In the old days, self-important people use to carry calling cards. Now we have Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to turn us all into mini-celebrities. So what's the new calling card online? That position's being jockeyed for as we speak, and different contenders are taking very different approaches.
Twitter released an important new feature to selected developers yesterday that could make it a compelling alternative to the fast growing Facebook Connect system for logging into sites around the web.
Google has its own Friend Connect service and many people use their own website as an ID and data store. That's the goal with all these systems: giving new sites you visit secure access to information about you and your friends from other sites so that the new site can better personalize its service to you. There's reason to be particularly excited about Twitter's entry into this field.
Facebook Connect is being adopted rapidly by sites all over the web seeking to let people sign in with a verified identity, some social data and access to publish activity back onto the Facebook Newsfeed. Now Twitter looks to be offering a similar feature and it could be a better implementation of the same idea.
Yahoo's Eran Hammer-Lahav wrote an in depth article about the new "Sign in With Twitter" functionality yesterday. He celebrates the move as particularly adherent to agreed upon standards - no proprietary "special sauce" clouds interoperability as happens with Facebook Connect. He also draws a distinction between Facebook's offering a social layer to websites vs. Twitter's new feature and its work with 3rd party sites and services that are already tightly integrated with Twitter. We're not so sure that second distinction is so important, though. We can imagine this new Twitter feature being implemented far and wide.
The idea is that sites using the new Sign in With Twitter tool will go through a relatively simple process to gain permission to access your data from Twitter. They will see if your browser is already logged in to Twitter, then they will either give you a pop-up window to log in there or they will skip directly to asking Twitter to ask you if you'd like to give access to this new site. You never have to give the new site your Twitter password, but you can give it permission to access private data like Direct Messages and the ability to post in your name.
It seems quite similar to Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect in a number of ways. It may be more exciting though, because Twitter is a fundamentally different beast.
All social networking services these days want to be "a platform" - but it's really true for Twitter. From desktop apps to social connection analysis programs to services that will Twitter through your account when a baby monitoring garment feels a kick in utero - there's countless technologies being built on top of Twitter.
It's always been that way, Twitter's API is open at its core. Twitter would be nowhere near where it is today without its developer community.
Facebook, on the other hand, not only uses a non-interoperable system of authentication in Facebook Connect - it's also not based fundamentally on openness. It's based on giving access to your information to a limited set of the people you know. No one can see your profile at all without your explicit permission. The company has long held that protecting users' privacy is of the utmost importance. Of course Facebook is still about sharing, it's not completely closed, and it could be toying with and changing our understanding of privacy more than we know.
Is this just an accident? Hammer-Lahav doesn't think so and put it quite well on the OpenID mailing list last fall. "They never made the effort to truly engage the community and understand either specifications [OpenID/OAuth]," he wrote. "Second, for the most part, they reused existing Facebook pieces to create Facebook Connect. Those pieces could have been converted or added support for OpenID and OAuth a long time ago. And third, this is exactly what they wanted to do - these are some of the brightest minds in the industry and they know what they are doing."
The point is, though, that when I give you my Facebook "calling card" using Facebook Connect, that system has a long list of do's and don'ts for what developers can do with the data. It's letting sites borrow the data - not setting data free.
Twitter's version of the calling card should be more developer friendly and it's already more standards adherent, which is another way to say developer friendly. Prove you are who you say you are to Twitter and it will give sites you approve a big open field of your data to work with. In other words, web developers should be able to do a whole lot more for me when I give them my Twitter calling card than if I give them one from Facebook.
At least that's the way I suspect it will unfold in the near term. This battle is far, far from over though and it's an important one to the future of the connected web.