What’s in a name?

Note: The names I’m using are [redacted], because I don’t really want them to be tracked or searched and associated with me.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

– Romeo and Juliet, act 2, scene 2


Every Filipino kid has an embarrassing family nickname. Ask them – they won’t tell you, but you’ll see the fondness on their face a split second before they recall all the embarrassment that comes along with it.

Mine was [redacted]. I’ve become very protective of that name after moving to the U.S. It makes sense, but I still only offer a few close friends permission.

I think the best explanation comes from this piece on why appropriated food brings so much anger in ethnic people: not because the recipe is wrong, but because it has no memory behind it. This memory is of the food’s recreation: watching your mother prepare the ingredients; sharing with siblings and cousins; remembering the anticipation of it. These are childhood, formative memories that are deeply humanizing.

My ‘Filipino name’ is reserved for these memories. They’re collective memories, anchored by my name, shared by myself and my family. Memories of my boyhood that remind us all how life goes on (and how I’m not quite a boy anymore).

Online, names have a different kind of memory. It’s not only a shared memory of the past, but a mythos – the weight of an imagined history. The kind you get in anime, or comic books; it’s a manufactured identity you first create, and then live into. (Except sometimes, that history isn’t so imagined).

As part of the process of getting to know strangers online, we imagine who we think they are based on limited data: their profile picture, bio, and what they say/type. We also see who they interact with and infer what those relationships are like. So, without every really engaging them, we ascribe to them a mythos and refer to it in passing, which others pick up on and add to.

Maybe it’s a different case now, with social media, but back when I started participating in online communities, you were recognized by your name first. These were online gaming communities made up of mostly teenagers.

My first name online was [redacted]. My community gave me a myth and distilled it to the essence; two letters that have meant a lot more to me than my real initials. Sb.

Looking back, I regret asking these friends to use my real name. Not only because I took away all possibility of having an online alter-ego, but because I didn’t recognize that having these names were probably a lot more personal than our “real” names. The memory of these names, unlike my familial name, was fully imagined and actualized only in that community.

No one calls me anything but Angelo now.

Nowadays, I don’t have a single name I use online. I jumped online circles, rebranded, and gravitated towards [redacted]. But, as my offline life and online life started to bleed together, I became scared of what using this online name to represent myself would mean. What would others think of a person who calls themselves [redacted]?

As I’ve taken on a job that requires me to be present in digital spaces, I’m struggling with what name to use. On one hand, to use my real name exclusively loses the potential for new identity that online communities offer. But, to create a new one feels hollow with respect to what I’ve always used.

How do I reconcile all of that history with all of who I am now? What name do I go by online?

Do I pick a professional name, an amalgamation of my first and last name? Do I continue the history and unify the accounts I already have?

How do I think about the fact that new people will trace my history with the name I choose? Track down my accounts, read and interpret my content, and know who I am without speaking to me?


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