Marshall Kirkpatrick and Chris Messina argue that domain names are a better alternative to relying on a particular service’s vanity URL because you own the domain and thus your identity is not subject to corporate whims. They also point out that the screen name-ization that comes with vanity URLs is bad for online identity because it limits real world connection and therefore online credibility/trust/reputation.
I’d like to argue that while they both make incredibly important points, by combining the two arguments they somewhat confound these distinct issues. Domain names are bound by duplication problems just as much as Facebook/MySpace/Google vanity URLs are. When they make their arguments about both namespace ownership and the benefits of real name recognition, we the readers miss the point. Allow me to reframe the argument.
I see two distinct takeaways:
1) Full ownership of your namespace
2) Interaction online as parallel to interaction offline
The first point is easy. Everyone should own their own namespace apart from the services they interact with. Vanity URLs are just a lock-in play for FBook/MySpace/Goog to be the focal point of your identity online. Just as our identities remain independent of the organizations we engage with offline, so too should they remain independent of the services we engage with online.
Robust and service-independent identities online can only emerge when search (within and outside of social networks) begins to recognize that social networks are made for PEOPLE not users. Further, the social network community at large should recognize that identity can survive online without them! While social networks play an important role in the creation and maintenance of online presence, they cannot and should not unilaterally dominate that presence. Users certainly benefit from a variety of services, but PEOPLE benefit from various sources of public exposure, and various opportunities to fashion a multidimensional character for public, private, semi-private, social, vocational, academic (etc. etc.) consumption. Search and discovery are the keys to unlocking this potential in full force.
Your identity online, in your own space, can be Jake Levine, Jakel25, Jakerlevine, levine.jake, or whatever pseudonym you wish to go by. Many will be forced to settle for almost-names (or will choose to). Or, god forbid, you may choose to forgo owning a domain name altogether!! Whether your owned namespace is chrismessina.com, facebook.com/chrismessina or factoryjoe.com, what is important is that search and discovery recognizes that facebook.com/chrismessina==factoryjoe.com==the Chris Messina I am looking for.
Discovery isn’t just about getting your name into a public URL and beefing up your SEO (an outdated process), it needs to be based on relevant social graph information/interests/location/industry etc. from your OFFLINE life. There may be hundreds of Chris Messina’s out there. Some might own Chrismessina.com, CMessina.com, ChrisM.com etc. etc., but only one is a thought leader in online identity who lives in CA. I follow Messina on twitter, I regularly read his blog posts, and I often link to him on my own blog. When I search for Chris Messina, there should be no question who I am looking for.
Users should own their own namespace online, but not because screen names are a bad way to interact online. Screen name-ization is not the problem. Discovery is the problem.
As Messina says himself: “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. “