Names and the New Public

In our new public, behavior is not an etiquette we can memorize. The web yields space for a multiplicity of identities, and a greater sensitivity to context is required.

It could be any dinner in any place. Every person around the table wants intimacy. And every one of you, whether you came here with that in mind or not, no matter what your intended investment, wants a relationship of some kind with this group of colleagues and prospective friends you’ve just met. Yet by dessert and coffee, you struggle to recall either the first or last name of any person with whom you shared this meal. You look around. There are eight of you exchanging personal, public, private information—and not one notices you as you scan the faces. You are thirsty, but you realize you can’t recall a single person’s name to ask for a refill. You are at once among friends and strangers. Nameless faces together. If asked, you might be able to identify each of their avatars, know where each is a mayor, know how to friend each of them in any given social network, but as for their names? Unknown. “Hey,” you say out loud to no one in particular, “I need water.”

Where once a person’s name was his or her primary identifier, we’re now seeing the spread of that identity as people intentionally scatter selves, supported by social systems in which identities are stored and accessed. As a result, acknowledging someone’s name is no longer the same sign of mutual respect or politeness. Nor is it a necessary signifier that indicates you’re invested in the person. What we may be seeing is a death of a single primary name as key identifier. It has been decentralized and decondensed. In social relationships, what has replaced it? And in what contexts do we recall and use each identity?

Blurred Boundaries

In Emily Post’s 1922 edition of Etiquette and Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, Post outlines didactic manifestos for interacting with one another. Whether one is a lady or a man, married or unmarried, the queen or the president of a nation, it is clear which fork, which name, and which manner of addressing one another is appropriate. A specific scene in that text dictated the rules for behavior, and each was predictable during a business visit, in a letter, or at dinner.1

But correct introductions are meaningless in a culture where boundaries have dissolved and situations are defined only by the people present in a given moment. How to behave is not an etiquette we can memorize, it’s a sensitivity that starts and ends with being able to read people in an instant. How important is it then to remember someone’s name when that sign is retrievable via any social network, any device that is likely within arm’s length?

There is a new public. The new public is one of context, one perceivable by behaviors. Remembering someone’s name, or deciding we don’t need to, is no longer a given. Our business for behaving—as executives, as friends, as inventors and scientists and designers, as humans—relies on our ability to be sharply aware of that context and shift as appropriate.

Through the shifts, people want to be polite. People want to call on one another in a way that’s meaningful. But they’re busy. And memories full. And now, some people-bewildered. In a culture where work spills over into play, time zones overlap, and reference points intertwingle, people no longer have rules for calling upon one another. The rules, if any were followed at all, have changed, and our behavior for interacting is getting a serious redesign. There’s a new public for behaving. And using names as the primary identifier for one another, as one example, is becoming extinct.


But before getting caught up in rhetoric of the death of predictions, what is more imperative to consider is the role its demise can play—the internet environment has allowed for a larger evolutionary pace. We’ve already seen radio give way to film, film give way to television, and television give way to the web. Underlying it all is an evolving ecology that shifts and clicks along—humming at times, dragging at others—to keep up with the fast pace that is the shifting nature of the media ecology.

The death of the name is not an extinction at all then; it’s an adaptation. Likewise, etiquette is not dead; it’s simply evolving. The evolution of any new behavior—similar to what we saw with the introduction of radio, television, film—is bringing with it a whole new range of manners. Where once we relied on a prescribed code of conduct written by one and applied to many, that is no longer the case.

We are seeing take shape what Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, calls user-generated context.2 These behavioral and adaptive systems are evidence that the complex dialogues among people are occurring in fundamentally new ways; lines between consumer and creator have merged, and context, not content, is taking over as a guide.

The code of conduct has been replaced with a code of context. Watches have been replaced by the timepieces that are our smartphones. And while no one under the age of twelve is using those smartphones for email, we are using social networks like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn at a staggering rate to stay in touch. We’re not calling one another but we’re talking more than ever before. And with that, we are writing more as well. We can confidently say, as these words are printed on this page, that the physical book is not going away; it too is evolving. To know your audience is not enough.

