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What’s in a name? For @Jon and @Sarah, maybe a whole lot of money

Your name could be worth thousands of dollars. At least when it comes to your Twitter username, more commonly known as your handle. According to a recent New York Post article, one-word, first-name handles are in high demand. One lucky user, @Chase, was offered $20,000 by Chase Bank to give up the alias.

So what about the other @[first name here] users of the world?  What about the people sitting behind some of the more popular names, like Sarah, or Jon? There may have been five girls in your class named Katie, but only one of them – in the whole world – is proud owner of the @Katie handle.

“I’ve had a few people contact me asking to buy ‘@katie,’ but I’ve always said no,” says @katie, or Katie LaRue, an Associate Athletic Director and girls basketball coach for a boarding school in Pennsylvania. LaRue has been using Twitter since 2006. She often posts about sports and pushes photos from Instagram – like so many of us do. But unlike us, she’s been incentivized to give up her user name. And also unlike us, she’s often mistaken for other, more famous Katies.

“I get tweets non-stop for other Katies … it does eventually get old.” She lists a few, saying she gets Katie Holmes, Katie Price, and often receives tweets from “some girl who talks about being a drug dealer in Ohio to her friend Katie, which is pretty hilarious sometimes.”

@Katie has also been confused for Katie Couric, something Couric found so amusing LaRue was invited on the show (where she says they only jokingly asked to buy her handle).

She obviously isn’t the only one who suffers from a case of Twitter mistaken identity – take @Mike, or software engineering director Michael Michon, who gets messages for the wrong Mike “on average around every two hours.” 

“There is a group of four high school-age friends in New York that get sad when I don’t reply back to every single @Mike tweet they post. I’d like to think of them as my fan club.” @Jon – aka, Jon Wheatley – knows his pain. “Probably 90 percent of the people who ‘@jon’ [me] are false positives,” says the start-up exec, who founded the Airbnb-acquired social site DailyBooth.

When asked how he was able to snag such a popular handle a full year after Twitter launched (he joined in 2007), @jon admits he in fact paid for it. “Originally I signed up with @jonwheatley. I actually bought the @jon handle from a guy named Jon in 2009.”

The price? “I paid $750 for it,” he says.

“It’s really nice being able to forgo the business card and just say, ‘I’m @jon on Twitter!’”

Others also came by their @first-name handles with a little help. Biology student and Etsy jewelry-maker Sarah Richie, or @sarah (who suffers the unfortunate circumstance of being mistaken for, among others, Sarah Palin – think about the possibilities of those tweets) has had the username since 2007, when her then-boyfriend @Tom – an early Twitter adopter – finagled it for her.

“I believe that his username was available, but mine was being squatted on,” she says. “He emailed Twitter requesting the account, and since it hadn’t been used in ages they gave it to him.”

In case you just went running to Twitter to try and reserve your own @ name should the account go inactive, save yourself the trouble: It doesn’t work that way anymore – as @kristin, or Kristin Marshall, knows. “Back in the earlier days of Twitter, you could ticket to reclaim an inactive username, like trademark holders do these days,” she says. In 2009, she saw a blog post explaining the process and ticketed to get her own first name handle.

“Twitter had strict guidelines regarding inactive accounts – even if they hadn’t tweeted, if the account was logged into at some point, it was still considered active. If I remember correctly, the account had to be inactive for at least six months.”

She was lucky enough to be awarded @Kristin once the previous owner was considered inactive.

As the Twittersphere becomes more crowded and a more powerful advertising and identity tool, it’s only natural the @first-name holders of the platform will be bribed – but with what? Or how much of it?

One user offered to shill @sarah’s Etsy jewelry; @Mike tells me people contacted him about a purchase but he’s held off because Twitter’s terms are strictly against the sale of handles or accounts


Warehouse manager and musician Mark Stickney, or @mark, says he was once offered $1,000 for the handle – which he declined. “I don’t use Twitter to promote anything. I can’t stand that it has pretty much become an ad tool, and to me that makes it lose the charm it originally had. I keep it to check it to be funny with my friends.”

Clearly for these users, there is value in holding onto their @names – and holding tight. “Definitely worth the $750 I paid for it,” says @jon. “It’s really nice being able to forgo the business card and just say, ‘I’m @jon on Twitter!’”

There are plenty of stories suggesting Twitter is willing to work with users to make such transactions happen but Twitter did not reply to my request for comment, nor my question asking how they monitor for unsanctioned handles sales. But favors happen: @Mike got his handle by being friends with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (who, appropriately, is @Jack). “He signed me up and picked my username while we were hanging out at a San Francisco nightclub.”

But why the motivation for the first name handle? @Kristin, who works in marketing and has had past jobs as a writer, graphic designer, and social media consultant, says getting and keeping the handle is important to her online identity. “I usually like grabbing ‘Kristin’ as a username on websites, if I can, mainly because I’ve never maintained an online nickname.”

“My personal website is Kristin.fm, so I wanted to have first-name branding across as many social media sites as I could!”

Though “online identity” and “personal branding” might sound like buzz words thrown around in Powerpoint-heavy meetings, they’re two trends that have only been strengthening their roots in social media. Parents are even starting to squat on handles for their children to someday inherit. It’s a chilling idea that the next generation may be born with pre-existing online profiles, but it’s a very real one.

Still, while their first-name handles are certainly worth quite a bit – personally, professionally, and to the bidders out there – none of these owners have parted with them. At least not yet.

“I’d like to think that I’m immune to bribery, but as a poor college student with eight mouths to feed – three cats, two dogs, two horses, one snake – I’d have trouble turning down a five figure offer,” @sarah says.

As @jon succinctly puts it: “Everything can be bought at the right price!” 

Top image courtesy of Vectomart/Shutterstock

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