Give me back my name

Yesterday I decided to get a GitHub account. I don’t have anything to really put up on GitHub as of now, but I decided to get an account just the same. I wanted the username ‘basu’ because that’s usually the name people use to call me (and it’s the username I use on my own machines). However, that name was taken and so I settled for something just a little different: ‘basus’. Just out of curiosity, I decided to look up the profile of user ‘basu’. It turned out to be someone who had signed up in April, but didn’t seem to have actually done anything on Github. I felt a little surge of anger that someone had taken my name and then done absolutely nothing with it. I guess I really do like my name after all.

The thing is, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a good name on the internet. And I’m not just talking about usernames. It took quite a bit of searching before I found a domain name that was free and that I wanted to use. When it comes to usernames, I try to get names that have ‘basu’ in them, generally with a letter or number at the end. That’s true for all my email addresses (I use about 3 full time for various things) and for my Twitter account. If it’s a new enough service, I can generally get just what I wanted. (If I was at GitHub a few months earlier, I would have gotten my name too)

It might seem a bit vain that I’m making a fuss about getting the name I want, but I have a reason. For this purpose, let’s divide the web services that I use in to two groups. First are the public ones that I want to give out to people. These are things like my email, my website and various social network/professional things. I want a username that’s easy for people to remember and is as close to my real name as I can get it. I don’t like having pseudonyms or handles because I think they’re just a drag (though I have nothing against people who do have them). It’s easy for people to get in touch with me if all they have to remember is my name and initials. Things get harder if they have to remember some non-obvious combination of my name and other letters or numbers (even if they make perfect sense to me). My personal email has my birthday in it, which is ok for family and close friends, but I don’t give it out to anyone else.

The second type of service is private. These are services I use where the name is used exclusively for login and verification purposes. I probably don’t want other people to know my username, but my passwords are generally pretty strong. What’s more important for me is that I would rather not have a bunch of different usernames and passwords for all the services that I use. Nothing irritates me more than when I just need to check something quick and I end up needing three attempts just to get the correct combination password. It’s a bit easier for services which require that I have an email address as login, I have a separate email account set aside for just that purpose.

While the bad news is that it can be too late to get the name you want, the good news is that there are other people who feel the same way and are doing something about it. The OpenID project is aimed at addressing the issue of having a long list of various login combinations and the security and usability problems associated with that. The idea of OpenID is simple: you create a single account with a traditional username and password with a service that is an OpenID provider. There are some dedicated OpenID providers like ClaimID or myOpenID, but a bunch of services you might already use like AOL, MySpace and WordPress.com are also providers. Once you’ve signed up, you get a URL which is your actual OpenID. Now when logging into a service that supports OpenID you just use your URL and tell your provider that you want that particular service to use your OpenID. This allows you to login to a bunch of different services with a single authentication system. It’s easier on your brain cells and safer too. There are a bunch of services that use OpenID with more joining all the time.

So I’m still a bit disgruntled about not being able to get my name on GitHub, but I’ll get over it eventually. In the long run, I suppose it won’t matter all that much. In some ways, I wish that people got some sort of unique identifier that worked uniformly accross all services everywhere. I think OpenID is a step in the right direction, though its not going to be a solution for everything. This is one of the cases where the problem requires a solution that is social as well as technical: how does everyone get the name/identity they want without stepping on other peoples’ toes. Like most other problems of that sort, there is no cut and dried answer, just a number of possible options and we have to choose the one we’re most comfortable with. For now the solution I’v chosen is a combination of OpenID and separate usernames, but like so many other things, I’ll keep my eyes open for something better.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “Give me back my name”

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