In the course of events, a number of users have changed their usernames--some more than once. Here I'm not referring to changing the automatically assigned username into something more personal, but rather the situation of an already established user suddenly choosing to go by a different name.

I find that this can be confusing with regard to the intended target of comments, replies to chat messages, or references to that user in other users' posts, especially if there is no logical continuity. If the user also changes their icon, it can even be difficult to determine which person that user corresponds to unless one happens to recognise one of their contributions or can perform some sort of ad-hoc digital archaeology. Regular visitors probably will not encounter serious difficulties here, but it seems to me that the history of the site and its membership is most likely completely opaque to newcomers.

While I absolutely don't dispute that users have the right to change their usernames and icons if they wish, my question here is threefold:

  • Do others find this situation confusing as well, or is it my problem alone?
  • Is there any practical automated way of determining which names a user has gone by previously, or to look up a user by their past name(s)? (I assume here that one does not happen to have memorized the user number, otherwise there is no problem.)
  • Would it be helpful for a user who wishes to rename themselves to make a note to that effect in their profile?
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Re: point 2, only mods can see past names. Users can make use of the Data Explorer — for instance, this query. I know a few other top users who have changed their names, but are not on the list, probably because they didn't post during the change. –  rm -rf Jan 8 '13 at 13:16
    
I changed to "2103" for the new year without realizing that you have to wait one month before changing (back) again! (all other details are unchanged if you click on my name of course) –  Mike Honeychurch Jan 8 '13 at 21:37
    
@2013 Nope, you changed to 2013. –  belisarius Jan 8 '13 at 21:51
    
@belisarius that is what I said (?). I cannot change back until the end of the month. –  Mike Honeychurch Jan 8 '13 at 21:54
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@2013 I insist. You changed to "2013", not to "2103". And if you still don't know who you are, you should keep that username until you find out :D –  belisarius Jan 8 '13 at 21:57
    
ok typo in my comment above. –  Mike Honeychurch Jan 8 '13 at 22:02
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@2013 Do you want me to change your name so that you don't have to wait a month? Btw, other users cannot see your "real name" or "email" fields, so they probably won't know without digging into past comments. Your website doesn't have your name in a convenient place either. –  rm -rf Jan 8 '13 at 22:14
    
@Hypnotoad ok thanks. –  Mike Honeychurch Jan 8 '13 at 22:21
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5 Answers

I sometimes find comments quite difficult to interpret, because of the name changes. This is probably more of a problem on this particular site, where comments usually contain answers and serious points of permanent value, rather than mostly throwaway or fleeting remarks. But it's part of what gives the site its character too, so I don't really worry about it. As a sporadic Mathematica user, I live with bafflement on a daily basis... :)

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Most of the username changes are made as a snap decision, usually in response to something that's localized and funny or is an in-joke or one of those you-had-to-be-there moments, and not with the explicit intention of breaking comment chains. Personally, having been there for

  • Mr.Wizard → Spartacus (where everyone revealed that they contributed to the Mr.Wizard conglomerate)
  • belisarius → Verde (something about Rojo and bad RGB triplets)
  • Sjoerd → Blanco (because the gravatars in the chatroom formed the flag of NL)

I found them fun, interesting and enjoyed the change. My use of the hypnotoad gravatar has given rise to a toad fetish in the chatroom (which is more of an in-joke among the chat regulars) and my recent change was spurred by someone who wondered why the chat room had a strange fascination for toads.

I fully understand that it's confusing to those who weren't around (but that's kinda the point of an in-joke :D) and users can make use of the Data Explorer (for instance, this query) to see if they can find the user's past names. It probably might help if the user mentioned it in their profile (like Mr.Wizard does), but in the end, restrictions on username changes/other conventions are not enforceable (except when it violates the SE terms and conditions). The system also recognizes that people might need to change the display name for whatever reason, but that frequent changes will lead to confusion. For this reason, changes are limited to once every 30 days.

