User names are broken. Here is one way to fix it:
This has probably happened to you: You hear about some cool new app or game or service, rush to sign up, and discover that another person has already snagged the username you wanted. It’s a bummer and a bad first impression for a new service.
The username just wasn’t built to withstand what the Internet has become. It’s a vestige of an earlier era, when a large service had thousands of users. Today, despite the billions of people online, we’re still designing for the sparse old days.
“In the late ’90s, I would have thought MetaFilter might have like 10,000 users max,” says Matt Haughey, creator of the popular online community. Haughey was also an early designer for Blogger, one of the first democratized online publishing platforms. “For Blogger, I thought, this is pretty amazing, and wouldn’t it be great if millions of people used it? I thought, someday we might reach 5 million or so.”
Those kinds of numbers, ambitious at the time, seem like nothing now. Blogger, which was acquired by Google, currently hosts tens of millions of blogs; MetaFilter has upward of 60,000 accounts. But while we’ve built these systems to scale for machines, we’ve generally done a poor job of scaling them for humans. We haven’t really gotten our heads around what having much of the planet online means, and nothing reflects this better than the username quandary.
When online communities were just starting out, our digital watering holes relied on unique usernames—and not only for person-to-person interaction. The servers used them to ID people logging on. This became the established practice, and it wasn’t a problem in those early days, when it could take months or even years for the good names to get snapped up. Now that can happen in a day. Take the selfie-sharing service Shots of Me. It is … precious. But because Justin Bieber backs the company, his horde of Beliebers jumped on it almost instantly; within hours of the launch, I couldn’t get the username I wanted.
That sucks. One of the best things about the online world is how it lets us be whoever we want to be. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice that just because someone else got there first.
Facebook is handling this problem pretty well—an infinite number of John Smiths can use the service with no confusion. On Twitter, conversely, demand for its supply of usernames is so high that people routinely buy, sell, and even steal valuable handles—company names, first names, celebrity names, and so on.
The solution—and the key to Facebook’s success—is surprisingly simple: Identity online should take a cue from the physical world. You are more than your name; your face, your birthday, your location, and the company you keep all help others figure out who you are. “Oh, you’re Mat’s friend Joe from New York? That’s right, I remember you.” We can use all those same cues digitally, as Facebook does.
Yes, our data has to attach to unique identifiers to live on a server, but only the machines need to see those. They’re just like the Social Security numbers we use in meatspace to differentiate people with the same name.
Ultimately we’re all just numbers to computers anyway. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but the best way to be whoever you want to be is to be nothing more than a number to everyone but your friends. That means there can always be more than one Mat Honan—which, trust me, is an awesome idea.