Ads via The Deck

In Plain Sight

Enredos 8, 2008, Daniel Canogar. Courtesy the artist and bitforms.

Being John

When five million people share your name, your Google-ability is miserably low. Will this forever change naming?

There are 5,280,102 Johns in America, give or take arrivals and departures. Of those, 1,367 are John Shermans, of which I am one.

My 1,366 doppelnamers first appeared to me when I tried to sign up my first grown-up, job-application-optimized email address, only to find johnsherman, john.sherman, jsherman, jcsherman, and every other logical permutation I could think of had already been claimed by this phantom fraternity. The name John is a heavy cross to bear in the Internet Age.

“I didn’t think young people were named John anymore,” a coworker said to me after being introduced. “Is that with an ‘h?’” This question is the closest I’ve come to genuine interest in my first name, which despite its generality (or maybe because of it), many people have a hard time remembering. Friends of friends and coworkers squint at me, in that way people do when trying remember your name, and venture, “Mark? Matt?” (They never guess Luke.)

Contrary to the observation of my coworker, there are still young Johns, though fewer than there used to be. The name has seen a slow decline in popularity over the last century, and in 2009 fell out of the top 25 boys’ names in the US. From 1900 to 1923, it was the number-one most popular name for boys, and remained in the top five until 1973, when it fell to sixth place. It was in the top 10 until 1987. According to numbers from HowManyOfMe.com, which uses census data to calculate the number of people with any given name, Johns account for about 1.7 percent of the US population.

But for all John’s popularity, Sherman isn’t an especially common last name in this country—with an estimated 83,227 owners, it’s no Smith (2.8 million) or Brown (1.6 million)—but in a random sampling of the last 15 people who texted me, only two came close to my 1,366 HowManyOfMe score, at 538 (last name Smith) and 627 (last name Thomas). The next highest had 64, 29, 28, and 18; all the rest had fewer than 10 apiece, out of 318.9 million. Big-picture, 1,367 isn’t so large a number, nor, even, is 2.8 million. Perhaps my friends are more uniquely named than most, but even at this scale, it’s hard not to be jealous of the three people in my phone who, if the data can be believed, are the only people in the entire country with their particular set of first and last names. And yet there continue to be John Smiths in the world—more than 46,000 in this country alone.

John is a serious, time-tested name, the name of five US presidents and 23 popes, of writers, artists, musicians, philosophers, and only a handful of serial killers. It’s too common to pin to any particular era, culture, or public figure, and it doesn’t rhyme with anything dirty in English.

Given names have historically been used to carry on family lineage, honor specific people, allude to saints, martyrs, and virtues, and in the colonial era, correct for infant mortality—it wasn’t uncommon to name successive children after elder siblings who had died. Names have far less to do with the people who bear them than with the plans and ideals of their parents. “Junior” and “III” are hardly better than lazy movie franchise titles—JFK, Jr., is the Grease 2 of American royalty. Ours may be the first moment in history in which popular naming practice values innovation and individuality over tradition.

Before the advent of the personal-branding internet, it didn’t much matter whether you and someone two streets or two towns or two states away shared your first or last name; it might even have been fun to find someone just above or below you in the phone book. A similar experience can be had with a Facebook name search, scrolling through page after page of thumbnails with your name next to someone else’s picture. A few friends of mine have been in touch with other people who share their name through social media. They’ve exchanged messages, marveling at the small-world Twilight Zone–ness of talking to someone who signs the same name at the end of an email. My experience has been different; when I meet someone at a party and they ask whether I’m on Facebook, it’s not unusual for me to have to scroll through John Shermans over their shoulder in order to find myself. No matter where a John Sherman may be in the world, he’s only a search bar away.

What fault is it of John, Jan, or Juan that his name has become a default setting?