To address a different point you made (about references in answers) — it is always a good idea to not simply write ... as in foo's answer..., but instead write ... as in [foo's answer](link)..., as in the latter you have an explicit link to the answer you're referring to. I've found such linkless references to be highly ambiguous even without any username changes. For example, someone references an answer simply by the user who wrote it, but then the said user posts another answer. For a newcomer, which one are they referring to? Another case is when the question builds upon a linked, related question and the answer starts off by referencing someone's answer to the linked question. This too is not clear to a newcomer or one that hasn't been following the thread. I've been equally guilty of not always providing links, but adopting this convention would kill several birds in one stone.

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Confucius say, "in-joke like sex, better when not shared with everyone" ... :) –  cormullion Jan 8 '13 at 19:25
    
@cormullion OMG ... I've read anyone on the first parsing pass –  belisarius Jan 8 '13 at 21:46
    
Thanks for mentioning the query; it'll certainly be useful. I'm not keen on in-jokes personally, but surely others have a right to them if that's what they enjoy, and I'm not in favor of enforced restrictions. As for referring to other answers--I agree with you, but really my question regards references to users personally in comments/chat messages (where it's less practical to provide a link) more than citations of their contributions. I suppose we're stuck with this as is, though, so I'd be satisfied if this question merely raised awareness that name changes actually aren't very transparent. –  Oleksandr R. Jan 9 '13 at 1:16
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It would be a solution if every ping made in posts/comments/chat (something like @István) were to be replaced automatically by a hyperlink pointing to the user's profile (like @István) which (I assume) is more stable, based on user ID number, than the displayed name. Can this be implemented? Certainly. Should this be requested from SE? Yes. Was it requested before? I'm pretty sure, though I could not find anything relevant on meta.SO.

Of course this would require the possibility to ping as many people in a comment/post as is necessary. Which is not allowed at the moment. Perhaps another escape character (like #) should be used to precede such automatic linking, which does not necessary induce pinging.

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I'm pretty sure it was requested at some point and the boilerplate response would've been: "Comments are second class citizens on the SE network and we're not going to spend any valuable dev time to improve something that 1) was not part of the original plan, 2) is not meant to house any useful information, 3) is not versioned and 4) is fleeting – its very existence is at the mercy of the commenter and the mods." In other words, the comments system is under developed very much by design. They want people to leave less comments, not more. –  rm -rf Jan 8 '13 at 15:38
    
#@Hypnotoad Nice summary: sad to hear it. More reason though to further push on the matter. Perhaps start a new thread with tag feature-request. –  István Zachar Jan 8 '13 at 15:40
    
István, I think it would be futile... besides, as a community, I'd much rather we focus our attention on something more substantial. However, if you still want to push it, I won't let my reasoned pessimism get in the way of unfettered optimism :) –  rm -rf Jan 8 '13 at 15:46
    
@Hyp Haa! I wouldn't call myself an unfettered optimist :) I secretly hope that someone simply links in a thread from SO that shows how futile it was indeed when some other fool had already tried it... –  István Zachar Jan 8 '13 at 15:49
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There is this one, and the original it points to. There were other requests on that post to converting pings to userid which is stable and then use the current name upon loading, but all these were dismissed with the status-declined. There's also this, which was about changing past references (not possible unless it was a unique name) and this one about explicitly including the userid. You can see some of the reasoning I gave scattered in the answers/comments/linked posts. –  rm -rf Jan 8 '13 at 16:02
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I have to agree - I find it highly confusing.

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I changed my name from Rudy Toody to my real name Fred Kline at the request of OEIS because someone linked to one of my posts on this forum, and OEIS wants real names used in citations.

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Rudy Toody was nice :=) –  belisarius Jan 12 '13 at 10:54
    
I would say that such a change is entirely understandable, and--as a one-time event affecting a user before they accrue that many posts--is not too likely to result in extensive confusion. –  Oleksandr R. Jan 13 '13 at 21:16
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