Do Display Names Matter?

Display Names are often how we are represented online. Michael might choose to appear as “MusicFan”, “Mikey”, “Florence” or “Andrew”. Does that establish a good tone for discussion? Or does it risk misleading readers, perhaps making them act on the basis of a mistaken identity? Platforms that use display names can and, I think, should consider what intuitions their users may have, and choose policies and practices that help to establish a shared understanding.

If the nature of a platform is such that mistaken identity is a serious risk, then maybe the platform shouldn’t allow display names at all? Or only display them to people (such as platform operators) who ought to remember their (lack of) significance? There are many complaints, however, that the random user identities everyone else sees are unfriendly, hard to recognise and use.

Or a platform might decide only to accept users whose display names can be vouched for by a trusted third party. This will exclude all those who can’t provide a verified name and may discourage those who could. Depending on the purpose of the platform and its intended community, exclusion may be more or less of a problem: for some platforms, it could entirely defeat their purpose. Note, incidentally, that even “official names” aren’t unique guarantees of identity: there are several “Andrew Cormack” in the blogosphere.

Or a platform might try to guide users to an appropriate balance of those risks. The platform can control how display names are presented: I’ve put mine in quotes above, for example, an even less subtle approach would be to append “(not verified)”; suggested pseudonyms might encourage informality, readers might be less sure of “Andrew Cormack (Jisc)” when surrounded by the likes of “Prickly Hedgehog”; user interface experts will have many and much better suggestions.

The key point, I think, is that the appropriate answer will differ between platforms, so is something that each platform should consider. As a platform operator, what expectations do you need your users to have about display names, and what can you do to encourage that to happen?

By the way, I can be found on Twitter as …

Andrew Cormack (five vax, mask, one infection, one OK) @Janet_LegReg

… or so I self-assert. What do you believe? And does it matter?

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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