The following is a human-made transcript of Episode 101 of the podcast Modern Technology Knows Your Name. The discussion has been lightly edited for readability without substantially altering the content; if you need a verbatim quote for reference purposes, please confirm it from the original audio if possible.
Greetings! I’m Rob, and I’m here to talk with you about self-chosen names.
Nearly everyone is given a name when they’re a baby. In most modern cultures, that name is crafted by others to represent this new child who honestly has a lot going on at that moment and hasn’t yet had the chance or inclination to form much of a concept of self, let alone considered what that self should be called.
Welcome to the first episode of Modern Technology Knows Your Name, a podcast in which I investigate the phenomenon of self-applied names, and what they mean to all of us.
(Opening theme music)
The study of our personal names and their role in society is called anthroponymy, or anthroponomastics if you’re that sort of linguistic gymnast. This is a field that has always fascinated me, the concept that you are whatever name you’ve been given has always felt pretty heavy to me. I’m always curious to hear the various stories of how and why people’s parents, guardians, or others chose that particular name for them. However, I’ve always been particularly interested in the names that come later; nicknames, handles, usernames, assumed names, religious names, localized names, formally or informally-changed names, all those names that people have in one way or another deliberately chosen for themselves.
In this program we’ll hear from others who’ve named themselves in some capacity about their own stories and hows and whys. I thought it would be a good idea to start by telling my own story. It’s a bit of a long story, but what good is having your own series if you can’t monopolize the first episode?
I’m generally known in-person as Rob Vincent. I’m generally known online as Rob T Firefly, a handle I’ve used since the 1990s. My full, legal name can be found somewhere in between; it’s Robert Firefly Vincent.
Yes, Firefly, like the bug. I’ll explain in a bit.
The idea that you could choose a name you wanted and be that struck me when I was very young, and it remained in the back of my mind all throughout my life. In the mid-1990s as I began taking an active role in the early BBS and Internet scene, and the early hacker and phone-phreak community, becoming involved in the ancient precursors to today’s social networks, I was presented with the opportunity to choose a username, a screen name, a hacker handle; this was the early days of the Internet, and it was clear to many people in many online spaces like mine that just bursting online with your normal legal name perhaps wasn’t the best idea in the world. (Even today, I believe that’s still the case.)
I tried on a few handles for fit, but none of my very early attempts are worth relating today. Part of the real power as a kid making their way online back then was the ability to experiment with how one presents but, when necessary, shed that identity like a chrysalis and start up fresh as someone new with none of the baggage or drama one might have built up with youthful mistakes. This was even more true in the era before everything was archived online somewhere forever. There’s a beauty to having your past able to be forgotten.
Lots of people came up with wholly-original things to call themselves, but lots of others took their names partially or wholesale from existing things they liked, including pop culture. If there was a mainstream-popular fictional character out there, chances are someone out there at some point had used that name as an online handle; you could find dozens of Darth Vaders or Mr. Spocks out there. In my own cyberspace pupal stage I eventually tried on the screenname “Rufus T. Firefly,” and that one ended up fitting nicely for a while.
I chose “Rufus T. Firefly” for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, I’ve always been addicted to Marx Brothers films, I was raised loving them. For those unfamiliar with the Marx Brothers, they were a family of brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and sometimes their fourth brother Zeppo, who performed together in Vaudeville in the early twentieth century and hit it big in early films. Each brother had a clearly-defined comic persona. Groucho Marx always played the same basic Groucho character, with his exaggerated painted-on eyebrows and moustache, ill-fitting tailcoat, stooped-over walk, ever-present cigar, and a mouthful of endless one-liners and conversational barbs. His brothers Chico and Harpo Marx also played the same unchanging characters every time; a comedy-Italian rogue and a mischievous unspeaking clown respectively. The same three basic archetypal Marx Brothers characters appeared in every one of their films, sometimes joined by fourth brother Zeppo as a less-comic and more straight-man character, but their characters’ names were different in every movie’s script. One of Groucho’s running gags was a new elaborately silly name for his character in nearly every movie. He played Otis B. Driftwood, S. Quentin Quale, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Attorney J. Cheever Loophole, and the like; all different in name only, all played as the same Groucho character. While I love all the Marxes’ films (even the lesser ones) 1933’s Duck Soup is generally my favorite – if you’ve never seen any of them, at least check out that one. In Duck Soup Groucho played Rufus T. Firefly, inept dictator of the fictional country of Freedonia.
Now fireflies, as in the bioluminescent insects, also known as lightning bugs depending on where you live, have always had great personal significance to me. They always turned up seasonally where I grew up and, well, I’m a fan. For as long as I can remember the firefly has resonated with me on enthusiastic, scientific, and artistic levels, and they even became spiritually significant as I came to embrace a nature-centric sense of faith. I’ve always felt at least a little luminous myself.