To the Contrary

As a culture that trades efficiency as currency, it’s curious that we’re creating more, not fewer, identities. Contrast that with Mongolian culture which has 300 words for color—and whose horses, as a result, have no name as we know it. They’re referred to instead by color and age. Duly practical and nuanced. What we might see and consider as white in English, the Mongolians see as variations of ash white and snow white and so forth. Perhaps we too are developing 300 words for social variation, with no one dominant name.

While technology is certainly affording us the ability to use only one identifier—at least consider the long-standing efforts of Chris Messina and OpenID—and we uphold efficiency as one of our values, it would seem otherwise. Identifiers abound. Redundancy abounds. And we, in spite of ourselves, seem to value this redundancy. Multiple names, then, are a new currency.

Consider any email you might receive on any given day:

October 24, 2011

Give me a call when you’re free.


Mike Rogers
phone: 212-555-3464
mobile: 212-555-5309
skype: mikerogers
gchat: mikerogers

Our signature files have out-charactered the text of our email. It’s not enough to sign a note; we must ensure that all forms of contact are known. Our own 300 colors are on display. Yet around a dinner table, it may be rare to remember even one name.

Is this proliferation waste, is it branding, or is it a display of power? Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, suggested a position on the latter regarding wealth and power. He observed that simply amassing wealth is not enough. One must display wealth in order for it to be powerful as an act of status and power. Wastefulness, therefore, was a necessary part of the display of wealth and power. Like the peacock’s feathers, he notes,

Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful.3

Therefore, in order to be reputable, we must present waste. In other words, the amassing of identities—in part practical—may be in other parts a power move. And it is in display that there is power.

The New Public

If power is in the display of multiple identities, where are they or should they be displayed? Prior to about 2003 when social networks became popular, the mall and the movies were where teenagers would display their wealth. But since that time, the networked place has largely replaced these spaces. Networked publics are not a defined set of people in a bounded space but rather a flexible category where people conceptualize the boundaries but do not control them.4 Because of this, networked publics allow knowing people both in the moment (e.g., around a table) and contextually (e.g., only ever at that table). The boundaries of the contexts online, however, are afforded by technology such that the practice dictates the boundaries, depending on the imagination of the individuals involved.

This new public can play a few roles. First, in contrast to the Emily-Postian public of the past, they help us define ourselves by the boundaries set forth by the context of the group in the moment. The dinner table this evening creates one set of boundaries, and the people present set the conditions for behavior in that moment. The new public of the table made it alright for no one to know names. Change the table, change the people, and the public changes.

Second, the new public helps us define ourselves in relation to the group. Because each group’s identity is both momentary and contextual, it is up to the group’s imagination to put boundaries on it. If everyone wishes to remain anonymous but only speak about his or her passion about something specific, it can be so. At the dinner table, one person cannot be a name-dropper; each person must image and abide by the same set of social conditions or the public will change.

Third, the new public helps us define ourselves in relation to society. Because each group helps define its context in relation to the context of the culture of a neighborhood or a city, it can do so. Therefore, if citizens wish to protest or to take action on any issue, they can do so. Their allegiance to the group remains strong and their patriotism to the society unchanged.

The new public allows. Context is forgiving. Context is the new public.

Knowing Something

At the intersection of people, technology, and context, we have an opportunity like never before to create new identities and shape new publics. Whether it’s user-generated context, the display of wealth by waste, or simply the exponential explosion of the name, we now have a new public for behaving.

In a 1963 What is Science? talk, physicist and educator Richard Feynman explained the difference between simply knowing the name of something and truly knowing something.5 We have come well past knowing only one another’s names. It seems we’re 300 colors richer in our understanding of knowing identities as explorers of the particulars of what and where they can be. And now in our new public, at the end of the dinner, we all can say we truly do know someone.

  1. Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922).

  2. Andrew Heyward, “Media Companies Need To Become Marketing, (Blog, Harvard Business, 2009).

  3. Judith Donath, “Signals, Cues, and Meaning,” (PDF draft for MIT Press, 2007).

  4. Danah boyd and Alice Markwick, “Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the International Communication Association Conference, Boston, MA, May 2011.

  5. Richard Feynman, “What is Science?” (The Physics Teacher, vol. 7, issue 6, 1969).

Liz danzico

Liz Danzico is creative director for NPR in digital media and founding chairperson of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in New York and has written for Eye magazine, Fortune magazine, and Interactions magazine. She also writes occasionally at Bobulate.

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