What’s in a name?

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.

Marshall McLuhan

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently made a some very interesting comments while being interviewed by Holman W Jenkins from the Wall Street Journal;

“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s response to this is equally interesting, if not moreso;

This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.

Surprisingly, I spend quite a bit of time discussing things like this with prospective parents at my school. Our school registrar tours with them and visits me often. I talk about the vision of our new library under construction, the work we are doing at Year 9 using Ning as a virtual learning community and our efforts with Cybersafety. Parents are really interested in this last point, and I see many nodding heads when I discuss the need for our students to establish a positive digital footprint for themselves. Plenty of them realise their kids use sites like Facebook as their communication platform, but they do want them to do so with some understanding of how they conduct themselves responsibly to protect their own reputation, and the reputation of others.

Jonathan Zittrain discusses a similar idea to that raised by Eric Schmidt, but he calls it ‘Reputation Bankruptcy’. It’s the idea that you will be able to wipe your digital identity slate clean and start over. Who knows, one day it just might be possible, but what if you have a good deal of positive web content that you don’t want erased? Will we be able to be selective about what stays and what goes?

Danah makes another very good point in her post responding to Eric Schmidt’s comments;

All it takes is for someone who’s motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two.

So, what’s in a name?  Will we need to grapple with our digital identities, identities that can be forged by our friends (or enemies!) as much as they are forged by our own hand? Once again, we need to take this on board as educators. We need to help our students understand that they can create the long tail of good searchable content that will make their name a blessing, not a burden.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)