The Deep Meaning of the Facebook Vanity URL

Out on the town recently, at cocktail parties and gallery openings, artist An Xiao has been hearing her online name, “thatwaszen,” piercing through the din.

“I’ll be out and about in physical space, in public, and hear my name across the room,” Ms. Xiao told The Observer. A petite, 25-year-old digital media artist and photographer with thick-framed glasses and jet-black hair, Ms. Xiao explained that some of her friends have been pointing her out to guests by her “name”—the online handle she uses on social media sites like Twitter, Flickr and Blogger.

“Thatwaszen—it has become my name. It’s just like when you hear your name at a cocktail party, you turn your head. It’s the same thing going on with the handle,” she said.

So, last week, Ms. Xiao was interested to hear the news (on Twitter, of course) that Facebook would allow users to choose their own username and create a simplified address—also known as a “vanity URL”—that would incorporate personal brands and common online nicknames. Already a feature on sites like MySpace, the vanity URL could direct potential “friends” to an easy-to-remember Facebook page, such as www.facebook.com/thatwaszen, instead of forcing them to search on Facebook or Google and stumble over the other An Xiaos out there.

Facebook announced the much-buzzed-about new feature on their blog last Tuesday, June 9. Names could be registered on a first-come, first-served basis beginning this past Saturday, June 13, at 12:01 a.m. Cue Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” 

“Think carefully about the username you choose,” wrote Blaise DiPersia, a Facebook designer, on the site’s official blog. “Once it’s been selected, you won’t be able to change or transfer it.”

Users didn’t have to choose a boring “firstname.lastname” URL, but any variation at all—as long as it wasn’t already taken.

Ms. Xiao knew she’d be glued to her computer screen during the weekend, waiting to grab “thatwaszen”. 

She wasn’t alone.

Within an hour, more than one million Facebook usernames had been gobbled up, according to Facebook representatives. The feature went live with few hitches from Facebook’s servers, and there wasn’t much fanfare other than triumphant (or deflated) Facebook and Twitter updates, announcing the “big gets” (or big losses).

Building up to the midnight deadline might have seemed like an overhyped marketing ploy, reinforcing Facebook as just another online playground for competitive games between users. But  these “vanity URLs” are more than mere Web addresses. With so many of us living online—carefully curating our “brands” based on our Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and blog titles—a customized Facebook username is the culmination of our online identities.

Dr. John Suler, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey who has studied cyberpsychology since the mid-’90s, says that having a vanity URL is “a lot more satisfying to the person than some seemingly random or at least ‘irrelevant’ string of numbers and letters,” he wrote to The Observer in an email.

Take the example of Gary Vaynerchuk, host of Wine Library TV and personal branding evangelist. He was watching the NBA finals last week when he saw a commercial for Vitamin Water. The address www.facebook.com/vitaminwater flashed across the bottom of the screen. “Bam!” Mr. Vaynerchuk said to The Observer over the phone. “I flew back on my bed and immediately made a video.” He titled it “Why Facebook fan page Vanity URL’s will change the game” and posted it online. Once your username goes mainstream—plastered on billboards or TV or blogs to promote your latest project—having a vanity URL makes your “home” on the Web easier to remember, he said. And having your “home” on Facebook, which more people are willing to visit than, say, a separate Web site, is invaluable.

“Facebook fan pages with vanity URLs can do so much more than your average Twitter account because you can code it however you want,” Mr. Vaynerchuk told The Observer. “So when you create that call to action when you land, instead of just following somebody, you can do a lot of things.”

A few weeks before the username’s launch, Facebook administrators allowed Mr. Vaynerchuk and other high-profile users to create their own vanity URL before the rest of Facebook even got wind of the big change. Britney Spears, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, musician John Mayer, designers Stella McCartney and Diane von Furstenberg and tech stars from Fred Wilson to Julia Allison, and of course Mark Zuckerberg, already had personalized Facebook addresses before June 13. Mr. Vaynerchuk reserved Facebook.com/gary for his personal page (easy to remember) and facebook.com/crushit for his upcoming book, Crush It: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash in on Your Passion, due out from HarperStudio in October.

“The choice one makes for that name or title indeed reflects something about one’s online or offline identity,” Mr. Suler wrote to The Observer. “It may duplicate and reinforce what they already have in their profile info, or it may complement the profile with a different facet of their identity. If they can’t have their first (or second or third) choice, they may have to search for creative variations on that identifier, or, as you say, pick another aspect of one’s identity to display in the url. Whatever the choice is, it’s their way of saying in the url ‘Here *I* am!'”

Soon enough, our usernames may become not just silly alias’ on social networking sites and instant messaging services, but an official identification—a single authentic label for how we identify ourselves across every corner of the Web, from comment sections on The New York Times to Amazon shopping carts to government Web sites where we comment on bills before our local and national representatives.

“I think it’s the exception rather than the rule that offline and online identities are ‘dissociated’ from each other,” Mr. Suler went on. “For many people, there is a push, consciously or unconsciously, to integrate online and offline identities … to make them synergistic to each other.”

“For Facebook, it’s an administrative thing, but it’s also a cultural shift,” Ms. Xaio, the artist, told The Observer. “Your name online is your name … It’s seeping into real life.”

The Deep Meaning of the Facebook Vanity URL