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The aesthetics of names

This is a post by Mike Elgan on G+ titled "The trouble with Google's names policies: Real unconventional names = Bad. Fake 'normal' names = OK."

https://plus.google.com/113117251731252114390/posts/XtkGjGsBA3V

The post itself is not what I want to talk about though. It's a comment in that thread by Robert Scoble, a big Google+ booster who has recently been going back and forth about what he thinks of Google's name policy.
...some people have "non common" names and I do have empathy for those who really have weird names, like M3 (if that's really his legal name).

But that said I am totally groking the AESTHETIC that Google is going for. They are trying to look different than Twitter is and I really really like seeing names that look common here. IE, most everyone I've met in the real world has a first and last name.
I can scarcely put into words the rage I feel about the notion that people's names are an "aesthetic" issue reasonably subject to control. It's racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, and just about every other -ist and -phobic I can think of.

If Scoble were to say "I want to use my name, and I don't want to feel pressured to come up with a handle," I would understand it. He says he doesn't like Second Life because he wanted to use his name there, and I also don't like Second Life's policy of requiring you to use a name they pick for you (you get to enter your own "first name" but you have to choose from their list of "last names"). But to think that "I really like seeing names that look common" is a good basis for a policy? Or to even think that it's worth uttering in public? I don't get it.

This entry was originally posted at http://firecat.dreamwidth.org/738889.html, where there are comments.

Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
nellorat
Aug. 18th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)
I can see how treating names as subject to his aesthetics is being an arrogant jerk, but I think it might or might not be -ist or -phobic. If by "names that look common" he means a certain ethnicity, then yeah. And I am reminded of author Owl Goingback being denied some online presence under his real name because it didn't look real! If he just means "a name similar to that which any parents have ever given a child anywhere in the world"--that's some kind of hegemonic, but I don't even know the word for it. Parentist? Usually patriarchal, but not always. Note that this isn't about intent in the emotional sense but rather what those words mean in this context, which I think isn't at all clear.

But I think "arrogant jerk" is enough of a condemnation. I really liked the bit you quoted here, a few entries back, about real names leading to more censored communication and known but not search-linked pseudonyms leading to more open communication. Yes!
nellorat
Aug. 18th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
UPDATE
OK, supergee mentioned that Indonesia generally has single names, so that was my ignorance. I can see "sexist" via patronymics. I still don't get classist.


Meditations on single names and class did lead me to wonder--could Cher join Google+ under that name?
sashajwolf
Aug. 18th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
Well, for instance, in some countries different classes have different naming conventions. A working-class child in Scotland is far less likely to be given a middle name than an upper-middle class child, for instance. A working-class Scottish child is also more likely to have exactly the same legal name as their grandparent, which could cause problems if they both join the same real-names social network and friends/family can't tell which is which. Class also affects nicknames; an English man with the legal name "Peter" is quite likely to be known as "Pete" if he is working-class, but probably not if he is upper-middle.
nellorat
Aug. 19th, 2011 12:25 am (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
Very interesting! The one you mention that seems relevant here is the same legal name as a grandparent, although I assume that the family has different names if they're both living--no?--but/and both would still qualify as Google+ names.

If the ruling required three names, I would have seen that as classist. And if any specific names were allowed or disallowed, yeah, boy howdy!
sashajwolf
Aug. 19th, 2011 01:12 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
They would both qualify as Google+ names, but it would be confusing. There are sufficient men in my family called "Robert Hughes", for instance, that really only birth family members can keep the nicknames straight. My husband outright gave up trying to learn them when he realised that "Old Robert" is younger than "Young Robert" - and that was when he had them in the same room. On a social media site, with small avatars, even birth family would struggle. You'd really want to be able to choose a handle that didn't feature the word "Robert" at all, without having to pretend it was your legal name.

The issue of people who for cultural or other reasons have only one legal name also has a class dimension, I believe, since in India this practice is vastly more common in certain castes than in others (or so I was told by an Indian client).

