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Much ado about names

July 25, 2011

There has been some interesting discussion on (and off) Google+ regarding names. And more specifically their thoroughly wrongheaded policies about what is an acceptable username. To summarize, from a headsmackingly comprehensive post by someone who has been affected by these policies (via David Gerard):

So. What have we learned.

In order to use Google+, you’ll want to:

* Have a normal name
* But not a common one
* But not a famous one
* But not a foreign one
* But possibly Bob Hitler.

If you click through and read, it really is that bad. I know people in a somewhat similar situation to the author, who have gone by a certain name online for yonks–so that this is the only name they are known by–and who are fully expecting to get their accounts blocked. I also know at least one person whose actual legal name is “strange” enough to probably get them blocked, which may well be part of why they have not set up an account thus far. Who needs the aggro?! (And even more bizarrely foot-shootingly, these are all people who work in tech. I am the odd disabled outlier among most of the people I know well who doesn’t, actually.) I knew that was a problem, but not having had the energy to keep up with things as well as I would like lately, was previously unaware of the extent of it.

I’m not even going to go comprehensively into why I think these policies suck, nor why I have been having some dissonance going dealing with the ubiquitous Google for a while anyway. (This is even more fun, knowing well somebody who works for them–which is why I ended up on G+ as soon as it went into public beta, in the first place.) A lot of other people have covered this more coherently than I am up to doing right now, anyway. Just Google on it, ha!😐

I was not personally thrilled at being strongarmed into using my legal name on there, even though I am no longer primarily using an obvious pseudonym online. More readily being able to choose who has access to that personal information, and where, is a Very Good Thing.

But, I do have a few comments inspired by Gremlin’s linked “Bob Hitler” post.

First, I did not know that my own full legal name is apparently unacceptable to Google, containing special characters as it does. Even the standard, more Angliclized “I don’t know how to enter special characters” version that ended up on my birth certificate and passport still contains an apostrophe that the original re-Gaelicized version does not. If a hyphen is unacceptable, an apostrophe should be too. Yeah, it’s enough to give you a headache. The Gaelic orthography may have choked Anglophones to begin with, but most people are at least overall pretending to be more accepting of ethnic differences these days. Still it gets re-Anglicized all over again–still with special characters Google might not accept. At least this is a name stuck somewhere in the middle, not the first or last.

The “no special characters” thing would be a serious problem for any number of people with names from pretty much all other European languages, never mind trying to transcribe other people’s languages into the Roman Alphabet. Never mind people whose names are just not written in said alphabet at all.

That is beyond the too-common “choking on four names” factor common in the US at least, which is pretty ignorant of whole swaths of the world’s naming patterns. (And yes, I took on an “extra” name as an adult, knowing this full well. It just gets treated as totally optional, which is also how I consider it legally based on the Common Law approach to these things which Gremlin goes into somewhat.) BTW, getting rid of the extra names in the middle, I did already spot someone else with a profile using the same first and last names as mine, but suspect it’s not coming across as common/pseudonymous enough to possibly cause confusion, like the myriad John Smiths you’d expect.

BTW, yeah, I have been irked at such low priority having been given to font support for rather a lot of Unicode on Android. And I am personally only wanting to be able to use the Tsalagi syllabary, not a native speaker of, say, a language that uses Devanagari, Tamil, Persian/Arabic, or other scripts just not given font support so far. That’s just really crappy in a way that says you don’t want customers from, oh, the entire Indian subcontinent among other areas of the world. Maybe they just don’t use “legimate” writing systems, at all?😐 It was only earlier this year that Google added search engine support for Tsalagi, but you still can’t use that from your Android device. Nor can the hundreds of millions of people using the other scripts, which have been supported for a while. This is not super-directly connected, but I think it demonstrates some of the same crappy attitudes.

In general, I see Google repeating a lot of the same freaking irritating patterns with not recognizing that there might be some diversity in what people around the world (including within the country where they are based) are actually named. One commenter on G+ mentioned Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names. (“John was understandably vexed about this situation, and he has every right to be, because names are central to our identities, virtually by definition.”) Said programmers are picking up these ridiculous ideas somewhere. They are unfortunately common ideas.

Stated more baldly, it is unfortunately common for people coming from certain backgrounds to decide what qualifies as a legitimate “real” name for anyone else. In the case of programmer fail, that’s usually due to unconscious bias toward what you’re expecting to see (too frequently based on other people having previously very consciously decided what was a legitimate name, and the one legitimate form that might take). What is pissing me off possibly the worst about Google’s approach thus far, is that they have been notified that various things are, indeed, what people are known by–in a lot of cases, on paper legally–and have officially continued to get punitively prescriptive in a highly inflexible way.

I was going to use Ellis Island as maybe the best-known example within the US, pointing out that the same thing has happened in other cases. The piece linked suggests that “we will not write down your name as you give it to us” at an official level is an overblown story, though I am not so sure to what extent, given the number of other similar historical phenomena. At the very least, “Ellis Island” seems like reasonable shorthand for “we moved somewhere that people kept trying to change our name to make it more acceptable to their expectations of what a name should be”. (Hell, even with an Anglicized-in-early-Virginia surname, my own is uncommon enough that people still keep trying to change it to fit expectations, both on paper and to your face. This has continued since the 18th century, at least, but some of us are stubborn. This happens to me both in the US and the UK, BTW.) In this, I would not discount the multiple factors that author points out, with people being put under various kinds of pressure to come up with a more “acceptable” name. Pressure is pressure, and xenophobia is xenophobia.

