Home > Social Networking > What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

May 4, 2010

Shakespeare’s Juliet asked it, and I pose the same question.

What value do we place in our name? What meaning does it convey? How does it represent us? Juliet saw it as an artificial convention. I have some Cherokee blood, so I tend to believe there is a bond between the person and the name. However you might respond to such questions, I think we can all agree that they are questions worth asking.

Actually, what is really on my mind is a variation of the famous question that more pointedly asks, What’s in a social name?

By “social name” I am referring to those aliases that we create for our social networking profiles. We have our given names, but beyond that we sport our usernames, handles, and avatar names across multiple social networks. In some cases those social names are identical to our given names, and there is an identifiable correlation between the two. Facebook and LinkedIn come to mind (though there may possibly be fewer examples with Facebook in the near future). In many other instances, however, those social names do not match up with our given names. Sometimes they even are so unrelated that any attempt to try and match a real name with the corresponding social name could only be described as the stuff of Vegas. Drop a coin and pull the lever. And this can be further compounded when an individual’s social handles are not identical across his or her social network profiles. The Twitter handle may be one thing; the Foursquare username something else; and the SecondLife and World of Warcraft avatar names altogether different. Granted, many people do use the same social name on multiple social networks in an effort to brand themselves, but even then, differences can and do exist between the given name and the social name.

I am not trying to make an argument that it is bad to have usernames on social networking sites that are different from an individual’s given name. I am simply pointing to reality. Generally speaking, we have given names, and we have social names.

Some of my connections with others are entirely (or at least primarily) through Twitter, so I most naturally recognize those individuals under their Twitter name. And even in the cases where those Twitter connections have grown to include encounters in other venues (i.e. reading their blogs, face-to-face meetings at conferences), I still identify strongly with their Twitter presence. That Twitter handle is just as significant as their first name. It seems that I am not alone. I am noticing conference attendees agreeing to “pen in” their Twitter handles on their conference badges. This year’s Connecticut Library Association Conference went a step further by incorporating a space for Twitter handles into the design of their conference badges.

We continue to build, shape, absorb, and project our various social network identities–personal and professional–under the labels of our social names. As we do so, will we reach a point where it will be insufficient or difficult to fully associate with others under our given names only? Will our social usernames increasingly become more than something we type into a required field to create a profile? I don’t know. Just a thought that has been on my mind.

At the very least, I believe this topic is worth including among discussion of “social awareness” in digital literacy instruction efforts. The role of our social networking names will likely increase as the identities behind them continue to grow and evolve.

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  1. neredowell
    May 6, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I waver between two: the only honest life is to live one single identity, but then I find that I need more than one. The intersection of personal and professional is the main conundrum.

    In terms of identity, social networking is just another version of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook. If we can’t integrate them at the end of the day, we’re cooked. Sybils, bifurcated into more branches than we can track, much less maintain. The bifurcations take over — identity hoarding, off the leash.

    Once created they are lives unto themselves. Whether or not we maintain them, whether or not we care. They live on, new friends, new connections, regardless of our actual connections.

    My angst is that social identities will lead to further alienation and separation, as we erect discreet borders around our identities, our “friends.” Maybe that’s puritanical, but I don’t think so. Alienation from each other, from the planet on which we live, from the animals, from the air we breathe, from the water — all this alienation has gotten us no where good, and to all the wrong places way too fast. We need connection, which is the paradox of social networking.

    The network cloud introduces connection, but it can disappear tomorrow, and so can you. Do I want the memory of what I’ve said to outlive me in some vast network I cannot control or delete? My one identity seems more than enough, yet here I am, in alternate identity #1.

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