October 27, 2022•905 words
Telegram has been in hot waters a lot lately. First their revival of the TON coin, then Telegram Premium, and now, they are putting all the usernames they forcefully took from users up for sale. Naturally, all of these have generated an awful lot of debate everywhere online. I personally do not want to comment too much on the blockchain aspects, as I have done before, or whether Telegram broke their promise in offering Premium and forcing ads on normal users. What I do want to say a thing or two about, with my own experience, is the practice of auctioning "unused" username handles.
When I joined Telegram initially, I of course occupied the same
@PeterCxy account handle that I use almost everywhere else online. This was not a problem back then, because Telegram was not that popular, and many people were still in the process of migrating to Telegram, at least in my circle. But things quickly went somewhat out of hand when Telegram gained a lot of traction amongst people in the tech community, especially the Android community. For a period of time, I would constantly receive Telegram messages from people who contacted me based on my account handle, which was shared between my Telegram account and GitHub, and probably many more forums and services.
I do love to discuss with people about my projects, whether it is answering their questions or addressing any oversights that I had when I coded the project. What I do not like, however, is that my Telegram account became my de-facto email inbox. I don't know about you, but I personally think that instant messaging fulfills a different purpose than emails, and technical discussion and support are way better suited for communication via email. A higher-latency communication channel forces people to write out their entire question / point before the discussion, and it also enables batch synchronization and notification -- instead of having my phone buzz constantly even in the middle of the night.
I considered just making my Telegram account private, but that poses a few issues. First of all, people can no longer tag me via my username in groups. Even though tagging by display name works too, that can be clunky and my display name does not necessarily contain only ASCII characters. Secondly, my original account handle would be released and up for grabs for anybody else -- and someone malicious could just take my username and impersonate me. I am no celebrity, but I am also not completely unknown in the community -- so I considered this kind of a serious issue. What I ended up settling on is (1) resetting my account handle (username) to something unrelated to my other online presences; and (2) setting up a public Telegram channel with my original username, and have a pinned message in there to direct people to other communication channels where I can be reached.
This worked fairly well for the past few years. I stopped receiving as many messages from strangers on Telegram, and most of my technical support and discussion moved to my email inbox thanks to that public channel holding my account handle. Occasionally I would give out my real Telegram account handle, of course, but that is limited to people I have contacted with for some time. But this all changed earlier this year, when Durov suddenly announced the removal of usernames from dormant channels, and later put them up for sale for TON coins. My channel, as a placeholder to prevent impersonation, of course became the target of this. I now no longer control my original account handle,
@PeterCxy, on Telegram, and anyone with enough TON coins could impersonate me on Telegram.
Is my experience commonplace? I have no way to know, but all I know is that some friends of mine have been using the same technique to redirect unwanted PMs to other communication channels before me. And of course, all of those channels have been taken away by Telegram, too. You can now buy the ability to impersonate any of us with real money, which I, personally, don't see as a good development.
Of course, cybersquatting is a thing, and it is a huge problem on a lot of social platforms. Cybersquatting can also lead to impersonation, as much as Durov's practice of "stealing" usernames and re-selling them can do. As much as I think I am a victim of this scheme, and that my use-case of placeholders is very legitimate and not cybersquatting, I can see at least a bit of reason in Telegram's decision. What I am not able to reconcile with, however, is how taking away account handles from legitimate users and re-selling them for money could improve the situation. It seems that if my username was occupied by cybersquatters before, I am not really in any better position right now, because instead of being able to just register my username or ask Telegram support for that handle, I now have to pay an arbitrary amount of money to Telegram just to use my usual handle. The problem of cybersquatting seems to be better solved with clear rules and user support. You can sell Premium accounts as much as you like, but please, please do NOT sell my online identity for your financial gains. That is the last straw for me before I start the process of fully migrating off Telegram as a platform.