What’s in a screen name, Facebook profile or Twitter account? Brand equity and integrity, for some; potential revenue streams (from selling virtual merchandise or account subscriptions) for others. Which is why the issue of protecting someone’s name — essentially their brand — across these various networks has become such a hot topic. Baseball manager Tony La Russa is suing Twitter, for example, because someone set up a phony account in his name and posted “derogatory and demeaning” status updates (via ESPN), and NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to deal with a fake Facebook profile that claimed he had skin cancer (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). So both sites are rolling out new features aimed at making it easier for (some) people to claim and protect their online identities:
— Twitter’s verified profiles: Twitter responded to reports that it had already settled the suit with La Russa with a big fat no — but did acknowledge that its policy of finding and deleting fake accounts needed improvement. So it has launched Verified Accounts, which means that a Twitter rep has been in contact with the person or organization behind the profile to make sure that it’s approved and real. The service is in beta; it also takes too much time and money for Twitter to vet thousands of accounts, and is thus restricted to “well-known artists, athletes, actors, public officials, and public agencies” for the time being. The team says it’s looking for ways to expand (and possibly automate) the verification process in the future.
— Facebook restricts vanity URLs: Fake Facebook accounts have always violated the social network’s terms of service, but news that people would soon be able to grab an easy-to-remember profile link (like http://www.facebook.com/ContentNext instead of http://www.facebook.com/pages/ContentNext-Media-Inc/34051799215) sparked concerns that impostors would snap up branded URLs that belong to businesses or celebrities. So Facebook has already reserved some vanity URLs for journalists (like Michael Arrington) and “tens of thousands” of business names, according to CNET — meaning they won’t have to try to rush and register their names when the system goes live at 9:01 pm PST tonight.
Unfortunately neither network is protecting ordinary users — including bloggers, small business owners and even certain lesser-known brands — from having one aspect of their online identity hijacked. And even though the celebrities and big companies are ideal targets for potential fee-based services, neither Facebook nor Twitter would be able to attract high-profile users if “average Joes” hadn’t made the networks popular in the first place.
Staci adds I was one of the journalists whose name URL was reserved by Facebook. In an e-mail yesterday, a Facebook rep explained the unsolicited action for “key journalists and outlets we work with” (it also was taken for brands): “Because you