In recent months, I’ve read of the following scenario playing out on a couple of different occasions :
Person “So-and-So” chooses “CleverName” as their username on social-media service “Socialr” . CleverName is So-and-So’s favorite pseudonym, a word or phrase with a personally-significant meaning. So-and-So starts using Socialr, and over a period of time builds up a digital identity on Socialr, an identity whose name, content, history, and reputation are associated with username CleverName. Some time later, a little-known company, “Company X”, comes along and wants to create an account on Socialr. That company happens to be named or have a product named “CleverName”. Company X asks Socialr to take username CleverName from So-and-So and give it to them. Socialr seizes CleverName from So-and-So and gives it to Company X as their username.
This kind of situation is likely to become more common as thousands of individuals and companies (and their respective pseudonyms and brand names) start joining the same, popular, social-media platforms. Here’s one idea for ethical primary responses to username disputes. Maybe it’ll help social-media services get these things right. 
Let’s start by giving both So-and-So and Company X the benefit of the doubt. I’ll assume that none of them knew of the others existence until they clashed at Socialr. Neither one intended to leech off the other’s preexisting reputation or name recognition. They were each independently creative when they chose their pseudonym or company name (though obviously their creative processes ran along similar lines). With that in mind, I’d say the default response for Socialr should be to let So-and-So keep CleverName as their username. Social-media service users should be able to choose a username without the fear that someday it could be unpredictably seized from them through no fault of their own. A person shouldn’t have to perform a preemptive, exhaustive search for any little company out there that might one day want to use the same username on the same service. Once a person has a username, they should be able to start building a digital identity around it without worry. If the preservation of one’s digital identity can’t be guaranteed by a social-media service, why should anyone invest in creating a digital identity there in the first place?
Unfortunately, not every individual or company always acts innocently in these matters. Motives can be hard to determine (though I’d sooner question companies’ selflessness and interest in the common good than individuals’). Also, social-media services are subject to regrettable legal climates and the threats and fears they spread around. A social-media service may feel like its hands are tied and it’s limited to a particular kind of resolution (usually one in favor of the company—the entity with typically greater financial and legal resources than the individual). That’s where a Solomonic response could come in handy, one that would require a modicum of courage on the social-media service’s part. Socialr could tell Company X: “You claim that So-and-So is abusing your trademarks by using username CleverName, a username you also want. It doesn’t look like So-and-So is using CleverName that way, but to be on the safe side we’ll remove username CleverName from our system. Neither you, nor So-and-So, nor anyone else will get to use CleverName as their username. Now each of you, go find new usernames.” 
Such a policy would be far from satisfying, yet its sole existence could help reduce incidences of username disputes. Companies would know that no matter what happens, they can never expropriate a username on a social-media service. At best they could keep a person from using that username, but they’d never get to use it themselves. Given the little gain and the risk of negative publicity from username-elmination requests, companies would likely resort to them only in very clear cases of trademark abuse. In other instances, companies would have to behave more like everyday, individual users. Most of us, when we go choose a username on any service, find that our first choice is already taken, oftentimes even our very own, legal names. We have to come up with different usernames. It could end up being the same for companies.
- The two incidents I read about involve girlgeeks on Twitter and zephoria on Tumblr. [go back]
- “Socialr” is a placeholder name for the quintessential social-media service. A quick, non-exhaustive Google search did not turn up an actual service with that name at the time of this writing. [go back]
- Not every conceivable kind of dispute is addressed by this proposal. Some kinds of disputes call for very different responses that those covered in this essay. [go back]
- This proposal doesn’t perfectly parallel the original, Solomonic decision. However, it does attempt to cleverly elicit a fair outcome from a thorny, contentious situation. [go back]