I recently set up youtube and twitter accounts, and it became clear to me that we are at the end of a functional era. A decade ago it was cute to make up a name like “Neo” or “Mystic_Al” when signing up for an internet based service. But today there are too many of us for that to work. Just try to sign up for any popular electronic service and you will realize how hard it is to not only pick a name that has any relevance to you or your organization, but in fact find any unused name at all!

Youtube claims “tens of millions” of users have created content channels. Names are scarce enough as it is. But consider population growth over the coming decade, and the increased usage of the internet world wide, and the problem becomes staggering. And what happens to the ID of someone who stops using Youtube, or dies?

There are many people in the world with the same name, yet they can all have a phone number, home address, etc. It would be ridiculous to hear, “I’m sorry, there is already a John Smith who owns a home. You will need a different user ID to own your home”. But that is in fact exactly what happens to us when signing up for most any electronic service. One solution could be to give every person a unique identifier, which would be largely unused publicly. Something like the Social Security number that every American gets, this unique ID could be connected to a web domain, an email address, and other user IDs. These could be transferred from provider to provider over a lifetime, much like you can move an existing phone number from one carrier to another. It would also be easy to add IDs over time as new technologies and services emerge.

This of course brings to mind some scary big brother scenarios, but after much consideration over many years, I still feel something like this is necessary, and carries far more benefits than risk. Tracking medical records, unifying all those silly cards you get from grocery stores, and more. I think the potential risk of abuse from a system where everyone (including the individual) can monitor a structured set of data is far less than the opportunity for abuse we have today in the growing chaos of user data.

Even if only a fraction of the world’s current population of roughly 7 billion uses electronic services, we run out of unique hand-picked IDs really quickly. And what happens as population continues to grow, and current users pass away? What names will be left for our children? Our grandchildren? This is all such new territory that most companies don’t have a process in place for dealing with the account of a dead person. Does the family inherit it? Does it go back into public domain? If so, when?

I first began talking with my peers about this stuff in the late 90s, when the road ahead was already clear. Im sure there are smart people working on this problem somewhere, but these are huge issues, and the longer we put them off, the harder they will be to solve.