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Twitter’s Evan Williams On The Five Easy Pieces Of Online Identity

Over on his personal blog, Twitter’s Evan Williams has written a very detailed post that compiles his thoughts on what he calls The Five Easy Pieces Of Online Identity.

It’s a lengthy read, but worth a moment of your time as there might be clues here about the direction Williams is taken with his new (and currently very hush-hush) start-up project.

Every Internet service that has a concept of users has to deal with identity. And for anything social (which seems like everything these days) identity is a huge part. For the Internet as a whole, there are battles waging to “own” identity—or, at the very least, not let someone else own it. And there have been efforts for years to make identity more manageable for users and to put control in their hands.

So, identity is an important concept. But I’ve always found it a confusing one. I think that’s because it’s ambiguous in most discussions what “identity” means.

A while back, Twitter’s CTO, Greg Pass, and I created a framework I’ve found useful for thinking about all this. We reckoned there there are five different things people mean in different contexts when talking about identity and the Internet. (There are probably more, but these are key.) Each of these are offered as features of different services. Sometimes they are combined, sometimes they’re not. And sometimes companies outsource these features to other services. With these pieces in mind, you can look at different companies, services, and protocols and realize which pieces of the identity puzzle they offer (or perhaps should).

Williams goes on to expand on this framework, and his five pieces of online identity, which consists of:

1. Authentication – Do You Have Permission?

“There are various ways to check if someone should have access to something. At my Gym, to get in, it’s with my membership card. At a bar, to get a drink, it’s your state-issued picture ID (or my receding hairline). And for your house, it’s probably a key or code. On the Internet there are different methods, as well, but that vast majority of services use a simple username and password, which is a lot like a key.”

2. Representation – Who Are You?

“For professional representation, LinkedIn is clearly the leading service. But the purest-play representation service is probably About.me, which is pretty brilliant. It focuses on offering a simple, attractive page that gives people a much more “me-centered” representation than anywhere else (short of a custom web site) with minimal cruft or other obligations (such as friend requests, messages, or content creation).”

3. Communication – How Do I Reach You?

“As the Internet has evolved, communication and representation (as well as the other aspects of identity) have become more integrated. A phone number gives communication without representation. That is, you don’t know anything about someone based on their phone number (save for geography). You know a little bit more about someone from their email address, but not much.”

4. Personalisation – What Do You Prefer?

“Google and Yahoo! have offered authentication services to third-party sites for years. They don’t seem to be widely used. However, to my knowledge, they’ve never offered the additional benefit of automatic personalization—despite having tons of data about most of their users. There are obvious privacy complications to doing that, but those would be possible to overcome.”

5. Reputation – How Do Others Regard You?

“Though talked about a lot, reputation is probably the least developed of these five pieces in the online world. In the offline world, though, it’s built into all our interactions and choices. To me, this suggests it will get more important online when we figure out how to do it right. Ebay is the classic example of making reputation a large part of identity. Many other services have an internal reputation score of some sort, usually as a way of combating spam and other abuse.”

For Williams, online identity is “a messy problem with lots of opportunities” and he predicts that “we’ll continue to see further integration of the five pieces by all major players, as well as more attempts to outsource these services across the Internet.”

In his closing notes Williams makes it very clear that he “wrote this document outside of Twitter and with an Internet-wide perspective. i.e., you can’t surmise what Twitter is going to do from this post,” which is fine, but there may well be an early taster here of other things to come.

As I said, it’s a long read, but worth further investigation.

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