My name is not particularly weird, but it’s not that common either. According to the website HowManyofMe.com, which plumbs U.S. Census data, there are a ton of Julies in the United States—565,224 of them. And that doesn’t even count all the Julias, Juliettes and Juliannas who might also go by Julie. There are 112,182 Becks in the country, and just 195 Julie Becks.
That seems to be pretty middle of the road. My two sisters, who have unusually spelled names, have just 4 and 16 name doppelgangers in the country. My dad, who has one of the most common male names of all time, has more than 1,000. I’m not a unique name snowflake, but I’m no “John Smith” or “Mary Johnson” either—chances are theoretically good that I could go my whole life without meeting any more of me.
Or rather, chances were good, before the internet.
The first Julie Beck I encountered, other than the one in the mirror, wasn’t really a Julie Beck at all. Her name was Julia Beck, but she went by Julie, and she also went to college with me at Northwestern. She’s a couple years older than me, and we had different majors, so I might never have heard of her despite our proximity, were it not for the fact that Julie was her nickname. See, if you wanted to find her in the student directory online, you’d have to search “Julia Beck.” If you looked up “Julie Beck,” my email was the only one that came up.
This is how I got accidentally cast in Peter Pan.
I still have the email, from October 2008. It starts “Hi Peter Pan cast! Congratulations to you all!!” and goes on to request our prompt reply as to whether a certain date works for us to start workshopping. I was already aware of my doppelganger at this point (I got her email semi-regularly). “I've never met the other Julie Beck (if I do, one of us is sure to explode),” I wrote, because it was college and I thought I was funny, and sent the director the correct email.
I recently talked to Julia Beck, and neither of us exploded, though perhaps that’s because her name is Julia DeBettencourt now. She got married in 2014, and changed her last name, and says she doesn’t go by Julie much anymore—only her husband calls her that. I told her the Peter Pan story and we laughed, and I asked her if she was aware of me when we were at school.
“I was slightly painfully aware,” she said.
Apparently, when she petitioned to graduate under the name “Julia Beck,” the registrar’s office told her she needed to petition for a name change, because her official transcript said “Julie.” After a confusing exchange, it was revealed someone had put the wrong transcript in her folder.
“But I always heard you were very nice,” she said.
The string of letters that spell “Julie Beck” are used to represent many wildly different people. They symbolize me, but they also symbolize a nursing professor in Pennsylvania, an attorney in Michigan, and 192 others in my country alone. In the real world, those different meanings have no problem coexisting. Each Julie Beck exists in her own social context, and these contexts rarely, if ever, overlap. But on the internet, they’re all smooshed together. To Google, one Julie Beck is the same as another. (Unless you add some keywords.)
“I think we’re at a funny inflection point where certainly in terms of individual identification in a worldwide system, proper names don’t really make any sense,” says Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online, and an adviser at Harvard University.
Governments already identify people with unique numbers, so we don’t need to be able to be identified from our names alone. But names feel more significant now that so much of modern life is textual. Names are our stand-ins, our brands, they do the heavy lifting of symbolizing our selves in places where our bodies aren’t. But often, they aren’t ours alone. And while offline we’re usually distant enough from our name doppelgangers that it doesn’t matter, online we have to share space.
So I went looking for the other Julie Becks, to learn about their lives and how they felt about sharing space with each other, and with me.
As of now, my Atlantic author page is the top search result for “Julie Beck” on Google.
today is a big day for me because I am finally the #1 julie beck on google, at last defeating the prominent mormon nun of the same name— Julie Beck (@julieebeck) January 29, 2015
I wrested this spot by sheer volume of blogging from a much more prominent Julie Beck—Julie B. Beck, who was the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ Relief Society, a women’s philanthropic organization, from 2007 to 2012. (She isn’t a nun, that was my mistake.) She did not respond to my interview requests for this article. If fame is a combination of visibility and inaccessibility, then she is indeed the most famous Julie Beck.
Julie Beck, an artist who helps run the Academy of Realist Art in Boston, is another person I’ve regularly encountered on the first page of Google over the years. (She painted the portrait of me and many of the Julie Becks I spoke to that you see at the top of this article.) “As an artist, I’m super into marketing,” she said. “Every so often I Google my name, to see where my website ranking was, and it was always the LDS Julie Beck, she trumped me, and then you’re the only [other] one who’s been able to stay above my website.”
