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When technology says ‘no’ to your ‘dirty’ name

Warning: the following story contains lots of rude words — sort of.

It’s not that they are really rude, but more that they don’t fit the strict rules imposed by our digital world.

You know, the kinds of rules that seek to clean up websites, stop smutty posts being added on Facebook, or prevent you writing body parts randomly on forms instead of your real name.

And that’s the kind of thinking that caught out Natalie Weiner.

Natalie, as we will call her to get this post through your spam filter, wasn’t alone.

Her pain was shared by James Butts, Ben Schmuck, several blokes named Matt Cummings, a trio of unfortunates called Mr Dickman, Mr Horny and Mr Grabher.

In fact, the sheer number of people with giggle-worthy surnames that popped up on Twitter to back up her post was remarkable.

All had experienced an unusual kind of discrimination: when technology decides your real name isn’t real enough for its liking.

In some ways, this isn’t a shocking discovery.

A wonderful list of UK surnames from 1918 captures the joy of names including Shufflebottom, Smellie and Rump.

But such names (along with the Willys, Bottoms and Dafts) are now in decline as people marry out of their awkward monikers or change them by deed poll.

So it isn’t that surprising that websites and online applications, carefully constructed to encourage real responses, think you are having a laugh when you say your surname is Balls.

But the more our real identity is linked to our online identity, the bigger this problem becomes.

And there can be serious implications if your data doesn’t agree across sources — making it unwise to sign up under too many fake but acceptable names.

The online world is much tougher than the offline one.

Australia’s baby name register objects only rarely to surnames (this year’s reject pile includes The Greatest while past rejects include PrinceOfZion, God and 7).

But the list of refused names on government online forms is far greater: just ask the many Nulls out there how much trouble having a technology-incompatible name can cause.

When Australia’s e-health records first went live hyphenated names didn’t work.

The Department of Immigration has a whole page devoted to the best way to convert your real name to an acceptable format for its forms (apostrophes are mostly ok, but not if your name is ‘Alofa).

Victoria’s Births, Deaths and Marriages agency will let through hyphens and apostrophes but not full stops (sorry St. John).

The implications of getting your name rejected by a form can range from being mildly inconvenient to looking like systemic bias.

While not a naming issue per se, SBS reported non-binary students were being denied Centrelink payments last year given that forms only allowed them to nominate male or female genders. Those who were on other systems as ‘other’ or ‘intersex’ no longer aligned with the stricter requirements of Centrelink form fields.

Similar problems have emerged when people’s details are recorded with variations, like McIntosh, MacIntosh or Macintosh.

And when the computer says no, it makes it clear that whoever has designed the service, process, form or website has no interest in being open to people who have perfectly reasonable names from other cultures, like Wang and Dong, popular Chinese names that often make the naughty list.

If you are Irish, your apostrophe is o’so much trouble. If you have an Indian surname with 32 characters you won’t fit in the tight 31-character forms allowed by Australia.

Would computers be as unforgiving of a young girl name Abcde as airline staff allegedly were?

And pity extreme examples like poor Tracy Nelson (who has 139 given names thanks to her ambitious parents.) She’d have no chance of ever providing her “full name” when required.

So while being a Slutsky rather than a Smith might get you sniggered at during your school years, it could also have lasting implications now that faceless form designers get to call the shots.

Just one more reason why good web design really, really matters.

If you’re caught out in a naming debacle or a trying to design your tech to avoid one, you can read more about best practice in this area HERE.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer, a futurist and a leading media strategist with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications and journalism. Contact Ruth

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash