Number 9: Names, Facebook, and identity

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Thu, July 11, 2013 - 10:42:20

Facebook recently informed me that my name is 



I grew up in a sub-culture of America that believed in sending kids to sleep-away camps to get them out of the squalor of the city (“Hot town summer in the city/Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty”). Consequently, as a “tween” and a teen I did a number of 8-week stints in bucolic settings in upstate New York and New England. (Allan Sherman memorialized the drama of these experiences in the novelty song “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah,” which won a Grammy in 1964 and which my grandparents played with glee on their stereo record player up until they passed away well into your lifetime, if you are reading this in ACM interactions in 2013.)

I spent one summer roomed in a cabin with 16 girls. Four of us were named “Debbie.” I was on the top bunk and another Debbie, from Queens, slept below me. This was not an entirely comfortable situation. By the end of the summer, the speed of my response when “Debbie” was called was somewhat diminished. 

But it never occurred to me—or any of us—to change our names. The most we did was replace the dot on the “i” with a daisy when writing. In fact, we all replaced the dot on the “i” with daisies, as did pretty much all other girls our age who had dots in their name. The question was not whether we did this, but rather how long it persisted. (Recently I was reviewing applications for undergraduate summer research that were all handwritten and, incredibly, one of the dots on an application from a woman was in the shape of a daisy. What was the applicant thinking?) 

In my case, I did not even change my name when I got married, though I did spend a few weeks imagining what it would be like to have a name (Harrison) that people did not find humorous and spelled correctly the first time. 

The only time I have changed my name was the big shift from Debbie to Deborah. That represented a deliberate effort to change my identity in my mid-20s, and I accomplished it when I moved from Massachusetts to California to work at Xerox PARC. My mother had always said that she liked Deborah as a name because it could be small when I was small and big when I was big. So the shift represented my willful attempt to see myself as a bona fide adult. There are still a few people in my professional world who knew me when I worked at MIT and at DEC and still call me Debbie. I don’t correct them because being adult isn’t actually an issue for me anymore and because the appellation now signifies the rights and privileges that appertain to long acquaintance.

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrote:

"A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights: no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue."

Debbie was my name and I wasn’t going to change it just because. Facebook’s action reminds me what a meager, bare, poor thing a name is in our world of computing, and how unshared it is, how stripped of cultural meaning and how determined it is by … externalities, to misappropriate a word from economics. 

I contemplate this new name:

and it makes me angry. Who is Facebook to decide my name or, worse, my number? Is this the Village (“I am number 2. You are number 6.”)? Am I Jean Valjean (i.e., prisoner 24601)? 7 of 9? “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.” in the words of the Beatles. 

Do I have a realistic choice?

The policy of generating student names at my institution is to take the first two letters of the first name and concatenate them with the last name. Thus, one of our students, Caleb Jones, was a bit startled to be given a name that in the United States is used as a euphemism for a portion of male anatomy not usually discussed more directly. Luckily, as a large, hearty, confident young man, though a devout Baptist and not given to raucous levity, he was able to treat it as a funny joke. For six years. Ya gotta to suffer to be educated? 

I chose my current official name (dtatar) in a fraught moment when filling out a great deal of paperwork to join VT, with no forewarning that this was the name that I would have to live with for the duration, and no serious discussion of alternatives. I spent several years trying to make the alias “tatar” work, but every time there was a problem, tech support got confused. Also, I could not persuade the institution to use “tatar” publicly, meaning that I was never able to make a clean, clear self presentation. Finally, I just gave up. 