Another relevant issue may be that the English upper class had a long tradition of making servants with "strange" names adopt a more "respectable" name, so being able to control the name by which one is known - and in particular the ability to choose a name that doesn't conform to the mainstream aesthetic - probably is culturally more of an issue for the working class here than it is for the upper and middle classes.
epi_lj
Aug. 18th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
Classism can come in to play because what names one thinks are "common" is largely dictated by the subculture in which one lives. If you go to a major North American city with a large racial divide that runs along class lines -- which is true in most big North American cities -- you'll see a proliferation of "ethnic" names as one moves down the class system. Also, since unusual names for a given location are often a result of people relocating, and people often relocate due to work or poor living conditions, "lower class," names are more likely to seem uncommon. If you go to a charity dinner event for the social elite that charges $2000 a plate, you're going to see a lot more Michaels and Mary Beths than Shaniquas or Mahmouds. Not that you will see none of the latter cases, but the density does change with class, both because class and race are interrelated and because of the class issues of geographic relocation.

There's also a social meme that you have to name your children for success, such that upwardly-mobile people are more likely to adopt names they associate with the class they're trying to "merge up" to for their children, and since most of the famous upper-class people are white Americans, those are the names often chosen. There's actually a section of Freakonomics all about the idea that a child's name determines their destiny. (I think that the conclusion was that it doesn't, but it's been a while since I read it. Whether it was or wasn't the case, the existence of the chapter was definitely an acknowledgment of the widespread cultural belief.)
nellorat
Aug. 19th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
You & Stef, I think, both interpreted the statement as a lot more restrictive than I did. I'm sure this is in part that I tend to interpret things as inoffensive, including to me personally, unless I have enough evidence to the contrary. (Unfortunately, yes, I very, very often have more than enough evidence to the contrary.) But the only example of a "weird name" given is "M3," and the only criterion is "a first and a last name." So it could be that Shaniqua, or Seon or Seung Hyeon, is a "common name." Anyway, that's how I interpreted it.

If you and Stef are right, and "common" means "sounds European" and not like "M3" or "rowdyboy" for a full name, then I can completely see that as racist and even classist.

At the academy, a lot of students adopt European-type first names; I actually prefer when they don't, but it's completely not my business, so I have never said that to anyone there and never would. I sometimes mispronounce their Korean names, but heck, about 1/5 to 1/4 of my students have never been able to pronounce my last name, and we all just do our best.
sashajwolf
Aug. 19th, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
I'm sure this is in part that I tend to interpret things as inoffensive, including to me personally, unless I have enough evidence to the contrary.

That's also something with class implications, IME: the less privilege a person has, the less likely they are to feel safe making that assumption.
firecat
Aug. 19th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
And the more privilege a person has, the more likely they are to have the time and mental energy to learn how to bypass an offended reaction, and the time and energy to process one potential offense before encountering the next.
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Sep. 4th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nellorat - Sep. 5th, 2011 01:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Sep. 5th, 2011 02:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nellorat - Sep. 5th, 2011 03:39 am (UTC) - Expand
nellorat
Aug. 19th, 2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
Yes, but I think that's privilege(1)--something that every human being can benefit from, that it's a shame that some don't have, and that I try to do what I can to make it possible for everyone to have--as opposed to privilege(2)--something that some people have only at the expense of other people and that I try to do what I can to give up and work against anyone having.
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Aug. 19th, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Aug. 20th, 2011 12:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Aug. 20th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Aug. 20th, 2011 12:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Aug. 20th, 2011 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Aug. 20th, 2011 12:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Aug. 20th, 2011 04:59 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Aug. 20th, 2011 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - firecat - Aug. 20th, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: UPDATE - nellorat - Aug. 21st, 2011 12:28 am (UTC) - Expand
firecat
Aug. 18th, 2011 06:04 pm (UTC)
Re: UPDATE
Google+ has made exceptions to its name policy for some people who legally have one name but has refused to make exceptions for other such people.
firecat
Aug. 18th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
He uses "aesthetics" and "common." I don't see how those words can be interpreted to mean "a name similar to that which any parents have ever given a child anywhere in the world."

