What’s in a Name?

December 7, 2011


If you haven’t googled the word “Santorum,” now would be a good time—otherwise most of what follows won’t make a lot of sense. Fair warning: What you find won’t be pretty (i.e., it will be explicit), but it will be instructive.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s examine this phenomenon. The neologism that appears first is certainly vivid and imaginative, and as we learn from the Wikipedia entry that shows up second in my search today, it’s been around for several years, the product of one person’s attempt to shame a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania about his opinions. My opinions, such as they are, of the senator’s views—from which he has not backed away—are beside the point. This is character assassination, in an almost purely literal sense of the phrase, depriving the senator of his name for all intents and purposes, since we all know that these days you are what you Google as.

There’s an intriguingly metaphysical aspect to this as well. Among the debates one uncovers is whether this is an old-fashioned Google bomb (ah, those halcyon days of “miserable failure”). If you think this is an attempt to deceive people about the senator, then it is—but not if you think it’s just a new word being coined. And just how many angels did we decide were dancing on that pin, by the way?

I was planning to write about this whole business anyway, originally intending to connect it to Google’s recent revisions of its algorithm, followed by the elimination of the “+” operator and subsequent introduction of the somewhat-more-feeble Verbatim option. Less than half a percent of searches used the “+,” and two thirds of those were incorrect, says Google, so I guess most of us aren’t in the 99% on this score.

Then, like a gift from the gods, came the story about how Facebook had changed Salman Rushdie’s name on his account to his proper given name, Ahmed. He was understandably peeved, turned to Twitter to call out Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook nomenclature hegemonists, and within two hours got to be Salman again. Yay.

Coverage of this story was sympathetic to Rushdie, while also pointing out the understandable difficulties for internet hosts and providers to determine the real from the fake and the increasing trend of using Facebook in particular to sign in to other services, thus raising the stakes and importance of somehow being able to verify identity online. This also leads to the somewhat worrying prospect that, although Americans have consistently spurned the idea of a national identity card, Facebook might be able to achieve much the same objective through the back door.

Apart from Facebook shooting itself in the foot (yet again), I was struck by how differently some people seemed to treat these two phenomena. It’s okay to, um, savage Rick Santorum’s name, but Facebook should let Salman Rushdie be who he wants to say he is. And we thought name authority was difficult.

As of today, more than 35,000 people had liked the “redefining Santorum” web page, and more than 5,000 had +1ed it on Google. Once something like that reaches critical mass, it’s nigh impossible to do much about it, and Google has firmly said it doesn’t mess with organic results absent illegality, which we should support. Our lesson today, then, seems to be you are who everybody thinks you are, or ought to be, which is great if that’s who you think you are too.

There’s a good old English word for what’s been done to the senator, coincidentally connected to the act in question . . . but that’s another story.

Joe Janes is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.


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