Monthly Archives: October 2012

Danah boyd and capitalization

At the Web 2.0 Conference in 2005

Danah at the Web 2.0 Conference in 2005, from Wikipedia

Danah boyd is a social media and youth culture scholar. Besides her research, she may be best known for having legally changed her name to be written in lowercase. She did this for many reasons, which she has articulated extensively on her website. To summarize:

  • Protests against English convention and vanity, which is the only major language to capitalize the first person singular pronoun
  • Thinks that a name is no different from any of the other adjectives that can be used to describe a person, and also that capitalization does not add more value to herself as a person
  • Asserts that she can frame her own name as she sees fit, as it is, after all, her name
  • Wants to preserve visual symmetry of “danah,” as opposed to the asymmetry of “Danah”

I respect all these reasons, and I admire her. It would be nice if we didn’t capitalize the letter i or proper names—she’s right… on computers, capitalization seems truly unnecessary. She’s valiantly fighting a worthy fight.

But what happens when her name falls at the beginning of a sentence, or in a headline? It would seem that, according to her rationale, it should be treated as if it were any other word. That is, capitalized at the beginning of a sentence and in a headline if the publication practices title case. This makes sense—though danah should certainly be permitted to have her name written as she likes, these wishes must fit within the suprasegmental conventions of English capitalization.

As we see, though, that doesn’t seem to be the common practice. While it’s true that a number of outlets capitalize her name as they do for other people’s names, the ones that do observe her case wishes seem to, at best, always keep it lowercase (her Wikipedia entry, for example), or are otherwise inconsistent about it (Fast Company, for example; check out her name in the title and then in the body).

This is very awkward. We could have a separate argument about whether we really need capitalization anymore, but when all the paragraphs in an article begin with a capital letter except for one, that’s weird.

Worst of all, it seems that danah’s wishes regarding the capitalization of her name were grounded in humility, but they have become a vanity as pedantic copy editors everywhere feel the need to “accommodate her.”