Anthroponomastics Goes Internet: User Name as a Marker of Virtual Identity

Lasse Hämäläinen MA, PhD student, University of Helsinki


During the few last decades, our everyday life has changed more rapidly than ever before in human history. The most important factor in this change has been technical development and especially the foundation of the Internet.

The change in our lifestyle demands also change in science. Humanities, as well as other human sciences, must think again their targets and methods of research. In the 20th century, onomastic research concentrated mostly on toponomastics, especially collecting and recording traditional countryside toponyms. In the year 2014, however, most of us spend more time in streets, shopping malls and online than in fields, forests and lakes. Consequently, urban toponymy and commercial names have become more important fields of research. The change in onomastic focuses is, though, still going on.

My own topic of research is modern anthroponomastics. The subject of my doctoral thesis is user names in Internet websites. With the term ‘user name’ I refer to a name, which a user of a website has registered to him-/herself to be his/her personal identifier on the site. User names work as personal references somewhat similarly to forenames and surnames in the real world.

There have been few studies concerning user names so far. Some articles have been published, most of them very recently (see the literature list at the end of this feature). Even though, the methods and terminology of research have been unclear and unstable.

In this paper I will present my PhD research. My thesis consists of four scientific articles, each of them with a different theme. Those themes will be presented below in their own paragraphs. None of the articles have been published so far.


My current research data is collected from three Finnish websites. The main source of data is an online gaming community Playforia ( With over 5,000,000 user accounts it is the most popular of the three websites. It is also the only international site, as it’s been translated into 15 different languages. The two other websites are football-themed discussion forum FutisForum ( and Harry Potter fan fiction site called FinFanFun (

All three data-sets consist of random samples picked from all the users of these websites. From Playforia there are 5,000 user names, from FutisForum 1,400 user names and from FinFanFun 1,200 user names. I’m going to collect another sample from a Finnish online dating service, but I haven’t yet decided which one it shall be.

Are o_________o, !40!19! and äöäöäöäöäöäö proper names?

One of the most important, discussed and yet controversial questions in the history of onomastics is: what is a proper name? No simple, unproblematic definition has been made, and probably even can’t be made, for it always depends on context.

Perhaps the most usual way of seeing proper names is that they individualize referents whereas common nouns categorize them. According to this definition it should be clear that user names are proper names. They have only one referent: a user account in a website.

However, this conclusion seems problematic in the light of my data. One of my research themes is capitalizing user names. A capital letter at the beginning of the word is, in Finnish, as well as in many other languages of the western world, the marker of a proper name. In many websites, however, the majority of user names are started with a lowercase letter.

What does this result tell us? Is a small letter considered more aesthetic or handy? Aren’t people interested in orthography on the Internet, where many other textual conventions are being broken as well? Or are user names not regarded as proper names? If the last hypothesis is correct, it may change our image of the nature of proper names.

Who we really want to be?

One of user names’ special characteristics is that the bearer of the name gives the name to him-/herself. Normally referents are named by someone else: people by their parents, places by their visitors, books by their writers etc. But who knows the referent best? Usually the referent itself. Consequently, it can be claimed that user name can tell more of its bearer than any other name.

On the Internet we don’t have to be who we really are. We can be who we want to be. We can forget our real-life identity and create a new identity for the web. One of the first and most important pieces of this identity is the user name. In the name we can express whatever we want: our personality, hobbies, interests…

It may be a bit surprising that many people choose a real world given name to be their user name. For example, in Playforia every third user name includes a given name. According to the results of my master’s thesis, those are mostly users’ own given names. However, it is not rare to use names of fictional characters as user names. Names like Katniss1, nyancat99 and Voldemort17 tell about their users’ interest in popular culture.

Five million unique names

One of the major differences between user names and real life anthroponyms is that a user name must be unique in the website where it is registered to. For example, in Finland there are over 5 million inhabitants but only 50 000 different given names. In Playforia there are over 5 million users and also 5 million different user names.

In large websites there are far more user accounts than there are words in any language. This may cause problems to users. Most of them want to create a user name with some known meaning, but how to differentiate it from the other similar user names?

Users of the Internet can be creative. There are several ways of making user names unique. The most typical of them are adding numbers or special characters to the name (aster1x; Patricia-_), modifying known words by adding, changing or removing letters (Stinkyasdf; James pont; ragonhunter) or creating totally new words by combining or deriving existing words (Boneberry93; Spaced). Sometimes it may even be hard to see what has been the original word as the ground of the user name.

User names’ functions

In recent onomastic studies, especially in the field of commercial names, it has become important to examine names’ functions. This is a relevant point of view to user names as well, even though they do not share any general functions. Some of them don’t need to work in any function. For instance, if a user of a gaming website just wants to play alone and not be acknowledged by the other users, his/her user name doesn’t need to be interesting, informative or easy to remember.

In many cases, though, a user name may have several functions. The best example is the user names of online dating services. Dating in the web is somehow similar to market economy. In the same service there can be thousands or even millions of people who have the same goal. It is hard but important to be seen there. In addition to a user’s avatar (profile picture), the most visible marker of his/her identity is the user name. With a user name we can portray ourselves however we want.

In my thesis, I’m going to study: what do the user names in dating services disclose about the users behind them? My hypothesis is that most often they tell about users’ gender, age, profession, hobbies and personality. Many user names may also represent hopes or expectations of the potential companion.


User names on the Internet provide new viewpoints to questions that onomasticians have tried to solve throughout history. What is a proper name? Does it have a meaning? On what grounds is it given?

The Internet has a great influence on modern society. It becomes more and more usual to be in contact with other people via the Internet. This may help us to meet new people but also sets new challenges. Interactive communication without physical or vocal proximity is totally different to having conversations or sending letters in the real world. For many people it may also be difficult in the beginning.

We may learn to use the Internet in better ways, but learning requires understanding. To understand the Internet, it is important to study it and our behaviour in it. There are still totally new kinds of name categories for onomasticians to be studied.


Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995), From <Bonehead> to <cLoNehEAd>: Nicknames, play and identity on Internet Relay Chat, in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 1, no. 2.

Bugheşiu, A. (2012), Diachrony and synchrony in onomastics: virtual anthroponymy, in Analele Universităţii Bucureşti: Limbişi Literaturi Străine 2012, no. 1.

Carlquist, J. (2005), Internetnamn som socialt fenomen, in Staffan Nyström (ed.) Namnens dynamik: Utvecklingstendenser och drivkrafter inom nordiskt namnskick: handlingar från den trettonden namnforskarkongressen i Tällberg 15–18 augusti 2003 pp. 89–100. Uppsala: NORNA-förlaget.

Hassa, S. (2012), Projecting, Exposing, Revealing Self in the Digital World: Usernames as a Social Practice in a Moroccan Chatroom, in Names 60, pp. 201–209.

Hämäläinen, L. (2013), User names in online gaming communities. In Sjöblom, Paula – Terhi Ainiala – Ulla Hakala (eds.) Names in the Economy: Cultural Prospects pp. 214–228. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.

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