On Renaming

From: "Sean M. Burke" <sburke@cpan.org>
To: rss-dev@yahoogroups.com,
        Dave Winer <dwiner@cyber.law.harvard.edu>, atom-syntax@imc.org,
Date: Thu, 08 Jan 2004 16:00:42 -0900
Subject: Re: [RSS-DEV] Re: "Reborn into a world that's grown up"
Reply-To: rss-dev@yahoogroups.com

At 04:35 AM 2004-01-06, Bill Kearney wrote to Dave(y) Winer:

[...]It's YOU Dave, that's been unable to work with others, backstabbed them, insulted them and in general heaped nothing but FUD and abuse upon them and their efforts.

This touches on a serious problem: the bozo bit (<http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?SetTheBozoBit>)  in the online world is quite sticky. That is, once you (e.g., Dave Winer) have convinced people you're a fool, they stay convinced. It becomes a visceral reaction: show people the string "From: Dave Winer" and they will grit their teeth. And some say that this is as it should be.

But a problem arises when avowed kooks, dorks, and halfwits suddenly shape up, and start being at least marginally sane. I assure you, I've seen this happen. The causes can involve neuroendocrinology, psychopharmacology, added dietary fiber, Chinese accubeating, or a good talking to. But the result is what's important: out-of-date infamy that leaves a sort-of okay person laboring under the public shame of their past behavior which they are quite unlikely to repeat.

So, how to unflip the bozo bit for people who've learned their lesson? I am not the first person to note this problem, but I think I've come up with a solution. A stupid solution. So stupid it just might work!

At first blush, a single public act of contrition would apparently be all that's needed. In a small static community, this might do the job, in the form of (say) a very public bout of drunkenness involving maudlin self-blame, promising to turning over a new leaf, etc.  But this seems quite impractical in an online setting, since the listserv equivalent of such an act would only reach a small proportion of all the people who'd need to see it for it to work.

A slightly better specious solution is to publicly change one's name, to let the world know that one is no longer, say, "John Doe", but now must be addressed and referred to by a totally different name, say, "Khu-Ol Nengk" or whatever. This practice is completely ruled out by its very tacky history -- Cassius Clay becoming Mohammed Ali and other islamenclature; John Cougar Meloncamp shifting around his last names; Prince and his nymphoglyph; DeborAH Gibson; Podunk Bell becoming Cingular, UK Post Office becoming Consignia, and a million other corporate shapeshifts; and so on, lo, even unto Courtney Cox-ARQUETTE.
Moreover, publicly changing one's name to something totally different is so drastic as to be histrionic. It's no good.

An alternative would be to non-publicly change one's public name -- i.e., to start using a pseudonym, and to tell no-one that you're the same person as that nasty old what's-his-name. But this is dishonest and impractical, which is a bad combination.

What I think is the best approach is to change one's first name to a diminutive form. So if a "John Doe" builds up a richly deserved reputation as a blowhard and right bastard, but then he shapes up, he need simply 1) permanently change his realname in his email program to "Johnny Doe", and 2) explain the reasons for this to whoever asks.

This approach is contrite and resolute, but not as overdetermined and obscure as a complete name change. Meanwhile, all the people who had been conditioned to grind their teeth at the sight of "From: John Doe" would now see "From: Johnny Doe" and do a mental double-take that would at least partially depotentiate the teeth-grinding bozo bit reaction. They might wonder, "Is that's a different guy than that awful John Doe?". And the answer is yes he is sort of a different person, because people do change. Occasionally. Sometimes for the better. Occasionally.

So, for example, one look at the SGML specification is enough to convince us that Charles Goldfarb has a lot to live down.  If he wanted to show the contrast between his past offenses and his present niceness, he would become "Chuck".
If he were already Chuck Goldfarb, he would become Chuckie Goldfarb.
If he were already Chuckie Goldfarb, he would either have to choose one of the wildcard nicknames (Bubba, Bud, Skeeter, Doc, Slick, Tiny) or totally hit rock bottom and use simply his initial: "C. Goldfarb".

Anyone who already uses simply their first initial, or doesn't use a first name at all, has noplace left to go. The public degaussing of their shame can be effectuated only by leaving the Net for a year and feeding starving people in Africa.

(Footnote: it is forbidden, in this renaming scheme, to go from a diminutive to a non-diminutive or less-diminutive (a Dave Winer cannot become a David Winer); it is forbidden to start using one's full middle name (a Charles [F.] Goldfarb cannot become a C. Frankomen Goldfarb); and under no circumstances can one start using an IRC nick, RPG/MMPORG name, or the like -- no "Merlyn", no "k1llz0R3lla", no "sk8r420", etc.)

Anyone needing my invaluable consultation on some of the thornier issues that I leave open here (like whether a Markus can become a Marky; and exactly what variety and duration of shames and disrepute are enough to turn a "William" into a "W." and then into African exile) can email me privately.

Sean M. Burke    http://search.cpan.org/~sburke/