My Facebook Problem – And Yours

My Facebook Problem - And YoursI’m still trying to get my head around Facebook’s moves to become the king of identity online. Hell, if Leo Laporte couldn’t quite figure it out on yesterday’s taping of This Week in Google, then I’m not capable. But here’s where I am. Help me advance this….

I think my problem is this: I want the exact opposite of what Facebook did. I want the Bizarro Facebook. Instead of Facebook controlling my identity, I want to be able to control and publish and set access to and rules for the use of my identity online, allowing Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, anyone access to it under my terms.

When I tweeted that, ad man Rishad Tobaccowala tweeted: “you are right. What we want closed (our data) they want open. What we want open (create and transfer) they want closed.” He then added: “When it is so easy to “like” is it really like? A profusion of “liking” will soon be like… Noise.” Agree.

My identity already exists online. It is my name, my email address(s), my URL(s) (for my blog, work, etc.), my Twitter account, my Flickr, my YouTube, my reputation culled from various services, and more. It is distributed. I have control over most of that.

What’s needed versus the present? Three things, I think:
* Organization. As Google organized our information, the war here is to organize us.
* Verification. No one, I hope, wants to verify as passports do. But Facebook has a leg ahead of everyone else on nearly verified identity simply because of how its service works: fake identities tend to be ejected from the bloodstream because they are irrelevant and irritating; Facebook is about real identities and real relationships and the one feeds the other.
* Connections. That, I think, is what Mark Zuckerberg means when he talks about making things social, about the social graph. He wants to link us to each other and information and that enhances our identities (what do I like and do and think….).

Fine. But I don’t think Facebook approached that opportunity asking first, “What can we do for the world of users online,” and second, “How can Facebook benefit?” If Facebook adds value, I have no objection to it benefiting, just as I believe Google should benefit by organizing our information and creating platforms; it’s what makes that benefit sustainable. But Facebook clearly asked the questions in the wrong order: It figured out what would benefit it most and then we get a few dividends: we get to tell our friends what we like and find out what our friends like.

But in the process, Facebook controls our identities with no relationship to our true identities online – that list above from email addresses to blogs to photos. Indeed, I’d argue that Facebook separates us from our trueidentities, for that is in Facebook’s favor; it gives Facebook control.

Far better and more experienced minds than mine are trying to get their heads around this. Dave Winer likes the idea of liking but also won’t put all his eggs into Zuck’s basket and so he suggests:

So perhaps there’s a compromise? Let me implement my own Like feature and have it connect up to Facebook through a feed. And let it connect up to Facebook’s competitors just as easily. I’m sure the smart guys at Facebook could figure out how to do this, perhaps they already have? I’m willing to do a little extra work to keep the web independent of any one company.

Right. Don’t all the identity standards and structures already exist openly. This is what irked Kevin Marks, who has done a great deal of work on identity, much of it while he was at Google. When he complained about this false openness last night, I said and he retweeted, “Open Graph is open as in ‘open your underwear drawer.’”

But as Swom_Network tweeted as I was tweeting about all this today, “Yep. but who is to do it?”

That’s really the question. Openness and standards are wonderful but if they don’t add up to applications that accomplish things, then we only open the door for companies to step in and seize the opportunity. Perhaps that’s inevitable. And I can live with that.

But we, the people, aren’t going to build these new applications and systems then we at least need to hold those who do to a set of principles, which means we need to have a set of principles to point to (and I’ll point to mine again).

Facebook’s Open Graph, I think, does not give us full control over our data and identities; it is not built to open standards; if it were, I’d be able to do what I want to do because others could build competing applications atop those standards. Then I’d be able to publish my identity on my own or through Facebook or through Acme ID Inc. and anyone could come along and verify my identity and publish that and developers would be able to come along and offer services based on that identity. But that works only if it is built to standards and principles, if it’s distributed and open. Open Graph is not.

As Dave Winer also says in his post, this is about more than identifying us. This structure leads to identifying places, sites, data, information. We will add a tremendously valuable layer of data atop the world – what we look at, what we like, what our friends like…. That is the wisdom of the crowd. Who owns that wisdom? No one but us. If you add value to it, you can extract that value (that’s what search engines do). But if you own the crowd’s wisdom then isn’t the crowd screwed?

Or that’s what I think I think. What do you think?

: MOMENTS LATER: As soon as I tweeted this, I saw that Rick Klau, a good guy at Google, is the new PM on Google Profiles and he suggested talking about it. I’ll think out loud first:

Google could build the open system I hope for … could. It has profile. It has the stuff around ID Kevin Marks showed me when I visited the company. It has lots of knowledge about our distributed identities.

What it doesn’t have is that close link to an almost verified identity. Sure, I can go and build a Google Profile page. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t really interact with the world the way my Facebook page does, so it lacks the opportunities for verification through relationships, right?

What could Google do about that? It could create a value-added service to verify identities (as Twitter has begun to do with the famous) but we’d find value in that only if others used it to some good end: if we could use it to publish comments on sites or make transactions. Is that enough?

Maybe Google can create the algorithmic authority (and identity) Clay Shirky dreams of: rather than verifying manually, it gives our identities a score and that increases our value in other transactions.

I still don’t know what to think.

Cross posted at Buzzmachine.com

Photo by Andrew Feinberg

Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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