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What do Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and a gazillion other digital platforms have in common? They all treat usernames like a baby treats a diaper instead of the precious and lucrative resource they are.

Because usernames are dished out using an archaic first-come, first-served model, early adopters snag the dictionary-friendly handles. Everyone else gets smacked with alphanumeric nonsense. Soon perfidy and confusion take over as the black hats win and power users settle for names like “boogie2988”, “Rclbeauty101”, and “realDonaldTrump” even while “boogie”, “beauty”, and “trump” languish.

How did we get to this point?

First-come, first-served emerged with domain name registrations. Back then, claiming a domain name was an esoteric chore, so anyone who figured out the hows and whys deserved their three-letter dot com. As demand and accessibility grew, the flaws of first-come, first-served became obvious (more on that later), but by then it was too late. Early tech companies had already adopted the domain model for their identity systems, and later companies thoughtlessly followed the tradition. So here we are with almost every web service severely misallocating a key asset.

What’s wrong with first-come, first-served?

The underlying assumption behind first-come, first-served is that early users are more valuable than late users. This is not only false, it’s backwards!

When you’re desperate for your first 1,000 members, you figure your best usernames to be a small price to pay. But remember that you haven’t completely figured out your product yet, your onboarding process is untested, and your service is light on content and features. In other words, your early retention rate will be terrible, so all your good names will end up like a clump of dry hot chocolate powder goo at the bottom of a cup. While early adopters are great for buzz, they’re not motivated by usernames and have a one-night-stand mentality anyway; they’ll spread your product for a day and then leave you in the morning for the next shiny service. Save your best names for later!

Abandoning first-come, first-served won’t be easy; three types of members will revolt: Squatters will hate you, scammers will abandon you, and spammers will betray you for someone else. Think of the starving server admin in China who can’t register hundreds of your best account names at a time. Or the copyright infringer in Kentucky who misses rent because he can’t snag “apple.”

Michael Lee, partner at law firm Morrison & Lee LLP, has spent many years cleaning up after haphazard registration systems. “The effort needed to maintain the status quo is staggering. Dummy pages clog up search results, customers don’t know what they’re liking or following, and increasingly desperate brands have to resort to expensive lawsuits. There are big question marks abroad, too, especially in China where their trademark system is not always equitable.” He points to a recent lawsuit between GoDaddy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where the Academy, in essence, tried to unsuccessfully block the registration of all domains containing the word “oscar” and “academy awards.”

First-come, first-served even turns benign members into villains. When Pinterest launched, I registered “nimble” with high hopes. Years later, my Pinterest page is, well … sparse. Meanwhile, legitimate companies like Nimble CRM, Nimble Systems, and Nimble Storage are sunk. Did I deserve “nimble” because I got in early? Obviously not. Will I ever let “nimble” go? Hahahahaha, that name is my retirement plan!

What about implementing a verification system?

Twitter’s famous blue check mark isn’t the solution to first-come, first-served; it’s a desperate and clunky hack that proves the system is broken. Consider it a warning: Build your identity system the right way or suffer the wrath of endless whining support tickets (“But, but do you know who I am, Mr. Dorsey!??!”).

What’s the alternative?

I wrote this post to inspire brainstorming about alternative systems. To kickstart the process, here’s an idea in three simple steps:
Step 1: De-emphasize usernames by asking members to login with their email
Step 2: Members start with a three-word username, so my Pinterest account would be: pinterest.com/adam-is-nimble
Step 3: Let members earn their way to two-word and then one-word usernames. After six months and 1,000 pins, I can shrink my name to pinterest.com/adam-nimble. After 2 years and 5,000 pins, I can transform into pinterest.com/nimble. It goes without saying that anyone who types in “adam-is-nimble” will be redirected.

With this system, your best users will own the best names and the majority of one-night-stand types and scammers will give up before they cause any harm. And that’s just for starters. With a little effort you’ll:

  • Drive participation. LinkedIn is pushing its members to write articles. I’d submit a dozen today if it meant I could get a better username out of the deal.
  • “Game-ify” your service. Earning a better username will be fun! Fun makes your product stickier.
  • Improve retention. If someone’s worked hard to upgrade their username, they’ll have more to lose by leaving
  • Create envy and curiosity. A person who sees another member with a short name will grow curious. What’s going on? How can I do that too?

But wait, there’s more!

Copyright enforcement becomes MUCH easier because you’re handing out fewer one-word names per day and can more closely monitor them. People will also be hesitant to request potentially infringing usernames, knowing that they could lose years of work if they get into trouble.

Share your own idea

Know anyone with a novel identity system? Devised a clever one of your own? Tweet me and I’ll post the ideas in a follow-up. (I know there’s no blue check mark next to my name, you’ll just have to trust it’s me.)

Adam Ghahramani is head of digital product for a creative agency in New York City. Find him at adamagb.com or make friends on Twitter (@adamagb).

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