The internet, and in particular this site, thrives on anonymity. While many of the users here feel confident enough in the community to use their real name (and it does have real world implications, for better and worse), there is no binding requirement for real names.

And it's fine when the user names are clearly fake. Clearly a user name like Potato or "user $n$" is not a real name. It's also fine when the user name is some real world derivative of the person's name, e.g. robjohn.

But sometimes people use names which can be seen as real names. I can never know if a user called John Bedsmith is an actual person, and if searching online shows that this is a real person then I have no way of knowing if that is truly the person behind the username. That's disturbing and somewhat less fine, but still generally acceptable.

But what about names of celebrities and political figures? User names like Fidel Castro, Justin Bieber, Adolf Hitler and more. All featured here. Some time ago there was a user who decided to circumvent this by changing one obvious letter, and opened a handful of these accounts. Often with a gravatar photo of the persona after which the account was named.

So I wanted to bring this up to discussion. How permissive should we be when the account has a name which is obviously a real world person who is very unlikely to participate here? Even more when the site is used to make jokes like that (e.g. Obama asking a question and Bush answering, often without an actual mathematical content in the answer)?

Should there be some line in the sand, and if not a line, at least some open neighborhood in the sand?

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    $\begingroup$ How do you feel about Little Black Ass (not in English, and the word definitely means ass, not arse)? $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian: Ass like a donkey? $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Nov 4 '13 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, though ass is the natural translation, since the word is kin to English ass. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian: I find that to be someone trying to be clever and pretend to be innocent. I don't have a problem with that sort of names, though, as long as they are not intentionally offensive (e.g. "Anti-gay" or something like that). My problem is when people use names of real world people when it's clear they are not them. Even more when those people use their names to make silly jokes that has nothing to do with mathematics, and feel like a devaluation of the site. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Nov 4 '13 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian and Asaf: actually the idea of the name having that connotation honestly never crossed my mind. It's the title of a famous short story in Irish: wikisource.org/wiki/An_Crann_G%C3%A9agach/… which AFAIK has no such connotations (and I doubt it could, since asal doesn't have anything to due with the human rear end, and dubh is not a racial signifier). $\endgroup$ – user64687 Nov 4 '13 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. I asked because in U.S. usage the phrase can be quite offensive, though in this case I suspect that it has more to do with a short story by a foreign writer of some note. I don’t mind the silly jokes — some of them even amuse me — and I mostly don’t mind the use of names of well-known people. Added: And now I know that my suspicion was correct. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Asal: Yes, I rather suspected as much, especially in connection with your gravatar. I was simply using it as a handy real example of something that could easily be misinterpreted. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott: OK. Now I am worried that someone might really have interpreted the name in that way (and indeed, Google translate renders it as ass, not donkey)...that is troubling. $\endgroup$ – user64687 Nov 4 '13 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Asal: I’d not worry too much: in terms of readership the language isn’t exactly up there with French, Spanish, or Chinese! (I don’t know it myself; I just know something about it and have decent reference material at hand, thanks to my interest in historical linguistics.) $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott: that's certainly true, but any curious person can use Google translate, and misinterpret the results! Maybe some explanatory text in my user profile might be the best option. $\endgroup$ – user64687 Nov 4 '13 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Asal: Sounds reasonable to me. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott: That story shot into fame into as part of a football satire/hoax. It was brilliant and I loved someone using it as a pseudonym. A link to that hoax is in fact the first result in google search. Here is it : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masal_Bugduv .. More details here: runofplay.com/2009/01/15/… .. Please have a look. Also the use of such a pseudonym may have been a nod to Irish nationalism and an effort to promote a language, an altogether noble pursuit. $\endgroup$ – user96815 Nov 4 '13 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting post, but, to my reading, it conveys the message that users like me who use nicknames are not -confident enough,- scared or whatever, to use our real names. I am not sure if this is the right message or I have misunderstood what you really meant. $\endgroup$ – Lord Soth Nov 5 '13 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Doldrums: I’d not heard about the hoax before; it’s brilliant! $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 5 '13 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ @LordSoth: Since you raise the subject, my automatic reaction to a pseudonym is that the user wants to hide his or her real identity, either for some specific reason or from some lack of confidence. I’ve the impression that for many people, especially younger ones, it’s more a matter of custom, but this doesn’t change my gut reaction. I’ve been online for many years, so I’m used to it, and I don’t think that it affects my interactions with people, but familiarity hasn’t completely stifled the reaction. You can safely assume, I think, that I’m not alone in this. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 5 '13 at 8:18

There should be no restrictions on borrowing fictional names such as Sherlock Holmes.

As for real people, a copyright period can be imposed. Nobody should mind borrowing the name of Socrates or Cauchy or Newton.

As for real life people, if someone is far far removed from mathematics and it will not lead to any harm, there is not much point in policing; at least, not compared to the effort it will require. There shouldn't be any confusion while using George Bush and no harm to anyone. This is only mildly irritating. But Asaf's concern is understandable; Obama asking a question and Bush answering without any mathematical content is annoying. Unfortunately I do not have any ideas on how to police this.

The biggest and most serious no-no is to impersonate other living people who are active in math, or were recently active. That is what should be stopped/prohibited, if ever discovered. When it occurs, it cannot be that hard to find out. Somebody will notice and notify the original person, and then s/he can contact the moderators.

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    $\begingroup$ I would not want Adolf Hitler to post either. Names can be offensive. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Nov 4 '13 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ Such a name will be an intentional attempt to irritate. Is flagging an effective solution? $\endgroup$ – user96815 Nov 4 '13 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ I would certainly change such a name when it is brought to my attention and contact the user. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Nov 4 '13 at 10:17
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    $\begingroup$ And I wouldn't want Yitzhak Rabin or Yasser Arafat posting, the list can go on forever depending on were each user comes from. I think we're going to far with the names thing, but incidents like Obama replying to Bush should be policed. $\endgroup$ – user10444 Nov 4 '13 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ On principle I prefer not to legislate. I think that it would be in extraordinarily bad taste for someone to post as Adolf Hitler, but I would not myself flag the name (though I might choose not to answer any questions by the poster). $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott: I too am like you in this opinion; But I meant it in the following sense: I wouldn't care enough to flag it myself; I would rather ignore most of such stuff. But if someone flags it and a moderator too finds it offensive enough and deletes it, I wouldn't object either. $\endgroup$ – user96815 Nov 4 '13 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Doldrums: Yes, that’s pretty much my view as well. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ What makes me really upset is a guy asking/answering questions in algebraic geometry with the pseudo "Grothendieck". $\endgroup$ – Cantlog Nov 4 '13 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Cantlog: I agree; I too had that one in mind. The sight of the creator of the subject, who is by the way still alive, asking questions on a document he himself wrote, is a bit jarring. $\endgroup$ – user96815 Nov 4 '13 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ Update: the user changed to a "normal" pseudo. $\endgroup$ – Cantlog Nov 5 '13 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Cantlog That seems to me like a strange thing to get upset about. There's clearly no risk of confusing that user with the actual Grothendieck. $\endgroup$ – Potato Nov 7 '13 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Potato: for me this is unrespectful. But different peoples can feel differently. $\endgroup$ – Cantlog Nov 7 '13 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Cantlog Could you try to say why? $\endgroup$ – Potato Nov 7 '13 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ I also don't understand the disrespect issue; Grothendieck is a person, not a deity. That being said, I agree completely with Doldrums' rule that users should not take the name of someone in mathematics who is currently or was recently alive: it is this aspect which bothers me, but no more so than if the name were some other lesser known algebraic geometer. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Madnick Nov 13 '13 at 7:26

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