“I finally defeated the LDS Julie Beck a couple years ago,” I said.
“I know, congratulations, congratulations.”
Of course she already knew that—we’re inextricably linked, she and I, and Julie B. Beck of LDS fame, such that, online at least, we can’t find ourselves without also finding each other.
Online, a first and last name often isn’t enough to zero in on a specific person. This affects people unevenly, of course. Many of my colleagues’ names are unique enough that you won’t find anyone else if you search for them: Olga Khazan, Ian Bogost, Kaveh Waddell, Marina Koren, and of course, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr Von Baldegg. And some have such common names that, even though writing for The Atlantic means they’re putting their names out there often, their results are still deluged with others: Matt Ford and Alan Taylor, for example. And if you share a name with a celebrity? Forget about it.
“As societies get bigger and bigger, names have to adjust to still function as identifiers,” Donath says. The internet has created another, larger level of society that’s bigger than country, and so to identify people within it, you often need more than their name. “When people lived in pretty small villages, you could go by a first name and maybe a nickname, and everyone would know who you were talking about,” she says. “You didn’t need something very permanent, and you didn’t need something that people who didn’t know you would recognize. It was only when governments wanted to be able to get a handle on people that they started having official, formal names.”
“If you want a little microcosm of the evolution of personal names, take a look at Denmark,” says Laura Wattenberg, a name researcher and creator of BabyNameWizard.com. For much of history, Danes used a patronymic naming system, so that the son of Jens would have the last name Jensen, and Jens’s daughter would have the last name Jensdatter. But in the 19th century, Denmark passed laws requiring people to have hereditary surnames, so many of the patronymics froze then, resulting in a proliferation of Jensens. “No other country in Europe has so few surnames used by so many citizens as Denmark,” the 2003 Dictionary of American Family Names said. So it was still tough to tell people apart. (My editor, Ross Andersen, the son of a Danish immigrant and a product of this naming system, wanted a shout-out here. Here you go, Ross.)
Now everyone in Denmark has a personnummer, a personal identification number similar to an American Social Security Number, but less private. “Then they realized, okay, you can name yourself whatever you want,” Wattenberg says, and a 2005 law made patronymics possible again.
American names have trended in the opposite direction—becoming less and less homogenous, largely thanks to the internet. Parents now tend to seek out unique names for their children, making it so that today’s most popular baby names are far less popular than the most popular names of decades past. This shift started in the mid-’90s, according to Wattenberg. As she put it in a recent post on BabyNameWizard: “In 1955, the median boy’s name Edward was given to nearly one baby out of every hundred. (That's almost equal to the popularity of today's #1 name.) By 2015, just one baby in every 782 received the median boy's name, Luca.”
I was born in 1990, a few months before the first-ever website, and a year before the first publicly accessible website. People of my generation represent a turning point between those who weren’t named in the shadow of the internet, and those who were.
“You can see that there’s kind of a transformation in parents’ minds,” Wattenberg says. “You type a name into Google and you feel like it’s taken if anyone else in the world has it.”
But for people whose parents couldn’t have known to consider whether the name they gave their child would one day hide or highlight them in a database of everyone on earth, it’s pretty much the luck of the draw.
“Every time what constitutes the immediate society gets bigger, the existing naming structure doesn’t work,” Donath says. “We’re at another point like that.”
“The internet makes everybody your next-door neighbor, so suddenly it seems like you’re surrounded by people with the same name,” Wattenberg adds.
A while back, I set up a Google alert for myself, hoping it would send me in digestible email form a list of all the times my articles are cited by other publications calling me a beautiful genius or a dumb idiot. But whatever Google algorithm overlord compiles these things has never actually picked up any mentions of me. (And there are some to be found—not all the time, but you know, occasionally.) Instead, for some reason, it mostly sends me updates about Julie Beck, the chamber-of-commerce president in Mount Olive, North Carolina, who has also chaired the North Carolina Pickle Festival for the past 22 years.
