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If your name is ‘Null,’ you may have problems doing anything online

It’s one thing to have a name that is unusual to those around you, but when it confuses websites and computing systems in general, it’s a whole different kind of headache. What do you do if you go by just one name? What if your last name consists of just one letter? These problems have arisen in the past, and continue to frustrate users well into the digital age.

The BBC reports on one woman who is struggling with her name. Jennifer Null was warned by her husband before she took his surname that there would be some problems. After their marriage, the couple moved, as most newlyweds do. The problems began for her when she tried to book their flight. “We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. She got an error message from most websites, which assumed that she was leaving the surname field blank. She was getting messages to try again. When Null got fed up and called the airlines for help, the employees on the other end didn’t believe her.

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Programmers use the word “null” in database fields to indicate that there is no date to fill. Though system administrators have tried to set up their programs to avoid problems for people with names like Null, it’s not an easy task. Jennifer Null has had problems beyond booking plane tickets. Areas where data entry is important, such as on a government tax website, has also led to obstacles. When the Nulls needed to set up a utility bill in the city they moved to, they hit the wall again.

It appears that the more important the website or service, the harder it is to overcome the strict controls. So for people like the Nulls, the inconveniences mostly occur in the most crucial circumstances. When Jennifer was working as an on-call substitute teacher, she used a service that notified her by phone of available work, as the online service would not function correctly for her. “I feel like I still have to do things the old-fashioned way,” she says.

Incidents in which computer systems encounter cases they were not designed for are called “edge cases.” Once such example is the case of Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele, a Hawaiian whose 36-character surname didn’t fit on state ID cards or on most websites. Her complaints led to changes in government computer systems to better accommodate citizens with unique names like hers.

“Every couple of years computer systems are upgraded or changed and they’re tested with a variety of data — names that are well represented in society,” says programmer Patrick McKenzie. “They don’t necessarily test for the edge cases.” McKenzie’s interest in computer systems’ shortcomings has led to his creating a list of what programmers should look out for when designing databases intended to store personal names.

McKenzie himself has dealt with issues in this area, due to his living in Japan. “Four characters in a Japanese name is very rare. McKenzie is eight, so for printed forms it’ll often be the case that there’s literally not enough space to put my name,” McKenzie says. “Computer systems are often designed with these forms in mind. Every year when I go to file my taxes, I file them as ‘McKenzie P’ because that’s the amount of space they have.”

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McKenzie has converted his name into katakana, the Japanese alphabet that phonetically spells out foreign words, in an effort to improve his situation. When his bank’s computer systems underwent an update, katakana support was lost. For some time, McKenzie could not access his account online. He had to send a paper request from his branch to the corporate IT department so somebody could edit the database manually.

As computer systems expand globally, programmers have tried harder to lower edge case incidents. McKenzie notes that the Worldwide Web Consortium, an Internet standards body, has tackled this issue specifically. It may be some time before all names function correctly, but in the meantime, people like the Nulls will just have to live with it.