What’s in a playa name? A sparklepony by any other name would hula-hoop as poorly.

Photo by Hamachidori (Creative Commons license)
This is yet another Shakespeare related joke.  This post is fully of them.  Photo by Hamachidori (Creative Commons license)

One of the most common questions I’m asked by people who know nothing about Burning Man but are considering going anyway is “Do you have a … you know … special name?”

I tell them I do, but that they’ll have to see me on playa to learn it.

Then, almost inevitably, then get concerned. “Will I have to get a new name?”

Have to?

I always try to picture how that would work:  I imagine the Gate looking like Ellis Island, with bored bureaucrats asking people in fishnets and utilikilts “Papers please.”  They look over the documents closely, and notice that the “new name” box hasn’t been checked.

“Okay,” they say.  “Your name is now Fuzzypants.  And his name is Bilge.  Congratulations.  Move along.”

“But …”

“I said move, Fuzzypants!”

Actually, we should do that.  It sounds fun.

But it’s interesting to me that of all the things people could worry about at Burning Man … “Will I die?  Will I get heat stroke?  Will I be run over by a bus shaped like a zoo?” … the idea of being given a new name ranks anywhere near the top.

Yet in my experience it does.  And while that makes no sense intellectually, I get it viscerally.

I caught a ride the other week with some Burning Man types, and found myself sitting right behind legendary Burning Blogger The Hun.  We’d only just been introduced that evening.  As the car sped down a San Francisco hill she turned and asked me “Caveat, what’s your real name again?”

And I froze.

“Three months ago,” I said, “I wouldn’t tell you that.  For the last six years I’ve worked very, very, hard to keep my Burning Man identity completely separate from the rest of my life, and vice-versa.  To know me as Caveat you had to know me *as Caveat.*”

“Really?” she said.  “Me too!  For years, I was just ‘The Hun,’ and that’s all you got, and all you needed to get, and it was a strict rule.  And I really liked it.”

“But,” I said, hesitating, “half the people I saw tonight were calling you Jessica.”

“It just got to be too much, eventually,” she said.  “I started doing things on Facebook, and it’s really hard to keep identities separate there, and eventually I came to the point where I wanted to share things with people on both sides of the divide and … so I dropped it.  I just said “fuck it,” and connected with everyone.”

“Any regrets?”

“No!” she said.  “It totally had to happen.  And I have finally come around to the idea that total transparency is the only workable solution.  I’ve gone from strict separation to hiding nothing.  And I think eventually it’s what you have to do.”

“Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah,” I said.  “I’m not there yet.”

During my first few years as Caveat my life was compartmentalized so tightly that I was working with Andie Grace at Burning Man and her husband Tom in a “default world” capacity, and it took them a year to figure out they were talking about the same person.

Since then, however, cracks have appeared.   A few people learned my identity (San Francisco’s a surprisingly small town), and then I told a few more when they asked:  after what we went through together, it would have been insulting not to.  One Media Mecca volunteer who I took out to dinner when she was in SF grabbed my credit card from the waiter to catch a look.

My separate identities were already unraveling … and then the roof came down when Larry Harvey “outed” me by quoting me by both names in a speech.

Not that anybody cared that the curtain had been pulled back:  not a soul in the world gave a damn that my carefully kept secret was now recorded on video and archived.  It wasn’t a big deal, except insofar as it was an honor to be quoted.  But symbolically, a threshold was crossed.  A door had opened that can never be closed.

There is powerful magic in names, and none of it rational.  However irrational the fear virgin burners have that they will be “forced” to take a name, I completely understand it.  I’m going through the inverse now:  I’m slowly being forced to give it up.

But why does it matter?  Isn’t a name just a name?  A shirtcocker by any other name would still be exposing his penis.

Maybe, yes, but that’s not the subjective experience.

“The one thing I worry about,” Jessica told me, “is:  what happens to The Hun?  As soon as people knew my name, a lot of them just started calling me by it, thinking that was more authentic, more intimate, and I’m like:  ‘No!  I like The Hun!  That name hasn’t become any less important to me.”

