I've been thinking a lot about user centric identity over the last few weeks. One of the 5 Big Themes from the Defrag Conference was the importance of user centric identity. As mentioned in that post, we ended up having one of the leading thinkers in this area, Kaliya Hamlin (a.k.a. Identity Woman) on an episode of Read/WriteTalk. Early in the interview, I asked Kaliya to give me the elevator pitch on user centric identity. She responded:

"Really, it’s about giving people the freedom to move around the web with their identity. Just like we move about the world with our bodies. Now I’d see you in one context and then you show up in another place I go “Oh! That’s the same person because they’re walking around in the same body.” So on the web, we just have handles and there has been no standard until very recently where I could move from one context to another context and take that identity that handle with me and would prove that I’m the same person. Of course, giving people the freedom to aggregate across the network of sites. Instead of having a username and password that’s different at every single place you go."

With standards like OpenId, it's great to see user centric identity moving from a concept to a reality. In the rest of this post, we'll explore:

  • Why user centric identity is important
  • How it fits into some themes we discuss regularly on RWW
  • Finally, opportunities for you to get involved

Why is this important? ... Startup Fatigue

I am included in the group of writers at RWW who receive pitches via our email address tips@readwriteweb.com. I've been amazed at the number of innovative web apps being developed to solve real problems. It seems like at least once a week I come across something that I'd be interested in trying out. The problem is that if a site doesn't accept OpenID, it ends up being one more handle and password I need to remember. Keeping track of all these accounts is exhausting. Over time, it has raised the bar for when I'm willing to actually try out a service. I call this effect sign up fatigue. Interestingly, many of the people I talk to seem to be experiencing the same thing.

The product my company recently released, FeedHub, allows user to register using OpenID. Obviously, for those who don't have an OpenID or don't want to use it, they can still provide FeedHub with their email and a password. Interacting with our users, I've been pleasantly surprised with the number of people who've told me how much they appreciate being able to sign up with Open ID. I think it's helped us attract a number of users who otherwise might not have been willing to sign up - due to their own startup fatigue - but who now are some of our most loyal customers.

Important Emerging Issues

In addition to the role Open ID can play as simply a core component of any web application, user centric identity is conceptually a foundation for many of the emerging themes we discuss regularly at ReadWriteWeb, including:

  • Opening Up the Social Graph: One of the interesting challenges right now for Open Social is that the authentication is still being handled by the container. It will be critical to adopt OAuth or some other open standard for the true opportunity to be realized. As I reported from the Defrag Conference, Kevin Marks from Google was honest about this not being a sufficient solution.
  • Vendor Relationship Management (VRM): Doc Searls has been a thought leader in the user centric identity community for some time. He is currently working with the Berkman Center at Harvard on developing the next step called VRM. Bernard Lunn recently summarized VRM on ReadWriteWeb as "Turning Attention into Intention."
  • Attention Economy: Beyond VRM, many of the concepts behind the attention economy require users to be empowered to authenticate across sites.

Getting Involved

If you are interested in learning more about user centric identity, there is an (un)conference at the Computer History Museum next week you should consider attending - The Internet Identity Workshop. I've attended in the past and will be there for at least part of the conference this year. If you are interested in learning more and participating in the community, please consider signing up and joining the conversation.