The world of human naming is very rich and full of imponderable meanings. We all know that in Spanish-influenced countries, there is both a matronymic and a patronymic (Garcia Lorca or Garcia Marquez) and it matters that the matronymic comes second and is not hyphenated. People seem well and truly situated in these cultures. I have had students from India who had to make up last names to come to the United States. A colleague from Myanmar was named for her birth year and a priest-created designation, with no indication of family connection embedded in the name. I imagine that in their birth worlds a name is not a handle. Instead the expectation is that to use someone’s name means that you actually know them. I inherited a wonderful children’s book called My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, about a little girl who gets lost and the attempts to find her mother. It turns out that no one had informed the little girl of the cross-cultural universal properties of beauty that might justify the designation “the most beautiful woman in the world” and, pace recent studies in scientific psychology, the authors did not seem to think that they ought to. A colleague from the Philippines once pointed out that virtually all women are named Maria. In that context, this leads to a widespread use of notably light-hearted nicknames—I had a Filipina colleague called Gucci. These nicknames designate but they also describe. In Korea, there are very few last names altogether, about five. My Korean students just laugh (kindly) when I attempt to ask them about their naming customs. Traditionally, in some cultures, there have been secret names, known only to certain people in the family, in the clan, and for only the individual themselves. And, now that they are grown, I have pet names for my children that I use only in private thought. 

Think about this wonderful richness and variety, including contradictions and inconsistencies!

My husband and I spent months deciding on our children's names. This was in part because we disagreed, but also because we thought it important. I favored Old Testament names, like my own and my family's, while my husband favored Western names (the western United States, that is) that mostly once upon a time were Irish, Scottish or English last names: Tyler, Taylor, Tanner, Tyrone. Also, in my tradition, we do not name people after the living but only after the dead, while his tradition features honoring the living. Then there were other design desiderata: the potential for malicious abbreviations, potential readings of the initials as words, and undesirable vocal properties. We considered funny names like Harrison Ford Harrison, a melding of Harrison Ford (the actor) and Ford Madox Ford (the writer) with my husband’s last name. My husband tormented me for months by dangling Elvis as a possibility. 

For our first son, exhaustive search produced exactly one name that we both liked. Then, when we realized we were having another boy, we faced the impossibility of giving our second son a once-discarded name. Imagine having to say “Yes, child, not only are you younger and smaller, but you got the left over name. Feel wanted.” We had to generate a completely different set. Amazingly, we did. 

A few years ago, Gopinaath Kannabiran (how’s that for a name that requires an enjoyable interlude on the tongue!) wrote a note for the NordiCHI conference on identity in social networking systems. He focused on gender identity in social media, a particularly difficult problem because of its ineluctable complexity. The gulfs between being known for example as a woman, labeling oneself as one, and being called one are enormous. How much more so when gender identities cross corporately enforced categories?

My husband reports hearing Nicolas Negroponte propose that we be tattooed with identifying dot patterns at birth. It’s the logical extension of a reductionistic approach to identity. But I also imagine the reaction of my now-dead relatives to this. Some of them had tattoos from concentration camps. 

Some of the dignity of being human rests in our control over ourselves and our appearance to others. Here’s the thing: from a technocentric perspective, it looks as though labeling ourselves by name, as we do in email or on Facebook, is cost-free. Hey, we all have names, and, by happy chance, your email name can function as both a person identifier and as an operational label for the machine. Yeah! Everybody wins! 

But is this really true? As I struggle to remember which email address I used, and to what end and how that email combined with rules for some password that I am supposed to remember (“Please, kind system, just tell me whether you required a number and a capital letter or you are one of the ones that does not.”), and as I’m hemmed in by Facebook’s entirely arbitrary and self-serving choice to call me “9” and my friend’s and colleague’s expectation that I have some kind of presence, I do not find these names “endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue." 

Efficiency with respect to the computer starts with the promise that the computer will do something for you “for free” but it evolves into pressure to do and behave in the way that the computer expects from you. There’s always a reason, but whose reason? How much effort would it actually take to enable a more complex creation of identity? 

I am, we are, reduced through these interactions and—here’s the design point—they could easily be otherwise.

Posted in: on Thu, July 11, 2013 - 10:42:20

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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@Pardha (2013 07 17)

Such a delightful article! Thank you Deborah. I never understood why it is so hard to change your handle after it is given to you. Aren’t computers supposed to make this sort of a thing easy? After all that handle is just a field in some database!

@Deborah Tatar (2013 07 18)

Hah! Yes.  Someone wrote to me privately and mentioned that Facebook allows you to get rid of the number——for a fee.  In other words, Facebook is monetizing our names. 

Is this ok?  It feels like we’re selling our birthrights for a mess o’ pottage.

Now I feel foolish for having thought that this move was merely neglect, as opposed to something more dire.