Techmeme is buzzing with the news that Facebook is finally going to provide custom usernames — and hence web addresses — for its 200 million users. The land grab begins in just over three days at facebook.com/username/.
If Dustin Moskovitz were dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave.
For those of you who don’t know who Dustin Moskovitz is, he’s one of those infrequently mentioned co-founders of Facebook that prevented Facebook from offering usernames or friendly web addresses (so-called “vanity URLs” in the industry) from the beginning. It was his insistence that people should go by their real names on Facebook — and should thus perform under their true identities — that I posit has accounted for much of Facebook’s success with non-digital natives. Of course, competition makes institutions do crazy things, and I think that includes getting into the domain-slash-namespace game.
Arguing that Facebook shouldn’t get into the vanity URL business, I still think that they had it right the first time around. Digital identity should change to adapt to humans; not force humans to refer to each other in more computer-friendly ways. But the allure is simply too great. I also can’t say that I blame them, even though I think it’s a distraction along the way towards more widespread real identity (and thereby reputability) online.
Let’s stop to consider what’s going on here.
As we migrate from the desktop to the web, the way that we want to be perceived by our friends will determine where we also spend most of our time “performing” or constructing our identity (through what we “do” — i.e. activity streams). The easier web services like Facebook make it for us to pass around some kind of universal identifier that points to our account, the more likely we’ll actually hand out that identifier. The author’s byline on that Facebook post makes my point for me:
Blaise, a designer at Facebook, is letterpressing his new business cards.
This is not unrelated to Google’s recent business card promotion where, after you set up your own Google Profile, you could compete to get a set of free business cards printed with your name on them, like so:
It’s remarkable how cheap we’ll sell out our identity these days.
Curiously, in 2005, after their surprise acquisition of geolocation service Dodgeball (now Foursquare), I wrote that “Google had acquired my life“, referring to all the identity information Google now had about me.
Now that these companies know so much about me, the race is now on to be me online. Check it out:
All these guys want to own me (and you, for that matter). And, they all want to be my communications hub (FriendFeed now offers email, by the way, and I imagine Facebook will get in that game eventually as well, since DiPersia wrote, “We expect to offer even more ways to use your Facebook user name in the future”).
In any case, this is good news for me, if this indirectly means that Facebook is going to become an OpenID provider (after becoming an OpenID relying party). It would make sense that if you’re going to sign in to a remote service that supports OpenID but not Facebook Connect, then you’d want to use something a little more attractive (and shorter) than www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Messina/502411873.
Whatever, I can get over Facebook offering custom usernames (maybe because I already have mine). The bigger thing that’s missing from the echo chamber treatment of this subject is what Brian Oberkirch wrote about after SXSW this year, talking about maintaining the authority over your own identity online:
You shall know us by our @identities?
At one of the SXSW panels a few weeks ago, I saw something that caught my eye. I think Micah may have started it, but one by one all the panelists took their name placards, wrote their Twitter handles on the back, then flipped them around so you were looking a row of people announcing themselves by @handles. (You see what I did there? Old skool blogging protokol would have me link to his canonical url, but, hey, they asked for the @’ing.)
Then this past week at Web2Expo, much the same thing. Slides that touted the speaker’s twitter handle as primary identity.
Think of the power of this for Twitter. You don’t need to name the animals. You only need to be the language in which animals speak themselves. For Unlimited Power (mmmwhahahahhaha)
It’s ridonk. Own your namespace. Get a domain, pivot from there. If your domain is your name, so much the better. Please don’t come crying to me when the Goog owns your ‘@’ and that whole namespace gets deprecated. (Hey, extra credit: after everyone in the world is following your Twitter updates, will your food taste that much better?)
So, this is happening, and companies are racing to achieve namespace dominance over your online profile. This is what Tim O’Reilly warned about in his definition of Web 2.0. He said that one of the new kinds of lock-in in the era of [cloud computing] will be owning a namespace. There you have it — who are you going to trust to own yours?