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The History of Usernames Part 1/3: A Journey from Unix to Online Services


Usernames are identification tags used by individuals on today’s digital platforms. They are usually unique for a given website and allow for anonymous seamless interactions with other online users. These virtual identities enable engagement and collaboration while protecting sensitive personal information.

The digital era has seen online users utilize usernames for various reasons, including branding and marketing on social media, to online identity and recognition. Additionally, usernames help shape the perception of individuals in the digital world, as most users choose usernames that closely relate to their identities and personalities.

Usernames are quite popular nowadays; today’s online financial systems have even adopted usernames like ‘sendtags’ for real-time payments. However, their initial concept was niche and had its roots in the early days of computing. This blog explores the interesting history of usernames, from its mainframe computer era to the World Wide Web and social media age.

The Early Days of Usernames

During the onset of computer system development, usernames were primarily used to identify individual users accessing shared systems, often in research or academic institutions where multiple users would need to access the same primary server.

In the dawn of internet usage, coming up with a username was quite simple. Most users would combine their names with initials and numerals. The growth of online communities saw individuals become more imaginative with their selection of usernames as users regarded them as a form of self-expression. Creativity saw users insert pop culture references and inside jokes in their usernames. Others used their hobbies with usernames such as "Gameboy217" being seen on various digital platforms.

The usernames used during the AOL Instant Messenger era, such as "14653Shaz4lyfXX," were cryptic, and mostly known to the account owner and their inner circle. The evolution of online platforms such as bulletin board systems (BBS), the World Wide Web, and early email systems required users to have specific identifiers to interact with other online community members.

Preliminary operating systems such as Unix and the early online community laid the foundation for creating usernames. They allowed users to create digital personas and engage with virtual communities, a concept that has continued to shape daily online interaction and brand identity in the modern era. Unix systems, operating through terminals, required users to have a unique identifier to log in. Usernames with a maximum of eight characters became crucial for accessing and maintaining resources in Unix systems. This limitation of username characters was primarily for compatibility with file systems.

The Rise of Online Services

Online services such as AOL (American Online) Instant Messenger and the first web platforms enhanced the concept of usernames and online identities. AOL came into existence in the early 1980s, providing multiple online services during this era, ranging from email to instant messaging. Instant messaging and chatrooms were some of the features that made AOL popular, and having a username was required to participate in conversations on the platform.

Another early online service was CompuServe, an online commercial service offering file downloads and emails. CompuServe gave its users numeric identifications by default, it however allowed one to create their preferred usernames that they could easily remember.

Web forums and bulletin boards were mainly used for online discussions, enabling early forms of online communities. These early web forums also required users to create accounts with unique usernames, building a sense of identity and belonging in the online community.

AOL, CompuServe, and early web forums helped individuals connect with the concept of usernames and online identities. They offered communication, collaboration, and community-building forums that shaped the interactions and connections we have globally today.

Lasse Hämäläinen investigates the intriguing studies of usernames as our online pseudonyms in his thought-provoking journal, From Bonehead to @realDonaldTrump: A Review of Studies on Online Usernames,”. He states, “Social media usernames are an essential part of professional image, and, therefore, these online names have considerable financial value.” Join us in our upcoming blogs as we discuss the roles of usernames in social media, personal branding, payments, and more.