Know your users’ names– not just their usernames

Internet | Familiarity
The handle, the nickname, the nom du guerre, these are used by CB radio users, hip-hop performers, professional wrestlers, and participants in Internet forums. If you’re like most world citizens, it’s probably the latter group that you’re most likely to find yourself to join. But how welcoming is a community where you see posts by names like CmdrTaco, MegaZone, Zealot X, mydogiscoolerthanyourdog*?

Part of the marvel of the cyberspce is a new world where everyone can invent their own identity, stating with a vanity name. (“No one knows you’re a dog,” as a classic New Yorker cartoon attests). This may have a necessary appeal to people who’d like to freely associate in places without having to reveal themselves.

The problem is that the exotic names may have the wrong effect on building a civic community. Those who do join may feel compelled to don a virtual mask as well. While a masquerade party is fun for meeting people socially, it would get tiring to stick with the same mask on a regular basis in a civic forum. At everyday meetings, people write their names on stickers– their real names, the one they’d like to be taken seriously with. When everyone speaks on his or her own name, a public sense of shame does a great deal to keep behavior in line. Even a non-threatening nickname can be traded in for a new name. But real names stick.

There are reasonable concerns: some people may not want to be stereotyped by their name. Or they may have genuine fears for their privacy– or even safety, in societies without protections on freedom of speech. I would suggest that participants give their last initial, or their location, as on radio call-in shows. As for prejudices, I would suggest that civic sites, if they wish to achieve diversity, should ask participants to voluntarily submit characteristics about age/race/occupation.

As for those wild names above:
*Cmdr Taco (“Commander Taco”) was the posting name of Rob Malda, the founder of Slashdot, the breakthrough community website which pioneered a popular approach to annotating stories (used in this site’s software as well). I myself went by “Capt. Gazpacho” for a few weeks then, but I felt it wasn’t really me. MegaZone was not just the email address of an affable fellow I worked with (though not in the same department) at Genuity/BBN, but his name on the company employment records as well. I was told that that his nickname’s association with a prior project helped him get in the door somewhere. I can’t tell you anything Zealot X, whom I corresponded with on a board I was a moderator of. None of the other regulars could shake the impression that he was, in fact, quite a zealot. As for mydogiscoolerthanyourdog, this is somebody on the Dean forums (there are others). Their name is not only a complete sentence, it is perhaps a wry commentary on religiosity and dyslexia, or maybe simply an expression of domestic pride– everything but what the name his mother calls him.

April 12th, Note: The “Meatball Wiki” presents a lengthy analysis of why RealNames are preferred.