What’s in a name?

It’s a matter of identity, isn’t it? My name links people to my digital and real identity. It’s how people can find me. When they call, it’s why I answer. They are using my name!

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 4.21.25 PMSo what’s in a name? This became part of a discussion last week when Marci Duncan explored digital identity in my media and digital literacy class. The challenge was to google ourselves and see what came up. In order to have a strong digital identity, your name has to have a strong digital voice! It has to shout out to those who are looking. Your name connects others to you. Consistently creating under the same name helps others find what you are saying.Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 4.21.43 PM

But what if your name connects to people that aren’t you …. and those identities are NOT ones you want others who are searching for you to find?

The challenge is connecting who you are to your name. Sometimes your first venture into the digital world is one where you use a pseudonym or catchy moniker. In my network I’ve wondered how @cogdog or @nomadwarmachine became the digital persona of the real people these names represent. Once the connection is made, it’s not hard to keep them straight. Until you know how the name connects to the individual, it’s harder to keep them straight. At the starting point of building a digital presence, as many of my students are doing, their names are a choice of how they wish to be recognized. Creating a digital identity with a new name is not easy. This is especially true in a digital world that doesn’t forget (Couros & Hildebrandt, 2015).

So what name do you use? How do you establish your name in digital spaces.

Hello. My name is …. HJ.DeWaard.

With this simple statement my digital presence can take on new potentials. It makes a difference when we begin to establish our digital identity. After doing a search for your name, you may decide to establish a variation of your name. You may stick to the name you were given. Even if your given name is unique, it may not be an easy choice. The HJ stands for Helen Jacqueline by the way. This came about because there was already another Helen DeWaard active in social media spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 4.22.05 PMCulture and context will determine how you begin. Our ‘real’ names evolve from our backgrounds (family, geography, nationality). Our persona and presence in digital spaces emerges from our name. When developing an identity, our name is one way of being recognized. It is partnered and supported by our digital image. Despite the fact that the digital world may not forget, our digital names and images can be renovated and changed to suit our potential. Our names should not limit our existence in digital space or put up barriers for others to find us. In digital spaces, we can even teach others how to say our name (as Maha Bali did) so others can get to know us better.

This reminds me of a post by Sue Dunlop (@Dunlop_Sue) who shared the importance of accuracy in using a person’s name and honouring the names we are given. She was reflecting on Rusul Alrubail’s blog post Growing up with my name. Getting a name right is important, not just in the real world where we use our voices to connect and build relationships. Calling me by name and knowing that @hj_dewaard refers to me are ways to ensure that we can connect and build a relationship.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.34.13 AMWhy is it so challenging to publicly declare our names in digital spaces? What are decisional factors when selecting or creating accounts in digital spaces? Do you keep it REAL or do you use an interesting moniker?

What is your public name? How did you decide how to name yourself for the digital world? How has your persona and presence changed as your name became known?


Couros, A. & Hildebrandt, K. (2015, October 15). (Digital) Identity in a world that no longer forgets. [blog post]. Retrieved from http://katiahildebrandt.ca/digital-identity-in-a-world-that-no-longer-forgets/

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17 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Pingback: The True You: Iterations of a ‘bio’ | Five Flames 4 Learning

  2. Marissa Pinto says:

    Hello Professor DeWard:

    I have always thought about what others think of me. Lots of my friends and family say, “why do you care what others think of you?”….well my answer is simple – I am my own business. The way I project myself is extremely important in my relationships with my professors, friends, co-workers, FUTURE co-workers and significant others. I think of myself as branding my image in a healthy way and ensuring that I am coming across in a positive manner.

    I always pictured myself applying for a job and a potential employer looking my name up in Google. I decided to look myself up and see what others could see. Luckily, very minimal images and information about myself come up, and the information available is positive and professional. Other images and information that include the same name as me, includes a famous singer located in Spain. So I am in the clear either way. In this instance of employer searching, I don’t want to link myself on the internet. I prefer for future employers to not even have a clue I exist in the digital world, but in our day and age, you ca find anyone! (or can you really – how do you know you are looking at the RIGHT Marissa Pinto?). In a positive light, I want my friend to be able to look my up and see pictures of me enjoying things that are special to me. This is more of a personable approach because my friends of family members searching me can relate to what they see about me on the internet to my personality. For example, I post a lot of pictures and video advocating animal rescue and to fight against animal cruelty – my friends know I am an animal lover and can appreciate the posts I create based on their personal knowledge of me.

