It’s OK to be jealous of Steve Friedberg. We’ll call it ULID Envy.
Everyone at Illinois State University has a ULID, or “University Logon Identification,” the (usually) seven-character user name that students, faculty, and staff use all across our digital campus.
Why should you be jealous of Steve? Because unlike all the other Redbirds whose ULID is left up to an automated Boggle-like formula, Steve’s ULID is just “steve.” His email is just firstname.lastname@example.org. Really.
“It is great! Other ULIDs seem so unnatural,” said Friedberg, a professor emeritus of mathematics. “At Illinois Wesleyan University, where I taught for several years after I retired from ISU (in 2002), it was ‘sfriedbe.’”
Hidden among the 102,180 unique ULIDs in Illinois State’s system are gems like “steve,” each leading to funny stories and bragging rights for its owner. Friedberg, for example, has mistakenly been on the receiving end of several emails to ISU’s other Steves. (Senders sometimes do it again even after he’s corrected them.)
Every new student, faculty, and staff member is assigned a ULID (not to be confused with UID). Typically, they’ll get an automatically generated ULID with their first initial, middle initial, and the first five characters of their last name. The writer of this story is Ryan Matthew Denham, making my ULID “rmdenha.”
So why do we even have ULIDs? It traces back to the growth of email at Illinois State, which began as an opt-in, unofficial service in the early 1990s. Illinois State’s earliest email addresses were inconsistent― email@example.com might’ve been mine―and tied to whichever server you were assigned.
As computing evolved, the university’s tech leadership established the ULID for all users in the fall 1998 semester. They used a seven-character user name because that’s what the mainframe could handle at the time. Regardless, Redbirds had one set of credentials to log on across ISU websites.
“It just took off from there,” said Rudy Radosevich ’91, M.S. ’92, a longtime IT leader at Illinois State and associate director in Infrastructure Operations and Networking (ION) for Administrative Technologies, which oversees ULIDs.
To get ULIDs off the ground, those who already had email addresses and online IDs elsewhere on campus—even if they weren’t seven characters—were grandfathered in. That’s why Friedberg, who started working in the Department of Mathematics in 1970, is “Steve” and not “shfried” today.
Up until 2014, Illinois State would recycle and re-use ULIDs if a former student, faculty, or staff member hadn’t used it in a few years. But now, ISU just tacks on ascending numbers to ULIDs for those with common names to create unique ones, such as firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are some exceptions to the seven-character ULID. What about those who don’t have a middle name? Or what about those with really short last names, like ISU staffer Rong Li, M.S. ’13?
“People are always amazed that I could have a three-letter ULID,” said Li, the head of library information technology services at Milner Library.
‘My Twitter girl’
The system accidentally produces fun ULIDs. Senior recreation management major Taylor Witter was given “Twitter” as her ULID. (Yes, she does use Twitter, which has been her nickname since high school.)
“Whenever someone sees my email address they always laugh and say that they think it’s really cool,” said Witter. “Whenever I have to call my major advisor to schedule an appointment, the receptionist always says to me, ‘Hey, you’re my Twitter girl!’”
But there are some downsides: “Sometimes my outgoing emails get sent to the recipient’s junk mailbox because of my email address, which is a hassle,” Witter said.
Occasionally, the system will automatically generate a ULID with an unintentionally inappropriate phrase. Just imagine what would happen if international student Yuris Orin Usuckovich enrolled here.
It’s rare, but Redbirds can request their ULID be changed, often because of marriage or divorce. And any user can set up an email nickname, which offers a friendlier address to share with others—so email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org. But that nickname won’t replace your ULID.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.