My love of fireflies and what they represented to me, combined with my love of Groucho and the Marx Brothers, topped off with the bonus opportunity to have my fake first name start with an “R” just like my real first name, Rob, made “Rufus T. Firefly” the obvious Groucho name to yoink for myself.
I became enthusiastically active and known on some Internet forums and got used to signing my posts “RTF,” which had the bonus of an even further double meaning among my fellow computer geeks as there was a common electronic document format called RTF, or Rich Text File.
Eventually I started attending hacker events in-person, including New York City’s 2600 meetings and the Hackers on Planet Earth conferences. It wasn’t at all unusual for people in the hacker community to be known by their online handle in real life, so I continued to be called “Rufus T. Firefly,” or just “Rufus” or “RTF,” by my new real-life friends.
(Small side note: this was in the 1990s, long before Joss Whedon named his cult scifi show Firefly, or before Rob Zombie similarly referenced Groucho with his own Rufus T Firefly character in slasher films. I try not to be bitter, but I may have spent a little too much time for my tastes pointing out that I’m not expressing appreciation of either of those particular franchises with my handle.)
I soon grew tired of being called “Rufus,” and wanted to make my name something that was a bit more “me” rather than something taken wholesale from someone else’s work. So sometime in the late 1990s I substituted my real first name, Rob, keeping the “RTF” intact, and dropped the punctuation after “T” to signify that the letter was just a letter which didn’t actually abbreviate anything. “Rob T Firefly” (or “RTF” for short) continues to be how I’m generally known in many circles. It’s still my screenname, used on nearly every social network, messaging, and other service I sign up for. And around 2008 I was fortunate enough to become part of the long-running hacker-produced FM talk radio program Off the Hook, so “Rob T Firefly” also became my radio air name. (My.. nom de air?)
So that’s my screenname’s story. Here’s my legal name’s story.
I was given the first name “Robert” at birth, after my father. I like that name, and for as long as I can remember I preferred to be called “Rob,” rather than any of the other traditional options; “Robert” is what I’m called by strangers, or members of my family when they’re angry with me. “Bob” is what my dad prefers, but I’d just never felt like a “Bob,” nor did I feel like a “Bert” or “Reb” or whatever other options Roberts have.
I also had a middle name, which came from a relative I’d never met on my father’s side of the family, and the customary Western patrilineal surname. And since my first and last names were the same as my dad’s, my parents settled on the option of giving me a suffix of a Roman numeral II; “the second.”
I never grew particularly fond of my full name. That Roman numeral II especially aggravated me. But while my first name felt like “me” – I am Rob – the rest of my name just felt like something I was labeled. Not for any bitterness over what those names represented at all, I have no animosity toward my dad or his side of my ancestry, but as a whole my name just didn’t feel like me on some level.
I love both my parents with all my heart, very fortunately they’re both still around and I’m grateful to have them in my life. Now, they each divorced and remarried when I was very young. And all this time, through various marriages, remarriages, births, and so on, my nuclear family, my parents and siblings and niblings came to contain a whole pick-and-mix variety of last names in various combinations. There’s always been a growing collection of diverse surnames attached to the people I love and share family bonds with, but I didn’t feel right about attaching that entire chunk of my personal label to any single group among them.
(And jumping ahead to much later when I got married, neither my wife or I changed our names to match the other; she and my in-laws added even more surname diversity to my circle of loved ones. And, talking of my wife Gila, her recognizing the Groucho reference in my username is what led to us meeting in the first place! But that’s another story.)
Getting back to this story, another factor in my decision was knowing, as I had for most of my life, that parenthood would never be something I’d pursue. I had no concerns about any concept of “lineage” with continuing one or another traditional family line, or muddling things for potential future genealogists.
I realized I wanted, in every aspect of my life, to use a name that was more “me,” and I realized that as a responsible adult, this want alone was a valid enough reason to just go out and do so. The time came for me to assert my identity as a thing entirely my own, and I was perfectly entitled to decide what that means for me.
My late grandfather on my mother’s side, a man who helped my parents raise me and was a major and lasting influence on my life for the sadly short time I had with him, was named Vincent. I chose to take his first name as my last. This made my full name a loose combination of both sides of my parentage. I didn’t change to one surname or another, this wasn’t about choosing a family line or rejecting the others, I just incorporated a more-complete salute to my upbringing into my name than there had been. I became Rob Vincent just socially and professionally at first, tried it on, really liked how it fit, and eventually made it official when I filed for legal name-change.
