Jen Krueger: What’s In A (User)Name?
Like most people, my Twitter username isn’t my actual name. I have no compunction about identifying myself by my real name on Twitter, and would’ve taken @jenkrueger if it had been available when I signed up. But even as far back as my first tweet in August of 2008, scoring my real name as a handle wasn’t possible.
Last week, an article entitled How I lost my $50,000 Twitter username caught my eye because the title made me wonder how a Twitter handle could possibly be worth so much, and what exactly constitutes losing it. Don’t get me wrong about the first bit: I’m no stranger to the idea that certain domain names and usernames can have a monetary value beyond what amount, if any, the customer pays the service provider to register the account. Businesses that care about their brand (read: almost all businesses) want to have control over the web address and social media profiles bearing their name, both for the obvious utility it provides their company, and perhaps even more importantly, to prevent anyone else from having that control. In the hands of someone other than Coca-Cola, the domain cocacola.com is dangerous; the site could speak well of a Coke competitor, poorly of Coke, or of unrelated topics that don’t necessarily harm Coke’s brand yet dilute it by not helping it, either.
So a $50,000 Twitter username didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. It just seemed out of the realm of possibility today. Years ago, I’d heard of businesses offering upwards of $100,000 a pop to the enterprising early registrants of domains bearing the names of major companies. But the market for these transactions seemed to dry up fairly quickly as most businesses bought up their names. And since the value of a company owning its own name online became evident before social media became the behemoth chunk of the internet it is today, many businesses have been savvy enough to defensively grab usernames on burgeoning social networks over the past decade.
Every once in a while though, I still come across a story about someone that has managed to lay claim to a domain or username coveted by a company. But now these stories rarely end with a big payday. In 2010, Tumblr came under fire for turning over pitchfork.tumblr.com to Pitchfork magazine despite the fact that an individual had a personal blog at that address. Tumblr claimed the account had been dormant and the user hadn’t responded to an email inquiry about it. The user disputed these claims, but regardless of whether or not the account was wrongly released, there doesn’t seem to be any dispute over the fact that the incident began with Tumblr receiving a request for the URL directly from the magazine. It seems this bypassing of the account owner is the standard corporate play in these situations now, and whether or not a company can wrench a desired domain or username from someone else’s grasp is in the hands of the host of the desired site or service.
All these factors combined, then, made me assume the lost username in question was a company moniker acquired by corporate coercion after the account owner turned down a (rare by today’s standards) $50,000 offer for the handle. Then I read the article and was very surprised at how wrong both of my assumptions were. The lost username is @N, and its loss had nothing to do with a company. It was, for all intents and purposes, stolen by a hacker.
At first, I couldn’t reconcile this information about the target or the thief, but a few moments of mulling on social media made it click for me. Easy to remember and taking up the smallest possible amount of character real estate in tweets directed at them, short usernames are a virtual commodity on Twitter. Since there are only 26 possibilities for single character usernames, those are the most unique possible handles on the service. The incredibly vast internet user base today has combined with the exponentially expanding importance of online identity for individuals and companies alike to make uniqueness nearly priceless. When I look at it this way, I’m not at all surprised a hacker would want to seize one of the rarest usernames out there. Now I’m just surprised it isn’t happening more often.
Though I couldn’t get my real name as a Twitter handle, I see now that it must’ve been released and snagged by someone else shortly after I’d joined, as the inaugural tweets on my account and @jenkrueger’s are only 10 days apart. And since @jenkrueger’s only activity is that inaugural tweet in 2008 and a reply to another user six days later, I suppose I could email Twitter support to inquire about getting the username released to me. I could, but I won’t. After all, then I’d have to give up the Twitter name I’ve been using for the last few years, and I’d be seriously bummed out if someone else swooped in on it.
- Jen Krueger: Down Another Rabbit Hole (mix.malibulist.com)