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Real names do not exist, at least in some objective sense. A person chooses what his or her real name may be depending on the social context. The context is created by both the person and the social situation within which he or she is currently embedded (cf. CommonContext). However, the evaluation of the veracity (though not realness, but merely appropriateness to the context) of the name is done by the other parties (cf. CommunityExpectation). Failure to meet the expectations of the other parties may result in social rejection, regardless of whether or not the name is "real" to its owner. A reasonable norm for current society is what one writes on his or her résumé, which is what we use here on MeatballWiki. More accurately, what you would list on an academic paper.

What's in a real name?

In general, it would be safe to say that most people on the street believe in the concept of a RealName, such as the one they'd give you if you asked them. When asked for the opposite of PenName, most people would likely say RealName. Indeed, the very idea of a PenName seems to exist in contrast to a RealName.

For most of us, our real name is what's written on our birth certificates in some form or another, allowing for simple modifications such as the transformation of Richard to Rich, Rick, or even Dick or Dicky. It's the one you would use when meeting someone for the first time in MeatSpace. The same name that you would give in a job interview, write on your resume, and sign your letters with.

For most cultures, we can assume an expectation that the names follow some sort of guideline or rule set for what names can be. That is, names for the most part sound like names. Although it's possible that names from some cultures may not sound like names to us, given the GlobalVillage, the likelihood of that drops each day, especially given the power of Google.

Legal name

Birth certificates or other legal institutions do not a name make. Some people may legally change their names to strange creations. Our local friend RiVer is an example; apparently his legal name is now River~~. Other people may simply dislike their names and just not use them. This is very common amongst celebrities who "popularize" their names and immigrants who "anglicize" their names. Other people drop their first names in favour of their middle names. Other people just make up new names and stick with them, like Englebert Humperdink. They may do all of this without going through the trouble of changing their name legally. Then again, people change their legal names without changing what everyone calls them, such as the woman now legally named "Dave Gorman", or the disgruntled Mr. "Yorkshire Bank Plc are Fascist Bastards".

AlixPiranha is an example of someone trying to escape his legal name, and thus his parents.

Names as facets of self-identity

Nobody has some sort of intrinsic name, not even if it is tattooed on their foreheads. Names are simply labels. People's names are part of their identity, and that means their names are subject to their conception of themselves. Moreover, people's conception of their identities aren't singular. People have different personae for different situations (cf. WhatIsMultiplicity), and this leads to a variety of names. Your mother calls you one thing, and your drinking buddies call you by a nickname, and your employer by your professional name, and your spouse something entirely different in private. And what you call yourself on the Internet can be an explosion in new names.

Still, it's not improper to ask for a "real name," it's just that the answer to that question varies in context. In court, that amounts to your legal name. To your drinking buddies, that amounts to maybe what your mother calls you. On the Internet, you might choose either your nickname familiar to your friends or the name you give to your employer or even your legal name. Don't be confused either. These answers don't necessarily dig deeper to the core of someone's identity. A legal name isn't a more honest name, nor is it necessarily leading to a closer personal relationship. If Dr. Richard Ricardo III lets you call him Drinking Dick, you probably have a much closer relationship with him. The context is one of the CommunityExpectation in that situation. Names aren't internal, but a communication to others about how you perceive yourself or at least want to be perceived.

In this note, some have started to believe that you are separate identities in each context, as your perception of yourself varies, and therefore your "real name" in those situations is merely what you present. When you are with your drinking buddies, you are Drinking Dick, and when you are with your patients, you are Dr. Richard Ricardo III, two separate identities. Your real name is "Drinking Dick" in the first situation and "Dr. Richard Ricardo III" in another situation. Amongst conventional relationships, those before the introduction of "CyberSpace", this distinction seems mostly absurd, but many have taken their experiences in CyberSpace as evidence of this new PostHuman conception of self. In one chat-room, you are SamuraiPrincess and in another you are Dr_Rick. It's perhaps deceptively simple to separate the two identities as unique and distinct. Most people, probably including Dr_Rick, would have no ethical trouble arresting Dr. Richard Ricardo III if SamuraiPrincess trafficked in kiddie porn. Of course, the ethical debate over that is not one-sentence simple.

Technology solutions

Parallel to the above concept is a technocratic conception of identity. Starting with the idea that to the rest of the world an identity is merely a reputation, and a reputation in a digital world amounts to merely a trace, then your "real name" could come down to a simple number. Your identities will become cryptographically secure DigitalSignatures, bandied about like cheap business cards, and tracked diligently by a ReputationEngine?. Each identity becomes, in short, its LifeInText (e.g. its recorded uses in CyberSpace). While it's probably too much to believe that cryptographic tokens are Platonically superexistant, one should be careful to separate correlation from equivocation lest you be guilty of RepresentationConfusion. Of course, once again, if one of your solar system of digital identities likes kiddie porn, all of your identities are going to jail, MeatSpace or cyber.

A common technocratic response is that there really is one central identity, represented more or less by your body, even if there are different facets of yourself. One could simply skip the whole problem of what is your "real name" by assigning you one of these numbers and saying that from now on that is your name. True enough, within most countries, each citizen has a unique number identifying them. True enough, some dream that one day every person has a unique digital signature representing them. But is it true that your name is only a functional characteristic for others to observe and distinguish you by? Our discussion much further above was based on the premise that your name comes from within, as your own subjective association with your identity. Simply put, not many people like being a number.


