The ‘official’ real me is legion

Until yesterday, I’ve been keeping up with — but haven’t been particularly concerned about — the Google Plus real names controversy.

After all, I already used my real name in all my social networking and the only complaint I have with virtual worlds is when I can’t use my real name and have to choose from the list of pseudonyms that’s on offer.

But then I read I read the wikia Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy? followed by Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names and I realized that not only was I greatly mistaken — but that I don’t even know, for sure, what my real name is.

The first article lists a large number of groups — everything from political dissidents to domestic abuse victims — who need online pseudonymity and are directly harmed by the “real names” policy of Google Plus and Facebook.

And I agree that real harm is being done. Facebook and Google Plus aren’t just private companies that can set any policies they want and if people don’t like them, they can go somewhere else. They are also semi-public venues like shopping malls, or supermarkets, or arenas. People meet there, exchange information, organize groups and events. Cutting off a section of society from these kinds of interactions is simply wrong.

Let’s say a local shopping mall wanted rich white people to shop there but, instead of increasing marketing to rich white people they decided to prohibit poor people and minorities from coming in. It might make some commercial sense — sick, twisted, commercial sense — but it would be wrong, discriminatory and, of course, illegal.

Forbidding pseudonymous accounts on Facebook or Google Plus hurts the organizing efforts of political activists in repressive regimes, keeps victims of domestic violence and stalking from staying in touch with friends and relatives, and hurts people looking for information and support on sensitive subjects such as AIDS prevention, abortion, mental illness and similar topics that they might not want the world to know they’re struggling with.

But that’s just half the story.

Who am I, really?

The other half is that there’s no such thing as a single “real name” for a lot of people — probably the majority.

Take me, for example.

I was born in the Soviet Union, as Мария Викторовна Королёва. There’s probably still paperwork in Russia somewhere that has that as my identity.

My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and I became Maria Viktorovna Korolova. When I received my US citizenship, I was old enough to decide how I wanted my name spelled, and became Maria Victoria Korolov. I don’t have a US birth certificate, but do have a baptismal certificate with the earlier version of the name.

In 1997 I got married and — under the mistaken impression that Trombly was easier to spell – added my husband’s name to my own. I officially became Maria Victoria Korolov Trombly.

Except on my passport, where I was just Maria Victoria Trombly since there wasn’t enough room for all four names.

Or on my drivers license, where I was Maria K Trombly. The IRS knew me as Maria K Trombly as well. Banks and credit card companies used various permutations of my names or middle initials.

Then I got married and went back to my maiden name — Maria Victoria Korolov. Though legally that became my name immediately after the divorce, it took a couple of years to get everything else switched over. The Social Security Administration now has my new name. I was able to get replacement social security card same day processing. My passport still says “Maria Victoria Trombly.” My driver’s license has a typo — it says Maria K Korolov. My health insurance company lists me as Maria Trombly. To the IRS, I’m just Maria Korolov.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of articles out there that show “Maria Trombly” in the byline, that I wrote for Computerworld and CIO magazine and for Securities Industry News and for The Hollywood Reporter and dozens of other publications — I spent the bulk of my professional life as Maria Trombly.

As a journalist, I also lived in China and in Russia. Both countries issued me official documents — accreditation cards, residency permits, and other documents.

My Russian name became Мариа Королов — a Russification of the name that was then on my passport, and which looks pretty weird to actual Russians.

In China, officials picked random characters that vaguely approximated the pronunciation of my English name. During the five years I was bureau chief there, different officials picked different characters at different times. To create a Chinese name, the usual process is to divide your name into syllables, and then pick Chinese words that have sound similar. For example, the English equivalent would be converting the name Korolov into core-oh-love. “Ma,” for example, can be written as one of many characters, meaning  horse, mother, ant, toad, mammoth, measles, scold, pile, abuse, grasshopper, or question mark. Which one did they pick? Probably depended on their mood and sense of humor.

So now, when someone asks for my “real name,” do I give them the name on the divorce decree? The name on my passport? The name on my driver’s license? The name on my taxes? The name most people have known me by professionally? The name I was born under? The names legally valid in Russia or China?

It all depends on the context. There is no one “real name.”

