It really shouldn't be this much of a media sensation, but let's face it: Everybody's talking about how Facebook is finally letting members reserve vanity URLs, letting them customize the Web addresses that lead to their profiles. The feature goes live at 12:01 a.m. EDT on Saturday (9:01 p.m. PDT on Friday) and already, the pundits are going mad.
"This is more than 200 million users, already engaged, simultaneously scrambling in the greatest territory dash since the Oklahoma Territory's land run of 1889, albeit with fewer shotgun injuries," author Douglas Rushkoff wrote in an editorial piece on The Daily Beast about the occasion.
Well, it's not quite that momentous. The thing about vanity URLs is that they're nothing new: MySpace has made it possible for members to replace the string of numbers in their profiles with www.myspace.com/username for years now. Aside from the fact that your profile may have more "Google juice" and it'll be easier to tell people how to find you on the social network, this isn't going to be a huge deal for Facebook members--yet. Except that we all get possessive, and the territory battle for your full name, your old college nickname, or your AOL screen name circa 1996 could get ugly.
The potential difficulty for some users is that Facebook is leaving a lot of questions unanswered. So here's CNET News' quick cheat sheet to what will and what might happen--in case you were wondering.
What happens when the vanity URL feature goes live?
Until this point, Facebook members' profiles have been accessible by unique URLs, but they're hard to remember because they use identification numbers rather than custom names. But starting Saturday at midnight Eastern, Facebook will start bringing up an alert message to members who visit the site--unless they're members who registered after 3:00 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, or brands that created "fan pages" after May 31. If your Facebook account falls under these criteria, there may be a delay because of Facebook's concern that people will snap up names just to "squat" on them and sell them. That's been a problem in the domain name business for about as long as the Web has been around.
So, assuming you fit Facebook's timeline, the alert message will pop up and give you a number of options for selecting your new custom name: your full name, your first name and last initial, your first initial and last name, or other options that happen to be available. You can also type in your own, provided it's at least five characters long and doesn't include any characters besides letters, numbers, and the dot symbol (though presumably you can only use the dot in between alphanumeric characters). It doesn't appear to be a mandatory switch, though Facebook will probably keep bugging you about it if you don't switch immediately.
Are any names taken already?
Yeah, if your name is "Mark Zuckerberg" but you aren't that Mark Zuckerberg, you might not get what you want even if you're the first guy logging in at 12:01 a.m. Some Facebook employees have already started using their vanity URLs, and some very popular brands' "fan pages" have them set already as well. Facebook has a request form for businesses that want to make sure their trademarks stay out of other members' user names.
More recently, Facebook also reserved names for some public figures who were at the risk of impersonation or URL squatting, and additionally offered names early to some journalists and analysts covering or working with Facebook--which means that, yes, www.facebook.com/carolinemccarthy is reserved already. (For what it's worth, Facebook told me I could accept that user name that they'd reserve, but if I wanted any other one I'd have to wait until the public name selection became available.
So it doesn't have to include my real name?
Facebook has always been adamant about making sure that members use their real names in their profiles. That's not the case with the new vanity URLs; you are officially allowed to use a nickname, your Twitter username, or the results from what happens when you run your name through a pirate name generator, as long as nobody's claimed it already. If it contains obscenities, though, Facebook will probably flag it for removal.
Is it really true that I can't change it?
That's what it sounds like. Facebook has well over 200 million members. Customer service has never been its greatest strength, either. Good luck getting them to accept your extremely urgent need to add your middle name.
Will Facebook's servers hold up?
We don't know. But considering the PR disaster that would ensue if Facebook crashed during the "land grab," it's safe to assume that the social network has been working very hard to make sure it can withstand the onslaught of members eagerly logging on as early as they can.
"We underwent testing before announcing the feature and we are taking steps to handle additional traffic," Facebook spokesman Larry Yu said in an e-mail. "It's hard to get into specifics since it's difficult to predict what traffic will actually be like."
For a second opinion, we sent an e-mail over to a representative at uptime monitoring firm Pingdom to see if it thinks there's a serious possibility that Facebook could crash entirely. Its answer: probably not.
"What I suspect is that we won't see any slowdown, and if we do it won't be much," the company's e-mail response read. "But who knows? The only ones with a clue right now are Facebook's engineers. However, if they have enough of a performance margin for several months of organic growth in their user base, they should be able to handle the increased number of visitors tomorrow."
Where will this go from here?
Facebook user names could go in a heck of a lot of directions; the post announcing the vanity URLs coyly hinted that "we expect to offer even more ways to use your Facebook user name in the future." It's a good guess that at some point you'll be able to log into the site with your user name, rather than your e-mail address. This, obviously, could then be extended to sites using the Facebook Connect or even the site's forthcoming virtual currency.
So what do I do now?
If you care enough about Facebook vanity URLs to have read this all the way through, I guess it's time to set an alarm clock.