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Strategic insights
Your Unique Identity

Written by on March 11, 2009

Two days ago I wrote an article about "top-level domains", and I came up with the idea that we should simply eliminate them, and base the internet on digital identities. In short, instead of baekdal.com, my address would simply be 'baekdal'.

This created a lot of comments where people said it would not work because how then could companies, with similar names, then get a meaningful domain? Or how could all the people called Smith, Johnson, Müller, or Sato get to have a good domain. There is only one person who can get 'johnson', what about the rest?

I of course agree with that notion, but it is actually a fundamental problem on the internet in general.

The Johnsons

There are 2,478,230 people in the world whose name is 'Johnson'. So even if we have .com/net/info/biz/me/name/us etc. there is simply not enough domain variations to give everyone an equal identity. Even if you combine it with your first name, it would still be impossible. Especially if your first name happens to be 'Robert' of which there are then 39,000 in the US alone. And I have not even taking into account the very popular names in China.

Note: In my opinion, the only domain that matters is .com

This really is not restricted to domains. There can only be one person who gets flickr.com/photos/johnson. Only one person can get johnson@gmail.com. And only one person can get twitter.com/johnson etc.

Today, the only way you can secure your online identity is to get their first. Whoever gets there second loses, and has to come up with a different name. Which is why you will see people with emails addresses like johnson123@gmail.com. The person who has that, signed up pretty late in the game.

I got it relatively easy. There are only two people in the world with the name 'Thomas Baekdal', and only about 160 people with the surname baekdal. So I almost always get their first (especially considering that my work is on the internet). I own baekdal.com, and thomasbaekdal.com.

But what about Robert Johnson, the kid who is now just old enough to start being serious about using the internet. What should he do? All the good names is already taken.

He cannot buy the name, because the existing owner is probably not interesting in selling (and even if he is, it would probably cost a bazillion dollars).

This problem however is growing at an incredible rate. Today, only 23.5% of the world is online (and only 0.09% is using Twitter). Imagine what it would be like in 10 years, when a lot more people will be fighting over their digital identity.

Facebook - just give them numbers

Of course, we could do like facebook is doing. Simply not give people a digital identity, and instead use numbers.

E.g. My personal Facebook page is not called "facebook.com/baekdal", but is instead "facebook.com/profile.php?id=746201286". Even my baekdal.com Facebook page is not called "facebook.com/page/baekdalcom", but is called "facebook.com/pages/Baekdalcom/45219231884" (with numbers added to it).

So if another person wants to create a baekdal.com facebook page, he can do that, and the only difference will be the number in the URL.

Note: Facebook is looking into creating unique addresses. Barack Obama has one (facebook.com/barackobama), but this is currently not available to 'ordinary people'.

The great thing about Facebook's approach is that it gives everyone an equal opportunity. Every Robert Johnson is just another number. No one has a better address than anyone else.

The bad thing about this is two things; Branding and usability.

People and companies in particular don't like to be treated as 'just another number'. We like to be special and to show to the world that we are the number ones, with the good address. We fought for this, we get their first, and we won our name. Everyone else is just secondary.

Everyone on the planet thinks like this. You feel proud if your name is Robert Johnson, and you have one of these johnson@gmail.com, robert@gmail.com, rjohnson@gmail.com, robertj@gmail.com, rj@gmail.com, or robertjohnson@gmail.com.

If you got any of these, then you are the special one.

Also, it is much more usable to have robert@gmail.com, than say 2562723262@gmail.com. Giving people a number, even in the quest for equal opportunities, is not what people want.

No solution?

I admit, I have no idea how to solve this. If I had to choose, I would rather fight for my digital identity, and then feel pride when I won. I am not sure though, that all the Johnson's in the world share my enthusiasm for that idea. If there were 2 million people called Baekdal, I might not think that either.

What we need then is a new way to create digital identities. Something that is unique, easy to use, good for branding, that doesn't conflict with one another, and gives everyone equal opportunities.

Not the easiest problem I have ever encountered. It might be solvable, I just do not know how.

Any ideas?

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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