The discussion in this train wreck of a "question" led me to think of a real question. What display names and avatars are off-limits on the Stack Exchange network?

I think I remember seeing a fake Jeff Atwood in the past on Meta, and a fake Jon Skeet on SO. If I recall correctly, the former had to change his name and the latter got banned.

Is a fake Barack Obama okay? What about Steve Jobs? James Gosling? What if a user's legal name is William Gates, but he's not "that" Bill Gates? Does the choice of avatar make a difference?

Tangentially related: Policy on display names.

  • @Shog9, Is that link is now only > 10K? I get a 404.
    – M. Tibbits
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:14
  • @MTibbits, yes, it is.
    – Pops
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:22
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    What about duplicating well-known pseudonyms? It's difficult, at a glance, to tell the comments of this user and this user apart. What if "Popular Demand" became a popularly-used display name?
    – Dori
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 3:56

4 Answers 4


Elaborating on a comment left elsewhere...

An obvious dividing line is probably something like "How likely is it that the real persons would be using the site, active in the same places, and how much perceived authority would they have if they did?"

For example, consider these two impersonators:

  • A user named Steve Jobs, who exclusively uses SO, answers mostly VB.NET questions, and occasionally makes disparaging remarks about Objective-C. Verdict: A mildly-amusing, obvious troll.

  • A user named Steve Jobs on apple.stackexchange.com, answering a variety of questions and occasionally giving authoritative-sounding answers to somewhat subjective questions. Verdict: Utterly unacceptable.

Situations like the former might warrant a reprimand if their behavior is poor, but not much else. Situations like the latter, if their contributions were high quality, might warrant manual intervention (and, perhaps optimistically, checking to see if they're actually authentic), but otherwise seem about as acceptable as impersonating Joel here on Meta would be.

Clearly it's a somewhat subjective, context-sensitive issue. The way the user presents themselves would probably figure in as well: Using a sensible-looking portrait of the real person as an avatar leans pretty heavily toward dishonesty; using an unrelated avatar or an obvious parody of the real person leans away to some degree.

I'd also say there's a much lower bar when it comes to impersonating a real person who already has an account on an SE site. This is mitigated somewhat for moderators by the diamond next to their name, but high-profile users on any site arguably have a default assumption of being likely to have linked accounts on other sites. Somebody else calling himself "Jon Skeet" on an arbitrary SE site is very questionable, even (or perhaps especially) if the real Jon Skeet isn't active on that site.

  • Cogent answer @McCannot! Note for others: I can't post a direct link, but also consider going to So:Users and searching "Smith" there are, at present, ten with just "Smith" as their username. Branching into the absurd, try searching "John Smith". There are two pages of results. Should any of these be deleted/punished/excommunicated? Probably not.
    – M. Tibbits
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:19
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    @M. Tibbits: Perhaps a more pointed example would be that, case-insensitively, there are 321 users on Stack Overflow with the display name "Will". Are any of these impersonating Will♦? Probably not. Would it be okay for any of them to use his avatar as their own? Mmmmmmaybe not.
    – McCannot
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:33
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    But my name is Jon, and I enjoy trap shooting, so Jon Skeet would be a natural screenname for me to select :)
    – jonsca
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 18:24
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    This stinks of guilty until proven innocent, and while the internet is a dangerous place and verification is needed at times, you are free to cast your own judgement, but is that really a viable policy? While I agree that intervention might sometimes be desirable (even required, rarely), in general it is impractical; who does this apply to? I'd say everyone has to be subject to the same. Regarding avatars, that depends on whether the user has the legal right to use it or not - if you get the impression someone is 'leaning towards dishonesty' then that is your own privilege. Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 19:26
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    @Mr. Disappointment: The only reason it matters at all is that someone who looks like a recognized authority on a subject but isn't could easily spread false information, intentionally or not, since others may simply take their word as gospel. If Eric Lippert says something about C# I'm pretty much going to assume it's correct on that basis alone; I'm pretty sure that user is actually him, fortunately, but given a one-off post from a recognized name it's harder to tell.
    – McCannot
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 23:20
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    Remember that we're not talking about merely display names matching, but also a gravatar that's a picture of the person being impersonated. Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 0:11
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    @McCannot: 'I'm pretty much going to assume it's correct on that basis alone' If there is one thing humans have learned is beneficial, it is to seek the counsel of many. No disrespect to Eric or anyone of authority on any subject we cover on SO, but to blindly stand on the testament of one man is a bad approach in general. Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 10:02
  • Twice now I have set up a second "Kate Gregory" account (with advance permission) in order to record a demo of how to set up an account, how to ask your first question, etc. In both cases the SO C++ community responded within minutes to say that it was a fake account. I wouldn't worry too much about existing members being impersonated. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 0:49

AFAIK there is no official policy on user names, and the only one on avatars is that they should be PG-rated (i.e., nothing offensive).