Some with common names wish for just this sort of communion. Members of the Jim Smith Society travel from all over the globe for a yearly Jim Smith retreat, where Jims both male and female play Jimgo, a modified form of bingo. Betty clubs across the country have long offered Bettys of a certain age a community of like minds and names, most officially at the Bettys of Nebraska Convention, now going on 20 years. Betty Marxsen, the host of the 2014 event, described Bettys to the Omaha World-Herald as “a dying breed,” and wondered, “How many people are naming their children Betty these days?” Still, they count many venerable Bettys among them, from White, Grable, and Davis (she counts) to Bettys Crocker and Boop. The Bob Club is online-only, but maintains a robust “Big Bob List” of people, places, and things named Bob, as well as a monthly list of famous Bobs’ birthdays. And in perhaps the most niche same-name club in the country, men named Phil Campbell gather yearly in Phil Campbell, Alabama, to celebrate their name and its place on the map, wearing T-shirts that read “I’m with Phil.” After a tornado struck the town in 2011, the group created a website of the same name to raise money for its town. They even made a documentary about the effort, also called I’m With Phil.

Even absent a meetup scene, John is so common that in certain contacts it has come into use as a general noun—“John” is the catch-all moniker applied to prostitutes’ clients; unidentified or unidentifiable men in a legal context, as “John Doe;” and, at least regionally, the toilet. “Dear John” is the start of a breakup letter template. Each use has an origin story as circuitous and difficult to verify as the history of English itself, but the John Doe convention may reveal the most about Johns in society. Most cultures have their own so-called “placeholder names,” used variously as legal aliases, as in the XYZ Affair, or as a kind of human “whatchamacallit.” In the United Kingdom, a man we would call a John Doe is known as a John Smith or a Joe Bloggs, apparently derived from the word “bloke.” In the Netherlands, John Doe is a Jan Jansen (soft js, naturally); in Denmark, an Anders Andersen; and in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador, a Juan Pérez. Germany has two slightly differentiated versions: Max Mustermann and Otto Normalverbraucher, who is more like someone we would call an “Average Joe.” Some of these seem almost offensive in their generalizing—anyone other than a South American referring to someone as a “Juan Pérez” would likely sound like a casual racist—but then perhaps my sensitivities are biased.

But what fault of a John, Jan, or Juan is it that his name has become synonymous with a default setting? If anything, that these names represent a kind of nonspecific cultural average is a testament to their broad appeal and durability. Even seemingly unrelated handles can trace their roots to less colorful beginnings. Jan and Juan are both forms of John, as are Jack, Ian, Ivan (and its diminutive “Vanya”), Evan, Hans, Sean, and even Giovanni. At the root of all of these is the Hebrew Yehohanan (“Yahweh is gracious”).

If Freakonomics can be believed, there are measurable life advantages to having a common, pronounceable name, from the ease and eagerness with which your résumé may be read, to the presumed whiteness of popular English names like James or Emily, to the basic social value of conforming instead of standing out. In this sense, John has a certain privilege in its popularity. But such big-picture advantages only extend so far—as when, for instance, it takes half an hour to create a username, email account, web address, or Twitter handle because everything even close to your name is taken. Privilege-in-numbers is why my email address has a number in the middle of it, l33t-style, and my Twitter handle is riddled with underscores.

Aside from its evident gender, “John” carries no indications of race, class, age, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. Assumptions may be made about Jim-Bob or Jamal, but John is a known unknown. Its only plausible misspelling is “Jon”—that misdirection of masquerading Jonathans, who belong in the Nathan family—and as a John you will rarely be misheard introducing yourself. (Though if you mumble, as I do, you may be taken for a “Sean,” “Tom,” or “Don.” If your hearing is poor, as mine is, you may answer to the same, and also to “Mom,” troublingly.)

 

Among coffee drinkers with less common names, a Starbucks name is the one you tell the barista instead of your real name to avoid rude questions and misspellings. Last year I read an essay about this practice by a woman named Svati Kirsten Narula, whose Starbucks name is “Kristen.” I have also used a Starbucks name on occasion, but with the opposite intent, identifying myself as Eugene or Cornelius, for fear of losing my mocha to another John. At busy restaurants in New York, where “John, party of two” might describe more than one couple milling around on the sidewalk outside for half an hour, I’ll leave my last name, or the name of whoever I’m with.

Svati may have reason to avoid trying to explain her name to busy strangers up to their necks in under-caffeinated prima donnas—no less reason than Shefali, who wrote a similar piece for the Village Voice a few years ago. Far easier, they agree, to choose something plain and avoid confusion. “Ah, to be a Joe or a Ben,” another Starbucks namer writes in The Economist. “To live an easy monosyllabic life.” Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but I feel a barb in that “monosyllabic,” as though we Joe-and-Ben types are simple and uncomplicated enough to be be spared the trouble.