Even if you replace numbers with words, external traceability does not an identity make. Even if you are the only SamuraiPrincess playing EverQuest?, and even if you have made an impressive campaign lasting many epochs, you would be hard pressed to argue sanely that the player character SamuraiPrincess was alive in the separate world of EverQuest?, and that it really isn't just a fantasy life of some guy sitting in a chair somewhere in front of his computer. Similarly, the entire corpus of DrRick's UseNet postings do not create a separate identity from the Dr. Ricardo doing the typing.

We could distinguish the two concepts as a subjective name--the one internal to you--and the objective nym--the one external people observe. It's important not to confuse the two, just like it's important not to equivocate a legal name (a nym) with a person's "real name". For the vast majority of people, though, they are the same thing.


From all this it may seem very hard to claim there is such a thing as a RealName, however we can say a few things. A RealName is something that comes from a person, not from a database tracking that person, and it may change depending on context. The context, though, depends highly on the people with whom you are trying to communicate with, although it also depends on what you want to communicate. While it may seem unreasonable that the CommunityExpectations do not accommodate your whacky self-perception, they serve their purpose as an anchor point from which you make your choices and from which the rest of us judge you based on those choices. Consequently, you get more patients if you present yourself as Dr. Richard Ricardo III instead of SamuraiPrincess, your online dream fantasy life. For those who fail to understand the conventions of society, or for those who seek to change them, this isn't much of a working definition. What did you expect?


Real names are just a particular text pattern. "John Smith" is a valid pattern. There's no proof that it's real, and it could just as easily be a PenName which satisfies the pattern. -- TarQuin

Real people who use real names are identifiable in other places. It's very difficult to create a believable fake identity--don't forget that a truly disconnected identity is clearly fake. -- SunirShah

For an amusing counterexample, see http://en.wikipedia.org/w/wiki.phtml?title=User_talk:Daniel_C._Boyer/Katherine_Jacobson&oldid=1228048 which fooled essentially all of the Wikipedia community for a time. People are quick to believe a plausible story. There are a variety of elements involved -- plausibility, appearance of an infinite amount of boring detail below the surface, presence of humanistic traits such as unmet aspirations, confirmation of something the reader already wishes to believe, and so on. -- anon

MeatballWiki is an OnlineCommunity for online community leaders. Not many people here are completely unknown on the Internet. If they are, as one individual was, it is unlikely they are using their real name. Bringing down Wiki:TheSpanishInquisition is another question. -- SunirShah

What do you mean by a disconnected identity? Someone might feasibly have been using the same online nickname for years, and you might find no trace of their real name.

What about all the names from other cultures which seem foreign to me? I have no way of knowing if they are real. All I can do is trust that the people who sign with them will continue to do so, and that I will be able to fabricate an idea of their identity as I interact with them.

For that matter, I have begun to wonder if SunirShah is a real name. It's already been pointed out how appropriate "Sunir" = "s'unir" is to Meatball. And Shah = King = GodKing, maybe? Could it all be a Wiki:DramaticIdentity? Sure, you're plastered all over the internet, but all that proves is patience and the ability to think long-term. -- anon.

It's possible that I could construct a faux net.persona and get away with it, although somehow I doubt my high school and university would play into such a charade. Nonetheless, I also make efforts to make connections in the RealWorld with others. That's the difference between using a PenName and a nick name--a nick name is still part of the base person whereas a pen name is false. Sincerity is hard to fake. If you want to try, good luck. If you're found out, don't ask for forgiveness. This may be the Internet, but there's no sense in living in TheWell all the time. -- SunirShah

since people can have pretend real names maybe we should AvoidIllusion -- BayleShanks

But... A big part of the appeal and magic of the internet is the anonymity. It's like moving to a new town where nobody knows you, and you're entirely free to reinvent yourself. Try on a new persona. Agreed. It's not nice to mislead people for exploitative purposes. However I think that the freedom to try on another personality is just too powerful to marginalize.

Nonetheless I am who I am. ... scott herman

The appeal of the Internet is that it is free. You are free to choose what spaces you interact with. It's a Big Internet. This means that people can construct spaces with different values. Some parts of the Internet can UseRealNames and others can be masquerade balls or full of l33t hax0rs. It would be a terrible loss if every part of the Internet had to look exactly the same, since I don't want to restyle MeatballWiki nice orange logo into SlashDot teal green. -- SunirShah

I am a prolific writer, albeit one whose success is questionable; my penname (when writing in the American English language) is "Xiong Changnian". This is not the name on my birth certificate, but it is my name in nearly every public print and online context; it would be a deception if I were to post here using any other name.

In addition, my pen name is the pinyin form of my name when written in Hanzi -- Chinese characters. That name, in characters, is my real, legal name within the People's Republic of China -- I have opened bank accounts and signed contracts under that name, and it is stamped in my passport.

If I'm to receive opprobrium due to my choice, let it begin now. -- XiongChangnian.

Admittedly, a RealName is a tricky thing. In our context, given what we are a professional community, it's what you list on your resume, what you would use to publish an academic article, and/or what you call yourself when shaking hands with someone you respect. -- SunirShah

XC, why would we have a problem with the character set of your signature? If they're standard characters, any wiki that can handle unicode would have no problem with it, and we certainly wouldn't mind. Unfortunately, this wiki can't handle unicode, so at least here you're stuck with the Romanized signature for technical reasons. -- ChuckAdams

Amazon.com has recently introduced a "badges" feature wherein certain badges will appear next to displayed usernames (such as on reviews). One of them is RealName. See http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/12986081/103-5974319-9912626 .

Interesting [post from Kathryn Cramer about real names]

To integrate an income-model into community contributions, in form of OpenBusiness, there appears to be a need for stronger authentification, for which the author proposes to use a DomainBasedRealName. -- FridemarPache



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