Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Name Game

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, which is now registered by a guy who apparently seems to be a spiritual healer. Healing days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays [1].

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." [2]? 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 [3].

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.

[1] 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.
[2] By Max Tegmark.
[3] 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 brings up my old Arizona address including the cell-phone number, thereby explaining an enormous amount of annoying phone calls I used to get.


  1. Lee Lee bo Bee! Banana fanna fo Fee! Fe fi mo Mee!

  2. alas Bee the price of fame
    People will quote you or misquote you whenever they will

    At least you have degrees of freedom, you can comment or blog about what you like - as long as it is not too politically incorrect or damages the reputation of your employer - not all people have such freedom.

    Funny thing is though there may be many degrees of political freedom there are also many limits imposed by political correctness one can never be sure where one can or cannot cross the line.

    Can one criticise Bush and expect to be a Bush government appointee. Can one have a religious belief and not be criticised by all and sundry ...

    However these are different from defending one theory or questioning
    Only there can it really matter to you in your career, and even if it be possible that One may be proved wrong, one is not wrong until one is proven wrong.

    And even then, one should be able to bend with the wind. I mean I have an 'idea' I want to run by you - but we'll leave that for some much later day - I'm sure you are busy enough with what you are working on already

  3. Dear Bee

    Last August you mentioned you've read "what is your dangerous idea?" from The Edge. If I'm not wrong one of the contributors, I think was Kevin Kelly, thought that the most dangerous idea is anonymity.

    I'd hire Max even after reading the poems. Mine are worse :-)


  4. Dear Sabine, I started my web site when I quit my long space programming job due to my work injury and needed a graphical resume with examples to show potential employers. The combo of my Usenet writings, my trail of jobs, and the writing I did/do at my web site, which started at the dawn of the WWW (12 years ago) means the WWW is full of all kinds of stuff with my name attached to it. My philosophy at this point since all of that is Google-able is like you: give them a ton of data that hopefully I've written, and they can filter what they want.

    I like very much what Anders Sandberg has said on a mailing list I'm on regarding online dialog, our reputations, etc. He says:

    "I think I stand by everything that I ever have said on the Internet. Not that I necessarily agree with it (I have changed considerably over the years, fortunately), but I think it would be foolish to try to hide it. A mailing list is about as private as talking on the subway, and it is easy to leak list archives. In the long run *everything* will be googleable.

    Hence I'm not trying to hide that I once wrote a magical ritual for summoning Yog-Sothoth or that I participated in founding the Swedish transhumanist association. Might it cause me trouble with future employers? Perhaps. But do I really want to work for employers who have a problem with my background? It would imply that I would have to consistently prevent some information from leaking out, and over an extended lifespan that is going to be nearly impossible. I think that it is better to be upfront about one's views, quirkiness but also how one has changed. As we move towards a transparent history society we need to encourage tolerance of this, and we can do it by example.

    > The old saying is still true-
    > Don't post anything online that you would mind your mother reading.

    In my case, the mom test is not a very hard filter. But if she was, shouldn't we try to make her broaden her mind?

    Chilling effects are insidious. Once you start reducing what you say and post because somebody somewhere might get angry or filter you out of a job, you will soon not be able to hold any non-mainstream views. Expressing religion or politics would be dangerous. Talking about your lifestyle would be dangerous unless it is truly bland. Talking about transhumanism would be dangerous. Speaking out against immoral organisations would be dangerous. Worse, if others are self-censoring you will stand out even more, so you better self-censor more strictly than your neighbours.

    I think we need to deliberately take a stand and promote people's right to make fools of themselves online and the need for tolerance with people's quirks. If organisations use minor online information to filter out people, make a fuss about it. We have to set up social norms that make it acceptable to have a non-mainstream lifestyle, and that is something one can do both top down and bottom up."
    (end Anders Sandberg words)

    And like you, I didn't change my name when I was married because,.. like you, I had already scientific publications. Plus there are no boys in my generation in my US family to carry the last name. Plus my name has a variety of meanings that I like. However, I should say that a significant number of my friends radically changed their names (say in the 1990s) to names that they were, and are, much more comfortable. I encourage everyone who doesn't like their name, at some point in their lives to name themselves something that they like better. After all, our names are our own.

  5. Dear Bee,

    I didn't know about - it's, how should I say, frightening...

    Cheers, stefan

  6. Hi Quasar:

    Sometimes I am not sure whether a large number of degrees of freedom is a curse or a blessing. The internet is in many respects very unforgiving to our mistakes, and this I guess is something we just only learn to live with.

    Hi Rafa:

    It was this August, see Dangerous Ideas. Yes, I found the essay you mention very interesting and made a mental note to write about the issue of anonymity... sometime...

