what’s in a name


I chose the name “pho4cexa” for my digital self in 2017.

The last time I invented a new Internet nickname before that was in 1999, around the same time I graduated from high school, to replace my embarrassing and puerile America Online username that I picked out in middle school.

I made a careful effort for years afterward to associate my full given name with that handle, to better disambiguate and “own” it online despite having no legal claim to the word.

That way, I reasoned, when I went looking for employment, I might appear first in Google searches for my handle. Or, old friends searching for my name and profession/hobby would be able to locate me. Or, companies hoping to acquire the name would find it too difficult to beat my pagerank, and pick a different name.

That effort was moderately successful. The handle has even bled into my irli use irl in nostalgia and irony: to the contrary, digital life is real life; online actions have offline effects.

interactions. I think it sounds ridiculous but endearing when friends say my silly self-chosen nickname aloud, at work, even to my boss, to refer to me.

But recently I have been feeling suffocated by it.

I wish I had, early on, fractured my identity into personalities: an ascetically professional façade, and at least one disconnected pseudonym who has opinions, political leanings, weird preferences, embarrassing guilty pleasures, body issues, who sometimes makes mistakes and has to constantly apologize for the idiot he was years or months ago. Two decades late, I’ve finally found scraps of time and motivation to begin that fracture. I am one of those personalities, “pho4cexa.”

I haven’t gone to great lengths to obtain real pseudonymity—nasty silicon valley surveillance companies will likely be able to link my profiles together—for now I really just want Google searches for my meatspace name to return results as boring and “professional” as possible.

related toot

what pho4cexa means

It doesn’t mean anything. I picked it from the output of a random-characters password generator, pwgen.

I considered adopting the name “Perhonen,” from my favorite character in Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy. But that felt pretentious; I’m not that cool, nor am I a female sapient lovelorn spaceship.

I entertained the idea of receiving a new name from peers who know me. ~m455 suggested the same, but since there’s no existing culture of doing so, it feels weird to ask “please bestow upon me a nickname, friends.”

I also tried mushing together Greek and Latin word-parts but the results were unoriginal and had different meanings than I intended. (How about “ex-animus” to suggest mind independent of body? No good; it just means “dead” and was used by a 2006 horror video game that was never released.)

After struggling with that for a while I realized that deliberating over a globally-unique and “cool” name like I had done two decades ago was leading into the same over-attachment that I was trying to avoid. This (these) are pseudonyms, and I’m not as special as I imagine myself to be.

So, I reasoned, my name should be as unremarkable as any other. A purely-random globally unique identifier would be appropriate. A cryptographic hash value corresponding to my mental state would be useful, if we had the technology. But purely random strings are difficult to remember. That’s how I happened upon the idea to use my password generator pwgen, which attempts to generate random but pronouncable/memorable words, to help me select a name.

Afterward, I looked around for variants and prior usage. The closest I found were a few results for “Phocea”: a giant yacht, an investment company, and a Mexican diving company. I’m not a fan of the obscene wealth symbol of a yacht, but maybe a craft that sails through cyberspace (where the building material is free and you build things yourself) isn’t so bad. There’s a hints of analogy to the sapient spacecraft I originally admired as well.

[from: what pho4cexa means]

how to pronounce pho4cexa

I’ve long entertained the idea that words invented in the text-based medium of cyberspace should not necessarily have an audible component. Pronouncing some intentionally-misspelled Internet slang should be an act of translation; one should read haxor as “hacker” not “hack zore”; “owned” for pwnt not “poned” nor “pawnt.”

So I didn’t consider the pronunciation of pho4cexa very thoroughly. Maybe I should have, because multiple people have said it seems to be suggestive of phrases like “Phở for sex.” Bizarre imagery aside, the proximity of base innuendo offends the cyberpunk transhumanist cowboy in me who purports a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. Now that it has been pointed out, even I have to train myself to unsee it.

I’d prefer to say it is unpronouncable outside of the metaverse, and if that’s too unweildy, then its translation into audible speech should sound like “Phocea.”

[from: how to pronounce pho4cexa]