Would the real John Smith please step forward

As the previous post describes, I had a brief dalliance with Blogger before I set up WordPress to handle my blog. Although my primary reason for migrating was due to the feature set, Blogger didn’t really do themselves any favours by presenting me with a series of barriers before I could even get an account with them. What was the problem? They wanted me to choose a username.

Of course there’s nothing out of the ordinary in requiring a username to identify your users, but is it really the right sort of identification token to be asking for when you’re running a website aimed at a large global audience? A username is fine when you’re dealing with the members of your own household, or a small to medium sized business. But scale up much beyond that, and you’ll quickly run into the issue of “Too many John Smiths”.

In a large organisation there’s a good chance that there will be a clash of names. If your real-to-username mapping policy is fairly naïve then you’re likely to end up with an inconsistent set of usernames – and probably with plenty of emails going to the wrong person. Adding middle initials or numeric suffixes are quick and easy solutions to the uniqueness issue, but may impact on the discoverability of email addresses, or the memorability of the usernames themselves. Nevertheless, it’s not too tricky for one of our John Smiths to remember that he has to log in as “jsmith2”.

But if a name clash is quite likely within a single large company, how likely does it become in a whole town or city? How many John Smiths are there in the UK? How many in America? How many worldwide?

[As it happens The Dead Zone has just started on TV: a series with a lead character called John Smith, whose son is also called John Smith]

Now my name isn’t John Smith. But despite this I’ve still found the need to create around half a dozen different usernames. I’ve got a username for work, a username for home, one for the sites I administer myself, another that I prefer to use on third-party websites (plus a couple of variations on that as the preferred name has often been taken already). In trying to sign up for my Blogger account I tried every one of these usernames, plus a few other variations. They were all taken.

The obvious solution is to use something a little more globally unique than a username. Many websites use an email address, which is certainly a better option although it does lend itself to moments of doubt along the lines of, “did I use my work, home or Gmail account for that site?” Nevertheless, I figured that I’d try using an email address as my blogger username. No deal there either, though: Blogger doesn’t allow such exotic characters as full-stops in usernames.

To make matters worse, every test of the username was accompanied by a full page submission and reload – none of this new-fangled AJAX stuff here, despite Google (who own Blogger) being the current poster child for this approach. [In case this paragraph made no sense to you: AJAX is the currently trendy name for a web page which loads data in the background, rather than reloading the whole page. Using this approach would allow the site to check for existing usernames more quickly, and less intrusively to the user]

“My Green Life” also seems to be quite a popular name for a blog: when I had to choose the URL that my blog would have, every variation of the name that I tried was already taken. Again there was an associated refresh with each attempt.

Ultimately it took more than half-an-hour just for me to find a username and URL that I could use – by which point the Blogger experience was already starting to wear me down. Quite frankly I’m surprised that such a high-profile and international site is still using a simple username and password for authentication, but disallowing common characters which would let people select more memorable usernames is a bizarrely restrictive limitation.

I suppose I can’t complain without suggesting a better approach for any budding international website developers who may stumble across this blog entry. The most obvious solution is to use email addresses rather than usernames for first-level authentication. This suffers, as mentioned, from the problem of many users having multiple email addresses, but it’s still better than a simple username field.

But how about just adding a second field for the user’s location. The combination of username and location would have to be unique, but each John Smith would be free to choose their own interpretation of Location. Whilst the first John Smith to register might choose an obvious location of “USA”, the next one could interpret the Location field quite differently and enter his state, county, town, street name or just the word “home”.

It’s not a perfect solution, but the number of clashes would be significantly lower than just requiring a username on its own, whilst still remaining highly memorable for the users. As it is I have to keep track of a series of usernames in order to deal with clashes when registering for a new site. I would wager that I could significantly reduce the number of usernames I need to remember whilst needing only one or two well-chosen locations to combine with them.

Perhaps I should just implement this system myself, whether or not a website offers me any such second-level authentication field. From now on, maybe, I will be registering myself with a username of mark_sofa (possibly without the underscore, if Blogger are fussy about those as well)

Comment (1)

  1. Have to agree, Mark. Bin there, done that… jumped off the bridge…

    It’s just one part of a larger problem – online and off. Organisations insisting that users of *their* system, look after parts of *their” system. Example, when on the phone, I hear…

    “Can I give you a reference number to use if you need to call back?”

    “Yes, as long as it’s my post code, or something else I already know.”


    “Look, if you give me *your* reference number, that means I have to look after it… somewhere… and probably lose it. If you can search for me by post code, or my name, or both then I don’t need to own any your of *your system* only *my* info – which I already know. Get it?”


    You get the picture. I could go on – about the numbskulls who can only address “the world” if their screen has a box for it – but I’ll stop here 😉


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