The Names Business

Diving back into the exciting world of WoW blogging (albeit now from my new Second Life perspective) has included getting back up to speed on actually reading some blogs, most especially my beloved Righteous Orbs.

Tamarind, one of the bloggers there, had to change his WoW  ‘toon name as a result of blog-guild intersections that created some unwanted chaos. And this got me thinking:

What’s in a name? Roses and Rosas by other names, etc., etc….

I felt a terrible pang of sympathy that Tam had to become…. someone else. By name, that is. But names matter, do they not? We hang some of our online identity on names, not just because we select them (perhaps even with care), but because they become part of the identities and reputations we build in online spaces. We recognize others through those little combinations of letters and start to feel attached to both those names we use ourselves and those we see on the screen. Names are hooked into the relationships we build, and absent many other cues of self online, names come to mean a lot for some of us.

Would you recognize Bella across her skin and shape transformations?

In Second Life, I’ve been fussing about a lot with the way my avatar looks. I’ve changed her hair, her ‘skin’, her shape1, and of course her clothes  many times. If you had met Bella in SL last week or a few months ago, you wouldn’t recognize her now because her entire physical form has completely changed, from height to face shape to make-up.

Or would you? Of course, you’d just look at those little letters above her head and see, “oh, that’s Belladonna,” and you’d likely ignore her adjustments to outward appearance. Perhaps because her hair is still black, and she still wears steampunk outfits most of the time it would be easier to recognize her, as well.

But here we are back to the name.

People who do research on this stuff say that names online are akin to trademarks. They hold our ‘mark’ of self. We interpret them as providing some useful information about who we’re talking to. Turns out that when we see a screen name, we make judgments about mental state, gender, personality like ‘fun’ or ‘melancholy’, even self-esteem2.

Indeed, when a friend created a Second Life character to help with our research, he first told me his name was going to be something completely inane. I kind of freaked out. “No!!!!” I exclaimed. “You have to pick something that’s really a name!” We tossed ideas back and forth until he selected something that felt like a good name to us both. (This conversation was in Google chat, where both our names online are the same as off.) My father joined Second Life recently, as well, and named himself Fuzzy. Fuzzy?! Yet somehow it completely fit. I was satisfied.

And what about spaces like this blog? Or Twitter? These spaces often have little or no visual representations to help us identify those we “know” as such. Here, or over at Righteous Orbs or at the Pink Pigtail Inn we are screen names far more than images. And those screen names are the ones with identity, they, in a sense hold the reputations we build more than we, the drivers, hold them. There is no doubt that in WoW, certain people gain reputations that are only recognizable via their names. If you have a rep of being the top player on your server and you change your name… well, there goes your rep. We’ve all heard “so-and-so is a ninja! Don’t invite him to your group!” If Mr. So-And-So changes his name.. poof! Bad reputation gone.

Indeed, many websites use names of businesses, individuals, and other web spaces as the “thing” rated when they create online reputation systems such as those for eBay vendors,  Amazon reviewers, or Digg lists. Feeback about what we can expect from someone or something is associated with that name, not with the driver behind it. The reputations behind those names matter and translate into other spheres, as it did for Tila Tequia, who had the most MySpace friends, or Harriet Klausner, famous for being the #1 Amazon reviewer for a long, long time. Did Ms. Klausner really write every one of those 21 thousand reviewers “herself”? Does it matter?

In a sense, it is our names that have Facebook friends, not us – cancel your account (name) and you have to go out and actively re-establish all those names to be listed as your friends all over again. My name links to your name on FB; my name follows your name on Twitter; my name posts on a space associated with your name on your blog. If someone hacked my account, they could be me, until s/he did something so foolish you’d figure out it wasn’t me (because, of course, I am never foolish).

It’s the same in WoW. I recently logged back on after quite an, ahem, substantial hiatus, and was told that 4 or 5 people had been removed from my friends list because they “no longer exist.” If I had been fortunate enough to have Tam on my friend list over there on those European servers, I would be told the same when he transfered. And I wouldn’t have been able to track him down using the only thing I could use to do so: his character name. Of course I wouldn’t feel that change in the official links between our names meant Tam wasn’t my friend anymore…  right? Are those who left my server without my knowledge and were removed from my friends list no longer my friends?

Actually, in a sense, they are not. I have no idea where they went in this case. Heck, I can’t even be sure who they were – all WoW tells me is that some of the names on the list are gone, not which ones they were.

Some people, of course, pick terribly bizarre names, or say they could care less what their name is in WoW or SL or elsewhere. You constantly see names like “Lovethisgame” or “Reacharound” or “Stewpid” or “Fugguhealme” (yes, these are all real names I’ve seen in WoW). Blizzard, in fact, has a policy that names can’t be real words, or swear words, or “offensive” in general. Blizzard acts like names matter, too.