I’m right there with her.

I’m not sure that anyone who knows me as Caveat would find me particularly different in the rest of my life:  there’s no magic switch that’s flipped, no alternate personality that comes out.  But … but … three years into my Volunteer Coordinating gig for Media Mecca, I did notice a difference:  my writing as Caveat, specifically in my messages to prospective volunteers, was far more aggressively surrealist, far more bizarre, and (when it worked) far more funny than anything I was writing under my born name.

Not than anything I COULD write under my born name – but anything that I WAS writing.  Caveat was not a separate talent, but as “Caveat” I was willing to take more chances, to go out on a limb, to swing for the fences.

To those few people who knew both my identities, I started referring to Caveat as “my creative Id.”

That’s not a life-changing thing, but it’s not a small thing either.  A separate name, a separate identity, allowed me to tap into a part of my psyche that was otherwise a little too ignored.

As Caveat gradually turns into someone with a “real name,” I wonder what’s going to happen to that.

The predicament of the playa name – whether to have one, how to keep it, how to integrate it into your life – reminds me of the early days of the internet.

In the era of social media, it’s almost required to have a single digital identify that follows you around:  that employers can check, that prospective dates can Google, that parents can keep up with.  A Facebook page may be performance art, but it’s a show that never closes.  Sure there are privacy settings, but the central identity is fairly easy to spot:  to point at and say “that’s him,” and all that’s in question are degrees of intimacy.

It’s possible, sure, to lurk in a comments section or troll on a forum, but that’s a small and pitiable kind of freedom compared to the wild west that the internet once represented.  To paraphrase remarks made by MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle:  identity on the internet used to represent something you could play with, and experiment with, to learn about yourself.  Now it has become an often mandatory presentation of self that you make in order to tell the world exactly who you are.  It’s gone from a place of optional self-discovery, where you could always disappear when it was done, to an identity that you’re locked into forever.

There are advantages to that, especially for the functioning of an orderly society:  but oh what a playground we’ve lost.

The Hun later told me she in fact started her journey to a new identity in that 90’s internet playground.

“It very much came from that idea of experimenting with your identity in an atmosphere of anonymity,” she said.  “The process of self-discovery was inextricably tied to the abandonment of the physical, apparent self, the expectations of the outer world, and the feeding and training of the lizard monster Hun.”

Playa names could never provide anything near that level of freedom:  you can’t really “re-invent” yourself on the Playa the way you could online.  But the symbolism of the gesture is still potent – perhaps more potent than you could ever get sitting at home in front of a screen.  You are leaving your home, traveling to a distant and alien land, putting on a costume, removing your old name and answering to a new one in your new community.  That’s a magical act, psychologically fraught.  If you treat it deeply enough, it will open doors where there were none before.

It did in The Hun’s journey, just as it did in mine.  Turning “The Hun” from an internet tag into a playa name was a vital step.

“Eventually The Hun got big enough to stand on her own, and most of that happened through Burning Man,” she said.  “I was able to bring that side of myself and connect it with the physical world, and people accepted it. Eventually it grew to become my dominant personality. It was an important process, and without it I would not be nearly as happy or adjusted.”

And then, eventually, if you stick around long enough, you’ll want to connect with the people you meet in a way beyond hidden doors and secret identities.

“The main reason I ‘came out’ was because it was too hard to hide my real self from my mom after she joined Facebook,” said The Hun.  “Just can’t lie to the moms. HA. But I was also ready. I had been accepted as myself by a big group of people for several years, and it seemed like I didn’t have as much need to hide.

That’s a perfectly normal process, I suppose.  No pilgrimage lasts forever – every hero’s journey requires the hero to come up out of the underworld to share what he has learned.

But there really is something to what people call you.  Playa names have … how to put this? … more oomph.