Users on SO aren't allowed to solicit other users, so if a fake Jon Skeet were trying to pull a con on another user in order to get something, that would be reason enough for action.

Same goes if they were impersonating for the purpose of trolling. Trolling isn't acceptable here, so they can be dealt with.

Impersonating another person can be considered abusive of the community, and therefore should not be allowed. But, at this point, we enter a grey area. How do we verify a user is who they claim to be IRL? Unfortunately, this would seem to be a task that simple moderators would not be able to perform. If it is pretty obvious, that's one thing. But if the user seems like they are the real person, but there is doubt by members of the community, it would require somewhat extended contact with the user to make that determination. And I don't think people like Jobs or Gates would want to waste their time convincing some mod they are who they say they are.

If a fanboi is using a famous person's name and image on their profile, and they state in their profile that they are not the person in question, then I think it should be okay. Obvioiusly, if the real person were to arrive, I think they'd probably be given their actual identity on the site (again, not something for simple mods to do). But until that point, this is the interwebtubes after all. Most of the user names in here aren't real, and expecting them to be so is so foolish as I would hope our user base wouldn't fall for.

  • 2
    I never understood why a fanboy would want to link the name of their role model to whatever content that fanboy is posting on the net. Like why would a fanboy who is using last-century's formatting in a post, want a technology pioneer they like, to be attached to that post?
    – Arjan
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:22
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    Have to disagree with the last paragraph. Not everyone will look at the profile, and if someone is posting answers using the name and image of someone seen as an expert on the relevant subject, that is potentially promoting disinformation which is actively against the whole purpose of a Q&A site. If I grab the name of a high-profile Linux kernel developer and start using that to answer Linux questions on Server Fault or unix.SE in a way that's not obviously wrong, that would not be okay at all.
    – McCannot
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:24
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    @McCannot: The problem is that, if we disallow this, we have to verify practically everyone. Or do you suggest that there is a certain Q-score below which we don't care if you're impersonating someone else? And are you volunteering to be in charge of making that determination for every user? You're looking to go spelunking down the rabbit hole with that.
    – user1228
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:31
  • There should be another course of action. If the community points out that someone is impersonating someone else, possibly someone pretty famous in a certain context then an action should be taken. If you take a look at the comments in this answer then you'll see that it is really confusing and a lot of people don't look at profiles. Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:37
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    It's not really something anyone can be in charge of, unfortunately--too dependent on relevant knowledge. No one person would recognize the name of every subject expert, and automated checks wouldn't be smart enough to help. The best that could be done would be to declare it unacceptable as a point of policy and ask users to flag any misleading impostors.
    – McCannot
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 17:38
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    The way twitter handles this for celebrity accounts is interesting. Could a community based "vote as vip" on the profile solve this issue?
    – Moog
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 9:52

I'd just like to highlight another perspective. I'm sure most of us have read Jeffs blog post on Helping The Experts Get Answers (If you didn't shame on you, do it now).

Following scenario.

Lets assume Andy Rubin (the real one) happens to have an Android question and posts it on Twitter. I read the question and post it on Stack Overflow and link him to it.

He is impressed and wants to join Stack Overflow to actively participate. He registers but wait. There is an Andy Rubin already with his picture too. It is alright since impersonating people is not dramatic.

Now try to imagine how Andy Rubin (the real one) would feel. What would he think of a community where it is alright to take other peoples identity.

Note: I'm aware that the Andy Rubin case has been dealt with and that his avatar was reset and his description was edited and I'm very pleased to see our moderators take appropriate action so quickly. I just wanted to highlight another possible problem with a too lax policy.

  • 1
    The Andy Rubin issue does not seem resolved to me: Stack Overflow, Stack Exchange. In fact, the suspension message makes this is even worse, I'd say. :-(
    – Arjan
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 17:03
  • (Okay, yesterday a moderator fixed the SO profile, and will hopefully fix the SE profile too.)
    – Arjan
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 6:29

Recent events led to a new "trend" of people using their display name and/or avatar to protest or send a message.

While this might distract other people, this is totally legit, otherwise SE staff would have intervened long ago. They didn't.

As long as the name/avatar are not offensive or violating other rules, it's legit.

As personal example, I use my own name sometimes to send messages, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, e.g. as of writing this, my name is "Shadow Keeps Social Distance" - this sends a message which is important for me, isn't offensive, and might be helpful.

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