👨‍💻 Wesley Moore

ASCII-centric Usernames


I’m working on a web-based side project in my spare time. The great thing about side projects is you get to make all the choices and question the common wisdom. Recently I’ve been building out the sign-up flow and I started thinking about usernames—specifically the characters that they may be comprised of.

I poked around a few sites to see what they did: Twitter, GitHub, Discourse all restrict your username to a mostly ASCII alphanumeric character set, perhaps with -, _, and . thrown in.

It struck me that this is fine for me, an English speaker, but must suck for folks that can’t have a username in their own language. It is however not without precedent. The Internet’s origins in the US linger on with similar restrictions on e-mail and DNS (Punycode is but a workaround) for example. Some further thinking and research led to some possible reasons for this:

  1. There’s the obvious precedent set by e-mail and other systems: that’s how we’ve always done it so it just continues.
  2. Some languages require a dedicated input system in order to type naturally. That means it would be difficult for people without familiarity with that system to be able to type the username such as might be necessary when @ mentioning someone.
  3. Similar to above, most keyboards have some way to type the English alphabet.
  4. ASCII alpha-numeric characters are able to be in URLs without percent-encoding.

That last one is the most compelling reason I saw. For an application that has user profile pages where the username goes in the URL it seems advantageous for that to be able to happen directly without encoding.

Now this is all very biased by my monolingual, English speaking, Western viewpoint. Perhaps it is more common to permit native language usernames in applications that target non-English markets?

I did find a couple of examples that were more permissive with usernames. Discord happily let me set my username to “🦊 こんにちは”. Slack rejected the emoji with a cute message, “Of course you want a name with an emoji. Sadly, it is not to be. Try letters?”, but was otherwise happy with “こんにちは”. In both cases @ mentioning the user appears to require typing their name, although you could also find them in the people directory first.

Notably Discord and Slack don’t have public profile pages (that would need a URL). I’d be curious if there were systems out there with public profile pages where the usernames are permissive and the name is in the URL (and not the account id number for example).

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