“The side effect of going back to “Jessica” has been really unfortunate,” said The Hun.  “I do feel limited by ‘Jessica.’  It isn’t me. It’s a challenge to deal with.“

Perhaps that’s why I’m taking it slowly, even though my “real name” is now an open secret:   I’m not up to radical transparency yet.   I’m trying to linger in the space where creative Ids play.  My fingers digging into the dust, leaving a trail just outside of camp.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man was a pretty awful person on the internet in the 1990s.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

10 Comments on “What’s in a playa name? A sparklepony by any other name would hula-hoop as poorly.

  • Gentle says:

    Wonderful post that sums up a lot of my hesitation going into my first burn. I had fear that I name I hated would stick like some taunting, teasing nickname coined by elementary school bullies. I quickly learned I had much more control over my name than I thought I would. If you don’t like a name given to you, you don’t need to respond to it. Then again, a silly name, given in a humorous moment, may just be the name you want to keep. Most people have a story about how they got their name, and I’ve learned it can be a wonderful way to get to know someone a little better. Sometimes the story is less about the name itself, and more about the process – how the name came to be.

    I have several identities – my default name, my playa name, two performer names, and I still use my old internet username from time to time. I understand there are very good reasons for those consolidating into one identity (it really does help hold people accountable to comments they make in forums – people think twice when their “real name” is attached to it) – but I miss the days of that extra layer of anonymity. Facebook won’t event let my playa name be my “nick name” (I’ve yet to message them directly).

    Great post.

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  • Joe says:

    I’ve been happy to be just “Joe” since I started going and recently “Joe Fez” to distinguish me from someone else who predated me on the committee on which we both sit. I don’t even have a fez; the syllable relates to an email address rather than a hat. Maybe I need a fez . . . I digress.

    I am fortunate to be pretty much the same on and off playa, default world and playa world. It might have something to do with working on aspects of the event all year or I may just be lucky that my boss (me) and my clients (some of them Burners) actually *like* that I attend the event and can be out about being part of it.

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  • Alchemy says:

    ” What is your name?” I too, have frozen. Ah, What do you mean? I have many.
    Ive been going for 15 years – and also had a pretty interesting life as a performance artist in SF some 20 years ago. Then theres my fist married name- My married name I prefer..my childhood nick name, every pet name my lovers EVER called me. Theres my name that mychildrens frieds call me- starting with their first names and last name Mom…. my birth name…
    THEN theres my REAL name. Its the name I respond to best by the people I love most..My Playa name… Its muted over the years as in native American cultures sometimes change their names every 7years or so- because ..well your spirit grows and needs a new skin.
    Well Bitches..I love the new skin Im in. When you get to Playa- you might learn it..We might share a great moment or more….
    I am famous for naming people. You usually cant be named on the first day- rarely before..but I get a sence ofyou- the moments involved,,You really arent embracing our Culture until youve been granted a Playa name. They are earned- you get them from an experiance..none specific..but IF you really want to step into our world- and walk about in our skin ..lil Virginz..rock your burn.mingle alot..take risks..play those 10 principles..and come see me at the 9 OClock Post office..window 3..round Wednesday . I work that Bureaucratic automous collective.

    Come to Window 3 Post Office 9 Plaza..and engage in a rite of passage tht thousands have gone and done before you. You wanna BE a authentic Burner? Do it Ol School? Need a name? Wanna MAIL SOMETHING? A POSTCARD MAYBE?
    You come to me and ask for the Full Ride ..Ill be the one in the 3 window..with a silver moon around my neck…Come ready with a killer BRIBE – /GIFT and lets test you on some Burner 101 and …see what kinda name we can extrude from your real youness…Your just startin out Virgin..you will find the path more advantagious- when you speak our language..other wise..your getting a Travel Channel hip vacation…instead of a trip to Wonderland…There ARE levels inside the levels friends…Secret Societys have special names…..join up or go home..Hippy

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  • Mike says:

    Playa names seem to be a bit of a camp culture thing – the concept never really stuck in my camp, even after 17 years of attending. ~90% of us all either go by our real names or our initials. There’s no conscious effort to rebel against it or anything — the names just don’t seem to stick. A few of us have tried, and we had a few n00bs that arrived introducing themselves with playa names, but by the end of the week, we were all back to our birth names. For many of us, it just feels forced, or contrived. I can’t really explain it.

