Everybody loses in the battle over our online identity

A birds cage

A beautiful bird cage

Facebook announces user names. It generates a lot of buzz on Techmeme. TechCrunch reports the obvious (vanity), but Chris Messina is the only one that is actually analyzing what Facebook is doing and what impact it can have on our online lives. In a post he entitles “Facebook usernames and the digital battle over your identity” he goes into the underlying strategy of this move and the effect it has on your online identity.

Arguing that Facebook shouldn’t get into the vanity URL business, I still think that they had it right the first time around. Digital identity should change the adapt to humans; not force humans to refer to each other in more computer-friendly ways. But the allure is simply too great. I also can’t say that I blame them, even though I think it’s a distraction along the way towards more widespread real identity (and thereby reputability) online.

Chris goes on and hits the one thing that s relevant about this move by Facebook. the online battle to own your identity, profile and interactions:

So, this is happening, and companies are racing to achieve namespace dominance over your online profile. This is what Tim O’Reilly warned about in his definition of Web 2.0. He said that one of the new kinds of lock-in in the era of [cloud computing] will be owning a namespace. There you have it — who are you going to trust to own yours?

I suggest you read the article in full, it’s an excellent read.

Chris hits on a nerve I’ve always felt was important. While web 2.0 has brought us a lot of great things it also provides service providers more opportunities for user lock-in. User lock-in is a term invented by marketeers (they are all idiots you know). Customer lock-in is in essence a protective measure, hence the “lock-in” part. Marketeers will obviously never say that. They brainwash themselves and their company by arguing that achieving customer lock-in is done by excellent service, providing the user with value and more of that. They are wrong of course. Customer lock-in is achieved by simpler things. The inability for a user to leave a service, to hide customer help behind layers of customer service, 23 pages of legal gibberish called terms of service, the impossibility to switch to other providers, downgrade services etc.

In the online world customer lock-in is even worse. Here is where Tim O’Reily’s definition of Web 2.0 lacks a user dimension. Tim says:

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.

The problem I have with this definition, even though it adequately describes what we refer to as web 2.0, is that it doesn’t address the user and the value he should receive. What we often fail to realize is that the network effect Tim talks about is not only the best thing that web 2.0 has brought us, it is also its biggest tragedy. The network effect forces service providers to concentrate on the size of the network, instead of a primary focus on user value. The Internet is not seen as a platform at all. The service provider sees his own platform as the Internet! And to make matters worse, web 2.0 is governed by old-fashioned web 1.0 business models that leverage that network value, instead of user value.

The network effect and the failure of online business models to evolve with the technological evolution leads to unwanted effects such as customer lock-in, the network value being more important than individual user value, Twitter spam, walled gardens, the total lack of data portability, lack of privacy control,  the battle over your online identity, profile and interactions. And now the battle over name space. In effect, it cages us, instead of setting us free. It takes away our ability to be in control of our own profile, our data and our interactions.

And there is nothing we can do about it as individual users are either unaware or unable to generate enough counter force to balance the power on the web. This fight to control you on the web can only be halted if we evolve online business models to a point where revenue and competition are based upon user value instead of network value. If service providers generate revenue buy providing user value they will achieve the exact same effect as they try to reach ow. Users will be committed to user their service. Not because they can’t leave, but because they choose so. All it requires for service providers is to let go, to turn the relationship with the user inside out. Now that would be a revolution.

I’m with Chris here. He sums it all up in one little hidden line in his post:

It’s remarkable how cheap we’ll sell out our identity these days.

The question is, are we seriously going to put up with this? Will we allow Facebook, or any other service provider dictate that their platform is our Internet? That is the ultimate user lock-in.  A shiny, gold-plated bird cage.

That is not a future I would feel comfortable with. It’s time we redefine online business models. It may be our only way out of this lock-in to a web that is user-centric instead of network centric.


About vanelsas

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4 Responses to Everybody loses in the battle over our online identity

  1. wecandobiz says:

    An interesting post. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that users volunteer to join Facebook, Twitter and the rest; and that they get those services free. Customer lock-in is, if you like, what’s requested in return for those free services as, on the back of that commitment, the service provider can market to you and (perhaps) sell a licence for others to market to you as well.

    While our online identities are provided by commercial organisations with conventional shareholders, what’s ever going to change?

    I’ve been saying for some time that probably the best solution if we are all to have an online identity which becomes key in the Web 2.0 world and beyond is for a not-for-profit “authority” to issue and maintain our identities with all data stored in a central repository. Visiting social networking sites would have us “leasing” our identity to that site for the duration of our time there, but our identity and address book of contacts would stay us our own property. The W3C guys have started to look into this, but it’s some way off.

    In the meantime, more and more sites will enable us to sign in using an existing identity rather than ask we start with a new one. People are used to signing in to any Google service using just one identity and initiatives like OpenID (Open Source) and Facebook Connect (proprietary) will enable us to use our “favourite” identity, but probably one of a few we’ll have, to sign in to other web properties. It’s a move in the right direction in some ways but, in the case of Facebook Connect at least, just increases lock-in to a commercial organisation.

    As an aside, we’ll be adding such sign in capabilities to our site tomorrow, support Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, Live ID and OpenID sign in. Drop by to see what the short term future is likely to look like!

    Ian Hendry
    CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ

  2. Ian, the ‘free’ part is the trap that lures most users into this cage. Most are unaware, or worse, don’t care about this. Once in, you can’t leave easily.

    I fully understand the mechanism behind it. But just because it is hard to solve doesn’t mean we should not try it.

    Being able to sign in anywhere with an existing identity is definitely a good move. Having a neutral 3rd party that helps us manage our own online identity is even better.

    I’d rather have freedom and choice, than be locked in 😉

  3. Pingback: Kingjohnny » wilt een nickname?!

  4. Kevin says:

    As someone who has a stack of those free google profile business cards I couldn’t agree more. I’m in the process of slowly moving all of my “profiles” out of the various walled gardens. It’s painful to say the least.

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