Liminal Existence

Identity

The web is facing a serious identity crisis. Many have written about it but, having thought a lot about this problem over the past few years, I can’t help but feel that something important has been missed in most discussions.

Aza Raskin cuts to the heart of the matter:

“Your identity is too important to be owned by any one company.
Your friends are too important to be owned by any one company.”

I’ll go one step further, and say that the centralisation of identity is stifling innovation on the web. Kellan recounts a quote from a friend, on the subject of Facebook’s f8 announcements: “Well, [Facebook] gave Foursquare a 6 month reprieve.” This is not a hopeful view.

So what’s the alternative? What’s missing from the conversation? I think it’s important to take a view from the perspective of usability; how are we going to use this new conception of identity? The answer is simple: exactly as we do today. The fundamentals of social networking haven’t changed from day one. There’s a website, you log on, and you add friends so that you can share content with them. This basic model applies to every successful social internet technology, from email to IM to Friendster to Facebook to FourSquare.

Logging On

Logging on is easy. Whether it’s a password, OpenID, @anywhere, Firefox Contacts, or Facebook Connect, the principle remains the same: the user proves to their server that they are a particular individual. In that sense, any protocols or approaches beyond username and password are just icing on the cake. They’re ways to make logging in easier, to increase conversion rates (at least, in theory), but they don’t fundamentally change what we can do on the web.

So once we’ve logged on, how do we add friends?

Adding Friends

This is the part that’s missing from the conversation. How does it work today? Well, you have two options: either you find someone’s profile page and click “add” (which doesn’t work across sites, or if you can’t find your friend’s profile page), or you find other users on the site by entering their email address. Often the latter approach is achieved by the site opening up your email address book and looking for friends in bulk, but fundamentally it boils down to “Find email address of friend, search users database for that email address, add friend.”

OpenID doesn’t help, because I don’t even know my OpenID URL, let alone my friends’ OpenID URLs. The “ID” in OpenID is a bit of a misnomer. OAuth doesn’t help – Twitter and Facebook use OAuth under the covers for @anywhere and Facebook Connect, but that only helps me, the site using @anywhere/FB Connect, and Twitter and/or Facebook themselves. It also doesn’t help us get away from Aza’s point, that your identity remains in the hands of a single company.

The solution, as I said to Tim O’Reilly, is Webfinger. Indeed, webfinger was born out of struggling with exactly this problem of representing multi-faceted identity on the web in a way that can’t be controlled by any one company. The approach is essentially to invert the currently-closed user databases, and put social network affiliation in the hands of the users, in our hands, all while keeping the user experience the same as with current and past social software.

I won’t go into the technical details here, but in essence the workflow from a site builder’s perspective looks like this:

  1. Kate (kate@inktopaper.com) meets Fiona (fiona_z_342@gmail.com) at APE, and the two exchange email (re: webfinger) addresses.
  2. Kate wants to stay in touch with Fiona, so she logs on to her social network of choice (“ZineSpace”), and enters Fiona’s address.
  3. ZineSpace supports photos, microblogging, and calendaring, and discovers via a webfinger lookup that Fiona has a photostream at Sketchr, tweets at identi.ca, but doesn’t share a calendar. ZineSpace uses PubSubHubbub to send subscribe requests to Sketchr and identi.ca on behalf of kate@inktopaper.com.
  4. Sketchr and identi.ca look up Kate’s webfinger profile, and use her published photo to show the incoming friend/follow request to Fiona.
  5. Fiona uses her identi.ca microblog for work, so she declines that invitation, but approves the friend request on Sketchr, and adds Kate as a friend (asymmetric follow) on Sketchr.
  6. Even though she declined the identi.ca request, Fiona wants to keep up with Kate’s life, and has a personal Tweetter account that’s not published on her public webfinger profile. She logs in there and adds fiona_z_342@gmail.com as a friend.
  7. Tweetter sends a subscribe request to ZineSpace (discovered via the webfinger profile) on behalf of kate@inktopaper.com. ZineSpace knows that Fiona wants to see Kate’s microblog posts, so auto-approves the request and sends a reverse-follow request (which is again automatically approved).

Now, five things are important to keep in mind when thinking about this process:

  1. Shareable Addresses are what make this exchange possible. Kate and Fiona can’t be reasonably expected to remember all of their various profile URLs, nor can they be expected to remember each other’s profile URLs. Their webfinger addresses act as mnemonics for their distributed identities.
  2. Webfinger is just a discovery mechanism. HTTP remains the transport mechanism for this approach, which means that everyone can participate.
  3. We have not exposed any personal information about Kate or Fiona, and more importantly, we haven’t exposed any information about Kate or Fiona’s relationships. They can do that if they wish (e.g., by linking to a FoAF or XFN profile from their Webfinger profiles), but the approach doesn’t make any assumptions about what information must or must not be shared.
  4. Subscription = Relationship. The underlying approach doesn’t say what kind of relationship the two are creating, but rather allows protocols or data transports on top of the exchange to do so. Fiona could decide that she doesn’t like Kate’s sketches, or that Kate posts too much, and simply tell Sketchr to hide Fiona’s posts. As far as Kate’s concerned, Fiona is still subscribed, and still viewing her photos. Alternatively, Fiona could send an unsubscribe request to Kate, signalling that the relationship no longer exists. The semantics are up to the application developer at either end.
  5. No Passwords are involved in the exchange. Kate and Fiona don’t need to exchange PGP keys, either, or rely on some complicated “Web Of Trust.” All they need to do is trust the servers they use (zinespace, sketchr, identi.ca, and their email providers); if they can’t do that, then they have bigger problems. This one’s really important, because RSS and Atom were meant to be the future of content exchange. RSS and Atom have completely failed to enable private feeds, because they require passwords to do so. That sucks, and webfinger offers a workable solution to this persistent problem.

Sharing Content

Once relationships have been established, sharing content is entirely up to the individuals and sites involved. Obviously, we need common protocols for this, but we can use Atom and PubSubHubbub, some domain-specific protocol (e.g., Portable Contacts/ActivityStreams), or we’ll figure it out as we go along. Direct or private messages are just special forms of general distribution content (i.e., the subscriber has asked to receive content from the publisher, whether that content was broadcast or is a directed message).

There are a lot of things that I haven’t covered in this post. The technology is simple, but not trivial, and it is still very new. There aren’t yet tools that make this easy (if you’d like to work on building them, contact me!)

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