Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition



The way Twitter handles usernames is broken. Let’s fix it.

Twitter has become an essential part of how brands, apps, and products communicate. When I work on a new project, the first step is to see if the domain name is available. The second is to check whether it’s available on Twitter.

This is great news for Twitter, except that the majority of the time, the username is taken and unused.

We’ve all been living with this state of affairs for domain names for many years. Why should we expect Twitter to be different?

Domain names have significant advantages over Twitter usernames:

  • They must be purchased
  • They must be continually renewed to be retained
  • They can be sold
  • There are multiple extensions available and new ones are added

The only restriction on Twitter usernames is that they be tied to a unique email address. Secure enough email addresses and you can reserve as many usernames as you like, for free, forever.

As could be expected, this has led to thousands of great usernames being unavailable and unused. Here are a few examples:

We know that sometimes a great username does change hands, though. How does this happen? Either someone sells the username to someone else (which is against Twitter’s Terms of Service), Twitter facilitates the transfer of a domain in trademark infringement or otherwise sensitive cases, sometimes with payment involved, or you happen to get a behind-the-scenes favor from a kind person at Twitter.

This situation isn’t good for anyone, especially Twitter. They make no money, usernames go unused, and the whole thing seems quite arbitrary (and I’m someone who has benefited from the arbitrariness of it all). Imagine you have a brilliant idea for a new app called Different, or maybe you want to build an advocacy campaign for teenagers who don’t fit in. Instead of @different, your options are @differentapp, @differentgroup or another awkward combination. It’s not going to stop the idea from happening, but it still serves to discourage the very enthusiasm for the platform that fuels Twitter and its future. Think of how much more likely someone is to build an ad campaign around @different, which at the same time, advertises Twitter.

Here are the steps I would take to address unused accounts. This is quite detailed, so thanks in advance for your patience.

These changes would require that Twitter modify the terms of service to establish that unused Twitter accounts are subject to being made available based on Twitter’s criteria. This criteria should be subject to change, since once it’s explicit, a number of services will pop up to automate your account to stay active indefinitely. A few examples: Low numbers of tweets, followers, and people the account are following, no tweets in a year or more, missing avatar, and the user not accessing the account in over a year.

  1. Develop an Activity Score based on a weighted combination of some of the ideas mentioned above and other metrics Twitter tracks. Start by assigning the score to accounts without any activity in a year. Determine a good cutoff based on the volume and quality of results.

  2. Notify each of the selected accounts many times over three months (on the site and via email) that the Terms of Service have changed and the accounts will be made available to others if not used.

  3. How will the accounts be made available? Through a seven day public auction. All unused accounts (remember, the initial pool only included ones that haven’t been accessed in a year) will be available to be bid on by anyone. The highest bid after a week becomes the new ‘owner’ of the username.

  4. The event is actually a fundraiser for five worthy charities (perhaps voted on by the Twitter community). 70% of the money raised goes toward the charities and 20-30% of the money goes to Twitter, depending on…

  5. The user of one of the inactive accounts has four options: 1) Not respond at all, meaning the account will be auctioned at the 70/30% split. 2) Begin using the account. 3) Pay an annual fee to retain it without using it (details below). 4) Agree to participate in the auction. If someone purchases the username, the seller will get 10% of the amount. The seller can choose the charity from the approved list.

Bonus idea: Twitter could provide a way on the site for someone to express interest in a username; basically, a +1 option. When you visit @123’s profile page, there is a “I would be interested in this username if it’s available in the future” link. The total number of people who have clicked it doesn’t need to be visible, but it would give the holder of the username an idea of how much interest there is. After this initial round, Twitter might only include usernames in the auction that at least 100 people have expressed interest in.

At the same time, Twitter can make it clearer that selling your username outside of this single method is prohibited. If you have a username you were hoping to sell or were holding onto in case it eventually became valuable, this is the way to do it.

The first auction would produce the most interest and the greatest number of available usernames, but there’s no reason not to do it quarterly. Each auction would generate a lot of conversation and surely an outrageous story or two as the bidding intensifies.

Question: Is it likely that people will simply make sure the username they’re holding has the minimum amount of activity necessary to hold on to it? Sure, but there isn’t really a way around that and thousands of usernames will still be made available. Plus, now that they have a mechanism for selling the username, it’s just as likely that they will part with it, especially if they see a lot of interest.

Question: Will this just increase the amount of username prospecting? Most quality names and words are already taken, so I don’t see that being a problem. There may be people who start buying usernames just to resell them later, but as long as their income is capped and so much more is going to Twitter and charities (and those percentages could be much more beneficial to Twitter while still benefitting charities), is that a problem? A fluid market would be so much better than what we have now.

Question: What if someone simply wants to hold on to a name for a year or two and doesn’t want to pretend to be active? For instance, a child’s name, future event, or a product, such as a book or film, that won’t be released for some time. I don’t see why a person shouldn’t be able to pay Twitter in order to hold onto it, much like we do with domain names. $10-$25 year seems reasonable. It still seems unlikely that someone would pay to hold on to a username year after year if their only goal is to make money from it. Why not auction it?

Bonus idea: The price it costs to hold onto a username could be dynamic. So, if you have @anniemarie and 3 people have expressed interest in it, the cost to keep it (and not use it) is $15, but if you have @vinyl and 4,700 people want it, the annual cost is much higher.

Question: Once you purchase a username through the auction process, is it yours forever or is it subject to the same usage rules and annual fees? That’s a tough one. My inclination is that it’s yours indefinitely, with no usage restrictions. Either you paid $10,000 for it because you want to build something around it, in which case you surely will, or you bought it because you hope to sell it for more later. Reselling seems like a difficult business model, though. With the 10% cap, the username would have to be sold for more than $100,000 for you to break even in this example.

Question: Now that there is a lot of interest in buying Twitter usernames, what’s to prevent a secondary market from developing? If someone offers you $25,000, why would you go the auction route and only get $2,500? This is the hardest part to solve, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Twitter could integrate some checks and limits in how someone changes a username or email address for an account, especially ones that many people have said they wanted if available. And they could make clear that if a username is sold against their terms, it will be made available to anyone in the next auction.

Question: Is it still possible to just use Twitter for free? Anyone can still create a free account and use it indefinitely for free. And obviously the activity measurements would need to cover all sorts of scenarios, like someone that just wants to follow a few people but rarely tweets.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just about inactive accounts, though. Someone might be active on Twitter with a great username, but would gladly switch to another for the chance to earn money and have it put to good use.

This is far from perfect and there’s surely much that bumps into legal issues I’m blissfully ignorant of, but at a minimum it puts a lot of usernames back into circulation and it pays possibly significant money to Twitter and a few charities. Maybe this simply sparks other, better ideas. Either way, getting terrific usernames in the hands of businesses and people who want to build something special is a great thing for the company and the platform.

It’s a little like a stock market for Twitter. Unfortunately, @stockmarket is taken, too.