But me, I want a name I can live with, which means something I actually want to be called, be known by. I pick all my character names from the names of deadly plants. My non-avatar names are generally oriented around my middle name, Mikeal, in part because I enjoy its gender-blurring properties.

One dear friend who no longer plays WoW still has a few ‘toons “officially” on servers I frequent. I look at his name on my friends list and get all nostalgic – and not just for him, the driver, but also for his ‘toon.  I literally miss Lloyd, too, not just C., his driver. When C. changed to a new ‘toon for a while, I still missed Lloyd. There was something about that particular identity he was driving that held special meaning to me. That name.

Names are part of what let us express and feel social presence  in these online spaces, avatar or none. I’m not saying the name is necessarily more powerful than the visual avatar (that’s a study in itself, there), but I am saying names matter, not just technically, officially, in the code. But that they matter here, in the heart, where it hits you hard.

1. In SL, you select a skin, which essentially is paint on the avatar body that determines visual contours, make up, flesh color, shading, etc. The ‘shape’ you select is the form underneath that skin. Both can be bought from designers already formed, and SL gives you an editing interface to make those changes by hand: you can nudge your nose larger or your legs shorter, move your eyes closer together or farther apart, etc. Creating a good skin and shape is quite difficult, and purchasing a well-designed one is usually preferable to messing around with them yourself, unless you are the talented designer, of course.

2. Credit and thanks to a scholar of my acquaintance for this research – as soon as her paper on this is published I’ll link if she lets me.


4 responses to “The Names Business

  1. Two (sets of) thoughts-

    First, having seen Bella through several of these transformations, the thought never occurred to me to see her as someone different; partially because of the name and partially because of the continuity of the interactions. Though, none of these instances above show the more radical appearance changes (including robots) I’ve seen Bella perform. While certainly I would still recognize the you behind Bella, I don’t know that I recognize Bella per se when she undergoes more radical transformations. The name acts as the link, as you suggest, between the user and the avatar, but it is also the link between two different users independent of their virtual embodiments in some regards. The primacy of the name in this case is also because you can’t change your name in SL as readily as you might your skin. Even offline I can more readily change my appearance than my name. In part this is because names require social interactions to “work.” Aghast looks may keep me from (or encourage me to) do something radically transformative to my hair for example. Suddenly demanding that people call me Celeste, however, is more difficult. Even if people readily accept the change in my presence, when they speak and I am not there they will likely reference Celeste who used to be known as Adrienne. To sum up a bit of meandering train of thought, beyond how we express ourselves, names are both institutionally and socially cultivated as important identifiers that stand in for the otherwise inexpressible self in some ways.

    Second, more complete if shorter thought- your discussion about caring about what name you use in virtual worlds reminds me of an interviewee from my dissertation (well, several but I’ll just use one example). In Rockband she had several different rockers she had created, mostly based on her friends. Two were sort of versions of herself. One was the “fantasy” version. She wore crazy costumes, had big colorful hair, etc. (she even let me play as this character during one gaming interview and we spent at least 20 minutes just playing dress up with it). The other was more specifically her. She created it because her husband had created a character that she thought was made to look like her (he denies this), and she wanted to do the same thing only better. She played as that character during the interview and while dressing up the character she mentioned that she never puts her in clothes she wouldn’t wear herself- and indeed the outfit she picked was very similar to one I’d seen her wear before.
    That has nothing to do with names and I’m just going to leave that as an interesting anecdote because this is already turning into a blog post of its own.

  2. I find this whole notion of selecting a character specifically to express things you can’t express elsewhere fascinating. I think that people do that offline, as well. You go hang out with one group of people because you can let a part of yourself out that has to be kept quiet with a different group of people.

    At its most basic, you hang out with your friends because you can’t be a goofball with your co-workers.

    But online we get to design that self in different ways, make the symbols of her differences stronger through pink hair or Victorian clothes or a metal bikini.

    I wonder if we do that when we create various online selves even if we’re not doing it as deliberately as the woman you interviewed. I mean, when I’m Lantana, I don’t specifically *feel* that I’m exploring different parts of myself, but since she lives in a different context, with different activities, clothes, friends, and goals, perhaps I am exploring a different ‘me’ when I play her…

  3. There is something a bit problematic in a lot of the discourse surrounding virtual selves stressing whether or not people are representing themselves vs. creating new selves (which is an oversimplification I know). Specifically, that people are simply very complex. The notion of exploring different aspects of themselves (which is something I try to describe in my own research) is much more helpful.
    Thinking of it as acting, as one of my interviewees did, is really helpful in this regard. Not acting as in just playing a part, but acting in the sense that we are always performing and being able to perform as someone else requires finding those characteristics within ourselves. My stuff focuses more on pre-created characters in off-line games, but I think there are some similarities to online gaming as well.

  4. Post-Edit: Oh joys! Tamarind is not completely lost to us :)

    Plus, he has some intreguing things to say about identity and ‘toons as well.

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