Yahoo! announced this morning that it is adding Facebook Connect across many of its properties. This afternoon Google Friend Connect announced the inclusion of Twitter as a top-level log-in option. These moves will be convenient for users, but may not be good for the future of the web.
People have always said that Google does what’s good for the web, because what’s good for the web is good for Google. In this case I’m worried that the Royalty of the web’s last generation has crowned these two leading social networks as the Royalty of the current generation in a deal that offers traffic and money but that could suffocate the most creative developments of the open, distributed web. That could be called the web’s next generation.
The Importance of Identity
Identity is a very important matter online, particularly as everything becomes more social. Online identity is your address book, it’s your wallet, it’s your reputation and it could become a lot more. Increasingly, you take that Identity from site to site, leveraging on the next site what you did on the last one. If a particular company provides that Identity for you, it sets the rules, regulations, “interest rates” (eg. use of your info for advertising) and determines things like what parts of your identity you can use on different sites and what parts you can’t.
Facebook and Twitter are becoming big Identity providers. Google and Yahoo! have wanted to be leading Identity providers themselves but today cried Uncle with a big nod to the supremacy of the two leading social networks. At this point they have an interest in doing so, because they want you to share what you do on Yahoo and Google sites with your big link-clicking network of friends on Facebook and Twitter. Google didn’t add Facebook Connect, just Twitter, because Facebook is now Google’s leading challenger.
The Rest of the Identity World
But there are far more parties in the world of Identity than Twitter and Facebook. The Internet works because it is decentralized and there are scores of small companies, services and developers building out Identity infrastructures that are decentralized as well. Infrastructures that leverage the network-effect of the decentralized internet to provide the benefits of a large group, but are independent and interoperable in order to provide the benefits of personal freedom and control that can come from owning your own Identity.
Those small players, people working on things like OpenID, ActivityStreams, the distributed social graph and other components of distributed, independent and interoperable social networking – those players may have been sold down the river by today’s deals between Yahoo and Google and Facebook and Twitter.
How could that be? After all, the OpenID logo appears on the login screen for Google Friend Connect and Yahoo! has been a big supporter of OpenID. I would argue that by putting the best known brands, with the easiest log-in experiences, at the very front of the parade – Google and Yahoo have further marginalized the distributed web. The PR email to journalists about the announcement was even titled “Google Friend Connect and Twitter Get Cozy Together.”
The Consequences of Today’s Deals
By choosing to favor branded log-ins and making standards-based systems an afterthought, websites using these systems are disincentivized to leverage the innovations that come from the open standards community and big Identity brands stay in control. Those websites might be Google and Yahoo! or they might be other big sites with all the more reason to favor incumbent leaders in Identity because of the support Google and Yahoo! have given them.
People have talked about combining OpenID and Friend of a Friend data for spam control on blogs. “We’ll just require Facebook log-in, thanks,” I can imagine big websites saying. People are working on implementing cross-network standards for user activity data so sites can understand the activity feeds of other social networks and users of small, innovative sites can still communicate with their friends on other, larger sites. That means people will use small innovative sites and give them the support to grow. “Most people just use Facebook or Twitter,” I can imagine big websites saying. People have talked about using things like content category tags and bookmarks to build cross-site user Attention Profiles. “We’ll just look at their Facebook profiles,” I can imagine big websites saying.
A distributed social web, communicating through interoperable, standards-based language, offers as much opportunity for innovation as a common tongue does for poetry, universally visible pigments do for art or cash money and free time do for a self-determined afternoon. Your clicks, your contacts, your measurable behavior and content online are like fuel to burn, cash to spend. You’ll either be able to spend that resource on things like recommendations, privileges, trust, recognition, greater efficiency and unforeseeable innovation – or those resources will be handed directly and exclusively to advertisers for the benefit of those who broker your Identity.
The identity and activity payloads that come with most systems of identity don’t seem to be of much interest to sites leveraging Facebook and Twitter as primary identity providers today, though. It’s hard to think about anything else when all that potential traffic from enabling broadcast of your content is dangling in front of you.
“All you little sites are interested in making it easy to do cross-site photo identification/ comment re-aggregation / book recommendation based on charecteristics of multiple social networking profiles (etc.)?” Big Website might say, “Well, Facebook and Twitter don’t do that and they are good enough for us. We’re excited about people broadcasting links to our site out to their Twitter and Facebook friends. That’s enough for us. Isn’t that innovative?”
This may be more cynicism than is warranted, but I don’t think so. When dealing with hundreds of millions of peoples’ identities, the future of human communication and trillions of dollars – it’s probably good to lean a little toward cynicism when considering collaboration with incumbent industry leaders.
I appreciate the ease of Facebook and Twitter login around the web as much as anyone, but every big Identity login action I take feels like an economic transaction where the change and the interest slip through my fingers and land in the pockets of Facebook and Twitter.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the web to say “no, we will not simply take the easy solutions when it comes to Identity, in exchange for traffic and money. We will instead look for ways to make it easier for users of any Identity provider to engage with our websites.”
The short-term trade of giving more control to two big social networks, in exchange for traffic and ad money, may not serve anyone well in the long run.