My name is great for SEO purposes: if you type my name into any of the major search engines, everything that comes up on the first page of results refers only to me. I thoroughly dominate the first several pages of results, too.
It’s unusual, though. I spend quite a bit of time searching for specific people (not in a creepy way, I promise) and there are fewer unique names than you’d expect. Even those people who have fairly unique names often get caught up in strange search results. There used to be a lot of results for my name that involved things like book clubs reading something by Bram Stoker next Thursday.
But while we’re all looking for unique names that can ensure that we’ll get found online, going with something too unique doesn’t work in many offline situations. I have plenty of friends who have what we call ‘Starbucks names’: rather than giving a name that the typical kid behind the Starbucks counter can’t handle, they give something very simple. ‘Vasily’ becomes ‘Bob,’ at least long enough to get his coffee. Starbucks names are usually consistent, since you need to remember what name you’re listening for to make sure you get your drink.
The Identity of the Moment
The concept that we each only have one identity is new. Of course, it’s not out of the question to have different nick names at home and at work. But it can go further. In many cultures, there are situations in which a person will take on a new name. Even if you’re based in a Western culture and managed to never encounter diversity, you’ve almost certainly seen a woman take a new last name when she married. In my family, marriage has even occasionally necessitated a change in first names: women who marry in and share a first name with another family member wind up with a nickname almost immediately.
But computers don’t particularly do well with the concept that someone who is named “Michael” today might be named “Mike” tomorrow — let alone that he might suddenly be named “Henry” next week. Computers like immutable, unique indentifiers. That’s one of the reasons that social media has forced many of us into using unique handles that may not make perfect sense. We often wind up defaulting to the same user name across multiple sites, making ourselves easier to use. A Starbucks name doesn’t work with computers.
It is no small matter to change over all your online accounts to a new name, but there are people who do exactly that. There are even those who do so on a fairly regular basis. If your goal is to be known online, however, the process of building a following is more difficult if you’re constantly changing your actual name or your business name. And if you finally get that break, you may very well wind up answering to a name that is far different than what is on your legal paperwork. Consider Penelope Trunk, who started out life as Adrienne Roston and has gone through several names in between.
I Don’t Know Real Names
If you’ve been active in social media or online businesses for a while, you may have noticed a certain phenomenon. When you’re talking shop, and someone mentions a name, you need a little more context: “Do you know John Doe? @doe? Doe.com?” You get a Twitter handle or a domain name. And that works: those online identifiers are a part of our larger identities.
I’ve actually ran into problems because I interact with some people much more online than off. I don’t always know everyone’s real name. I’ve been known to make introductions with folks’ Twitter handles, rather than their name. I don’t feel too bad about doing so, though, since I’ve had the same done to me.
The only reason I care about ‘real’ identities these days is when I’m doing business. I don’t necessarily need a person’s name, as long as I’ve got her LLC down on the paperwork. But I do need some real, legal identity to make a contract and take care of my business. Beyond that, I’ll call you whatever you ask me to.
The Right to Your Identity
The internet hasn’t quite caught up to the realities of identity. We need better tools for handling the question of identity, especially when there are reasons to keep parts of an identity away from each other.
Currently, there are plenty of people who maintain separate email accounts, separate Facebook accounts and other divisions in their identity, often for nothing more than to protect their privacy. Most of the terms of service for such sites require you to only have one account, by the way. If you have 5,000 ‘friends’ on social media, it’s not unreasonable to have a more private space to connect with the people who you really know. Taking it a step further, there are plenty of people online who I would rather not know certain details of my identity — like my home address.
And that’s assuming the best: there have been plenty of stories about online sites accidentally exposing information about women to their abusive exes, because a site wanted to make sure it was dealing with real people. A failure to protect an individual’s identity can have long-term ramifications.
But protection is not necessarily enough. We should have a right to be who we are: many websites have difficulties dealing with the most basic elements of names, like if there is a space or a hyphen in someone’s last name. It’s rude to ask millions of people to change how they represent themselves because a busy programmer hasn’t handled things correctly. In addition, those details create inconsistent identities across the web, making SEO that much harder.
Handling Identity in a Practical Manner
Many of us already hold unique identifiers on the web: they’re called domain names. I spend a huge chunk of my time convincing friends and family members that they need their own domains, even if those URLs just redirect to a social media account.
But domain names make identity easier: if you’re dealing with two Jane Smiths and each has her own domain name, the computer can use that as a unique identifier and let each person use whatever name she wants. If a person needs to use different names in different spots, but wants a place to tell everyone all those elements of her identity, a website on her own domain name makes that pretty easy. If, however, she wants to keep all those elements of her identity separate, setting up separate domain names isn’t an impossible task. It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky approach currently, but it’s a good idea to go ahead and nail down a domain name now.
Image by Flickr user Erik Charlton