Similar issues are faced by many people — maybe even the majority of people — including:

  • Anyone with more than the three standard names — first, middle and last.
  • Anyone with less than the three standard names.
  • Anyone with an apostrophe — O’Dell — or a hyphen in their name or more than one capitalized letter.
  • Anyone whose parents gave them a weird name, or whose parents or spouse was an immigrant, or who themselves came from a foreign country.
  • Anyone with a name longer than eight characters.
  • Anyone who goes by a middle name or by their initials or by “Junior” or by a diminutive of their name — like Billy Crystal.
Then there’s the fact that, in many jurisdictions — including in Massachusetts, where I live — the law allows you to change your name without filing any legal documents by simply using your new name, as long as you don’t do it to defraud anyone.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

12 Responses

  1.' sorornishi says:

    All very true.
    There is also a historical reason based in the history of online life. 'Handles' as they used to be called, were the common way people named themselves on the web, and some of the oldest netizens have well established groups of people they speak both to and on behalf of. All these 'early adopters', the backbone of the web as it is today, are excluded.
    Now it can be argued that everyone is equal, which of course they are, but some 'customers' are worth taking a bit of extra care with if they have influence. It's business sense. Annoy the right people and your business will suffer, I think.

  2.' Cisop Sixpence says:

    I agree with you. While the name that is referred to as my 'real name' has only changed once since my birth certificate, I don't use that name for any online activities. I use the name you see as originating this comment. It is the only name I go by on line, and for privacy/protection issues, I do not link or associate it with the 'real name', so in the online reality, this is my real name.

  3.' ceorlonlyone says:


    Thanks for speaking out on this issue. In my case, I have already left Google+ rather than wait to be hunted down, until they clarify and hopefully correct their stance on pseudonyms.

    My own reasons for using a pseudonym are not as dramatic as most of those in the list on I am not living under a repressive regime, or being stalked, or leading any sort of double life.

    I simply value my privacy, am better known by my pseudonym, and most of the people I have an interest in connecting with I know by their pseudonyms as well.

    Please help keep the issue alive, since there are massive privacy issues at stake, and they are at risk of being decided not by individuals or governments, but by corporations.

    -Ceorl Onlyone

  4. guess no one at google ever saw the matrix.

  5. I explored this issue in my post G+ and Beyond; What's Your Target?. To a computer, your REAL name is []. I am in the process of changing my legal name to "Miso Susanowa" also so… what will Google do then?

  6.' SammmyG says:

    Hmm, Secondlife requires Real Names and a form of identification for Adult Verification. I dont see a problem with it myself, as far as political desidents, my opinion is that they should not have anything to hide, if what they have to say is important enough. Im not also into requiring anyone whether an individual or a corporation (group of individuals) to live up to my morals. (80% Libertarian here hehe) If your afraid of someone bothering you, Facebook (and I bet Google+) has options to make your stuff private and to block people so they cant even see you. Anyway, I understand your concerns, and it is in the end for Google to address these concerns, but either way theres always outlets for people to connect.

  7. I loved the post Maria. I use my married name as my handle across the net and use my Chinese name when I want to avoid spam or detection, though I believe many people in the industry know my ruse =)

    And it sounds like you speak fluent Chinese, right?

  8. This was an incredible read. It really puts a new perpective on just how silly trying to limit what people call themselves is. Thank you for a great article Maria.

  9. @iliveisl says:

    indeed who are any of us?

    who is Ener hax?

    does it really matter who i am?

    if what i create and post online helps others, then who cares who i am except for my own ego?


  10. Valkyrie Ice says:

    I go by the name Valkyrie Ice online, and have for over 25 years. I will legally change my name to this when I can afford to. Simply put, this is more my "real name" than the one I have to use legally.

    I am not "anonymous", and have made no effort to hide my "legal name", I am simply a Unique Identity. I have never been to a website, forum, MMO, or email in which my name has been "taken" and all links in google to my name that do not link to pictures or statues of valkyrie's leads to my prior activity online.

    Yet I am constantly accused of trying to hide behind a "fake name".

    We all need the freedom to establish our own identities, and not be defined by others.

  11. We ALL matter 😀

  12.' Betty says:

    It is an interesting article. Before reading this, I never even had a thought that in Chinese language they convert the name according to their syllable which again can convey different meanings for the same word. I believe that is the reason that they are learning English now 🙂