    Hi Amara:

    I very much like what Sandberg said, and I would immediately sign a petition for a right to make a fool of myself ;-) As I've said to Quasar above, the internet has changed and is still changing the way we communicate. The world is getting smaller and smaller, we get neighbors we don't necessarily want (try the 'next blog' button in the head bar) and we have to find a way to live with it, with each others, and with our and other's mistakes.

    As I have also tried to express in the previous post 'Sexism?' I think finger pointing to somebody who has made a mistake, and amplifying such events is not only not good, but on the long run just impossible to do.

    Changing a name I've heard is easy in the US, but it's not in Germany, and I don't know anybody who ever did it.

    Besides this: good luck on your upcoming move!

    All the best,


  7. Dear Bee,

    ...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....

    That is not the typical way it would happen, in my opinion. Rather, in a tightly competitive situation, to narrow the field, people may try to rule out candidates on "objective" criteria, and that may include such a google search. Some small and silly thing can be a tipping point on a hiring decision when faced with two equally good candidates.

  8. Dear Arun,

    Your scenario sounds depressingly realistic. I can picture the committee sitting there, with the shortlist and a tough decision between two equally ranking candidates. Then somebody mentions the wireless in the room, and hey, lets do a Google search.

    Some small and silly thing can be a tipping point on a hiring decision when faced with two equally good candidates.

    I am myself small and silly, so I guess I'd be happy to be shortlisted at all. But more seriously, even in your scenario my opinion stays the same. A committee that is negatively influenced by me talking about spots on my nose (or other unintelligent sentences people have quoted from this blog), or isn't able or willing to find out whether a find actually reflects my true opinion, consists most likely of a majority of people I wouldn't want to work with anyhow.



  9. dear amara,
    upon hearing what you say about tolerance, i am reminded of your criticism on tomasso's recent post. what do you say about this? ( i'm not intending to attack you, but just asking for some consistency since i like what you commented here.)

  10. lol anonymous touche.

    Amara, the other side of the coin is that in fact many people write and are 'free' to write many things that we may find negative

    Yes Bee, silly little things can and do influence a prospective employer 1) when shortlisting or 2) when interviewing (and hiring).

    Curiously all members of the first Spanish Socialist government had been 'criminalised' given a criminal record by Franco's regime.
    Curiously enough all the members of the Blair government including Brown were criminalised by the Thatcher regime (the stasi like police force and laws of the day) for their opposition to war and nuclear weapons, their opposition to privatisation (of utilities and especially of the health service).
    Of course no conservative government would have employed them
    But irony of ironies Blair and the Labour Party were elected by a landslide to government by the people in a general election.

    And who should Blair become best pals with - and what is Blair best known for in the papers - war war war, nuclear weapons and wholesale privatisation including of the NHS the National Health Service.

    Now he either had a 'Sauline' revelation on the road to Damascus, or he was an ambitious fraudster who talked the talk to get elected (opposed Thatcher), but when it came to walk the walk he showed his true colours - after being elected he even proudly claimed he was a Thatcherite.

    This may happen in the US when the people replace Bush & Republicans, with a Democrat - only to find the Democrat President is really a Bushiite at heart.

    Oops Amara broke one of your golden rules, wrote about politics.

    That aside Bee, the point I was making is that sometimes one has to show one is good at making an argument (in politics or physics)

    Except in Physics One Theory ultimately has to prove itself more accurate, precise or right(actually in politics too, but in socio-politico-economics you can fiddle the results, and Nero fiddled whilst Rome burnt)

    PS - You don't know anyone who changed their name in Germany? lol

  11. Dear Anonymous, I know that I have strong opinions and am direct, so I stated that, and I'm satisified that it was registered. I am very tolerant of Tommaso's goofiness, even while telling that it looked strange to many people outside. You know that some didn't get his joking. I thought an explanation (from his side) was necessary considering the minefield that he walked into, and I wanted to make clear what that 'minefield' was. You can read alot more of my opinion on his blog (here and here. (Take a look at his responses too.) And Clifford's blog as well.

    BTW, since the beginning of DejaNews (which Google incorporated in the later 90s), I reduced my goofiness on public forums by an order of magnitude.. so I've already (unfortunately) practiced some self-censorship, myself during the last 13+ years of the web. I felt it was necessary to help myself look professional 'enough' to get that sometimes very elusive job...

  12. Dear Quasar: Where did you get the idea that I have a golden rule about not talking politics? You haven't googled my name very hard, I think... (here I'll help: some of my strongest criticism of the US adminstration are on the open, extropy mailing list starting in the later 1990s )

  13. My wife has one paper as a Lundberg and several hundreds as a Larsson. The trick is to marry early in your career.

    I agree that Shapiro's son often write strange things.