There were three Johns in my first-grade class, in the early ‘90s. In order to tell our drawings and handwriting practice sheets apart, the first initial of each of our last names was pinned to the back end of our respective “John”s, where they remained through grade school. So much for the monosyllabic life. “John S.” was gouged into the bottom of lumpy pinch-pots and scrawled on the backs of arts-and-crafts projects, including more than one construction-paper heart: “Dear Mommy Happy Mothers Day Love John S.” Middle and high school included fewer crafts, but I and most of the other Johns I knew still required clarification. We were called by our last names only or else became two names in one—always a “John Sherman,” never just a “John.”

If my S. had lasted into adolescence, it would have at least been better than “Sherman” in the wake of the first American Pie movie, in which a character named Chuck Sherman (“a sophisticated sex robot sent back through time to change the future for one lucky lady”) wets his pants at prom after being outed as a virgin. Not a super nicknamesake. The reference and its R-rated source faded after a sequel or two, and I was more comfortably “Sherman” through the end of middle school. In high school I took on without quite meaning to the more formal “John Sherman,” stuck together like Mary-Lou or Billie Jean.

But John S., Sherman, and John Sherman have each proved too common for the internet, particularly in the early-2000s shift from the preference for chatroom anonymity to unique and googleable #Personal #Branding. Each of us must be the only one of any- and everything—the John Sherman, not merely a John Sherman.

Being a John has never been sufficient to distinguish me, even in small groups. A few weeks ago I attended a writing group at which three of the eight people who showed up were named John. A middle-school friend of mine was named Jon, and his own parents had to resort to calling each of us by our full names. “John who?” is the haunting refrain to this sort of commonality, and potentially the setup for a personally tortuous “Who’s On First?” bit (John What, John I Don’t Know). These distinctions don’t bother me in real time—what else could Jon’s parents do?—but when I think about people who’ve never had to clarify themselves, I feel I’ve been living an alternate reality. The saddest case of John’s nickname life-sentence may be Jeb Bush, whose first name is John and, despite having a father and a brother both named George, goes by something else. Even his son, John Ellis Bush, Jr., goes by “Jeb, Jr.” 

When most of my peers grew old enough to understand their names as discrete identity traits, ones chosen for a reason, it seemed for most a personal blossoming and an entrée to self-love. Named after a parent’s favorite flower or color or relative or movie star, children who didn’t require distinguishing initials after their first names became enamored of their names’ provenance, in the way some adults talk about their astrological sign or their particular European ancestral pie chart. Name provenance might also help Matt B. or Emma T. feel unique, at least next to the other Matts and Emmas, but neither they nor I will ever be a Jasmine or a China Blue. (For the record, I went to camp with a China Blue.)

 

A few months ago, a colleague sent a company-wide birth announcement for his daughter, Zelda, via email blast. Included was a photo and all the requisite vitals, and amid the reply-all congratulations, I noticed an unfamiliar name in the “To” field: Zelda. That is, Zelda (pictured), Zelda small and pink. Zelda dot [last name] at gmail dot com. The baby had a Gmail. (And it was better than mine.)

I saw a Google commercial like this once, called “Dear Sophie,” in which a doting father creates a Gmail account for his daughter and then spends years filling her inbox with long, gushing missives, photos, videos, and general #tbt bait.

“I can’t wait to share these with you someday,” Sophie’s dad types, slowly, and with the too-liberal use of ellipsis that adults so often use on the internet. Watching this, I can only imagine Sophie receiving an account password for some later, teenage birthday to find a decade-plus of unread emails, each a weeping stigmata of tender, fatherly emotion. Dad will need to choose his moment wisely—a fit of embarrassable teenage hormones could erase an entire childhood. (Though surely he cc’d the rest of the family?) At 15, it was as much as I could do even to appear in family photos; I can only imagine the bleary-eyed reveal Dear Sophie has coming her way.

Even after encountering the commercial a few times, I was sure this email-your-baby deal was just a Google thing, like Plus or Glass (RIP), existing only inside a wormhole in Mountain View. Not so, it seems—the Gmail babies crawl among us. The Baby Zelda. The Dear.Sophie.Lee. Which came first, the name or the Gmail? Were some names discarded because the corresponding address was already taken?

