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Elon and the Ownership of Digital Identity
The recent swiping of the @x username with Twitter's rebrand to X underscores the need for more meaningful ownership and control of our digital identities.
Recently, Elon Musk made the extremely controversial and foolish decision to rename Twitter to, simply, “X,” destroying a massive amount of brand value of his $44 billion vanity buy overnight. Among the many snafus during his tenure is a recent move that demonstrates the need for more meaningful ownership of digital identity: his seizing of the @x username.
Single-letter usernames on Twitter were all registered incredibly early in the platform’s history. Both the financial and intangible value of them is immense. However, when your identity is simply a row in someone else’s database, it is not meaningfully yours. The owners can seize it at any time – or the platform might even simply shut down, making a once valuable username meaningless.
The smol farm website currently uses this sort of traditional username system, and it has even caused me to seriously rethink how we can do better there. We should push for a web where you bring your identity to the table rather than redefining it each time you register on a new website. There are a couple of approaches that already exist showing an enormous amount of promise.
Domain Name Service
A few years before Elon purchased the site formerly known as Twitter, it started a project later spun out into its own startup called Bluesky. The goal is to create a neutral protocol to enable instances of Twitter-like sites to interface with each other with more seamless identity management than previous attempts like Mastodon. The Bluesky developers intend on enabling others to create their own instances soon, which should be able to seamlessly integrate through the “AT Protocol.”
Contrary to Mastodon, where each username is tied to the instance on which it exists, Bluesky instead uses the Domain Name Service (DNS) for usernames. The main instance defaults to providing you subdomains under the “bsky.social,” e.g. yourname.bsky.social, but you can change it to any domain or subdomain you want, provided you can verify ownership of it through the DNS records — the same records your browser uses to route URLs to the proper servers.
This system additionally provides a much more robust way of identity verification than the now mostly meaningless “blue check” on Twitter. If you know the domain names associated with a person or organization, you can safely trust that accounts using those domains are legitimate. The one serious problem that has arisen is Bluesky did not originally take steps to prevent names with slurs from being used, an oversight that caused understandable concern among the platform’s users from marginalized groups.
However, when properly implemented, it stands out as a robust way for you to portably bring your identity to the table. It is even possible that we could see the adoption of extra fields on the DNS record to provide common profile information such as a biography, location, or pronouns.
Though the common perception of NFTs is still generative profile pictures, an NFT is just a unique token on a blockchain whose behavior is governed by a “smart contract.” This led to the rise of services like Ethereum Name Service (ENS), using the .eth extension, and Tezos Domains, using .tez, which are represented with NFTs on their respective chains.
Owners can store all sorts of data on chain associated with these identities, even if their primary use case has become simplifying the process of sending people cryptocurrency by providing memorable names rather than long strings of letters of tand numbers.
Many apps built upon the Ethereum ecosystem simply have you log into them using a crypto wallet and then use the primary ENS associated with that wallet as your username. This seamlessly allows you to bring your identity and profile to an app rather than having to define it through the app itself.
The biggest potential pitfall of this approach is the immutable nature of transactions on the blockchain. Hacks and theft are common, which can include such NFTs. Such problems can be avoided with proper security practices — but we’ve seen time and time again how people fail to develop those, to the point that “all my apes gone” has become a meme.
Neither of these solutions is necessarily the ideal, long-term for solution for meaningful ownership over digital identity. It’s quite possible that something will come along that leapfrogs them both. However, they both serve as strong testaments to the fact that the sort of problem we saw with Musk swiping the @x username can be solved.
This is just one of a myriad of problems that will undoubtedly arise as calcified, centralized social media sites continue to try to navigate a world of declining ad revenue, as evidenced by Reddit’s recent, controversial decision to make their API prohibitively expensive for 3rd party apps. It’s imperative, more than ever, to ensure that the web to come is open and working in the best interests of people, not corporations.
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