The End of the Username Landgrab

We are running out of Usernames! (And URLs! And band names, while we’re at it!) It’s true. Don’t you wish you could just have an email address of [firstname]@gmail.com? Interestingly enough you might have that option on Yahoo! right now because they just launched wishlist.yahoo.com, a place where you can create a wishlist of Yahoo! usernames. If they determine that those names are being squatted by dormant accounts, they will clear the dormant account and give you your sweet sweet clean beautiful username that doesn’t have your birth year or other random numbers appended to the end. This is totally necessary and an innovative move by Yahoo! to refresh the rolls of a user database that is practically ancient by web standards. But why is this even necessary?

What is Peak Username?

You may have heard of Peak Oil, or the concept of a point in time when the “maximum rate of [oil] extraction is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline” (Wikipedia). Or more simply, the tipping point toward feeling the pressure of running out of oil as less and less is extracted.

Hubbert_peak_oil_plot.svg-1

The debate is still ongoing about whether we’re actually arriving at peak oil now or not, but I would argue that we’ve passed over the peak point for many digital commodities, including URLs and usernames, where the CPUE (cost per unit effort) to think of a good or clever and available option is harder than ever before. Sure – there are still good or clever options out there, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a weird first name, last name, or if you’re truly lucky, both! (I’m looking at you Dweezil Zappa.) But most of us aren’t that lucky. Our names are taken, our obvious clever options are taken, and at this point even the ones that aren’t clever are taken. This is the real reason that so many startup companies are misspellings of real words or have vowels taken out of their names to make them look cute. It has never been about being cute – it all comes down to flickr.com being available when flicker.com was not. And it’s only getting worse!

How Facebook Sidestepped the UUID Problem

Facebook has a lot to teach us here as they effectively sidestepped this issue and created a roadmap that now Google+ is taking advantage of as well. You don’t effectively have a username on Facebook. You have a screen name, but this is not your Unique User Identification (UUID). By splitting the UUID from the username Facebook enabled an infinite number of Joe Smiths or Brad Cohens or Kate Johnsons, or whatever. Your friends don’t address you by your name directly – as with an email address – rather they select you by your screen name, but this is matched to a UUID on the back end of the system, and that is the address where you are sending your message.

Facebook’s vanity URLs are the one place where users were allowed to enter into a land grab of sorts, but the true value of these URLs is specious. Obviously from a branding perspective you want it, but they aren’t the core method for attracting or guiding users to your Facebook page, so in the end the vast majority of activity on Facebook is accomplished without dealing with a system that relies on unique usernames, and all the issues that accompany it.

It’s brilliant, but also necessary as we move into a future where everyone is online. The competition for names is getting intense. Check it out…

A Closer Look at Name Availability

Website and username availability are in rough shape. It’s like trying to pick a band name. I thought I had avoided this issue entirely by settling on a non-sensical username that is not actually a real world: supnah. I’ve used this ever since graduating from undergrad in 1999, and I’ve never had problems claiming it, even when occasionally coming to services late. Until Pinterest that is. I was still relatively early to Pinterest, but the sheer number of people grabbing for usernames has increased so much that I now have to deal with girls and ladies from India or of Indian heritage that occasional spell their name “Supnah.” Right after this I started receiving Instagram messages from a group of young girls because their friend had chosed the username “supnah_” and they kept forgetting to include the underscore. And while their selfies are totally awesome, and while I wish the ultimate of yolo swagness upon them all, it shows that even usernames that were once bizarre and uncommon are now under assault. (By fashion forward tweens, no less!)

As another example, check out this mashup of three domain availability searches done using the site domai.nr for increasingly specific, and therefore less desireable URL names. Notice that even the fairly terrible URL “randomwebsitename” has the .com taken.

Blog-PeakUsername-RandomWebsiteAvailability

We’ve Been Doing it for Years

This isn’t the beginning of using proxy for storing contact information – this isn’t new in practice, only in application. For example, the reason so many people can’t remember the phone numbers of all of their friends and acquaintances anymore is very much related. It used to be that a person had a name, a phone number, and an address. The end. But now there are email addresses, Twitter handles, Facebook profiles, LinkedIn profiles, home number, office number, mobile number, Google Voice number, Skype handle, website, Tumblr, blog, ad infinitum. We very quickly reached a point where it was no longer viable to try to remember everyone’s discrete contact points, and instead use platforms as proxies for all of them. One example is just knowing who you can get to through LinkedIn (or another network) as a sort of Transactive Memory. Further along that spectrum is the use of a cloud or smartphone contacts system. Personally, I put all contact points into my Gmail contacts which sync automatically to my phone, and then I know the one place I can go to reach any of my contacts on any of their platforms.

The Future of User Identification

This is one reason that social login for websites is so compelling. It’s not just about avoiding the engineering and dev costs of creating and maintaining your own registration and user management system. It’s also about learning from Facebook, and sidestepping the issue of the username landgrab for your user base. Let other platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) deal with creation and storage of user IDs, let someone else deal with the social login, registration, and user data infrastructure (Janrain), and then let the site owners and operators spend time on what’s most important: making their sites better, acquiring users, getting users engaged, and leveraging the data in creative and effective ways to support user experience and business goals.