18 Jul 2015
On changing your name
Last year, I changed my name, and it wasn’t because I got married. I had gotten divorced two years prior and finally felt like I was my old name, again. I subsequently changed it legally, and I changed it everywhere else that matters, too. I published a blog post about it in September, though I had decided to change it months earlier. I finalized my name change order in October after three visits to court, each with its own challenges. By December, people were starting to forget what my “old” name had been.
If you’ve never had to think about changing your name (hi, men!), I hope this post will help you understand everything it entails, from the SEO impact to the deeper emotional and interpersonal challenges. I do envy those of you who are never expected to wrestle with this issue.
If you’ve been thinking about changing your name, I’m hoping to assure you that, if you do, the process (though sometimes painful!) is one you can weather.
Our names on the Web
My name gives away my gender. When I use “Lara Hogan” or “lara_hogan” on Twitter, Facebook, or any other place on the Web, it’s recognized that I’m female. I’ve found that men don’t typically think about this, but women may think about this on a routine basis. When I comment on a site, how safe is it to use my real name? When I submit a pull request, would the tone of the response be different if I used a more ambiguous username?
My name being obviously female means that my LinkedIn recruiter spam is different. This means that the way people tweet at me is different. Names are not trivial. The importance and impact of one’s name, or how one uses one’s name, can’t be taken for granted.
So why use my real name on the Web, or on my published book?
One of the best pieces of professional advice I got was from a wedding photography workshop. The instructor recommended I change the name of my business (originally something ambiguous) to my full name. After all, what I was selling was me as a photographer, not my photos. Being genuine and transparent is important to me, and I think that this level of authenticity has been invaluable to my career, both when I was shooting weddings and now leading a team of engineers.
Additionally, I refuse to let the people who would threaten a woman for her work win. My book, my work, should carry the true name of the person who created it. I should not need to think about sacrificing this truth for my safety.
Fears about name changes
Here’s the list of risks that I weighed:
- What impact would a name change have on SEO for my work? I’d contributed substantially to the Web, from writing widely-circulated articles and tutorials to giving keynote presentations at Web conferences. Would people still be able to find my work, given that there’s plenty of references to my old name on other people’s websites, outside of my control?
- How do I handle the Internet legacy of my old name? Do I maintain redirects, email forwarding, etc.? How do I indicate that my old Twitter handle, for example, is defunct?
- How do I tell my coworkers that this isn’t weird for me to talk about, and how comfortable am I sharing the full story of my name change?
- How would a name change affect my professional reputation that I’d been building with the book and my public speaking? Would be people get confused about who wrote or said or contributed what?
- Would there be public negative reaction on Twitter to my personal blog post about the change? How would I handle that?
- Would there be awkward conversations with strangers at conferences about my name change? How would I handle those?
Unfortunately, I have had very few role models for this process. I did a lot of Googling to see if there were others that came before me who switched back to a former name years after their divorce; unfortunately, those keywords mostly return information about legality and divorce decrees. While I didn’t have a good individual role model for this process, talking to friends and family validated the importance I place on the authenticity of my identity. And while the fears I listed are certainly worthy of consideration, the logistics of changing your name are absolutely surmountable.
Changing your name on the Web
When I decided I wanted to switch back to Hogan, the timeline became dictated by when I could secure my new Twitter handle and portfolio URL. It took me a great deal of research to ensure that I had secured and could switch over to a new Twitter username without accidentally losing all of my followers; I had to make the time to set up and triple-check that I was setting up 301 redirects to my portfolio properly. There was definitely a lot of legal work required to get my name changed back to Lara Hogan but really, the hardest parts of my name change happened on the Web.
I announced the name change in a blog post, on Twitter, and on the general chatter list at work. I got an overwhelmingly positive response. I confirmed with my publisher that I would be able to get my full new name on the book. From there, I had an enormous list of websites to update.
A lot of website forms required I fill out a “reason” for my name change when I went to switch from “Swanson” to “Hogan”. Some websites even required me to make a phone call to get it changed. Some sites required documentation of the change beyond my new photo ID, and would ask why I was changing it. Frankly, it was no one’s business; that is not data that I need any website or business to retain. I would typically say, simply, “name change order”, and only once did a company push harder beyond that.
I still get random emails with my former full name on them; sometimes it’s a hassle to go and figure out how to update them. But since all of that legwork updating dozens of sites, and heartache fighting with web forms, it’s been nearly a non-issue.
Let me appease your fears.
If you’re thinking about changing your name, don’t worry.
If you’re worried about losing your established “brand” - don’t worry. It’s not hard for people to figure it out, especially if you in some way publicly note the change (the blog post really worked well for me). 301 redirects are a real thing. Email aliases are a real thing. It’s a pain, but it’s not an insurmountable one. I was able to change my name before my book launched, and I don’t think I’ve lost any traction in my public notoriety due to the name change.
The hardest parts are the awkwardness with people who assume I got married, and that’s why my name has been changed. It’s made speaker dinners awkward; it’s made book signings awkward. I choose to leave them awkward, which is an active choice that matches my attitude towards name changes and how I want to normalize this stuff. If someone says, “congrats on getting married!” I say, “Oh, actually no.” and move on or, “Oh, no, I got divorced some years ago.” and move on. If someone asks, “Why did you change your name?” (which absolutely happens at book signings and after I give presentations) I say, “Oh, I got divorced.” and leave space for it to be awkward. I believe it should be okay for those people to be really uncomfortable with the position that they’ve put me in - after all, they broached the subject, and now maybe their eyes are more open to what women sometimes need to deal with.
The questions I get - which I easily handle - are questions that men do not have to deal with while they’re working. The fears I have around using my real name online, and the fears I had around changing my name to begin with, are not fears that men typically encounter for themselves. While I applaud the men who have considered changing their last name to match their partners’, or who have deep discussions with their partners about last name choices, I also encourage all men to think deeply about the Web and how women are affected by these kinds of name choices.
Read more about women and the name change choice in this Cosmopolitan article about the difficulty of finding a woman's work history or street cred on the internet after her name change, this New York Times article about a recent trend of women retaining their given names, or this follow-up to the NYT article by Salon that investigates the language we use around name changes.