While I was at it, I took “Firefly” as my legal middle name. The word continued to fit me very well, and everything I’ve done and continue to do under the name Firefly felt like another unique part of me worth incorporating into my official name, and making permanent. It also added a really nonstandard flair to my name which I really like, tucked away in the middle-name slot which in my general culture isn’t really of automatic concern to most people, so I can bring “Firefly” out or tuck it back as context demands.
If people ask about “Firefly” I’m fond of responding “it’s an old family name… family lampyridae, order coleoptera. (That gag is for the zoologists out there.)
And finally, I was able to finally drop that Roman numeral II suffix which had been following me around like a nuisance. I’m more confident than most people that nobody else had or has the same full name as me.
It’s fairly common for individuals to make elective physical decisions to achieve what they feel to be the best personal expression and outward presentation of themselves. From temporary and mutable things like clothing, cosmetics, or hairstyles to more permanent things like tattoos and medical treatments and procedures, people all over the world decide every day what they want to look like to present the best and truest representation of themselves.
I have always felt similarly about my name-change. I had my paperwork cosmetically altered, my signature restyled, my municipal records tattooed. Ever since then, when I introduce myself, write my name, or present an ID card, I’m communicating something that I honestly feel describes the person I am and strive to be on every level possible. I couldn’t ask for more than that from a name, and I’m very happy with it.
That was my self-naming story, and my story is pretty long. Thanks for sticking around through it.
This project isn’t just about me, though. My own experiences have led me to really appreciate what people go through when naming themselves, and has made this project hopefully much more than just my own chronicle. I know a lot of folks who have chosen their own names, handles, and forms of address in some capacity or other, and in preparation for this first episode I invited some folks to chime in with their own stories.
First up is an old pal of mine known as Seuss (as in the author Dr. Seuss). He writes:
I fell into what used to get called the H/P scene in the mid-90s (were you there)? I remember it as a rather mean-spirited scene; lots of texts about viruses and pipe bombs, black trenchcoats, revenge plots, meth manufacture and everyone WinNuking one another on IRC. For the sake of shock value in a scene populated by young men calling themselves “Ebola”, “ICBM” and “Chester Chester Child Molester” I decided to pick a wholesome reference to a popular children’s author.
I stuck with the name because I liked the way the Ted Geisel was able to explain complicated things like racism or nuclear brinksmanship in simple, appealing language and I thought what I churned-out for a series of web zines was in the same vein… vain, no?
Thanks for sharing that, Seuss. As I mentioned I did come up in the early hacker scene, and I was never about trying to be intimidating with my own choice of name. I totally understand.
An old hacker pal of mine known as Ozzie Osband as well as The Cheshire Catalyst writes:
My first article in the TAP Newsletter was about to be pasted up opposite an article on hacking Marisat voice circuits to ships at sea. The name on my article, Osbert Kilgallen (an obscure sidekick character in a science fiction novel) was the name I used on the Marisat telex circuits. I changed to the name I came up with during a High School chemistry class and have been The Cheshire Catalyst ever since.
Thank you Cheshire for sharing that. You can find more from him on CheshireCatalyst.com.
A friend and former colleage of mine, Matt Kroner, is known as Kwaunch, and he wrote in with his story.
Hey Rob! Been a long time, hope you are well, and I always enjoy your twitter tweets.
As a Matt, I’ve always had a nickname since I went to school with 40 million Matts. The nickname that has stuck for me with many of my childhood friends is Kwaunch. It is an onomatopoeia of the sound that our classmate Becky made when she farted during a lecture on a religious retreat in high school. For some reason when I told the story to my best friend describing the fart, he began to call me Kwaunch. It sounds like he was being mean spirited but it was oddly affectionate. It quickly became my gaming and social media handle, and I enjoy that it is a made up word that looks sort of like a real word and I don’t have to use any confusing l33t. Only a few of my friends know this story, even many of the ones that call me Kwaunch.
Thank you Kwaunch for sharing your story!
The next story I have to share comes from FractumSeraph, of the social network hackers.town. They write:
I’ve actually gone through three usernames, kinda. The first one was “Hpdarkman40”. Probably the least interesting.
Basically when I was super young I loved the game Halo. And I had one or two of these discs that would come in the mail that had demos of a ton of games and stuff. One of them had the G4 episode of Arena where they did the final game of the Halo national championships. The winners name was hpdarkman.
Since that was already taken on a website I was trying to sign up for (Club Penguin I think. I was little.) it recommended hpdarkman40, which was available. So I just used that for my entire childhood.
At some point during high school I decided to start using a different name. I was pretty active on hacking forums and such, so I wanted a name that sounded “cooler”. I was also pretty emo/edgy, so I eventually I came up with Fallen Archangel, which I used for a long time. For me it had a lot of different layers to it, depending on how deep and personal you want to look at it.
On the surface level it’s basically just Fallen Angel. How much more edgy can you get then that?
