Technology is our friend: Online identity in slow progress
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October 18, 2011

Online identity in slow progress

I remember back in 2005 when this presentation came out and everyone in the office (I-D Media, those days) was blown away. Not only because of the great presentation style but especially because of the content. Take 15 minutes, it’s worth it.

Some 6 years later, where are we now? 

6 years. Wow! In web terms, this is like eight generations. Again on an O’Reilly convention (still called “Web 2.0”), 4chan founder Christopher Poole heavily attacked the online identity strategies by Google and Facebook (covered for example here (BI), here(AllthingsD) and here (RWW)). If you look at Dick Hardt’s great speech above, we still have site-centered “identity 1.0” approaches now. You have to agree with Chris Poole not only because anonymity is a political necessity (everywhere, by the way), but because “simple and open” is about as far away as China from an open internet. Facebook, with the – for site owners – awesome “connect” feature, makes it possible to me as a user to take my identity to different sites, and bring everything I entered there, including my friends, interests and connections to objects, to any site that offers “connect”, without registering at that specific site. That is a great step towards a more social and useful web. But it is still a site-centered, silo-like approach, since you cannot control too much of what you want to share with another site (and what not) and you cannot transfer (parts of) your online identity to any other place you would choose to. Or manage a second identity: Poole sees Google’s (very similar) and Facebook’s identity approaches as based on an assumption that people could be “mirrored” while in fact they are more like diamonds: multi-faceted and different from different angles.  

Hardt talks about “Microsoft passport” and how it failed. Today’s identity management from the big social networks is still similar, even if it is more evolved and more useful. Hardt was optimistic enough to proclaim that “open and user-driven” will win, but at least until today, that did not happen (he still blogs every once in a while about identity). 

I have to agree with Poole and think that considering the loooooong stretch of 6 years, the developments in this area are pretty disappointing. My guess is that Facebook will lead the identity race for many years to come, maybe even "deeper" than we can think of today: what if they were to get deeply integrated in OS-like infrastructure – or build it themselves? We wouldn’t want to live without it after the first months of privacy concerns were over. But I believe that “open and user driven” still has value, and FB has always developed towards more value (for anyone involved), so most probably FB’s identity management will open up eventually, step by step. But until we are able to manage multiple angles of our identities (friend lists or circles are a start, but like stone age) and can control and – very important – take the data from here to there on our own terms, the “race” is still open.