  14. Dear Bee: I would sign Anders' petitiion (if that one ever existed) for the right to make a fool of myself too. One piece of background to what Anders wrote is that he is a prolific writer. I've known his opinion and writings (and him) for about 15 years. He can drown out anything that might be a 'blip' with enough other words that the data trends over time on Anders are clear.

    I'm a writer and love to write too, however, it's impossible for me to be a prolific writer because of my 12 year old injury. It took two years for enough healing to occur for me to use a keyboard enough to work at my job, but I have a permanent loss of strength, which limits alot what to write of the things that I have on my mind. Still today I have software I use to keep me off of the keyboard at regular intervals and there are some days that I can't use a keyboard at all. Therefore, out of self-preservation to my hands, I'm much more controlled with my public writings, and I put disclaimers at my web site, and my public professional words take precedence. Because of my distance to all of my family, my family writing has a priority on my finite writing buffer too. I don't have a blog for all of these reasons, so I compensate in the new medium with my old labyrinth web site instead. I wish that the data and trends for the evolution of Amara Graps over the years in the 'new' medium were as clear as Anders, but my approach with my own particular circumstances is the best solution that I could find.

    So every person has their own limitations for how much they can reasonably put of themselves into the virtual world, and they'll probably need to prioritize what and how much to put out there. Blips will always happen, but hopefully the virtual trends over time about a person will be clear.

  15. this is interesting, i had exactly the same fears about having my name changed. anyways, the relevant search in hep is spires, not google. and if you would have changed your name to sabine weinberg, i guess potential employers youd have been smart enough to sort that out, too. :-)

  16. Hi Anonymous:

    Sure. Luckily I'm the only Hossenfelder on the arxiv as well, and on SPIRES too which is actually very convenient (if you try Google scholar you'll find that there is a Prof. Malte Hossenfelder who has published a couple of books).

    But take e.g. my husband in comparison: there is another guy with exactly the same name, who in addition happens to work in almost the same field. Now it doesn't matter so much to Stefan because he's not doing a postdoc, but it could have become a problem at some point, and I guess he'd have taken great care to use his middle name.

    Dear Amara:

    Sounds like: If you can't beat them, confuse them ;-) Just distribute a such enormous amount of writings that nobody knows what he's at anyhow? I like that, it's quite ironic since it beats Google with it's own drawback, that's (as I've mentioned in that earlier post) bringing up an enormous amount of completely useless information with no sensible ordering according to importance.

    Anyway, you're definitely the most prolific of our commenters :-)



  17. It's sometimes uncomfortable knowing that so many people have access to the more odd or controversial things we might write on our blogs. But it's definitely better to have that right to be goofy or dirty or whatever. I agree completely that I wouldn't want to work with people who would judge me primarily by my blog or other 'web presence.'

  18. Bee: Probably I'm procrastinating something I really must be doing. ;-)

    A thought: another adjustment in the 'new media world' is the static-web-site old-fashioned folks like me adjusting-to / accommodating/ trying-to-understand the fluid prolific blogging world, where the words emerge as if from fire-hoses at an ever-increasing rate. Probably the two groups place different values on their words.

  19. Perhaps I should explain my cryptic comment above. Harold Shapiro was a math professor when I was an undergraduate. He is married to a Karin Tegmark.

    I guess the point I wanted to make was this: In forty years, nobody will know that "Scherer's son" refers to the famous professor Hossenfelder (or vice versa). Perhaps something to think about.

  20. Who'd want to grow up hearing his whole life 'Are you the son/daughter of...'?

  21. Wow, you paint nudes? bad you're married ;)

  22. ah well. yes, in fact, thanks for reminding me of it, but I haven't had time to paint for quite some while, which is too bad actually. the ones I like best are this and this. My most recent painting you find here.

  23. Does that mean I've been mispronouncing Hossenfelder all this time. I can understand the French getting it wrong ... Madame Ossenfeldair ... the English too?

    Strangely people sometimes think my name is German, perhaps it means I'm settling in here. What a thought.

    I've been thinking of ideal author lists to rival the ABC paper -

    Linde, Linder and Lindner (all in cosmology or astroparticle physics)

    Brown, Gray, Green and White (cosmology again)

    Hill and Valle (particle theory)

    and of course Michael Douglas, Steve Martin and Steve King should write a paper together.

  24. Hi Thomas:
    I can't recall you ever used my last name anyhow. But don't worry about it, as long as I know it's me I don't care. And I guess I have mingled up your name as well (the 'th' is kind of challenging for Germans). I like your author suggestions ;-) If part of a large collaboration, I guess having a name starting with a double A would also help. Having a special character on the other hand seems to lead to additional complications. Best,


  25. Hi Sabine -
    It was rather funny finding your article since I googled my name to see what came up. I am the photographer, Sabine Scherer, you wrote about in this post.
    Small world...


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