Facebook usernames and the battle over your digital identity

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/.

Facebook | 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:

Day 6: Google Me by Joshua Hollingsworth

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?

23 thoughts on “Facebook usernames and the battle over your digital identity”

  1. I don’t know if I buy this, Chris. Trusting the bank with my money doesn’t mean they now own that money. The ultimate authority over identity lies in the ability to decide where that identity resides.

    Good for you that you already got your URL, but it’ll suck for somebody else. Maybe that guy will want to use a different namespace now instead of being facebook.com/chrismessina2.

    1. …except that we don’t have real data portability yet, let alone true interoperable service choices. When I can substitute uploading photos to Flickr on Facebook.com, then we’ll be making progress!

      And, exporting my data from Facebook today — with all the metadata intact — is also not possible. So, if I look at Facebook as being a bank for my “data capital“, I’d say I’m pretty locked into their identity vault!

  2. Lack of data portability doesn’t constitute lock-in, which is where I think we’re disagreeing. It just constitutes a pain in the ass. I can still choose to move my identity elsewhere, even if moving all my data is hard to impossible. I put @madrox on my badge at cons. Won’t keep me from putting the next hip service on it later. Vanity URL is vanity.

  3. i have written before about the challenge of there being a steve ivy aka redmonk in the network (indeed he is a FOAF – you being the connector node). Never mind vanity url, the latest impact of steve owning redmonk on twitter is that no matter whether google ranks redmonk.com before redmonk.net – twitter is always going to be highly ranked. as businesses and people brands merge the namespace issue is going to become more highly charged. I like Steve, he seems a great guy. But i continue to wish he would standardise on “monkinetic”. the name space is not just about personal id, and “vanity”, its very much a business concern.

  4. I think it is a mistake to introduce Vanity URLs at this point. Which of the dozen doug cornelius on Facebook will grab it? How angry will the others be?

    I think Facebook is missing a monetization opportunity. They should offer the vanity urls up for auction instead of race to the website at midnight.

    I also want to clarify something in your post. There is a difference between the vanity URL, username and the digital identity.

  5. This is still ultimately a hugely flawed process from the perspective of name change and marriage. The process is “permanent” and therefore – from the /username/ site on facebook – the suggestions seem to imply a suggestion related to firstnamelastname – what happens when a woman (or a man) changes their name for marriage ?

    Umm …. they effectively cannot change their URL … wtf?

  6. I think talking about owning identity gives these services too much credit.

    The naming problem seems like DNS lite. How do we provide a simple human readable naming convention while avoiding collisions?

    A pay to own plan seems the most efficient at ensuring forgotten accounts turn over, but I’d hate to be a “john smith” and looking to get my domain.

    One other thought is that my name is contextually related to my social group. I’m Nick Gonzalez to my friends and don’t have any collisions. Facebook could implement this by ensuring you’re routed to the right “/nickgonzalez” when they are logged into FB. Public facing profiles can stay numbers or route the user to a table of possible “nickgonzalez”‘s.

  7. This whole thing is way overblown.

    Facebook is but fashion. Soon, another shiny site will come along and everyone will start congregating there, vanity URLs be-damned! In fact, it will be the opportunity to finally west away /chrismessina or /doug.cornelius that will attract the early adopters to the new platform.

    Data portability is a non-issue, at least for me, because I only post stuff to Facebook that I don’t really care about (change of ToS, anyone?) and keep local copies of it all. It’s like playing the stock market; only invest money you are prepared to lose.

    By your thinking, Chris, would we be better off with wordpress.com?id=983239853 than with myblog.wordpress.com?

    1. I don’t think it’s overblown. But I think it will take a long for people to realize the importance of what’s going on. But that’s fine.

      It’s one thing for Facebook to be fashion, like Twitter, or MySpace before. Social networks are faddish. That’s how it goes. The problem is that now you can use these accounts on OTHER websites, thereby forcing you to become increasingly wedded to a single provider, regardless of how fashionable they are.

      It’s not about saving local copies of your data when you log in to websites using your Facebook account. And, how much of the metadata created on your Facebook data do you control? Or is available to be copied to your local copies?

      In any case, it’s not about the data — it’s about identity and mediating your identity through a third-party. You already have your own domain name, so you can delegate to whichever provider you choose. You’re all set; it’s all the people just getting involved in social networks today that will use Facebook Connect to establish their reputations online who will later find themselves locked in. And that’s something that simply needs to be considered that I feel is being glossed over.

  8. Of course, one can always change their legal name in order to ensure that it is unique. My partner and I changed our names to match for other (more sentimental) reasons, and this was just a pleasant side effect. I happen to be the only Zane Selvans on earth! At least for now.

  9. Ideally Twitter, Facebook, MySpace etc. could be mapped to your domain name. They just have to create the Vanity URL as a subdomain as well, like facebook.com/whoever –> whoever.facebook.com and allow users to enter a custom domain. I really hope Google will start doing this soon with their profiles. They’ve already changed the URL from google.com/profiles/username to profiles.google.com/username. So is the next logical step Google Profiles for your domain?

    It would also help a lot if domain registrars would be more focussed on this topic. Except Chi.mp and freeyourid.com (which doesn’t accept new registrations anymore) there’s not much happening in our industry. Seems like we have to push it forward with http://iwantmyname.com in the future :)

  10. Thank you. I really enjoyed this post.

    I completely agree with what Brian Oberkirch wrote-what is important today, more than likely won’t be important tomorrow.

    It is important to realize that our digital profiles are the reflection of our personality; once the digital profiles become our actual personality, we have lost all touch with {our} humanity.

  11. Thanks for the info!

    I got my name as the username.

    You don’t need 1,000 Fans to get your own username.

    Your Facebook account must be registered before June 9 as the only criteria.


  12. Good discussion here but I think the only media specialist are concerned. My wife, my sister-in-law, and my brother does not care whether they are facebook.com/family or facebook.com/id=666866.

  13. I don’t think that vanity URLS hurt us, not claim our identities. I mean sure it sucks that someone has the same name and probably got yours. But it’s really no big deal…is it?

  14. Agree with Rolando; do most people really care? Doesn’t seem like too big of a deal to me. If it gets stupid people will just stop going anyway. FB should be careful.

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