Solving Identity Online (Or Why a Universal ID Won’t Work)

This morning saw two great posts Christina and Fred at Union Square Ventures on online identity.

Why I totally agree with them that your online ID is contextual (check out my post on why Facebook comments won’t work here), I disagree with their approach in how they believe online ID should be handled.

To summarize really briefly from Fred’s post:

So what I want is a layer that sits on top of all these services, aggregates up all of my URLs (identities), and then provides authentication in the same way that Facebook, Twitter, and Google do today.

And the main reason I don’t agree with it is that I don’t believe it’ll work in the scenario he describes below:

So maybe the big three can get together and cooperate on building this authentication layer on top of their services and promoting is as an indepedent way to authenticate and provision identity and related data to web and mobile services. I’d love to see that happen and I suspect the Internet would be a better place because of it.

For me, it comes back to incentives and who has the power in driving online identity.

Assumption 1: Consumers are lazy.  Even if long-term a service like OpenID would work, most consumers wouldn’t understand it – but even more over – wouldn’t feel the need to use it (which is why I believe it wasn’t adopted originally)

Assumption 2: Founders will do what makes their life better. This is a combination of reducing the amount of work they want to do relative to the creation of a successful product. (This is more broadly applicable – people like to be successful – especially Alpha personality-types that Founders tend to be – but for now we’ll focus on creators of consumer facing web applications)

I’d argue the reason that OpenID wasn’t adopted was a combination of the two reasons above – consumers weren’t innately driven to create an OpenID (they would already be in a registration process when they would think about signing up for OpenID and most would just want to finish the process) and as such developers weren’t motivated to promote it (they can keep complete ownership of their data and don’t have to worry about supporting a third-party log-in credential or confusing new potential users)

I believe the same issue is going to affect any plan to create a new unified log-in for web services – either the major players have to want to work together or consumers have to actively push for it to happen (which neither feel incredibly likely)*

So starting again with our premise – let’s focus on the developer (instead of the consumer) – how can we incentivize  a developer to want to work within an identity framework?

I think the answer is starting from the bottom up – with data – and working up – with a product that focuses on the Facebook Platform layer (or providing instant personalization out of the box) with a data locker service.

To define, the product would be a locker for all of a consumer’s information – social, interest, and professional – including both explicit information (these are my friends on Linkedin and I like WordPress on Facebook) and implicit (I call Meaghan every night for 30 minutes or I tend to spend every Sunday in the park.)

The net result for developers is that you can start to build really interesting, truly personal experiences leveraging data across the entire data set (as opposed to the old world where they only had their own data to work with – Hunch is built on this premise.)

Overtime, this experience can grow beyond just traditional social web applications – to everything a consumer does both offline and online – enabling true personalization for any product or service directly out of the box.

The value for the first developers would be similar to the early adopters of OpenID – you don’t have build it yourself and we’ll help you get more early users.  Consumers would be pushed into adoption via these applications (Do you want to own your data?  Very few people will say no even if they don’t understand it) and over time bigger applications would be forced to use these products due to the consumer demand.

In the process:

1. Consumers can still choose which service they want to use from a service (Twitter for broadcast, Linkedin for professional, etc)

2. Users still get out of the box customization – but now they have access to additional sets of data that make the experience even more uniquely tied to me

3. I don’t have to think about the data storage process until I’m already in the application – and then it seems like a win for everyone for me to opt-in

4. Developers are happy because of shared data ownership and shared user ownership (and happy users)

At the end of the day – identity is not one thing – its a combination of every experience and moment a person has – and can’t be forced into a single sign-in (the same reason Facebook can’t control online identity on its own.)

However, by enabling consumers to control and maintain their data across services – you’re able to package someone’s identity in totality – and then we’ll start seeing really interesting products and services – both offline and online.

* Footnote:

Christina dives deep into identity and how people communicate.  This problem is improved by the above, but not solved.  Where I believe really interesting changes will occur here is naturally with the growth of mobile – as mobile phones are uniquely tied to a specfic individual.

It doesn’t matter what service you’re using – they all tie back to the same device.  So numbers, addresses, and protocols matter less than the person you want to talk to.  Services like Rapleaf have started doing this for the enterprise – taking addresses and turning them into people – so will the future of communication focus more on the who (people) than the how (channel.)

Think Plaxo 2.0


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I work for True Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund with offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. We partner with promising entrepreneurs at the earliest stages in the technology market providing hands-on management support to guide our portfolio companies through the challenges of early growth.