“Mt. Olive Pickle Company is based in our town, so 31 years ago they started this festival to promote agriculture in our community,” this Julie Beck told me. “Now we have close to 40,000 people coming for one day to our little town. It’s a one-day event with three stages of entertainment, and an antique-car show, and all kinds of pickle food and pickle activities. Our 5K race is called the Cuke Patch; we have Tour de Pickle; we have an event where you learn how to pack pickles into a jar. We just do a lot of pickley things.” She launches into a Bubba-esque litany of pickle foods. “We have pickle chips and pickle popcorn and pickle pizza and deep-fried pickles and pickle ice cream and pickle sno-cones and pickle pretzels. You name it, we have it.”
She was recently named the North Carolina Festival Director of the Year for the pickle festival, she told me, but of course, I’d already heard about that, in my inbox.
Boston Julie Beck says she first found other people who shared her name when she was looking to buy a website to promote her art. “I was obsessed with getting juliebeck.com,” she said. (She didn’t get it. Many of the Julie Becks I’ve talked to have also lamented their inability to purchase that website. The woman who owns it, a counselor based in British Columbia, did not respond to my interview requests.) She settled for juliebcreative.com instead, and “that’s when I started searching for other Julie Becks, just out of curiosity,” she said. “I started just friending random Julie Becks.”
@julieebeck seriously! I know!! She is the bane of my Google existence. Maybe we can bring her down if we work together.— Julie Beck (@juliebcreative) May 31, 2012
In 2012, she followed me on Twitter, and I followed her back, and we had a brief exchange about how we’d never overcome Mormon Julie for Google result supremacy. (How far I’ve come.) That was the extent of our interaction, but in the meantime, she apparently kicked off a small Facebook cabal of Julie Becks. “This one Julie Beck and I have been constantly interacting” since then, she said. “Everything we post we’ll like or comment on—like I saw her get married, and she moved—and then our families will be confused.”
North Carolina Julie Beck is also Facebook friends with both Boston Julie Beck and this other Julie Beck who “was from Texas, but recently moved to California,” North Carolina Julie told me. Boston Julie had filled me in on this as well—they really are up to date on each other’s lives.
Julie Beck, formerly of Texas, now lives in Livermore, California, as of a couple months ago. She was previously an accountant for a health clinic, but moved for her wife’s job and hasn’t started job-hunting in her new home yet. Boston Julie Beck was her first Julie Beck Facebook friend, and she says she communicates regularly with both her and North Carolina Julie Beck, though she now has 12 total Julie Beck Facebook friends. She tried to meet up with North Carolina Julie when the latter was visiting Texas last fall, but they missed each other. North Carolina Julie also had a near-miss trying to meet up with another Julie Beck friend in Michigan.
“One thought I’ve had in the past which I think would be pretty cool—and maybe you can make it happen with the story that you’re doing—I think it’d be fun to have a Julie Beck reunion for all of us to meet in person,” Livermore Julie said.
“We should wear name tags,” I said.
Online, names are more significant than they are when they’re worn by a person you can see. The internet has created “a whole class of name-only interactions,” Wattenberg says, emails and Google searches being prime examples. Even on social media, where there are pictures, much of a person’s existence is textual.
It makes sense that in this environment, parents would be motivated to give their kids more unique names. But in order to really precisely identify people on the internet, we’d have to move beyond names as they’re currently conceived, Donath says.
“We have face recognition coming, but the problem with faces is you can’t talk about them,” she says. “The internet will be increasingly able to recognize them, but they’re not very good for conversation.” You can’t refer to someone’s face verbally, or in writing. “But we really don’t want to move to numbers. That’s a very anti-utopian feeling.”
Donath says she could see a future world where “an email is something that’s yours at birth, and in perpetuity,” as a way of assigning people a permanent online identity. “But we’re not there yet.”
But Wattenberg thinks people focus too much on creating a unique identity through names. “A name is a social signifier more than anything, and we might be making a mistake in treating it like a username that has to be unique in a network,” she says. “Day to day, having a name that is perceived as attractive and intelligent and strong is so much more important than having a name that nobody else on the internet has.”
“You have a very friendly name,” Wattenberg says. “Julie is a full name, but it has a form like a nickname—short with the -ie ending is a very friendly and approachable sound. If you look on dating sites, for instance, women with names like that are more likely to be approached because you sound like you’d be nice!” I’m not sure this has worked out for me, I say.
