Back in 2009, Facebook first allowed people to have their own vanity URLs – a personal web address for their profile. Like many people I raced onto the site to grab my preferred name before someone else could get it.
I chose “myname”, the name I use on virtually all sites. Unfortunately in my haste and unbeknownst to me, my iPhone (trying to be helpful) auto-capitalised the first letter of the form field. Facebook’s coding should have prevented this – it’s a simple thing to prohibit in a form where you know the user is going to be inputting lowercase – but nevertheless my actual vanity URL was set to facebook.com/Myname.
It did annoy me for a bit, but with Facebook providing no way of changing the capitalisation, I was stuck with it. Nevertheless it didn’t effect the way people would access my profile as URL aren’t case-specific, and I’d managed to get the same username as I have on virtually every other network.
Over the six years past I’d virtually forgotten about the issue, until last month when I was checking some of my privacy settings on Facebook and noticed the option to change the username. (As an aside, Facebook tends to call the feature username now, rather than vanity URL, which makes more sense in the mobile world).
How I broke my Facebook
I clicked into the relevant settings page and the options very clearly said I could change my username, so I entered ‘myname’ without the capital at the beginning, and sure enough a big green tick appeared saying ‘Username is available’ and the ‘Save changes’ button lit up.
And then disaster hit – as soon as I clicked the button an error message popped up. I tried again, however this time entering ‘myname’ threw up a red cross and a ‘Username is not available’ message. Even worse, it was now registering that I had no username at all.
To be honest, it was my own fault – I should’ve know better than to fiddle with Facebook settings without checking the forums first. It turns out this a very common bug, with many people losing their usernames and vanity URLs this way.
And of course, with Facebook being such a behemoth there’s no support available on an individual basis. I have posted on the community support boards, but to no avail so far. You’ll see in my post I’ve listed several of the other people with the same problem, most of whom have been fobbed off by support gurus claiming it is a feature, not a bug.
Is it really an issue?
I was incredibly annoyed at first, but after a while I began thinking – is it really that important? The issue of the vanity URL isn’t really a huge problem for me. I can’t honestly believe that anyone, ever, types a full address when trying to load someone’s Facebook profile. The majority of users are on mobile platforms anyway, and the people I connect with on my personal profile are all friends who find me through other acquaintances.
for how much longer are usernames, and, more broadly, URLs going to be important?
The username aspect is more worrying though. While Facebook use is in general decline – my generation has reduced it to an endless stream of baby photos and ‘inspirational’ memes – there is no chance of the actual company going anywhere soon (especially given the success of Instagram which it owns). This makes me worry that the username aspect could easily be used for a new venture, and I won’t have access to my common handle.
It does bring up an interesting debate though – for how much longer are usernames, and, more broadly, URLs going to be important? As we change our browsing habits through increased mobile use, the old ways of the Internet are fast changing.
I’d consider myself fairly adept with technology, but nearly always use Google to find a site, even if I know the address already. And now most browsers have a address bar that doubles as a search field, it makes the process even quicker. I don’t need to remember that the cake shop in town is marys-bakers.org.uk when I can just type ‘Mary’s Cakes Cambridge’ into Google and get the correct one every time.
The same goes for usernames – there are only a limited number of sensible ones available, and it’s increasingly difficult to remember everybody’s differing ones – @bobjones1982 on Twitter may be @pig.farmer82 on Instagram, ‘bobshogs’ on Spotify and so on.
The future of usernames
There’s an argument to say we should all just be given a number/code to use for all sites and have done with it. Some apps prefer to use your phone number to connect to avoid this problem, but even this is tenuous with the advent of cellular use in favour of data-only driven devices such as iPads.
The answer isn’t obvious. Domain registrars have tried to get around the issue by recently launching thousands more extensions, but in reality this has only added to the confusion, rather solving the issue.
For social networks the problem is slightly easier – it’s increasingly likely that your ‘real name’ will be used more frequently and search options become far better to allow others to easily connect with you.
Essentially this is what Facebook is already doing, and makes me think that within a few years – and hopefully for my situation – we’ll look back at having specific usernames as a thing of the past.