I got a bit sidetracked there, but I was struck by a couple of things, reading through the examples given in Gremlin’s “Bob Hitler” post. If having what could be read as two first names–e.g., “Bob Scott” or “Lawrence Simon”–triggers suspicion that you might be using a pseudonym, what about two surname-looking names? (Like, erm, “Lawrence Simon”.) I would not be surprised if that will also trigger suspicion next, if it is not already doing so.

Actually, the real example of “Bob Scott” made me think of that immediately (not that this probably would have taken long anyway!), since most of the people I know with Scott as a first name back home have actually been assigned their mother’s surname. (Like Scott’s Porage Oats, but more Appalachian.) Much like Grahams, Camerons, Taylors, Wilsons, Morgans, Lesleys, with the occasional Odell or Mingus (maybe Ming Campbell would have problems…), etc.–bit of a pattern there, yeah. And at least an “Odell” or a “Breen“, first or last, has already been stripped of any special characters long ago. But, indeed, based on my own experience, I automatically think of “Scott” as a surname, even though I am aware that it is a more popular first name unconnected to any family surnames in other parts of the US.

Then there are ones like Donald McDonald–and yes, I have met one from Skye. The whole “distinct first name” vs. “distinct surname” thing kinda breaks down when you’re looking at a surname system like this, that started out with given names turned into surnames (which often got stripped of their prefixes when Anglicized, like, oh, “Breen” or “Reece“). That could even reasonably give you a “Donald Donald”, though I have thankfully never run into anyone who has hung that on a kid. This kind of surname pattern is not even unusual in English starting out, giving you things like “Roberts” which have sometimes gotten the “s” added or even lost it entirely over the centuries. IOW, it’s frequently a bullshit distinction when you’re looking at native English speakers, much less other naming patterns across the world.

Other naming patterns they are probably not expecting, encountered within the freaking US, and which I have personally seen a lot of? I can well imagine that a surname like “Corn”, “Buck”, “Owle”, “Buzzard”, maybe not so much “Wolf” since I’ve seen English-origin ones, “Oak”, “Walkingstick”, etc. might look like a pseudonym if you’re not expecting something like that. Those would be Anglicized, frequently mangled names hung on people who did not previously use surnames at all. (Corn even sounds funny to me, and I am expecting it. No wonder a lot of people married into or just plain snagged Scottish/Irish/Welsh surnames, once they needed one to use on paper…) Then there are some elsewhere, which I have seen outright ridiculed by the ignorant: “American Horse”, “Standing Bear” (both after ancestors’ given names), even “Begay” (*facepalm*), etc.

But, then, the IAT (‘Native – White American’) results to date support the idea that these folks are also seen as foreigners whose names would appear foreign beside maybe “made-up”–which they actually were, if not by the people now using them! (I fell within the IIRC 5% strongly associating things/people Native with American, which unfortunately did not surprise me other than maybe the vanishingly low percentage.)

And you know what? Given that an awful lot of the world never used to even have surnames at all, I would be amazed if there were not still whole groups of people around who are still not using them on a regular basis. If they have been assigned one at all for the purpose of official forms, so as not to send universalists into conniptions, it’s not something they’d be regularly called. (Besides the Westerners choosing to call themselves by one name, as already covered by, erm, Gremlin.) And some of these folks who don’t have surnames might just want to check out G+.

Here, I’ve been using examples that I have personally encountered within the country where Google has its HQ, among people who speak the same language–and who have been living there since before there was a US. I am well aware that I do not know that much about naming patterns in a lot of the rest of the world, nor would I have the right to decide what somebody else is allowed to call themselves even so. In sharp contrast to the policies set by Google, thus far.

Just a less-than-comprehensive ramble, but I do see plenty of things not to like about that approach to profile names.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 6:33 pm

    They’re not going to change, either. Dig this blithering corporate asshat:

    Nothing they did was wrong and he’s not sorry for any of it, the problem is only that they didn’t do it hard enough. Watch G+ take Google’s reputation over the cliff with it. Woot!

    • urocyon permalink
      July 25, 2011 7:31 pm

      Ooh, lovely.😐

  2. July 25, 2011 7:34 pm

    yeah. Google had a fair bit of goodwill, but G+ is burning through it at a ruinous rate and Asshat will ride it into the ground. Google’s Reputation 1998-2011, rest in occasional grumbles.

  3. andygrrrl permalink
    July 26, 2011 8:16 pm

    Yet another reason not to use Google anything…the entirety of Wales will probably be blocked; it’s not at all uncommon to have people named William Williams, Edward Edwards, John John, etc.

    • urocyon permalink
      July 28, 2011 1:23 pm

      I have been trying to resist that conclusion, but yeah. It may well come to that point. I’ve been trying maybe too hard to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially since I also have more than a little personal irritation going at them. (Shame this blog only has the one introductory post…😐 ) There are about the conflicts one would imagine there, and I am really starting to resent that too. ATM I’m also helping test some stuff, which should not be TMI for the (to my mind) excessive secrecy.:/

      But, that is an excellent point about Wales. I didn’t even remember the Evan Evans I’d met when ranting earlier, and, yeah, that sort of pattern is not at all uncommon. Ridiculous.

  4. August 16, 2011 8:59 pm

    Assuming that this isn’t too spammy, I got what I had worked into a KindleBook at the beginning of the month:

    Of course, half my reason for doing that was to have yet one more bit of reportedly valid evidence that my name just might be Gremlin. To date, remain in denial. The fools.

    • urocyon permalink
      August 17, 2011 1:30 pm

      Removed it from the spam bin, because it seemed very relevant!

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