Scarce resources of the social media age

There is something about the way that economists think that makes them different. Sometimes this makes them downright brilliant. Other times it makes them complete outcasts.

I often enthuse about the paradox of voting — the phenomenon whereby economists struggle to explain why people vote. But when I talk about it to anyone else, the idea is normally met with a combination of confusion and mirth.

I escaped early though. Realising early on that I didn’t really have a talent for economics, I switched tracks soon after completing my degree. I still retain an interest in the subject though, and it definitely still affects the way I think.

The core problem that economics is concerned with is the allocation of scarce resources. Poor John Stuart Mill was traumatised by the problem. When trying to take his mind off the dismal issue, he turned to music. But he only found himself worrying about the scarcity of different musical notes. This insight in turn led him to conclude that, one day in the future, every possible combination of notes will be exhausted and there will be no new melodies.

He needn’t have worried. As we all know in these vuvuzela-aware times, millions will happily make do with one solitary hooting B♭.

A thought about scarcity suddenly struck me today. It is widely thought that this generation will be vilified, but most assume that it will be because we’ve used up all the oil or something.

But what about those all-important usernames on that we depend upon as our identities on the internet? Everyone who has tried to sign up for a half-decent email address knows that it can be a complete pain finding a unique username that isn’t idiotic.

That is how I ended up with an idiotic moniker like ‘doctorvee’. Even this mad username was already taken up on YouTube and Skype when I tried to sign up to those sites. Moreover, some other chappie has decided to call himself ‘Mr DeeJay Doctor V€€’, thereby putting paid to my chance of buying, should I ever have felt the urge to do so.

The problem is bad enough today. Maybe we can keep on signing up to Twitter with vaguely comprehensible usernames for a few years more. But what about 10, 50, 100 years in the future? Surely by then everything will be used up.

Or perhaps, like Mill and his music, it is just the paranoia that comes with the territory when you think like an economist.


  1. Heh, before 2004, my username pretty much everywhere was simple MatB. But when I signed up for a Livejournal, MatB was taken, so I added the middle initial.

    Much more distinctive. These days I tend to username squat, I have either MatBowles or MatGB on most free services, I think I signed up to Twitter a long time before I started actually using it (I blame you for that).

    At some point, there’ll be a reset, and busier sites, like Twitter, will purge old inactive accounts and set their usernames to something-old1 to free up the namespace. Or, y’know, sites will die, and new sites will come along allowing people to grab their preferred name first.

    An idiot spammed a mailing list Iw as on about ten years ago, got mercilessly mocked for having an email address along the lines of [gothboy23678@hotmail]. I mean, gothboy is bad enough, but finding out that there are 23677 already in use? FFS.

  2. I was pretty annoyed to find someone had already pinched bellgrovebelle and athewliss on twitter. I tend to regard my surname as being pretty unusual (hence why I didn’t change it when I got married!), odd to think someone else has it!

  3. I’ve used several usernames in the past but most have been inactive for several years. At least some of these are probably in use by other people due to the clearance systems.

    Usernames are not particularly scarce compared to musical notes – assuming only letters and numbers are permitted and we’re being case-insensitive (unlike some Discworld characters, most of us can’t pronounce a capital letter yet), there are:

    – 1,296 possible usernames with 2 characters
    – 46,656 possible usernames with 3 characters
    – 1,679,616 possible usernames with 4 characters
    – 60,466,176 possible usernames with 5 characters
    – 2,176,782,336 possible usernames with 6 characters
    – 78,364,164,096 possible usernames with 7 characters

    In other words, with 7 case-insensitive alphanumeric characters, there are enough possible usernames for everyone on the planet and the next six generations to have three usernames each in a given system and some usernames left over, barring a massive population explosion. Even people who like consistency in their systems should, in theory, have no trouble, especially since it is unlikely that the general population will associate most usernames with a given individual seven generations after it was first claimed (unless the individual is very famous or longevity treatments become very successful).

    Personally, there have been only two occasions where I haven’t been able to claim the username I wanted. The first time was when I went for my first e-mail and I wanted something pretty anonymous that I would still remember. It took five goes to get something appropriate and even then the eventual email name proved… …accidental. Suffice to say that it ends with 862000 and there almost certainly aren’t 85999 previous emails with the same beginning.

    The other time was when I looked for a short domain name for my blog. I could have had “” but felt it would be too readily confused with “”, which is owned by a foreign company. A quick thought later and I had “”… …and I also grabbed “” to avoid accidental subsequent confusion (a lot of people are liable to type “.com” at the end of every URL whether it’s right or wrong for where they want to go).

    Otherwise, I’ve always had the username I’ve wanted, though occasionally I’ve wanted a different username from one used before.

    So why do so many people have problems with finding a psuedonym? Because people’s habits when assigning meanings to strings of symbols are far narrower than the range of possible usernames that can be generated by those symbols. This is especially true with the growing tendency for people to use their real names, or variants thereof, on the internet. When I started getting involved in the internet, I was still at the stage when my parents and teachers emphasised the importance of not revealing personal information there outside of specific strict contexts, so I had to think outside the box for my usernames (and I will admit at this point that I’ve used more than 3 in my time on the internet).

    Thinking differently to other people will produce new and interesting usernames just as thinking differently will produce great new pieces of music… …but millions will still struggle with usernames because they’re doing the equivalent of desiring the solitary hooting B♭.