    I liked the connections you made about our digital self in relation to our real self. I never use my last name on social media or apps because I don’t want to be easily accessible to the public. I want my real identity to remain in person, although I do feel I portray myself in the digital world as my real self as well. You just never know who is looking you up and what assumptions they make of you, so I think it is really important to always ensure you are professional and positive while expressing your digital self.

    Marissa Pinto

  3. Hello Helen,

    I really enjoyed reading through your blog post— I specially enjoyed what you said about our names being such a huge part of our identity! As you said, our names most definitely contribute to our identity both digitally (and not). I think it is very important to establish a connection to your identity in both cases.

    I noticed you used the abbreviation “HJ” for Helen Jacqueline in your online name— this is because there was another active “Helen DeWaard”. I can absolutely relate to this as there are many “Olivia Hall’s” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even email. Because of this, I use my middle name (Katalin) a lot for my usernames. My middle name may seem a little odd and uncommon as it is Hungarian. Interestingly, “Katalin” relates to “Kathy” which is my mothers name in Hungarian. I believe this is important to explain to people because they are able to make a personal connection to me both in the real and digital world.

    How do you think people choose their names/usernames in the online world? Do you feel as if a lot of individuals use their middle name? Nicknames? Do you think we all try to be unique in this sense? I look forward to hearing from you!


    Olivia H.

  4. Jocelyn French says:

    Hello Helen,

    This is an interesting topic and a very real in today’s society. It is something that everyone should be thinking about.
    When I first got social media, every site I was on was my first and last name because I could not think of something creative. Then a few years later I changed all my social media to not be my first and last name, so that it was creative and fun, something that was relating to me in a way and so it was harder for people I met randomly to find my social media.
    As an inspiring teacher, a big topic in teaching is your digital footprint. There are a lot of stories about teachers posting something to their personal page and then being fired because of it. It is scary to think that something I post could be the cause of me losing a job. Since my digital name and real name are different I want it to be harder for people to look up my social media, so I can make my social media as private as possible to not cause anyone to be discouraged of my ability as a teacher.
    When I look up my name, nothing about me comes up. Everything is about many different people with the same name. My Facebook page is even at the bottom of the list. This makes me wonder if I should leave it the way things are when someone looks up my name so that no one can find my social media when I become a teacher, or should I make it so when people look my name up they can find my digital footprint?

    Jocelyn French

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Hi Jocelyn. I went through similar concerns when first dipping into social media and digital spaces. I used a pseudonym and an avatar so I was hidden from clear view. At one point I made the decision to come out from behind those ‘masks’ and be visible in all spaces. I had to think and reflect on the name and persona I wanted to present to those in digital spaces so I could be found easily and I could be recognized for what I was passionate about. I wrote a bit about it in Awaken the Dragon (https://fiveflames4learning.com/2015/01/16/awaken-the-dragon/).

      You’ll need to make a critical decision for yourself but the benefit in having one persona in all your digital tools, apps and spaces is that you will then flood the search engines so when people look for you, they find LOTS of stuff you are doing, saying, reading and writing. It’s a daunting process, but consistency, professionalism and passion will come through. People will see the ‘true you’. Good luck with crafting you digital identity. Look forward to ‘seeing you’ for real.

  5. As an aspiring teacher, I have spent some time trying to ensure my digital persona is professional and the question of what name I go by is one that I have spent some time trying to answer. I grew up assuming that teachers should always be called by their last name, that using first names was unprofessional. Since being at university, I have now been able to see the benefit of going by your first name with your students. However, I still believe that age plays a huge part in the ability to do this.
    I worked in an elementary school as a tutor for EQAO and had one of the teachers refer to me by my first name around her students, which resulted in them having very little respect for me when I was trying to teach them math lessons. They were grade three students, and to them, they assumed that since they knew my first name, I was more their friend than any sort of authority figure in the school.
    In this instance, I saw the problems of using my first name around younger students, but I also feel as though first names can make students connect to a teacher more and feel more comfortable and trusting around them. So should I use my first name in digital spaces, or strictly go by my “teacher name”? Also, is there a benefit in using titles, such as Mrs., in digital spaces? I’m curious to see what advice you have regarding this issue?