Wattenberg goes on: “I once did an analysis of the pen names that romance authors choose for their fake author names. The heroines might have crazy romantic names, but the men and women who are writing the books uniformly choose names that are considered really normal. It’s always a short, Anglo surname, and a common, familiar, friendly first name. So your name could actually fit; it fits the approach of the friendly everywoman.”
Once she mentioned it, I had to see if there was a romance writer named Julie Beck. And there is—well, sort of. At birth, her name was Julia Beck, but she goes by Julie (another one of those). But her married name is Kenner, and over the years she’s published novels under the various aliases of Julie Kenner, J. K. Beck, and J. Kenner.
“When I sold my first book, my editor thought Julia sounded too ‘the bishop’s wife,’” Kenner told me. “She asked, ‘How do you feel about Julie?’ and I said, ‘Sounds like home to me.’”
When she switched genres, from contemporary romance to darker, more paranormal stuff, her publisher suggested a new pen name, and she went with J. K. Beck, and did a few books under that name. Now she publishes as J. Kenner, and says she’s probably going to stick with it.
“I know people liked the J. K. Beck name—they thought it had a neat rhythm to it—but I don’t think it helped drive sales. Last names that are single syllables can be really cool for an author, but I like the rhythm of having the two syllables. I prefer J. Kenner and Julie Kenner.”
Plus, she says, Kenner is a less common name. “I didn’t want a pseudonym. It was going to be Beck or Kenner. The domain name thing was really the deciding factor: being able to get the domain I wanted and not wrestle for internet space with somebody else.”
Some people want to wrestle for internet space; others are happy to slink into its more obscured corners. With a lot of names, it doesn’t really matter what you want—your parents decided for you the day you were born. But Julie Beck is a name that’s juuuust common enough to leave either path open to you, with a little effort.
For the most part, the Julie Becks I spoke with whose careers require publicity were the most eager to stake out a good spot on the first page of Google. Boston Julie Beck, the artist, keeps track of her ranking, and Kenner left the name Beck behind partly to improve her searchability. DeBettencourt says she kind of likes the visibility that comes with her more unusual married name: “I like that I’m pretty confident if you were looking for me, you would find me, just by the nature of my name.” Though, she adds, “I am sad not to have my father’s name. Sometimes I’m sad not to be a Beck anymore.”
“I’m more interested in people finding me because of what I do, if it would help them, not necessarily for my name,” says Julie Beck, an integrative health practitioner based in California.
“Given what I do for a living, I am more concerned about not having a big presence on the internet,” says Julie Beck, a lawyer for the U.S. attorney’s office in Michigan. “There was a period of time when I worked in the drug unit in the criminal division. I didn’t want people I was investigating or had charged to find me or to see that I had a family. So for a while I was pretty careful about looking or checking up on myself to see if it was easy to find where I lived, or that sort of thing.”
Another Julie Beck, who also used to practice law in Michigan (and has the same middle initial—A—as the other lawyer), feels similarly. She now lives in Wisconsin and no longer practices law. She works for a power company drafting easement documents.
“I would rather not be found,” she says, referring to the “15 minutes of fame” she had when she was a public defender in Sault Ste. Marie. She was fired from that job in 2011—she says because she brought up that her office was understaffed, with attorneys handling more cases than state and federal guidelines permitted—and there were several articles written about it.
“I lived in a very small community, and I was very identifiable, and I did not like living in the fishbowl,” she says. Now “it’s not that easy to find me.” (Indeed, it wasn’t: I got her contact information from Julie Beck of the U.S. attorney’s office.)
“Bless Julie A. Beck the lawyer in Detroit,” Wisconsin Julie says, “because she makes it that much harder. A lot of times looking for me, actually you find her, and that’s a bonus as far as I’m concerned.”
Another Julie Beck—a nursing professor at Wilson College in Pennsylvania—wants to be findable, but not too easily. “I kind of like being on the second page,” she says, where I told her I found her. “I think if people really wanted to find me, having to look past page one is an okay thing with me.”
