My Name is Not a URL

By Guest Comment

This is a guest post by Chris Messina, a long time open web advocate, “project agitator” at Vidoop, and current board member at the OpenID Foundation. You can find more from Chris on his blog.


Arrington has a post that claims that Facebook is getting wise to something MySpace has known from the start – users love vanity URLs.

I don’t buy it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the omission of vanity URLs on Facebook is an intentional design decision from the beginning, and one that I’ve learned to appreciate over time.

From what I’ve gathered, it was co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s stubbornness that kept Facebook from allowing the use of pseudonymic usernames common on previous-generation social networks like AOL. Considering that Mark Zuckerberg’s plan is to build an online version of the relationships we have in real life, it only makes sense that we should, therefore, call our friends by their IRL names — not the ones left over or suggested by a computer.

But there’s actually something deeper going on here — something that I talked about at DrupalCon — because there are at least two good uses for letting people set their own vanity URLs — three if your service somehow surfaces usernames as an interface handle:

  1. Uniqueness and remembering
  2. Search engine optimization
  3. Facilitating member-to-member communication (as in the case of Twitter’s @replies)

For my own sake, I’ve lately begun decreasing the distance between my real identity and my online persona, switching from @factoryjoe to @chrismessina on Twitter. While there are plenty of folks who know me by my digital moniker, there are far more who don’t and shouldn’t need to in order to interact with me.

When considering SEO, it’s quite obvious that Google has already picked up on the correlation:


Ironically, in Dustin’s case (intentionally or not) he is not an authority for his own name on Google (despite the uniqueness of his name). Instead, semi-nefarious sites like Spock use SEO to get prominent placement for Dustin’s name (whether he likes it or not):


Finally, in cases like Twitter, IM or IRC, nicknames or handles are used explicitly to refer to other people on the system, even if (or especially if!) real identities are never revealed. While this separation can afford a number of perceived benefits, long-term it’s hard to quantify the net value of pseudonymity when it most assholes on the web seem to act out most aggressively when shrouding their real names.

By shunning vanity URLs for its members, Facebook has achieved three things:

  1. Establishes a new baseline for transparent online identity
  2. Avoids the naming collision problem by scoping relationships within a person’s [reciprocal] social graph
  3. Upgrades expectations for human interaction on social websites

That everyone on Facebook has to use their real name (and Facebook will root out and disable accounts with pseudonyms), there’s a higher degree of accountability because legitimate users are forced to reveal who they are offline. No more “funnybunny345″ or “daveman692″ creeping around and leaving harassing wall posts on your profile; you know exactly who left the comment because their name is attached to their account.

Go through the comments on TechCrunch and compare those left by Facebook users with those left by everyone else. In my brief analysis, Facebook commenters tend to take their commenting more seriously. It’s not a guarantee, but there is definitely a correlation between durable identity and higher quality participation.

Now, one might point out that, without unique usernames, you’d end up with a bunch of name collisions — and you’d be right. However, combining search-by-email with profile photos largely eliminates this problem, and since Facebook requires bidirectional friendship confirmation, it’s going to be hard to get the wrong “Mike Smith” showing up in your social graph. So instead of futzing with (and probably forgetting) what strange username your friend uses, you can just search by (concept!) their real name using Facebook’s type-ahead find. And with autocompletion, you’ll never spell it wrong (of course Gmail has had this for ages as well).

Let me make a logical leap here and point out here that this is the new namespace — the human-friendly namespace — that Tim O’Reilly observed emerging when he defined Web 2.0, pointing out that a future source of lock-in would be “owning a namespace”. This is why location-based services are so hot. This is also why it matters who gets out in front first by developing a database of places named by humans — rather than by their official names. When it comes to search, search will get better when you can bound it — to the confluence of your known world and the known/colloquial world of your social graph.

When I was San Diego a couple weeks back, it dawned on me that if I searched for “Joe’s Crab Shack”, no search engine on earth would be able to give me a satisfying result… unless it knew where I was. Or where I had been. Or, where my friends had been. This is where social search and computer-augmented social search becomes powerful (see Aardvark). Not just that, but this is where owning a database of given names tied to real things becomes hugely powerful (see Foursquare). This is where social objects with human-given names become the spimatic web.

So, as this plays out, success will find the designer who most nearly replicates the world offline online. Consider:








Ignoring content, it seems to me that the latter examples are much easier to grok without knowing anything about Facebook or Twitter — and are much closer approximations of real life.

Moreover, in EventBox, there is evidence that we truly are in a transitional period, where a large number of people still identity themselves or know their friends by usernames, but an increasing number of newcomers are more comfortable using real names (click to enlarge):


We’re only going to see more of this kind of thing, where the data-driven design approach will give way to a more overall humane aesthetic. It begins by calling people by the names we humans prefer to — and will always — use. And I think Facebook got it right by leaving out the vanity URLs.