    – Megan Koetzle

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      I know that many folks use variations on their given names in different combinations but don’t usually use Mrs, Ms or Miss since this can be transitory these days. Some don’t even use their given names, but become well known and recognized by their pseudonym. I have many digital connections I know by their Twitter handles before recognizing their given names. I think it’s really a personal and/or professional choice. Helen

  6. K. Manson says:

    Hello Helen,

    When reading this post, some of my thoughts were very similar to Jocelyn French who commented above. Growing up, I was always taught not to use my real name on social media in order to protect my identity. However, it seems that in recent years, there has been a real push to be found online. For example, after I got my first job at age 17, I was told by numerous people including a customer that I needed to start a LinkdIn account as soon as possible in order to establish connections and begin networking online. The ability to be found online with merely a name is something that can be used both positively and negatively. An experience I’ve had of people finding me on the internet is when my boyfriend’s new landlord admitted to looking at my Facebook profile. Seeing as I hadn’t met her yet and she only had my name, it made me slightly uncomfortable to know that she could see so much about me. I would probably say that from this experience I have realized the importance of privacy settings on social media, as some of them are associated with my full name. I continue to strive to keep my online presence professional and not too personal so I can benefit from my name being associated with my online identity while still maintaining my own security. As a future educator, I am very aware of the fact that students could look up my name online and I will be sure that my identity is one that I am comfortable with them seeing.

    K. Manson

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Thanks for this response. I too am very aware of what I post online and tend to err on the side of caution. You have certainly identified several concerns as students make the transition to a professional persona. Hope this post helped shape some of the decisions you’ll make in the coming years. Helen

  7. Jenna Petersen says:

    Hello Professor DeWaard:

    This is a very important topic, especially today. Your digital presence is more important now than 
    Ever before, especially when establishing a professional career. Ensuring that you are creating a positive digital identity will secure a good impression on professionals. Last week in my critical digital literacy class, we were asked to do some searching based on our own names. For me, I found that there is a well-established author by the same name which takes over a lot of the hits that come up from this name. This can disrupt my digital identity because it makes it more difficult for anyone to find my digital presence. Will they question that I am hiding someone or not honoring my name? An important question that I yet to have an answer to. I have a Facebook, a LinkedIn, a twitter, that convey my digital identity and presence but yet they get lost in another people’s digital identity. I hope to shine the digital presence I have worked to create so that those who wish to see it have the access to do so. As much as I want to honor my name and create an identity for it I am conflicted on should I create an identity by a different name? Something more unique that will catch the top of the hits in a Google search? This post helped me a lot with creating questions that I must find answers to so I may better my digital identity. I thank you for that. 


  8. HJ.DeWaard says:

    Hi Jenna. Yes, I suggest you look carefully at establishing a digital ‘persona’ for your identity. This is a great time, early in your career, to begin doing this work with intention and thoughtfulness. You don’t need to keep your own given name, but can stretch into alternate identities. One of my favourite ones belongs to @cogdog whose blog posts play on the metaphor and all things ‘dog’ related. Just one of many examples out there. The more you explore, the more ideas you get, but make sure you design and create something that is uniquely YOU. Good luck!

  9. Breann Sharma says:

    Hi Professor DeWaard,
    A professional digital persona is very important to have, especially in the field of education. Googling yourself and variations of the names and usernames you have online is a good way to assess how professional your identity looks from an outside position. When I googled my name, lots of things came up from my childhood like old youtube and facebook accounts. These are not necessarily considered professional, so I am beginning to try and promote other material I have published to make me look more professional, such as my blog and association with soccer (volunteering and playing). I hope to create accounts that have a variation of my name to create a new “identity” that is professional, which would allow me to connect with other educators and grow as a teacher. This variation of my name can also be used to connect with my student’s and their parents since it will be full of professional content and contacts. I feel if I use my real first name around students problems can arise with them searching me and finding personal accounts or old accounts, so I believe giving students variations such as Bnsharma would keep my personal accounts more private. Have you ever encountered students finding your personal accounts online? If so, how would you hide these accounts?

