Social Media’s Holy Grail: Identity

Social Media’s Holy Grail: Identity – and why Facebook will figure it out

There is a lot of discussion around the web about moving towards a more unified way to manage your online persona. Data Portability has brought a lot of attention to this space, and all of the big players are responding with their own initiatives. It’s exciting to see things moving in the right direction. It’s also interesting that the conversation is shifting to focus on identity, which I consider one of the biggest latent values of Facebook (more on that later).

Identity on the web and why it’s important
In the early days of the web, anonymity was the norm, almost encouraged even. It was portrayed as an alternative world where you could be something else. At the time this was seen as both an advantage, and also as a reason that the internet has too much noise and will never truly rival established businesses.
By and large, the focus on anonymity is dying down. We are moving towards an internet where it is acceptable and encouraged to be yourself. Part of this is people getting more comfortable with the ever present online world, and part of it is that the improved technology and wealth of information on the web makes it increasingly difficult to avoid having an online footprint. And if you already have information out there, it’s better to control and curate that, instead of having someone else do it. We are seeing this move towards identity all across the web, everywhere from personal blogs to social networks, Twitter to Amazon to LinkedIn. People are comfortable sharing more about themselves, but they are increasingly comfortable with a verified true identify on the internet.
Why Facebook can solve this
In its early days, Facebook required people to be who they said they were by limiting registration to people with a .edu email address, which almost invariably was formatted in such a way that your true name was used in that same .edu email. That created a culture of creating your true identity, linking up with real friends, in a safe environment. This culture was so entrenched, that even when they opened up so that anyone could join, people by and large consistently create accurate profiles and use their real full name. It’s nice not to have to mentally map a series of online usernames to people’s actual names.
So what Facebook has created is the largest, accurate, self-mainteined identify validation in the world. On Facebook you can pretty quickly validate if someone is who they say they are through pictures, mutual friends, name, colleges, etc. Notice the focus on accurate and self-maintained. Both of those are important. Myspace is lacking on the former, online directories lacking on the latter.

Facebook connect: Getting closer
A step I have been predicting for a while, Facebook has announced their Facebook Connect platform, basically creating an ability to leverage this identity that they have created, as well as the social graph. The value of this is incredible on a number of levels. As a user, I hate having to recreate my profile and social graph on all of the sites I use. As a founder of a social media company, I want to encourage people to create profiles on my site, while also understanding that it’s a barrier to entry that I wish I could avoid.
In addition to convenience, it has a number of incredibly serious and truly useful applications. Validating identity can address phishing attacks. It can prevent spam email by creating an framework where you can validate the source of the emails. It can simplify online banking, credit cards, and other purchases. It starts entering a territory that moves far beyond simple social networking.

Why others can’t (or won’t) solve this
I’ve laid my case for why Facebook will figure this out, and it’s really built around the nature of their social network being based on real people and real names. However, it’s important to look at some of the other potential solutions, and why they can’t or won’t figure this out.

OpenID doesn’t work
Whenever this topic about identify and single sign-on comes up, people invariable clamor about OpenID and how that’s going to solve everything. But it hasn’t, and it won’t. I understand the technical advantages of using URL’s as the core identify, but realistically it’s too cumbersome right now. I’m a huge techie, and I don’t use OpenID for a number of reasons. First of all, I can never quite remember my AIM issues OpenID. Where does the dash go, is it ‘openid’ or ‘open-id’, where is the slash, etc. Second, not that many sites are actually using it. And finally, even on a site that accepts it, it doesn’t really work that well. I want it to remember me, yet every time I use it somewhere, but instead I have to enter the entire ID and password. My point is that OpenID has created the right conversation, but is not the right solution.

MySpace is irrelevant
MySpace has made some strong moves recently to try to become more open, but realistically, aside from bringing us seizure-inducing profile pages, they are not an innovator. Additionally, MySpace has never had a solid identify backbone, resulting in a ton of spam profiles (Facebook is starting to see this, but has better mechanisms to address it), lack of clarity between people, bands, companies, groups (Facebook has done a good job of having companies create Pages to prevent this), and random user names that are difficult to pin down to the actual person. For Rupert’s sake, I hope the rumors of him trying to cash out are true, because MySpace’s value has certainly peaked.

Microsoft Passport was a non-starter
It failed for two main reasons:

  1. Nobody wanted (or still wants) to trust Microsoft with that type of central control to their core informaton
  2. It was too aggressive from the start, wanting to force everything to a central database that didn’t even exist

But the Passport history is interesting, because it shows that this is valuable to Microsoft, and was probably a factor in their investment in Facebook. The New York Times had a recent blog post highlighting this analogy:

Can Facebook Build a Better Passport? – Bits – Technology – New York Times Blog: “This is similar to what Microsoft tried and failed to build with its Passport system. AOL tried, too, and no one noticed enough to remember that it failed as well. More recently, there has been a movement towards a standard known as OpenID to allow people to log in to one site with an ID issued by another. But so far, it is too complex to use and hasn’t gotten much traction.”

(Via NY Times.)

Google and Yahoo aren’t moving fast enough
Realistically either one of these have the potential to address these concerns, but neither is moving fast enough to do something. Google is slowly opening up the value of their current sign on. I can use my single gmail account name and password to sign into all of my google services, but it’s still lacking. For example, the tie-in with YouTube is still pretty iffy, and their half way support of OpenID isn’t helping. Yahoo has a huge user base that they are now trying to make more social. But again, I wouldn’t bet on them figuring this out. Plus, realistically, Yahoo users are not on the bleeding edge of the web, and are likely to be the early adopters of this new direction.

Facebook as the Switzerland of the web?
Whoever (if anyone) ends up controlling or brokering identity on the web, will have to be neutral, trusted, and safe. In order to be neutral, it cannot profit directly off of that identity control. It will need to build a deep trust, given that identity will likely be the most valuable online currency. And it will have to create the safe and secure mechanisms to transfer that currency around the world.
Sounds a lot like the Switzerland of online identify management.