When I got married last year, I decided to keep my last name. I don't particularly like it, it's bulky and neither properly pronounceable in French nor in English. In addition to this, as it happens, most of my family doesn't even share the name any longer. Several years ago, I had briefly considered to register the domain hossenfelder.de, which is now registered by a guy who apparently seems to be a spiritual healer. Healing days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays .
The reason why I kept my last name nevertheless is simple. All my publications are under it. And I myself have come repeatedly across publication lists of women who did change their family name, and apparently had to invest considerable effort in clarifying the confusions. In addition to this, my name would have been 'Sabine Scherer'. As googling shows, there is most prominently a Sabine Scherer who is a photographer living on the US West coast. I have middle initials that I usually omit (my name is long enough as it is), but still I'd have to compete with others.
Now I recently read this very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal "You're a Nobody Unless Your Name Googles Well", which reflects the current trend to increasingly rely on search engines that has a noticeable impact on our life and work. The article starts with an example:
"Before Abigail Garvey got married in 2000, anyone could easily Google her. Then she swapped her maiden name for her husband's last name, Wilson, and dropped out of sight.
In Web-search results for her new name, links to Ms. Wilson's epidemiology research papers became lost among all manner of other Abigail Wilsons, ranging from 1980s newspaper wedding announcements for various Abigail Wilsons to genealogy records listing Abigail Wilsons born in the 1600s and 1700s. When Ms. Wilson applied for a new job, interviewers questioned the publications she listed on her résumé because they weren't finding the publications in online searches, Ms. Wilson says. (See Google results for Abigail Garvey and Abigail Wilson.)"
The article goes on
"[S]ome of the "un-Googleables" say being crowded out of search results actually carries a professional and financial price. That's because people increasingly rely on search engines to find things they want to read, music they want to hear, people and companies they want to do business with."
So far this trend has not swapped over into science. But I guess I am not the only postdoc who wonders whether a potential new employer will, upon receiving application forms, Google my name and get a first impression based on the search results. This is definitely a development I don't welcome, as it is clear that a Google search is not the most reliable source.
Google searches often bring up misleading information that would require the reader to further investigate the origin, which I am afraid most people won't do. And the more interesting the result, the more likely it is to be passed on, whether it correctly reflects a personality or not.
E.g. one of the reasons why I started writing this blog was that somebody (I never found out who) posted several potentially professionally damaging comments in an online forum (that did not require registration) under my name. Luckily, the forum was in German and not a very prominent one either, but these comments that were allegedly mine showed up in a Google search. Then there was a thread at Physicsforums by Marcus, where the discussion evolved into the direction of who I am and what car I drive etc. Though it was a nice and polite thread I found, and still find, it very disturbing being discussed by strangers. So I thought the easiest way to avoid such things is to have a prominent web presence on my own, and give people a chance to find out who I am first hand.
Lifehacker has a poll on the above mentioned article, and you find there quite a lot of comments on the issue, many of which express the wish for anonymity:
"BY SHADOWHAMLET AT 05/09/07 06:02 PM
I think the article has it the wrong way. Anonymity is the real power. So long as I Google my name, and it doesn't show up, I am relieved. Sure I am being tracked a thousand different ways. But the fact that the media, and the net at large, has no idea who I am, makes my life a lot easier"
I too would have preferred to keep it quite (I might have blogged under a pseudonym), but having to choose between strangers writing about me, or writing myself, I found the latter preferable. By now I have been repeatedly called an 'extrovert' and 'a gossiper' by people who know I have a weblog but don't bother reading it. That admittedly is a side-effect I did not anticipate.
In my opinion, things are often worse if somebody does not have an own homepage where one could find research interests, or clarify whether some other information is to be trusted. However, having a website can be tricky as well. I mean, would you consider hiring a guy whose website features poetry of the type "Urinal. A urinal. A well kept East German urinal. New strangers but the same eyes." ? Just asking... And will we come to a point where it pays off to hire professionals for our web presence, and get a consultant for Search Engine Optimization? And would that be tax deductible?
Such, after 30+ years of cursing a long and complicated name, I have come to appreciate it for the simple reason that, as far as I know, I am the only person with that name (if one includes middle names), and a simple query Google search leads towards my blog and my private homepage .
Besides a belated thank you to my parents, I am writing - as I apparently do so often - to point towards a development and want to ask you 'Is this good?'. I have expressed previously my concern about our increasing dependence on certain features of the internet in 'The Right not to Know', and this post is in a similar spirit. The very least I want to do is raising awareness for the issue.
If you're an employer: Googling a name it temptingly easy but there is no short-cut to getting to know a person. It takes time to judge somebody.
If you're a looking for an employer: Don't sell yourself as something you're not. It doesn't pay off. You only have this one life to be what you are.
The title of this post should have been 'Bezahlen Sie einfach mit Ihrem Guten Namen' (Just pay with your good name), which used to be a slogan for American Express that I've always found very ironic. However, it seems this slogan was not used in English speaking countries so the joke would have been lost on many readers. Those who are confused by the title, I want to refer to the Wikipedia entry on the Name Game, and have some fun with your first name here.
During the last week, I have received several emails (and comments) by readers, who have advised me to be careful with my writings as I could potentially damage my reputation. I appreciate your concerns very much. I am afraid you are right, and I find this very sad for as I've expressed in this post I think this is not a good development.
However, admittedly I am not so very bothered by the prospect of damaging my so-called career with uttering sentences that offer potential targets, since I wouldn't want to work in a place where people have judged me by reading only a couple of sentences that Google brought up, or where somebody has a problem with me having an opinion that occasionally is uncomfortable. I am not saying that because I am proud of it, but because it's simply the truth. I would be very unhappy having to work in a place that doesn't accept me the way I am. That's awful poems, puns, and blogging included.
 Despite him living close by where I grew up, I've never met him, and I'm not related to him, just in case you wonder.
 By Max Tegmark.
 In fact, I just checked that at least the first 17 pages indeed all refer to me in one way or the other. Disturbingly enough, searching at pipl.com brings up my old Arizona address including the cell-phone number, thereby explaining an enormous amount of annoying phone calls I used to get.