But as with hpdarkman, fallenangel is already taken on just about everything. I thought about adding numbers or something, but eventually I decided to add “arch” to the name.
Being on hacking forums, most people assumed the name to mean like a fallen angel as in satan, or a demon, or something like that. And I was fine with people thinking that, but to me it was more like I was an angel who simply wasn’t in heaven, therefore, “Fallen”.
(Have I mentioned how cringy this/I was?)
I always (and still) wanted to help people in any way I could. A lot of hacking forums were very elitist and wouldn’t give newbies a chance simply because most of them didn’t get far. Me trying to help these guys out was my way of being “good”.
I have no idea why most of my stuff is based on heaven or angely stuff, it just always has been. Personal preference maybe?
Going by the “Nine orders of angels” system, there are lots of different ranks of angels. “Angel” being the lowest, and “Arch-Angel” being higher, so I was basically saying I’m better.
There was a very brief time that I used ArchSeraph for a few side stuff that wasn’t really related to IT stuff, but that didn’t last any time at all.
Finally I’ve arrived at FractumSeraph.
A few years back I ended up going to prison, and afterwards I decided I didn’t want to do any super blatantly illegal stuff anymore, for obvious reasons. I took away the fallen part because of the negative connotations with it, and replaced archangel with Seraph, the highest in the angel ranks. Fractum was chosen because of personal reasons that would take a while to explain, but basically it’s my way of saying that this is me, and I’m not trying to hide behind a username anymore, I’m just being myself. It’s a few translations off from the word Broken, going back to the Emo/Edgy stuff.
Thank you very much indeed for sharing that, FractumSeraph.
I always find it really interesting when a chosen name can start out as a generic thing, and then grow and change and evolve as the person using it does over time. Kind of like my own journey, your name can grow up with you into something unique.
A friend and fellow podcaster known as BicycleMark was kind enough to record his nickname’s story for us. Let’s listen.
Hello, Rob. I thought I would share with you the story of why I am BicycleMark.
In 1997. I was a freshman at William Paterson University over in Wayne, New Jersey. And in my African politics class the person who turned out to be my most favorite professor, Yemane Egziabher, he was giving an example about economics and income differences and he said at one point, “so you could be like, Bill Gates, and drive,” and he said, like “a limousine ” or something, “or you can be like,” and he looked around and he pointed to me, and he said, “Bicycle Mark, and ride a Cadillac to class every morning.” And he points out the window – it was a ground floor classroom – and there’s my bike, locked up to a tree and people chuckled a little, and I liked the name BicycleMark, and then it kind of went around. People in class, friends, they started to use it at first like, “Oh, that was the thing today,” but then the name would appear in the days to come, people who weren’t even in the class would have heard “BicycleMark,” and I would usually have my bike with me. I was the only one of the only bikes at William Paterson that year. And so that’s how I became BicycleMark.
Then I took it online for publishing under that pseudonym, or simple handle, and it lives to this day in really weird ways, weird places. Sometimes when I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee, the opponent will say hello and greet me and say, “oh, yeah, I know about you, you’re BicycleMark,” and I’ll just be confused as to how that got to that person that I’ve never met before. Anyway, that’s my self naming story? It actually came from others, I guess.
Thank you BicycleMark for sharing that! You can find more from BicycleMark at CitizenReporter.org.
As we come to the end of this episode of “Modern Technology Knows Your Name” I look forward to continuing this deep dive into just what the things we decide to call ourselves mean to us.
Today you’ve heard my own story and those of others, and now I’d like to invite all of you out there listening who have ever named yourselves to share your stories in future installments of this program. If you’d like to set up a voice chat we can record together, if you’d like to record a sound file on your own and send that in, or if you’d like to write your story in text form to be read aloud on a future episode, please get in touch! All stories about names you chose for yourself are welcome, however long or short, silly or serious, formal or casual, however recent or long ago, as long as it’s something you’re comfortable sharing publicly here on this program, I’m interested in hearing about it.
You can write to Modern Technology Knows Your Name at the email address “name” at modern dot technology. That’s n-a-m-e at modern dot technology.
You can also leave us a listener voicemail on the Modern Technology Podcast Network’s voicemail line at United States telephone number 1-929-399-8414.
Until next time, I’m Rob Firefly Vincent, and you know who you are.
(Ending theme music begins)
You’ve been listening to episode 101 of Modern Technology Knows Your Name, with me, Rob Vincent.
Get more info on this program and the other things we make at the Modern Technology Podcast Network on the web at modern.technology.
This music is “IAM” by Torley Wong, released Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0. Find more from Torley at torley.com. Thank you Torley!
This podcast is released under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license 4.0, and is a production of Joyful Firefly, LLC.
Send us email at name at modern dot technology.
(Ending theme music concludes.)