past harder to google for…

    Many years later, no reasonable person should be judging you on things you said informally at 16. This may be a useful filter for identifying the people to watch out for!

    I do hope that this glut of history will make it easier for people to be seen learning. That is, we need more leaders and politicians, for example, who are allowed to say “Yes, I thought $ONE_THING ten years ago, but I have learned this, this, and that: so now I think $ANOTHER_THING!” without being pilloried by fools.

  • Cassidy Curtis: …I was born with a very uncommon boy’s name that became a hugely popular girl’s name a half-generation later. These days, people who have never met me in person often guess my gender wrong, which somehow manages to embarrass just about everybody…

    This sort of ambiguity and confusion can be used to great advantage: you have one step on everyone.

    Similarly, I don’t like the idea of a world where everyone’s fingerprint+DNA was tied to their writings: we should be taking ideas as they are, not with too many prejudices or expectations. Although real-name-based and face-based interaction has value, I think it hampers interaction with the unfamiliar.

    Sure, it might seem bad, sometimes, if nobody knows if they’re talking to a dog on the internet, but heck, if it is on the web, I want its ideas to be taken seriously, too! ;D

  • I’ve just had a child one week ago. I’m German, my wife is Polish. We speak with each other mostly in English. But there’s also always some Italian, German and Polish. When we were thinking about a name for our child our first concern was that we both find it beautiful. There were (and are until now) no thoughts about search-ability, privacy, etc. And we’re both internet “natives”, i.e. there’s either a laptop, iPad or iPhone in reach to work, read or communicate in some sort.
    In addition to the subjective beauty of the name, we were also looking for a name that was short (hence not so prone to stupid cutifications by relatives), easy to pronounce in all different sort of languages and without any characters that are specific to either one of our languages.
    At the end of the day a name is a canvas. The character of the person carrying it will fill it with life. There were many nice names that we ruled out because we knew people of those names that we didn’t like. A pity really – they spoiled those names forever for us.
    If you think of it – Michael Jackson, Jon Steward, Thomas Keller – they all are plain names. Boring almost. But because the people who carry them they have a special ring to them now.

  • I doubt that any parent means to do harm when naming a child. Still, we all have come over names and combination of them ranging from ‘just a bit too funny’ to down ‘right tragic’. Some of these names get changed because they are unbearable in the first place; others change their rather ordinary names to find closure of some sort, longing for a chance to start a new chapter in life.

    To me it seems rather difficult to predict a good and everlasting name. Web 2.0 and its successors do not make this quest an easier task; now there is so much more to consider! Is there really? I think not.
    I would rather see a name to be chosen because of its meaning, rather than of its searchability; maybe first and foremost as a guide for the parents during the upbringing of the child. If you perceive your child as a gift, call him Matthias, Matthew or Theodore and your daughter Alexandra if you want her to be strong and courageous.
    I would rather see a name to be chosen because of its sound, rather than based on an available and easy2remember domain. The kid might never use the domain but would still have to live with the name…
    I would also rather see parents name their children after people they like and know in person – since there is closeness and positivity involved – instead of forcing them into the virtual landscape or on a real map (like Paris…) with a prosperous name.

    As for everlasting or long-lasting names: In 5th grade, I asked people to drop my first name and call me after my middle name. Then some 16 years later, I started to use a short form of the middle name because it is even shorter – and to me – more practical in everyday life. Within my current network of friends and colleagues hardly anyone knows my full real name. Nevertheless, I am still registered by the name my parents consciously gave me. I’m still their little warrior and a gift to them most of the times.

    To wrap it all up: Forget thinking of Web 2.0 and Web X.0 when choosing a name! There is no perfect name especially not for Web 2.0 and its successors. But, there are plenty of GOOD names around; names that symbolize positive qualities and values, that can remind parents of what they wanted for their kids in the very beginning, names that can give the newborns a neutral place to start from, a name that lets them evolve throughout life. Once a name is chosen, one can still try to ‘secure’ a domain, get the ‘all so important’ Facebook account – or: Let the kid decide for itself!

  • The overriding theme of our decision-making was that we wanted a name that would give our kid options.

    This. My parents gave me and each of my sibs one common given name and one “unusual” one, giving us the option to choose whether to blend in or not. Of course, digital reputation management wasn’t on their radar in the 70s and 80s.

  • Another “unusual name” commenter here. I suspect that existing problems of identity trump any concerns that are new, or rather new issues are probably largely variations on existing ones. The folding-back-into-society issue already exists because it’s common for job applicants to have to state whether they have ever been arrested, and there are increasingly large chunks of professional jobs inaccessible to people with criminal backgrounds. I don’t know if anyone is going to challenge some employers’ checking credit histories, but that’s an experience for some. The Facebook-identity-that-lives-on issue certainly exists.

    I’m old enough (or maybe my life is boring enough) that I’ve never worried about identity management, and for those who care about what I do, it’s easy enough to find my online presence.

  • @Kevin: You say “no reasonable person”. I taught junior high.

    But seriously, the easy joke aside, anyone who works with the public in any capacity is going to have to deal with the fact that many audiences will be viewing their online content, including people with different backgrounds and contexts who may understand that content very differently; including people whom one would not generally select as members of one’s own social circle; and including people who may or may not be “reasonable”, but with whom one must nonetheless maintain positive, professional relationships. Filtering them out isn’t necessarily an option. This is part of why it’s super-important to me that people be able to choose their levels of exposure online (and why a lot of the content I’ve put out there is not under my name, and/or is under some kind of privacy filter).

