Identity: social, legal, and work


Google has made some waves with their Google Plus social networking service in that they're following Facebook's footsteps in making it require real names (or names that look real at any rate). Nothing new there, both Facebook and LinkedIn do just that and they're both making quality money off of that. Advertisers like real names since it helps narrow marketing preference profiles.

Being the age I am, I came of age during a time when online identity (in my case "online" meant dial-up BBS systems before it meant Internet) was entirely a pseudonym. Very few people used their real name as their handle, those that did tended to add a few letters for disambiguation. So my age-group earned our online chops behind made up names. We find nothing wrong with doing so.

Since then, though, there has been pushback on a number of fronts regarding identity. It is a clear fact that it's easier to harass people if there is some slight anonymity involved. Fraud is easier to perpetrate when the actors are pseudonyms. Libel is harder to prosecute if the accused isn't a real person. That sort of thing.

The question of electronic identity in the workplace has been around ever since people were represented as bits in computers. In olden days my Identity according to the computer and online records would be "195", my employee ID number. What name to attach to the EID is where we run into two other forms of identity in the workplace:

  1. Legal Identity such as Jubal Rupert Smith
  2. Casual Identity such as Rupert Smith, Bertie Smith, or even "J. Smith"

In white America of the 1960's everyone had three names, which makes writing the database schema easy. What name to slap on the employee record was pretty easy in the early days: use the name the income-tax man uses.

When email came out and started to be linked to those same employee records, employees like Mr. Smith up there wanted to be referred to as their casual name not legal name, so accommodations had to be made (or not). Figuring out how to disambiguate all of the "Jennifer Anderson" and "Pham Nguyen" employees also had to be figured out. Naming rules are complex for a reason.

Which brings me to a nice article titled, "Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names"

If you are going to write something that'll take real names and not made up names, you'll end up having to make some assumptions about what those names look like. In 1960's white America, everyone had three names: A first name, a middle name, and a family name. Some have prefixes (Hon.) or suffixes (Jr.) on that, but the name format stands. Easy!

Except we're no longer in 1960's white America any more. Names can be very long (the last name of "Nebauer-Ledenhausen" will probably break most field-length limits). Some people don't have middle names. Some only have one name. Some have more than three words in their name. Some names are based on clan not family. Names can have numbers in them (Jubal Smith 4th). Names can be duplicative (Muhammad Muhammad). Names can have strange characters in them, or be made entirely of strange characters.

The American work-place has the advantage that the US tax code seems to think that everyone has at least two names, a fact that is also enshrined in some State ID card systems. This doesn't help multinationals though.

Even if a person sticks to real-names in both work and social circumstances, how many names can a person have? A lot.

  • The formal legal name found on "primary identity documents" such as birth certificates.
  • The informal legal name, which in my experience frequently excludes the middle name (if present), reduces the middle name to an initial,  or shortens the first name to certain common short names (Robert -> Bob, that kind of thing)
  • The name that appears on work correspondence.
  • The name that appears on the letter to Grandma every Christmas.
  • The name that appears on the cover of books, since authors frequently publish under names they weren't born under. Having a hard to pronounce name encourages publishers/authors to pick something commonly pronounceable.
  • The name that high-school friends used in high-school.
  • The name that grade-school friends used.
  • The name used on hobby-craft publications, such as knitting patterns or Nerf-gun modification how-tos.

Every one of these is a "real name" to the people that use it. For some people there may only ever be one or two of these. For others there could be six or more. People who only see one of those names may not recognize the other versions.

Names, like identity, are multi-faceted. When I pick a name for a new system I'll be using I look at the audience it will have. Anything with a name similar to to what I use in the workplace and professionally needs to only contain content I would be not shocked about should workplace/profession discover it. The apocryphal drunk-party pics from college scuttling post-college employment options provides the lesson for that.

However, that's me and my generation. We have a long history of identity based around names that aren't even remotely like our legal names (shocking, I know, but "sysadmin" appears nowhere in my legal name) so are used to firewalling parts of our lives like that. Linking those parts has been the subject of academic papers in the past that map social graphs between various social networks to identify what usernames likely belong to a single person.

People in the next couple of generations down the line, Generation-Y/Millennials and especially GenZ, don't have this deep pseudonym history. Real-name social networking has been around for subjectively longer for them than me. But even they are still going to have a wide variety of names. It doesn't take judicial writ to change your name on Facebook, but the impact to how you are called by your friends can be just as large.

Anything that demands a 'real name' needs to have some context about what kind of real name it's looking for. Anything other than what's on your legal identity documents is going to be fuzzy and hard to control for. Google lacks the context but finally appears to be getting the point about fuzzy, some of their earlier suspensions have been overturned. LinkedIn has that context, the name you want to work under, and leaves it up to that. Whatever that set of fields that holds your name is, it needs to be able to take a wide, wide variety of inputs.


Good post, but seems to be some cut and paste wierdness going on.

What a timely post!

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about my various online personae (and I've also just joined Google+).

I have the same experience with regards to online pseudonyms while growing up, albeit some years later during the 14.4k dial up Internet era and on. Everyone used an alias and anonymity was a big part of my everyday online life. I had many friends who's "real" name I never knew. I've now just recently started using my real name online and so far it feels fairly comfortable.

I believe joining LOPSA was an influential factor in my decision to start using my real name online and to develop a professional online identity for myself.

Anyways, I'm just rambling but the timing of this post made it really jump out of the LOPSA feed right at me. Thanks!

Another assumption regularly made is that if someone's legal name changes it will only be their surname or middle and surname (a common practice among women of my mother's generation was to take their maiden name as their middle name when they married.)

My first and middle name changed earlier this year and getting places to update that has proven very interesting.

Additionally, there was a considerable period of time during which I was using two different names, sometimes in the same places, as I dealt with this transition.

When I read articles like this, I suddenly realize how old I am.

Yes, back in the old days, we all used alias of one kind or another, mainly, for me at least, because it was the convention. And, at the time, I never expected to meet these people I was talking to on-line. They were out there in the mysterious ether of cyberspace. They were "strangers" and may, or may not, have been trustworthy with my real name, address and life.

Now, it's quite the opposite.
But, it's not, really. I mean, we may be more likely to use "real" names, whatever that may mean in our strange, post-modern society, but those of us who are savvy to the ways of the Internet and archiving, are as careful as we've ever been about what we commit to the ether, where we lose all control of what and where our message goes. Wired wrote about this very thing, just recently:

As for me, well, let's just say that my Marketing degree has never been so useful.

"Yes, back in the old days, we all used alias of one kind or another, mainly, for me at least, because it was the convention. [...]"

Back in the day (for me), the net was very small (that is to say, Usenet was smallish and ARPAnet, BITnet, and CSnet, to which I had access only through email gateways, felt even smaller). I could be whatever!glenn (I didn't get an @-address until much later); there weren't a whole lot of other Glenns to compete with for login names or name-recognition (Daves, Steves, and Johns pretty much needed handles just to be rememberable). So I could use my spoken informal name as my online handle, and the net was a small enough, friendly, enough, single-community-feeling enough place that I felt safe doing so, even though I did see others using obvious, colourful handles, and privacy-protecting pseudonyms. (And for a little while, we were all Rich Rosen ... but I digress.)

Of course, back then I was ..!seismo!dolqci!hqhomes!glenn and I didn't have to worry about what to call myself on service after service, site after site, across the not-yet-invented WorldWide Web. I only had to worry about name collisions in the first place on my brief forays onto bulletin-board systems.

Oddly, my pseudonyms and nicknames (mostly the latter that became the former accidentally by displacing knowledge of my etymonym) grew out of me meatspace interactions! When I started using any of them online, it was to make me more recognizeable to people who already knew me in meatspace!

Nowadays, when I need logins on oodles of different sites and services, I often have to pick a handle just because 'glenn' and 'dglenn' are already taken. So in many ways, my experience of pseudonymity has been exactly backwards from many other people's.