Hello, I’m Mr. Null. My Name Makes Me Invisible to Computers
Pretty much every name offers some possibility for being turned into a schoolyard taunt. But even though I’m an adult who left the schoolyard decades ago, my name still inspires giggles among the technologically minded. My last name is “Null,” and it comes preloaded with entertainment value. If you want to be cheeky, you will probably start with “Null and void.” If you’re a WIRED reader, you might move on to “Null set.” Down-the-rabbit-hole geeks prefer the classic “dev/null.”
As a technology journalist, being a Null has served me rather well. (John Dvorak, you know what I’m talking about!) The geek connotations provide a bit of instant nerd cred—to the point where more than one person has accused me of using a nom de plume to make me seem like a bigger nerd than I am.
But there’s a dark side to being a Null, and you coders out there are way ahead of me on this. For those of you unwise in the ways of programming, the problem is that “null” is one of those famously “reserved” text strings in many programming languages. Making matters worse is that software programs frequently use “null” specifically to ensure that a data field is not empty, so it’s often rejected as input in a web form.
In other words: if lastname = null then… well, then try again with a lastname that isn’t “null.”
But what if lastname isn’t “null” but is “Null” instead? Essentially this is another spin on the Y2K problem, and what happens next will depend a lot on the quality of programming underlying the website or app that’s doing the work. Most will accept “Null” without complaint. Some will loop back to the input screen and tell the user to try again, that the last name field can’t be blank (But it’s not blank! That’s just my name!) Some will tell the user that “null” is a reserved term that can’t be used. And some will just crash. The unique challenges inherent with the Null Dilemma can be a surprisingly difficult problem to solve. It turns out it’s also surprisingly common, and it seems the larger the company is behind the application or the website, the more trouble it will have with my name.
When Null Won’t Work, Nothing Will
This has all gotten to the point where I’ve developed a number of workarounds for times when this happens. Turning my last name into a combination of my middle name and last name, or middle initial and last name, sometimes works, but only if the website doesn’t choke on multi-word last names. My usual trick is to simply add a period to my name: “Null.” This not only gets around many “null” error blocks, it also adds a sense of finality to my birthright.
Sometimes, my name leads to harmless hilarity, particularly when mailing lists don’t know what to do with the word. American Express is probably the biggest perpetrator, regularly sending junk mail to my house addressed to my business—but dropping the “Null” from the name. The company called “Media LLC” is often helmed by a mysterious gentleman who is addressed only as “Mr.”
There are some times when a workaround just isn’t possible. I’ve been embroiled in a cordial email battle with Bank of America, literally for years, over my email address, which is simply [email protected] Using null as a mailbox name simply does not work at B of A. The system will not accept it, period. For many months I had a workaround: I created an alias—using info instead of null—and just forwarded the email sent to that alias to my regular account.
This worked for a long time, until abruptly my email stopped arriving (which resulted in a missed credit card payment). It took some digging but I discovered that in the course of upgrading its system, B of A’s system actually got worse, not better, and it stopped being able to handle the string “null” as part of my domain name, too. No email address at nullmedia.com would work any more. Ultimately I had to switch my email address altogether to a Gmail account—though oddly that has “null” in the mailbox name too, just not at the beginning.
Figuring all of this out is a time-consuming pain that only ever amounts to palliative care for the problem, not a permanent solution. Level one tech support at Bank of America may be sympathetic, but they are not going to be in a position to get the bank’s back-end software recoded, no matter how bad the programming is.
Responding to a request for comment for this article, a media relations representative for Bank of America expressed concern and assured me the appropriate IT employees would be informed of the issue.