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12|22|2008 11:25 am EDT

Social Media User Names Becoming More Like Domain Names

by Adam Strong in Categories: Miscellaneous

In the spring of 2007, Steve Poland wrote the article “Twitter Usernames Are Like Domains in 1995″. As the popularity of the microblogging service grows, more and more evidence of the similarities seem to be recognizable.  Poland points out

Twitter usernames are one-of-a-kind — and I kind of feel like this is 1995 and someone just told me, “Hey, you know, domains are one-of-a-kind — they’re going to worth money someday; people will be selling them to each other. In particular, the generic domains are going to be worth a lot.”

Twitter has been around since the spring of 2006 and has been growing in popularity.  It didn’t take long for the increase in popularity to create the  bi-product of value associated with user names.   However, as the demand for a unique identifier (user name) that is simple or targeted increases, so do the problems and complications.   Generic user names have been quickly reserved, but many trademarked terms have also been reserved.  Sound familiar ?

This is no new phenomena.  Other services have seen the best user names reserved immediately. Think about Blogger, Gmail, Hotmail or any number of other services that have free accounts. Even as far back as the early AOL-days, prime user names were claimed quickly. The difference now is that these social media sites are larger and much more public facing and are becoming a communication tool.  As these communication tools become more important the allocation of the unique identifiers (user names), also becomes more important.

Poland writes a more recent experience with his Twitter user name that shows a perfect example of  how similar social media user names can be to domain names. His latest post reveals that Twitter took back his user name  presumably handed it over to the “rightful owner”.  Sound familiar ?   Poland signed up on Twitter as @celtics and presumably Twitter has now handed it over to the Boston Celtics basketball team.   He writes an open letter to Twitter founder Evan Williams pointing out the obvious:  Twitter needs a better policy on handling user name issues.

“How does that make anyone feel comfortable investing in services/business on top of your platform, when it could all disappear at any moment for them?”

He also suggests in a follow up post that maybe it’s time for Twitter to create “premium” accounts where user names are reserved in a similar fashion to domain names.

This is the perfect opportunity for Twitter to start with Premium accounts. Charging whatever the price may be — $3/mo or $3/yr for example. The user then locks in their Twitter username and similar rules that govern domains are applied. First come, first served — and of course an arbitrator if there’s a trademark conflict.

Twitter’s current policy states “We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.”   That policy seems pretty open-ended.

Social media sites and emerging communication models should consider a much more specific policy on user names and other unique identifiers early on.  It’s been proven, if we look to the domain name comparison,  that unique identifiers become more and more valuable as the service gains popularity.  As internet penetration increased, great domain names became more and more valuable.  It’s pretty simple.  Social media sites need to draft carefully thought out terms of service statements which give users clear guidelines. Social Media Blog writes “My hope is that social media publishers realize that the space is maturing, and starting to become a more legitimate and important form of identity.”

Is it too late for Twitter to implement this with many popular user names already in use?  If you look at the history of the domain names space, a similar problem occured.  The creation of the UDRP policy was reactive as well.  As problems with cybersquatting and other disputes over name rights became more prevalent,  a policy for handling these disputes was needed.

If user names are like domains and the history of domain names is an indicator of the future, I imagine Poland’s article will be one of many more yet to come.  As other user names are “taken back” and given to their “rightful owners” this issue will be more prevalent.  The time for Twitter and others to come up with a solid policy on user names is now.

Just like domain name owners, social media users don’t want the hassle and uncertainty of having to wonder whether their name will be taken away.  Surely, the social media companies don’t want to be in the middle of the disputes either.  Refering to the history of domain names as an example, it would be a safe wager that lawsuits and arbitration over user names is right around the corner.  It would be best for these social media companies to get ahead of the issue as soon as possible and make the user names even more like domain names by providing some level of security and stability to their users.

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Kellie Peterson

December 23, 2008 @ 2:13 am EDT

Adam – this is a great article.

I signed up for Twitter not long after it launched and got “kellie”. Didn’t really do anything with it for some time. Several months ago Twitter contacted me about getting my username:

“I noticed you haven’t used your Twitter account in about 4 months. It looks like you may not be using the account. We usually don’t remove accounts unless they are inactive for 9 months, however, since we just hired someone here at Twitter named Kellie, I thought I’d ask if you’d be willing to give up the user name.”

Which, you know, is kind of BS.

Yeah, I hadn’t posted but that doesn’t mean I hadn’t logged in and followed other people. And you know there are usernames which have been “inactive” for much longer than nine months. I was a bit peeved, even felt a bit like I’d better use it or lose it. They offered to “try” to get me a generic premium in exchange for it, but still. The whole thing was weird.

Adam Strong

December 23, 2008 @ 10:53 am EDT

Interesting story Kellie. Looks like you got to keep it. I wonder how many other stories there are like this. Thanks for sharing.


December 23, 2008 @ 1:37 pm EDT

I had the same idea about ebay when it first started getting popular around ’97. I spent a long time to come up with the best username I could, figuring I could sell the name someday. Sadly the best I could come up with at the time was “ESalesPerson”. I think my feedback score is like 50 or so now. Anyone want to buy it?

I got this idea after hearing about people selling domain names for big money back in the day. Sadly I didn’t buy any domain names then, but I remember searching and seeing many available domain names, most specifically I remember going to Network Solutions site late at night in my dorm room, and I randomly searched for It was available. I thought to myself, what the heck am I going to do with and passed it up. Looks like Michael Castello picked it up shortly after. Now today I’d pay much more than the $35 per year it would have cost then for and I’m still not sure exactly what I’d do with it.

December 24, 2008 @ 5:32 am EDT

The best thing about Twitter is that it is free… Everybody should grab their own ID’s / names :)



December 25, 2008 @ 9:36 pm EDT

Social Media User Names Becoming More Like Domain ……

Bookmarked your post over at Blog!…

Angela Siefer

December 29, 2008 @ 3:21 pm EDT

Superb article. You have hit an issue that few are discussing or recognizing. Thanks for the solid analysis. I’ll tweet it asap :-)


Adam Strong

December 29, 2008 @ 4:10 pm EDT

thanks @angelasiefer ;)

clayton narcis

December 30, 2008 @ 12:09 am EDT

Brand owners is gonna have a hell lot of more headache with trademark protection when the momentum builds up. With more and more social media sites booming up, brand owners will be fighting on a different dimension.

Good luck, your gonna need it.

I’m wondering whether trademark protection company are already offering such extensive services. Username trademark protection on social media sites. that would be interesting.

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