Changing Profiles: The Missing Edit Button


Social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have changed the nature of digital identities. The anonymous or pseudonymous online profiles of the 90s have been eschewed for real and “verified” identities. However, why do websites force us to conform to variables that describe our identities according to inflexible database fields? Identities are fluid by nature and change over time. We adopt nicknames and change them. We marry and change our surnames. We remarry and change them again. We endure ordeals in life and change our names to distance ourselves from threatening people or violent events. We change our names to avoid responsibilities. We even play with identity and names as an expressive art form. Though government agencies are adept at tracking the various forms of our identities, the common social media and web services that we use daily are not so willing.

For example, Facebook has name standards. Their standards limit personal expression. They encourage people to use “real names” but names are subjective and contextual. In fact, the California law that governs identity recognizes that a name others use for you, even if not your “real name” can be legally valid. Furthermore, the “usage method” of the law allows for a person to change their name simply by starting to use a new name in all aspects of their life. But Facebook limits the number of times a person may change their name, despite the fact that some people may change their names many times based on remarriages or other life events. Are the California laws antiquated, a representation of a time when more people were illiterate? Or are the technical requirements of website databases too rigid to accommodate informality and flexibility?

As someone who has legally changed his name once and informally changed his name twice more, I am irked when I see a website requesting a user name or profile name state that it “cannot be changed later” as does for its new students. Why is a profile name more rigid than my legal name? I could always close the account and start a new one, but then I would lose a history of data with that provider, a history that is more valuable to me (and perhaps a better identifier of who I am) than a name. In fact, when signing up for a class on Coursera, the website recorded my typing pattern as an identity measure, in addition to taking a web-cam photo of my face and driver’s license.

While writing about the onerous task of changing passwords, I will also document how to change profile names as I plan to legally change my name again. The first time I did it, social media did not exist outside of chat rooms so I did not have much of a digital identity to manage. This time, I have a digitally distinct identity because of the uniqueness of my name. But my identity is also greater than my name. My data is my identity. I have data that describes who I am—photos, videos, comments, profiles, usage history—that I want to transfer, not delete. Will the Web 2.0 allow this? Or will it take a social media campaign to demand greater flexibility and control over my data, profile names, and history?

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