July 27, 2009

Sorry for the long hiatus; one of the reasons for the break was that I got married earlier this year (it’s a surprisingly time-consuming process).

My husband took my name when we got married, and as well as providing an opportunity to learn how to make a deed poll for free the process forced us both to think about our web and email presences, the extent to which these are tied to our ‘real’ names, and by extension the searchability of names in general.

One of my husband’s priorities, when he knew he’d be changing his name, was to register a gmail address under his new name (you can see why I married him!). This meant choosing the format of the email address: firstname.lastname, lastname.firstname, initial.lastname… the choices are endless, and it was only when I came to suggest that he should choose something consistent with other family members that I realised that my family have managed to be as inconsistent as possible:

Dad: firstnamelastname@gmail
Mum: firstname.lastname@gmail
Sister: f.lastname@gmail
me: firstnamelas@gmail

In my case I just used the same username as my longest-standing email address, which in turn was chosen because of the username policy on that particular system. The sysadmin writes:

I don’t routinely allocate usernames which are very likely to clash (ie, ones which someone else – including a later new user – would be likely to want.) I also try to avoid allocating usernames in a way that encourages people to guess the email address of someone whose real name they know but whose username they don’t. This means I don’t generally issue just first name, or just surname, unless the name is very unusual. As a suggestion, more sensible alternatives include initial(s) and surname, or first name and remaining initials.

All well and good, but they also imposed an 8-character limit; my surname’s longer than that, and my first name plus initials would have looked like a rather odd word. (These days I’m more likely to run into the minimum character limit, having adopted a 2-character nickname — which was allowed on LiveJournal and Twitter, but disallowed on eBay and a few other sites).

Fortunately, gmail makes our family’s inconsistent data slightly better by ignoring dots in the local-part of the address; so firstname.lastname and firstnamelastname are the same account… as indeed is, if you want to be awkward. Good news for the early adopter who has the username anticip...........ation@gmail (yes, it’s gone).

Then there’s the searchability of your name. My husband opted to keep his ‘bachelor name’ (to coin a phrase) as his middle name (as women sometimes do with their maiden names — e.g. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Heather Mills McCartney) so that a web search for him under his unmarried name would still find him. We’re both lucky enough to have names which are moderately unusual (we’re not drowning in an unsearchable sea of John/Jane Smiths or equivalent), we’ve been early-enough adopters to claim our names on various sites, and we managed to claim our facebook usernames of choice without even having to get up at 4am.

Despite the excitement of the great username giveaway, Facebook still stands out as the one big social networking service where you’re actually expected to use your real name (I’m not counting LinkedIn because that’s really more about the ‘networking’ than the ‘social’). I cut my internet teeth in an era when an 8-character username was expected, even hip (I got quite attached to the four-letters-four-digits userid I was allocated at university; it was as much part of my identity as my ‘real’ name or my IRC nick), so the idea of using your actual name — your fuzzy, human-readable, nowhere-near-unique, not-even-adequately-namespaced name — seemed just absurd! And yet it works, unless you’re trying to find your schoolfriend Jane Smith (and you’re not even 100% sure that she hasn’t married, so even looking through all “over 500” Jane Smiths (Janes Smith?) might not help. At the end of the day, we’re used to dealing with the idea of knowing people who share a name; in the UK we even tend to eschew adding a “Jr.” or “III” as disambiguation. Maybe the Facebook fashion is the future: a future where we force computers to adapt to our redundancy-filled systems rather than forcing ourselves into their high-information mould? The sci-fi stereotype seems to tend in the opposite direction (I’d be interested to know if there are earlier instances of this than Zamyatin’s We with its protagonist D-503) but perhaps in 30 years my loyal adherence to the 8-character username I chose in 1999 will seem as archaic as giving a married woman her husband’s initial (e.g. Elizabeth Jones becoming “Mrs J. Smith” on marrying John Smith) does now … or even taking her husband’s surname.