    I do share your hope that the culture will eventually adapt and realize that people change, and that things said in one context shouldn’t necessarily be used to judge you in others — that part of being a socially competent human being is adjusting your self-presentation for different audiences, and the internet has broken down the lines formerly separating audiences, and people need to be viewed in light of their interactions with their intended audience, not any possible audience. But that’s not a cultural place we’re at right now, and I think it’ll take people who were raised on omnipresent social media to do it; my generation is too old.

  • “We were both flabbergasted by all of the efforts underway to publish arrest records as well as sentencing records. Omar is interested in whether or not publishing criminal arrest records negatively affects individuals’ ability to rejoin society once they’ve served their sentences. Does this information affect people’s ability to get a job? To rent an apartment?”

    Why is there such a poor concept of personal data privacy in America? A conviction record (different from an arrest record) is not at all appropriate for a public online database. The police should have access to this information but no one else. It is much too easily abused for all of the above reasons.

  • @Danah – please, excuse the tongue in cheek/ cheeky optimised anchor text… I used it to highlight how difficult it is to choose a name for your offspring that would be truly useful from an SEO perspective.
    And I like your blog.

    @Jeff – I disagree that names do not define us to some degree; may I cite Johnny Cash and his Boy Named Sue as proof?!

    @Ciarán – ‘if the content is good enough, your page should rise to the top anyway’ – you’re living in a dream, without links you may as well put your great content in a bottle and launch it from your nearest beach for all the reach it’s going to get.

    On the name front – As a child I felt very sorry for the kids who had to share their name with somebody else and thought it sad that their parents couldn’t/didn’t bother to find an original name for their kids!

    In terms of securing domain names for your kids – I wouldn’t bother – does anybody think that .com will be applicable in 20 years.. and the inventor (and subsequent usurper) of the future equivalent of Facebook probably haven’t even been born yet!

  • david

    I have a common first name, but a very uncommon surname, so that I am the only person in the world with my exact combination of first name and surname. I haven’t thought much about the possible benefits (my webpage will always be #1 hit on google when people search for my name…) but I have always found it annoying that I cannot use my full name online without leaving traces that may haunt me forever. Stupid e-mails to mailing lists when I was a teenager, accidentally putting my full name in blog comments etc….

  • Chris Powell

    A solution we employed in naming our son provided him with both an uncommon name (Random) and a common name (Zackary). We called him by and registered him for school with the common name to avoid those school nickname issues and trusted that at some point he would recognize the value of the uncommon name and start using it. This was entirely successful – he chose to start using the uncommon name mid-high-school.

    Entertainingly enough, FB won’t allow him to use his uncommon name as “random” is a forbidden name/term.

  • I have two daughters (one is almost 3 months, the other is younger). Just a bit ago, I hopped over to GoDaddy and grabbed their names as URLs. With a coupon, it cost me $7.50. I will do nothing with those URLs for a long long time. But if they grow up with tech (I’m a geek, and will share tech with them), then great -they can use them. But the biggest reason I bought them is as an insurance policy that no one else will later on down the line. A bit conspiracy theorist? Maybe. But I’m more interested in showcasing my daughters’ artwork, stories, audio recordings, etc., and I’ve secured a channel for them to do that.

  • I have two daughters (one is almost 3 years, the other is younger). Just a bit ago, I hopped over to GoDaddy and grabbed their names as URLs. With a coupon, it cost me $7.50. I will do nothing with those URLs for a long long time. But if they grow up with tech (I’m a geek, and will share tech with them), then great -they can use them. But the biggest reason I bought them is as an insurance policy that no one else will later on down the line. A bit conspiracy theorist? Maybe. But I’m more interested in showcasing my daughters’ artwork, stories, audio recordings, etc., and I’ve secured a channel for them to do that.

  • Renee

    Alexander- I agree that children should be named after people that were inspiring or had a positive effect in history or in a parent’s life. All this worry about “Facebook friendly” names seems to take picking a name for a child too far.

  • Renee

    “I always thought it was horrific when parents would name their kids ridiculous names that were destined for torturous middle school nicknames, but what does it mean to take it to the next level such that they stick out like sore thumbs online? It’s a lot easier to live down middle school than to live down a persistent digital identity.”

    I agree with this quote because I have many friends who have been targeted online because of their unique names. Perhaps if they had had more “common” names, they would not have been targeted or easily selected.

  • Laura

    The opposite is, of course, the too-common name. I have a college friend whose last name is Smith, first name is Jennifer (and yes, we’re of the era where that was THE most common girl’s name), and middle name is equally generic. Her senior year, there was a sophomore transfer student with the same first and last name, and same middle initial.

    Every time she does anything that runs a credit or background check, it takes longer and usually they require additional information, because there is someone close to her identifying information whose record is not so clean.

    That kinda bites too. I chose to split the difference with my son – I named him for my father (a very common first name), and his last name (from my husband) is very common also. But his middle name is, while not bizarre, a bit outdated these days and probably he will be able to get by on the background checks when he is older because of that piece of data.

    I think it is easier to pick a “normal” name and then let the kid have an unusual nickname if desired. Not only can they indulge their own personality, but they might be able to dodge/live it down when older by dropping its use…without needing a court to legally change anything.

  • SMD

    Mr Curtis’ careful decision to give his daughter as many options as possible is very close to the one my parents made. They gave me four names, so depending on the combination I use I can choose to stand out more or less. These options also grant me much more control over my identity online. In addition, my first name is unisex (50%-50% male/female distribution) which gives me even greater flexibility, especially since I work in a field dominated by the other gender. Sometimes there are advantages to “fitting in”, and other times I want to stand out. And of course, I’ve used different names as I’ve crafted my identity over time.

    I’m very grateful to my parents for their considered choice, as I’m sure Mr Curtis’ daughter will thank him for granting her so many options.

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