You’re Making Names Harder Than They Need to be
In 2010, Patrick McKenzie wrote Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names in which he highlights 40 misconceptions that are commonly upheld in modern software and systems. McKenzie’s article was itself inspired by a blog post by John Graham-Cumming about software that rejected or even modified his last name because of the hyphen. Graham-Cumming knows who he is, but software refuses to believe him.
In my daily life, I go by Chris. My legal first name is Christopher, and the only time I use that name is in legal or financial contexts. On various credit cards and other documents, my first name is shortened to Christoph due to system limitations. These are, overall, minor inconveniences: I have a set first (given), middle and last (family) name that appear in the expected order for the society I live in. The common name I use day-to-day is obviously a shortened version of my legal given name.
Take, on the other hand, my friend Vi. They wrote to me on Twitter, “as someone named “Vi”, finding sites that accept my name is honestly rarer than sites that don’t. Basically any site that asks for your real name will tell me I’m lying lol”
Vi should not have to be addressed by a name that is not their own because a person or institution thought a name could not be two letters long.
Imagine being forced to use the first email address you ever got for the rest of your life. Does xXxPainMaster420xXx@aol.com still reflect who you are today, or have you changed since then?
In modern Western culture, our names – or others’ interpretations of them – follow us everywhere: On paperwork, in schools, on social media, at appointments for professional services, in courts and financial systems, for travel. Emails in our inbox inherently address us by a name. Social media sites and chat systems like Facebook, Twitter, Discord and Slack let others address you by preceding your name with an @ symbol, demanding attention as if calling to you from across a room.
This article is not just aimed at software developers, though we are often directly responsible for implementing these sorts of limitations even if we aren’t making the business decisions behind them. It is targeted at anyone who requests and handles personal information from people – online or off.
Names as identity
The problem in this context isn’t necessarily that we need a name of some kind to be an identifier. Rather, it is that names are assumed to be static and reflective of an identity that has been assigned, not one which changes.
But as Watzlawkik et. al. point out, identity is a process that happens throughout a life:
Personal identity is not a given entity but a process; it is constantly under construction through interaction with others and with ourselves. New aspects are added, old ones questioned, others stabilized (see Identity Control Theory; Kerpelman, Pittman, & Lamke, 1997). Nevertheless, already Erikson (1995) said that — with an optimal sense of identity — an individual experiences sameness and continuity across time and space. A contradiction? Not if we distinguish the changing structure from the meaning making processes that allow the individual to experience sameness and continuity. For capturing this process, Wiley (1994, p.53) speaks of the semiotic self or self-identity, which he defines as follows:Meike Watzlawik, Noemi Pizarroso, Danielo Silva Guimarães, Nilson Guimarães, Min Han, Chuan Ma, Ae Ja Jung (2011): First Names as Signs of Personal Identity: An Intercultural Comparison, Universidade da Coruna
Self-identity is not a distinctive trait, or even a collection of traits possessed by the individual. It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of [their] biography. Identity here still presumes continuity across time and space: but self-identity is such continuity as interpreted reflexively by the agent.
Note: I have changed a few words Wiley from “his or her” to “their” for inclusivity
An obvious example of names changing as identity changes is trans and nonbinary people. Some of us may choose to change obviously-gendered names to reflect our true gender identity and expression.
Some change their name to escape the internal or public stigma of an abusive family legacy, for example being named after a relative who harmed them or others.
This change might be a legal change, requiring financial and time resources to complete with various government agencies, schools, online services, banks, credit card companies, utilities and so on. Or it may be a social one, where the person does not change their name on legal documents for a variety of reasons (including social/familial pressure, lack of resources or legal barriers) but still uses their chosen name in personal interactions.
In any of these cases, the name change reflects the development or disclosure of their personal identity and who the person with the name is.
Think of it this way: imagine being forced to use the first email address you ever got for the rest of your life. Does xXxPainMaster420xXx@aol.com still reflect who you are today, or have you changed since then? What if someone gave you that email address without asking you if it represented you in the first place?
To reinforce the importance of using chosen names, a 2018 study of trans youth found that:
An increase by one context in which a chosen name could be used predicted a 5.37-unit decrease in depressive symptoms, a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation, and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior. We observed similar results when we individually tested specific contexts for chosen name use (except that chosen name use with friends did not significantly predict mental health after adjusting for demographics and close friend support). Depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior were at the lowest levels when chosen names could be used in all four contexts.Russell ST, Pollitt AM, Li G, Grossman AH. Chosen Name Use Is Linked to Reduced Depressive Symptoms, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicidal Behavior Among Transgender Youth. J Adolesc Health. 2018 Oct;63(4):503-505. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.02.003. Epub 2018 Mar 30. PMID: 29609917; PMCID: PMC6165713.
What name do you need? Building good name collection practices
If you are collecting information about a person, whether on paper or online, consider what information you need to collect, how you’re going to use it, and why.
You might have valid reasons to collect legal names if you’re working in financial or other legal contexts. Even in that situation, you should also have a spot to collect a chosen name. Your organizational policy should enforce using this name in every situation except those where the legal name is absolutely required (tax forms, for example).
No matter what, using the chosen name of a person is a matter of basic respect and there is no excuse for not doing this.
When developing software and websites, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You likely do not need to collect a person’s legal name. Advertising and data mining do not count as legitimate reasons for this. If you absolutely need to, you should:
- Explain why and where it will be used. For example, on downloads of legal documents.
- Add another field for the person’s preferred name, with a label like “What should we call you?”
- Names do not have a minimum length. While database fields often require a maximum length, make it something ridiculous like 255 characters, to be safe.
- Accept Unicode and do not restrict what characters can be used in a name. Hyphenated names aren’t uncommon. The indigenous Abenaki language uses numbers in words, as do various dialects of Arabic chat alphabets. Non-ASCII/Latin characters are common particularly in non-Western countries and should be acceptable as well.
- Allow people to change their names easily and do not request proof of a legal name change unless absolutely necessary for legal purposes. Your software or systems should never have someone’s name as a primary key or identifier.
- Consider requiring just a single “Name” field rather than First and Last names, which can ignore, for example, culturally-significant middle names.
- Show the chosen name everywhere that anyone will see it (only with the exception of the first bullet point).
- Warn the user when their legal name might be visible so they can prepare themselves.
Examples of bad policies
Google has had a long-standing bug where a person could change their name on their own account, and yet if they’d been added automatically to your contacts it won’t change how their name appears when you’re emailing with them.
Facebook instituted a “real names” policy, which was partially retracted after pushback from trans people and sex workers in particular. Still, their name policy excludes symbols, numbers, punctuation and characters from multiple languages. They also say your account name “should be the name that your friends call you in everyday life” but it “should also appear on an ID or document from our ID list” which negates the first sentence for many people.
The Scunthorpe problem is a pretty famous example of limitations of ‘bad language’ filters. People living in Scunthorpe, England found on some websites they could not enter their city name because it contains a (derogatory) word for vaginas. This could also apply to people with names like “Weiner, Butts, Cummings, Medick, Dickman, or Suconcock.”
Making the effort is worth it
Reducing suicidality or even removing a small level of discomfort are great gains for companies, organizations and social services alike. They build trust with the people coming to you for products or life-saving support.
Names are made out to be more complicated than they should be. Reducing complexity with these considerations in mind benefits everyone.
If you’re looking for help in implementing policies around making your process more accessible for all, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.