My Last Name is a CAPTCHA; Therefore, I'm Screwed on Social Sites That Require Real Names

Spelling my last name is for REAL HUMANS ONLY and I sort of like it that way.
Publish date:
August 18, 2011

My name is Natalie, and I have a difficult last name. When my full name is called in a public place, it's always a variation on the following:

"Natalieeeeee ....<pause>

Natalie Prarrrrr....

Natalie Prordr......"

I usually step up, and, clearly and calmly say "Podrazik" at the first pause to rescue the enunciator.

Growing up with a tough last name in a small town in the Baltimore-DC area really wasn't that bad. I'd lived there for years, and had some prominent siblings, so people got the gist of saying Poh-DRAH-zick after a decade or so. There was never any confusion over which Podrazik family we were, and my siblings and I built a minor reputation of athleticism and smart-assery. The only minor disadvantage of our name were the occasional verbal corrections or newspaper mispellings (which was still awesome to see); bullies had many more physical attributes to use as material (big curly hair, very tall, etc).

My relationship with my tough last name changed as I became more active online. Your real name is the easiest branding or copyright you can claim for yourself, and when nobody else has it, you've got the market cornered. This, as they say, is a mixed blessing, and fortunately, not the kind that results in twins.

For my protected and private accounts, like email and my banking stuff, I love my challenging name. I feel like it’s very hard to guess and very difficult to guess correctly. I've got a lot of friends with last names found frequently in nature, and they've reported some pretty funky happenings in their real-name-like email accounts.

Most commonly, they’ll receive emails intended for someone else with that name or something similar. And I'm not talking about every now and then -- I mean literally every single day they receive mail for someone else. Did someone with a similar email address misspell their own address on a form? Did the sender type in or guess the wrong email address? Did someone sign up with a similar address on purpose because they didn't want to receive updates but wanted to make it look like they did? Isn’t that the same thing that girls do to guys who try to pick them up, when she gives him a fake number with a realistic area code, or one digit wrong?

Anyway, a receipt for some saucy spaghetti-strap tank tops that the other Janet Doe purchased would be interesting every now and then, but wouldn't the other Janet Doe want her flight confirmation email? Amazon receipt? HR benefits package?? Plus, there are some custom email lists that are literally impossible to unsubscribe from, so they feel stuck in some alternative person vortex of hell.

My friends with common first/last name email addresses also complain that they receive a lot of password recovery attempts, which sounds all kinds of terrible. I'm not sure if a third-party wants access to their inbox, or someone malicious wants to take over a more valuable email address, or are just confused about what their own address is -- it makes my eyebrows arch real high just thinking about it!

Anyway, all of those email challenges are certainly a topic for another day. My point is that I only get emails intended for me since my last name is sooooo difficult, and sometimes, I don't even receive those! Favorite HR story ever: I missed an invitation to a mandatory sexual harassment training because the HR rep spelled my name in my email address wrong, and the confusion over emails sent and received bought me another day away from it. Jealous yet? Not for long, my commonly-named friend.

My unique last name in search results and on social networks that require real names turns out to be a major disadvantage. My googley results are really much more accurate than I’d like. There is another Natalie Podrazik, and she appears in my results, but she lives in a faraway state and doesn't do a heckuva lot of lady-coder blogging, so I've got the lion's share of Google juice for my name.

Is this a good thing? Well, there is nothing I hate more than when people brag about the Google ranking for their own name. What great personal accomplishment is it that you're the top-ranked Chris or the top-ranked Chris Brown (PS - You aren't)? You have no control over your real name and very little say in the page ranking Google awards to your stuff.

On the flipside, what about people who genuinely don't want to be found? Imagine how easy it would be to discover a person with a difficult last name, even if they were hiding from a stalker or abuser or dark past. My googley results look clean now, but what if I fuck up? The captcha-last name, in this case, seriously backfires. There's no invisibility-cloak "Oh, but I'm the OTHER __ ___" to shroud yourself in; it's just you.

There are several strong arguments against social networks that require Real Names as usernames, reasonably chronicled in Danah Boyd’s reflection on the policy’s impact for women and minorities, and an entire movement called that attempts to reclaim one’s identity through obfuscated user-chosen usernames. Compared to all of those issues, my argument is a molehill to the mountains, but it is this: My Real Name is fundamentally unique, and in public data sets, like social networks and search engines, I have nowhere to hide. If everyone had to choose a username, I'd have much more anonymity. With real usernames, I feel very vulnerable.

Meanwhile, I've been blogging under a non-Polish name for years so that those poor enunciators I mentioned earlier can have something easier to remember. Plus, Googling my customized username "nataliepo," provides the results that I actually *want* people to see, like my blog, my Twitter account, my mlkshk, and the places where I have some control over my online persona.

Like a CAPTCHA code, squiggly and distorted beyond computational comprehension, I'd like to keep my last name as a test of true humanity and as a guard to my online persona and critical accounts. So, users, critics and makers of Internet technologies past, present and future, please relinquish my privacy, and remember that real names on social networks expose some people more than others.

Dziękuje. Thank you.