(Which is irrelevant anyway, because many people are allowed to legally change their names to something other than what their parents gave them.)

One First Name And One Last Name In A Single Language privileges the names of mono-cultural people whose names use the Roman alphabet (ASCII characters).

It's sexist because declaring that everyone must use One First Name And One Last Name disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to change their names. Also, women are more likely to need to use a pseudonym to avoid harrassment.
nellorat
Aug. 19th, 2011 12:48 am (UTC)
See my ct above to epi_LJ: I can see grounds for how I interpreted it, grounds for how you did. The "aesthetics" would be the feeling that one is surrounded by real people--of various ethnicities and classes but real--not pseudonyms.

If you have seen other statements by the same person, your interpretation has support that mine doesn't! For instance, I gather that "in a single language" is a part of the policy that you read elsewhere. That qualification does seem to me to be bizarre and pointless as well as offensively restrictive to some & not others.

Now, personally, I find absurd the idea that a fake real-sounding name is better than something like, say, Nellorat. I'm 100% with you on that. However, it does sound like this person just does want to be surrounded online by real-sounding names. If I did share that preference, I'd just say, fine, a woman can call herself Louise Demian Frost* but not Nellorat. Are women more likely to change to a single name but not make it legal? I can't really see why that would be so, but you'd know better than I do.


* A pseudonym I actually used for poetry in high school--isn't that a kick?
firecat
Aug. 19th, 2011 02:53 am (UTC)
Here's the policy that Scoble is discussing:

http://www.google.com/support/+/bin/answer.py?answer=1228271

The policy isn't clear, the enforcement doesn't match the policy, and the enforcement is applied inconsistently. Google has banned a number of names simply because the name sounded like a pseudonym (this includes people whose names are exactly two words in a single language).

If you want to know more about the policy and people's viewpoints on it, and what names have been banned, type "nymwars" into a search engine.

Louise Demian Frost would not be allowed.

this person just does want to be surrounded online by real-sounding names.

Nothing about that statement makes sense to me. First, it posits a difference between real-sounding names and fake-sounding names. I don't accept that there is a difference between them that can be articulated in a way that doesn't leave out some names that people actually use (e.g., your saying "Louise Demian Frost" is real-sounding and "Nellorat" isn't leaves out mononyms, which as you pointed out earlier are used by Indonesians).

If whatever criteria you use to draw that distinction leave out some names that people actually use, you're expressing a preference for discriminating against certain people. I think that's wrong and offensive.

(Of course people are allowed to say offensive things, yada yada. I am also allowed to say their statements are wrong and offensive when they do.)

I react to it the same way I would react to "For aesthetic reasons, I want to be surrounded online by only fat people" or "...only men" or "...only people between the ages of 25 and 60." I can see reasons for having small groups that meet those criteria, but I can't see reasons for having the biggest social network in the world be that way.
epi_lj
Aug. 18th, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC)
It's a completely ridiculous position. On the one hand, "common" is incredibly relative. If you carve my first name off just before the hyphen, it's astoundingly common in some parts of the world, relatively uncommon in other parts, and its commonality differs even in a given place depending on your community -- it's common here in Muslim communities, for example. But even aside from relative commonality, having an uncommon name doesn't make it any less legitimate. (If you *don't* truncate my first name before the hyphen, it's globally unique, but it's still a legitimate name, and my actual real name.)

This feels like part of a wider discussion about nomenclature which has been getting rather heated of late (or perhaps it always is, for people sufficiently distant from average age of those giving birth), and while it does make me bristle to some degree when I see ordinary names where every vowel has been replaced with a 'y', that's not an internal reaction that I think is good or fair or should dictate policy or makes those people less legitimately-named.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )

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