He can handle it: Javier Castaño’s Twitter names include ‘@japan’ / Getty

Like the dotcom-name buyers of yore, a Spaniard who snapped up covetable Twitter handles in 2007 must have hit paydirt by now… mustn’t he?

Early adopters scoop the best online names. If your name is Simone, if you're ahead of the curve and have an eye for the next big online service, you'll have grabbed "simone" before any other Simones have got up and brushed their teeth. When they wander along a few weeks later, they'll have to be content with something like "simone_watkins34". Snappy names carry considerable kudos. People want them. They're worth something, though quantifying that worth can be tricky.

Back in early 2007, Malaga resident Javier Castaño flung himself enthusiastically into registering names that had, up to that point, gone unclaimed on a burgeoning online service called Twitter. This was a free landgrab opportunity. He snapped up @canada, @roma, @madrid, @riodejaneiro, @japan and others. This, he figured, was an investment worth making. In time, other people would want these names, perhaps even governmental bodies, but he'd be the one who controlled them. In fact, everyone was at it. By Easter, the roll call of brands which didn't control their own Twitter accounts was huge, and included @levis, @casio, @audi, @colgate, @yamaha and @mcdonalds.

McDonald's should probably have been wise to this. Back in 1994, Joshua Quittner wrote a piece for Wired magazine that observed how members of the public appeared to be buying up domain names of major corporations. He discovered a couple of extraordinary things: first, only two or three people were responsible for overseeing the whole domain-registration process in the US; and second, McDonald's had little interest in the fact that he was about to buy the mcdonalds.com domain name from under their noses. "Are you finding that the internet is a big thing?" the PR department of McDonald's asked. "Yes," Quittner replied. He concluded the piece by asking what he should do with the domain, inviting people to send him emails at ronald@mcdonalds.com.


The organisation then in charge of dotcom domains, InterNIC, hurriedly introduced a domain resolution policy that protected trademark holders, and you'll find similar policies in place across social media. In time, Twitter had handed @levis, @casio et al back to the companies deemed to be their rightful owners. But Castaño's collection of city- and country-based Twitter handles provoked no such hoo-hah. These were just proper nouns. Castaño had as much right to them as anyone, but he didn't really want them – and Twitter's terms of service appeared to prohibit him from selling them.

Money, however, can change hands. In 2013, photographer Chase Giunta began retweeting some of the abusive messages he'd received on his @Chase Twitter account that had been intended for the multinational banking company JPMorgan Chase. He began to style @Chase as an anti-JPMorgan account, but in doing so fell foul of the bank's lawyers. During the dispute, an anonymous broker offered him $20,000 for @Chase; Giunta, unable to verify the legitimacy of the offer, declined, but within days Twitter had stripped him of the @Chase account in any case, handing it to JPMorgan.

Giunta might consider himself unlucky, as Twitter's rules have undoubtedly been broken in the past: in 2010, the State of Israel bought @israel from one Israel Melendez for a six-figure sum, while tech blogger Drew Olanoff raised $1m for the Livestrong Foundation when US TV personality Drew Carey won an auction for the @drew account (although it was returned to Olanoff afterwards). Both were done with Twitter's knowledge.

Castaño, however, has even found his accounts difficult to give away. Rome's City Council was happier to stick with its @romacapitaleTW account than accept Castaño's free offer of @roma, though it was transferred eventually – as were @canada and @madrid. This week, ahead of next year's Olympics, Rio de Janeiro's city hall finally responded to his offer of @riodejaneiro. The bio for @japan, however, written by Castaño, still plaintively states: "Trying to give this account to the Government of Japan." Warning: the landgrab of snappy online names can, if you're unlucky, turn out to be an administrative headache.