If you want to create a user account in Google, or Twitter, or Pinterest, or Yahoo, or Instagram or most other social networks and free email services, you need to choose a username. Years ago when these networks started, you could come up with a pretty good username that was one or two words, or one word with a short number after it. Nowadays, in popular networks, you aren't left with much choice for a decent username.
As one example, Twitter is closing in on 600 million users. That is 600 million different usernames created. For perspective, as of December 2012 there were just over 250 million total domain names registered. Consider that millions of more people will be joining Twitter from this point on, and what kind of usernames will you really be able to choose? Certainly almost nothing that is easy to remember, or even spell out. Right now Twitter is banned in China, so what if it ever opens up there? How much more will the user base (and need for usernames) grow? When a teenager goes to join Instagram two years from now, what will be the username options?
Some sites like Facebook and LinkedIn just require an email to sign up. You can create a username to link to your page with a url, but it isn't really necessary in those sites because you are looking for connections by name. It can get difficult at times when there are 50 people with the name you're looking for, and some don't have a profile picture, but since most of the connections you want are in your 'offline' network they usually get found.
As a test for available username quality, I started the sign up process at a popular social network to see what usernames it would suggest for me.
When I wanted the username Mike (not available), it suggested: Mike85085233
When I wanted Susan (not available), it suggested: Susan64358267
I think those usernames speak for themselves.
It isn't always critical to remember someone's username once you have found them and have them tagged or followed in your account, because you can then just click on their link. But there is some degree of status in the naming of almost anything, and the pool of usernames available to select from these days are nobody's first choice anymore.
Many social networks don't easily release usernames that are inactive, but recently Yahoo created a Wishlist system. It was announced on Marissa Mayer's Tumblr blog at:
Yahoo is releasing inactive usernames, so you can go to the following page, enter 5 usernames you like, and hopefully sometime in August you'll get lucky. The username would also give you a Yahoo.com email with the same handle:
Though not everyone uses Yahoo, I personally do, and I enjoy their email system and also their news stories and Finance site almost every day. I think the Wishlist system is very progressive for an internet company, and more networks should follow Yahoo's lead in this.
If you aren't a big social network user or already have the usernames of your choice, then this probably doesn't matter to you. But think of the person who gets their first smartphone and access to social networks next month, or the 6 yr old who will want an Instagram account in three years. What kind of usernames will be available to be had? Will some different kind of naming system have to be developed by networks to deal with this issue?