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My Name Isn't My Name

Aaron Gordon is a basketball phenom. Aaron Gordon is a Pacific Standard contributor. Aaron Gordon works for a public relations firm.


People are saying very nice things about Aaron Gordon. A five-star recruit and the third-ranked prospect in the country, Gordon is an ultra-athletic power forward capable of suffocating defense and highlight-reel dunks. His six-foot-eight, 215 pound frame belies his nimbleness. With an impressive season at Arizona, Gordon may very well be one of the top picks in next year’s NBA draft.

I am not that Aaron Gordon. I’m 5’11” and 160 pounds soaking wet. I once hit myself in the face while shooting a jump shot. (Don’t ask questions.) Basically, the only thing Aaron Gordon and I have in common is our name.

When my Google Alerts first became populated with this athletic phenom, I thought little of it, only regretting that I didn’t purchase the domain "" It seemed silly to suggest the alphabetical contents of your name carried any greater significance, and the mere fact that another individual on this planet is named with the same set of letters in the same order is a statistical accident. The realization that Aaron Gordon will soon be rich and famous is only a greater statistical happenstance.

As my Google Alerts prolifically demonstrated, that is all no longer true. Locating my name online became laborious. Others couldn’t find my work. I was buried in an ocean of AaronGordondunkvideos. (He’s really, reallygood at dunking.) Currently, if you Google “Aaron Gordon,” you have to go roughly three pages deep to get past Aaron Gordon draft analysis and to any of my articles. In those analyses, Gordon is most frequently compared to Blake Griffin, both in playing style and talent. Going through page after page of Blake Griffin results, I can see where my future digital footprint lies.

"The truth must be surrounded with a bodyguard of lies," Winston Churchill famously once said. If so, my bodyguard is a phenomenal amateur basketball player.

WITH THE IDEA OF one’s “personal brand” so prevalent it’s become self-satirizing, what, exactly, is in a name—today, in 2013?

“In general, the trend now over a generation ago is toward more individual names, toward giving your child a singular name that's going to set him or her apart,” Pamela Redmond Satran, co-founder of Nameberry, told me.“The celebrity culture which prizes unique names, widespread awareness of the power of branding, and the sense that have a special name makes you a special person.”

As Jay-Z and Beyonce trademark their baby's name and with New York Timesstories about the insane cottage industry coalescing around naming your child, one thing is clear: Don’t name your kid Aaron Gordon.

Or ... maybe do?

“There's a certain prestige and of course privacy in not being Googleable,” Redmond Satran said.

Plus, think of all the fuss made over the Internet’s memory: how a picture on Facebook of you shotgunning two beers at once will linger for all of time. Whether its for businesses or wealthy individuals, there are all kinds of Online Reputation Services available to bury those negative Google results or the somewhat shadier business of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to create “factual but flattering social-media accounts and websites,” as Graeme Wood detailed in an excellent New York magazine piece on online reputation management.

I don’t think my parents took any of this into account when naming me, but could the value of such a seemingly simple name really be so confusing?

IN SOME WAYS, OUR names don’t matter at all anymore. Relational databases assign people ID numbers, and queries are launched using those identifiers rather than one’s actual name. We’re told our data is collected “anonymously” whenever we sign up for a Google or Facebook account—you’re just a faceless number!—but that’s a meaningless distinction. Researchers at MIT can de-anonymize 95 percent of people with just four points of reference from cell phone data.

There are other people with our names, but nobody else with our unique ID number. If our shared names are simply replaced with unique numbers, then that’s the opposite of anonymity. It gives us total individuality, something our names are almost always unable to do. The idea that this number instead of our name gives us privacy is not only misguided, it’s inverted. The wealth of information available to provide insights into the life of ID #755973561 makes the absence of a name inconsequential.

Not all human interaction, though, is looked at through this lens—not yet, anyway.

Tons of studies look into whether your name has any appreciable effect on who you are. An entire Freakonomics podcast was recorded on the topic of “How much does your name matter?” While there seems to be little evidence that your name has any correlational relationship to your economic prospects, it does provide some insight into your parents. After all, they’re the ones who name you.

"Names are a vehicle for the parents to show what kinds of people they are,” Steven Levitt said on the Freakonomics podcast. “The primary purpose of parents when they name their kids is to impress their friends that they are whatever kind of person they want to be." This is supported by further research that shows names correlate to the parents’ political beliefs or education level. “Educated liberal mothers tend to be choosing names that are obscure cultural references. And so these are the Esmés and the Unas and the Archimedes and the Emersons,” said Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, while discussing his research on names and parent ideology. “We think this is a way that liberals sort of signal ... for lack of a better word, their sense of cultural superiority. It’s a way of signaling great cultural capital."

But those studies look at groups of people who mostly grew up pre-Google. Professor Latanya Sweeney at Harvard found that searching for people with “distinctively black names” was 25 percent more likely to produce an ad suggesting the person had an arrest record—rather than a bland ad asking if you know the person—regardless of whether that person actually had a record. Beyond showing some unfair systematic biases in Google’s algorithm, though, it’s not clear what kind of long-term effects this has on people. Not showing up high in a Google search, or showing up alongside an arrest-record ad, is maybe an annoyance (one much more so than the other), but there’s still precious little evidence to suggest your name has a statistically significant impact on the course of your life. Yet, since Google hasn’t ubiquitously existed for very long in the eyes of longitudinal academic studies, it doesn’t seem like a conclusion can be made one way or the other.

"THE TRUTH MUST BE surrounded with a bodyguard of lies,” Winston Churchill famously once said. If so, my bodyguard is a phenomenal amateur basketball player.

It’s hard not to think about the alternatives, though. What if my name only had one “A?” Would I be a different person? Would I have gotten bullied in school? Would I have had a greater sense of individuality because my third grade teacher wouldn’t have constantly mistaken me for The Other Aaron? Or would I be the exact same person I am today, minus the inconvenience of sharing a name with a very Googleable basketball dunker?

“You can take some measures a company might take to improve their SEO standing” Redmond Satran suggested. “Get a lot of large media outlets to link to your site via your name or write a piece about having the same name as the famous person, so at least your name and their name are publicly linked.”

I don’t expect this article to change much when I Google my name. (Unless it’s the most-read page in the history of the Internet.) Instead, it will still be dunk videos, player profiles, and game recaps. About a year ago, I made a conscious effort to start including my middle initial whenever possible: My email now contains my middle name, and I changed my Twitter handle to @A_W_Gordon. (The other Aaron’s is @1_AG_1.) It’s a small change, nothing more.

“I have not experienced this yet,” Aaron W. Gordon, shareholder at Schwartz Media in Miami, told me over email when I asked him if he has trouble locating himself on the Internet due to the basketball star. Most of the time, Aaron Gordon is just as anonymous as you are, so you never find him—or he never finds you. “Although,” Aaron W. Gordon added, “there is someone with the same name who goes to my doctor and who—it seems—has been slow to pay his bills.”