This babymail trend, if it is a trend, may be the telos of social media culture—boundless sharing that tethers human life to technology quickly and to the greatest degree possible. Years before speaking, 2016’s children will acquire an email address, Twitter handle, Tumblr, WordPress, and Facebook account, never mind that each of these will be meaningless by the time Zelda trades crayon for pencil. It would be like my parents having gotten me a CompuServe account. And if you think about it, everything now is the CompuServe of tomorrow.

Another recently reported trend of millennials naming their children after Instagram filters is an ouroboros of online culture. An Instagram filter is itself a ready-made aesthetic lie, making a photograph taken on a cell phone in 2016 look like one taken 40 years ago with a Polaroid or a Leica. Coney Island becomes Fire Island, 1968, with just a swipe and an artful crop. Even the names of Instagram filters—Willow, Lux, Amaro—are imbued with a vague, moody significance not attached to any specific time or place. They are suggestions of moods more than anything. It is the height of irony—and not at all surprising—that people of my generation would choose one of these vague signifiers as the name for a child. Who could forget the true children of the internet, the Likes, Hashtags, and the Lols who never signed up for this?

Certainly part of Zelda’s matched set of Internet luggage (much of it projected; who knows if Zelda is on Tumblr yet) is done with an eye toward googleability, a virtue of the modern era. The fewer results the better, a test that “John Sherman” would never pass—there’s even a “John Sherman (disambiguation)” page on Wikipedia.

The drive to be as unique as possible has pushed us to reject similarity as a design flaw. (So say I, John.) Creative spelling can change unexceptional names into googleable wonders—Madelyn, Kaitlyn, Kaelyn, Jayce, Ryder, and Brayden were all in the top 100 baby names of 2014—but of course then each of these becomes popular, and therefore no more googleable than Michael or Emily or Rachel or Steven. Last year’s John is this year’s Jaycee, and maybe next year’s Blayke, or Rhiynn, or Emylly. O, brave new world! That has such Kaylees in it.

Maybe my Millennial un-googleability has made me bitter, or simply a name snob. It makes an ironic sort of sense that the first generation of so-called “digital natives” would be possessed of a nomenclature so thoroughly unprepared for its personal-branding demands. My first-grade compatriots, Johns R. and N., and our peers, countless Emilys and Jennifers and Jasons, are likely experiencing some similar degree of name-crowding.

As googleable as Kaylee and Madysyn may be (for now), their uniqueness is no greater than my own, now or in President Blue Ivy Carter’s America. What separates us is that while I tapdance with number pads and underscores to distinguish my name, thinking all the while of my 1,366 co–John Shermans, many of them inhabit an SEO-optimized bubble of internet uniqueness.

Internet uniqueness is site-specific, pun intended but regrettable. Googleability is no more virtuous than ease of spelling, and no more relevant to the worth of a name as something to be carried through life. Details like spelling and pronunciation or name popularity can make aspects of life-as-[insert name here] easier or more difficult, but ultimately each presents a different challenge to its owners. Anyone with a go-to Starbucks name might wish to be Ed or Julie for the time it takes to buy a coffee, but Ed and Julie have wished as earnestly to claim a few more syllables for themselves in almost every other realm of life.

It may not be immediately clear from this essay, but I genuinely like the name John. I like writing its dramatic uppercase “J” in cursive, and I appreciate inquiries about my “h.” For as many times as I’ve tried to explain “John who?” no one has ever asked me what it means, or whether it’s real, or where it comes from. I have an instant appreciation for other Johns I meet in the world, people who now understand the odd place of a name like John in a sea of personal brands. Even as baby Johns become rarer this century, they’ll still be Johns, just like the rest of us. They may never feel the plucky pride of a third-grade Hillary explaining she was named after the president (kidding, but it’s worth noting that the name Hillary for newborn girls has spiked in the past two election years), but they will have something Zadie and Noah and Kiefer will never have: thousands of people who, at least on paper, are exactly like them. John can seem unmemorable, even unremarkable, but the staid charm of its plainness wins out.

Still, I’m not immune to the allure of individuality. At my last desk job, for the very first time, the company email address assigned to me was simply my first name. I was not “John1” or “John.S;” I am just “John.” And for once, however illusory my solitude may be, sometimes it’s nice to forget about the other guys.