There are several weird coincidences to be found among the lives of the Julie Becks. Many of us, for example, work in health-adjacent professions. There’s Julie Beck the nursing professor, Julie Beck who works in integrative health in California, and Julie Beck formerly of Texas who worked in accounting for a health clinic. Julia DeBettencourt, also, is the director of a program that does arts education for kids in hospitals, and I write mostly about health and psychology.
There are also the two Julie A. Becks who worked as lawyers in Michigan at the same time—they often got each other’s mail. One of those Julie A. Becks is now the chief of the civil division at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the district of Michigan that I’m from—and used to teach English at the high school I graduated from, years before I went there. (She’s also a Mormon, and will often tell people, “Oh, she’s the good Julie Beck, I’m the bad one,” if they confuse her with the one who ran the Relief Society.)
North Carolina Julie Beck said she lived in the same dorm as another Julie Beck when she was in college at Bowling Green State University, and their mail always got mixed up—an analog version of my college email mixups with Julia DeBettencourt née Beck. Pennsylvania Julie Beck, whose maiden name was Burkhart, has a similar story. When she was in college at Bloomsburg University, she got a phone call from a guy, “and he was telling me about this wonderful night we shared in New York City, and I had no idea who this man was. And he said, ‘Your name is Julie Burkhart, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, but I really don’t know you.’ There were two Julie Burkharts that went to Bloomsburg, and they oftentimes got our files confused and such.”
And both DeBettencourt and North Carolina Julie Beck mentioned to me unprompted that throughout their lives, they’d been known as their full name—most people called them “Julie Beck,” two words. The same is true for me.
It’s probably true that you could take any random group of people and expect to find some coincidences among them. But I still found it remarkable that we had these things in common, despite how spread out we are, both geographically and in age. We are all white American women, so there’s a commonality of experience there. But aside from that, it’s only a string of letters that ties us together—I shouldn’t be any more likely to connect with another Julie Beck than I am with any other person I encounter.
Except I do. Not all the Julies I reached out to got back to me, but the ones who did were open and kind and offered their trust to me, a stranger, who just happened to share their name.
“I typically don’t do that,” says Julie Beck, chief of the U.S. attorney’s civil division in the eastern district of Michigan. “I would be a person that if a reporter called me about a case, I’d point him or her to our public-information officer, because I prefer not to have a big presence, or to be speaking out a lot about what I’m doing in my cases or otherwise.”
“When those other Julie Becks asked to be my Facebook friend, I didn’t bat an eye about it,” says North Carolina Julie. “Of course I’m not going to turn down my namesake! If your name is Julie Beck, I know you’re awesome, so I’m going to let you be my Facebook friend. I feel like we probably have more in common than we really realize.”
Wattenberg, the name expert, agrees. “There really is something important that you share,” she said, “because your name forms this little pocket of identity around you. That’s a subtle influence, but [one] that you’ve had all your life. That’s something that you share with all of the other Julie Becks.”
“Identity is not just your actions and how you put yourself out to the world, but you’re kind of given an identity right off the bat,” says Boston Julie Beck.
My name isn’t who I am. But at the same time, it is. A name is a necessary shorthand for referring to a person in all their complexity. When you speak a name, it’s infused with the qualities of the person you’re referring to, but it carries its own connotations, even if you don’t know the person. Just as you flavor your name, your name flavors you.
“The internet has this weird way to separate and disconnect, and at the same time bring together,” Boston Julie Beck says. It can reduce us down to our names, it can create confusion, but as it squeezes all the Julie Becks through a funnel, it also creates a new and unique tie. Our namesakes are ever in our periphery.
Really, though. The night before this story was scheduled to publish, I received an email from “X-Factors A Cappella”—an a cappella group at Northwestern. They noticed I hadn’t RSVP’d to the 16th X-Factors alumni reunion. Except, of course, I never did a cappella at school. I confirmed with Julia DeBettencourt—they were looking for her. At my work email.
“The world has just become so much smaller, but yet so much bigger at the same time,” Pennsylvania Julie Beck says.
Without the internet, my world wouldn’t overlap with the worlds of the other Julie Becks. Now that it does, it makes me feel insignificant in a looking-at-the-stars sort of way. But it also feels kind of cozy.