    Then, there are a select few that end up with a playa name that sticks in the real world. That name BECOMES them.

    In the end, it seems that it just needs to feel natural.

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  • roissy says:

    I still have three or four names, on playa it is my real name, unless I am doing my 5 hour set which I use a different name. My FB account has a fake name. Still have not crossed my internet id with Playa…

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  • The Hun says:

    Thanks for posting this, Caveat! It’s something that has been rolling around in my head for quite a few years, and you explained it eloquently as always.

    Love your work, no matter what name you go by.

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  • OmFu says:

    Thanks for including us on your journey.
    I enjoyed reading this.

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  • Chris Schaie says:

    The funny thing is that before I went for the first time I had communicated with a number of folk (contributing to an art project) via the net. My user name from the boards was on a lot of the communications. When I got to BM I “knew” a few people, but when I introduced myself -real name- nobody knew who I was. As we talked a bit more… “holy crap you are -X-!!!”. “glad to put a face to the sign-on”.

    So my playa name has become one and the same with my avatar from the forums, not by any real effort from me, and I am easily interchangeable between birth name and handle. But it is a testament to the connection between life and the net, becoming more real everyday.

    Just a perspective.

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  • defaultName says:

    I’ve never been given a playa name that stuck. One year, during an orientation activity I told my campmates that a certain animal was my spirit animal, and some of them began calling me by that name. I recognize that they were trying to help me establish an identity that was special to Burning Man, to bring me closer to the camp, but it just never felt natural to hear myself called by that name. It always sounded like they were trying too hard to follow the Burner template, because they knew my default name and therefore it never felt like my playa name was necessary. It was a layer over an unchanged and acknowledged default, rather than a replacement for it. And it was not really a name that I was given; it was still my suggestion, my will, and a true playa naming is an act of the individual’s submission to the will of the community.

    I think I was simply not ready for the dramatic personality shift that comes with a naming; I tolerated it, but ultimately rejected it, as the body may do with a grafted organ. My mother and father gave me my default name. For me to shed that name and replace it with one given to me by someone else feels like an act of disloyalty to my family.

    Perhaps that says something about how much I limit Burning Man’s influence over me, how I have difficulty trusting Burner society to love me unconditionally as my parents have done. I think that some Black Rock Citizens have, in fact, found a love out here in the desert that is comparable in strength to the love of their birth family, and their willingness to accept a playa name as an authentic identifier is a mark of their trust in that love.

    I am unsure of what it will take for me to evolve to the level where I can really open my heart to Burning Man and receive the name that emerges from the community. This will be my tenth burn; I am camping with 20 people who all know me by my default name, and I do not trust them to playa-name me. This is a boundary of distrust that I cannot tear down; to do so would be tantamount to tearing a hole in the bottom of one of my water containers.

    So this year I will search outside the shelter of myself and my camp for an identifying mark–a sign that I can use to represent the full extent of my body, mind, and soul. I must find an alien presence swirling through the city, something so powerful that it can teach me my playa name. A name I can trust.

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  • Burgundy Smoke says:

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed reading it.

    I still haven’t had the chance to get to Burning Man because I live across the country. However I love reading and watching videos. Anyway I agree with the commenter that said your internet handle sticks in real life. I changed my Facebook name to Burgundy Smoke, and now when I meet people at shows they call out “yo burgundy!” Or “burg!” At first I felt a little embarrassed but now it feels only totally fitting. Still, when my little brother called me “burgundy smoke” at Christmas this year I thought “oh jeeZe”. The only thing I struggle with is when my co workers want to add my Facebook page. They say “what’s your name on Facebook?” And I say “what’s yours?” And add them first. It’s hard to decide when you want to combine the two lives, but the truth is I think it happens on it’s own in it’s own time.

    Anyway thanks for the article :) meow

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