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Thanks for commenting Breann, and sharing your thoughts about how to build your digital identity. Being intentional and building with purpose and passion are important considerations. You’ve asked about keeping your personal accounts private and how to hide this other identity from students, or even parents. I think the best advice comes from the College of Teachers guidelines and the best practices of other educators. Some don’t share any personal or family information in online spaces. Some build their personal spaces just like their professional spaces, with intention, honesty, and authenticity. Follow the guidelines set out by the teaching profession and you’ll not only be safe, but be proactive in managing your digital presence. [OCT guidelines: https://www.oct.ca/-/media/PDF/Professional%20Advisory%20Social%20Media/EN/Prof_Adv_Soc_Media_EN.pdf%5D

  10. Sarah Amelia Thomas says:

    Hello Helen,
    I always knew that due to my name, Sarah Thomas, it would always be hard to build a prominent digital persona. As there are thousands of Sarah Thomas’s in the world at least. Considering how common the name Sarah is, and how common the last name Thomas is it is not hard to believe the name Sarah Thomas in a search engine comes up with women from across the globe. Surprisingly a few award-winning teachers as well, which makes my task at building a noticeable digital persona that much harder. It never dawned on me to use my first initials or include my middle name. I added my middle name to my search, Sarah Amelia Thomas, and found I was mostly brought to some history posts and a couple Facebook comments on public profiles. But not much compared to searching Sarah Thomas. I have quickly stumbled upon my name for my digital persona and plan to begin using my middle name on profiles and interactions that I want to be searchable. I would like to know, how do you ensure that others know that this alternate name is what you go by for your digital presence? Would I begin by including my middle name on resumes?

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Thanks for thinking more deeply about how to establish yourself as a professional by considering your digital identity based on your given name. Your searches show the challenges people have when intentionally building a digital presence. Using a pseudonym can be helpful when your given name is a common one. Tying your names together in blogs and other social media spaces can be particularly helpful, so that people remember you are the ‘person’ behind the pseudonym. For example, I knew @cogdog by this moniker well before I connected this persona to Alan Levine, or knowing @OnlineCrsLady by reputation as Laura Gibbs. So, if you decide to go with a pseudonym make it a meaningful one and use it extensively, consistently, and intentionally. That way people will come to know the true you through your ‘name that is not a name’. Hope this helps prompt new thinking. Helen

  11. Brittany P. says:

    Hello Helen,

    I really enjoyed this blog post- I think it is an interesting subject that I had not thought about until very recently. With technology, the internet, and social media growing every day, it is getting more and more crucial to create a digital presence that portrays you the way you wish to be portrayed. Recently I did a google search of my name. There were many results of all different types of people, but one of the most popular results was of a woman in Georgia who was arrested for assault- this is not the image that I want people to receive when they are searching my name! I decided then that I had to create a digital name that could help shape my digital identity- most apps, websites, and accounts require email, so I decided to start there. There are so many people with a similar name, so many of the address domains were already taken, so I had to think of something else to create my name. Finally, I was able to find an email address that includes an ‘H’ that stands for ‘Henry’, which is my cat’s name! I do not have much digital presence yet (I wasn’t able to find any information about myself in a google search), so I am going to use this name to create my digital identity from here on! I really enjoyed your point that the challenge of creating a digital identity is “connecting who you are to your name,” and is a point that really hit home for me as a future teacher. Social media and digital presence is an important part of the modern world, and if I want to teach my students to be cautious, active, and smart about how they portray themselves online, then it is important that I do the same!
    Regarding the safety of the internet, I have never been sure as to whether I should promote the use of real names in digital presence to my students, or if the use of pseudonyms or catchy monikers is better for younger internet users? I think it is important to start young and begin establishing a digital footprint, but do you think there is a safety barrier in place? I really enjoyed reading this post, as well as many others, and I look forward to looking at many more! Thank you for the tips and resources!


    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Hi Brittany, I’m happy to read that you are thinking critically about your digital identity and working intentionally to create an identity that fits your digital persona. It is a tricky decision to go with a pseudonym or a real name, or even going with your given name when posting to the web. Keeping some elements private, safe, and secure, while still being present, open to others, and visible is a constant negotiation. Good luck as you craft your presence in the coming years. Helen

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