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Desperately Seeking Personal Directories, The Identity 2.0 Wind-mill, or File Under Declarative Living

In an email thread about [Ajax] widgets, one super RedMonk friend brought up an excellent point:

I think you’re right that [cross-widget integration] should really be handled by a data service – e.g. the “Anne Zelenka presence awareness service”. We could imagine that in Theory-land [yuh!] where everyone’s identity and data is federated and queryable in a secure fashion, each widget could query the “where’s Anne?” remote service, whose data is provided by some GPS-enabled device you carry on your person. But I don’t think it would be the job for one widget to ask another widget for this information – it belongs in a universally accessible data service, i.e., a URL that returns a wad of meaningful XML (or JSON 🙂 )

Needless to say, the idea of changing an identity store — or a “directory” — into an Internet hosted, URL-faced service that returns those wads got my heart racing. (Or was it that 3rd cup of coffee?)

More generally, it made me realize that I’m constantly looking for such a service online: somewhere that I can store all of my profile information for access by other services (web based and otherwise) to pull from. Of course, finding that service is only half the battle: other services need to start consuming it until whatever the user-centric, Identity 2.0 service achieve The Biggest Community wins tipping point.

What the Customer Wants

Ultimately, my end-user desires are simple:

  1. I want to stop entering the same profile information over-and-over again. I probably create a user account 2-3 times a week (this morning it was, adding in the same email, username, picture, and “about me” info.
  2. I’m sick of entering in my “friends” into every damn site I create a profile on. For social networking sites, this second item is one of those counter-intutive differentiators that most (all?) sites are missing out on.

Let’s take two examples of late: Twitter and Ze Frank’s the ORG.


Twitter is the simplified version of Dodgeball. Whereas dodgeball lets you update your location status, Twitter lets you update your over-all status. It’s a great example of how simplifying a concept can make it more fun and broadly useful. You can update your status through three different means: the web page, an IM client, or a text message on your phone.

More important to my general concerns, Twitter gives you access to this status information so you can embed it in pages, suck it into RSS feeds, or do whatever with it. You can see that in action on this blog’s sidebar or my “table of contents” page at (Love the JavaScript callback pattern there! Genius!)

Now, niceness of a generalized presence server aside, the annoying part of Twitter is that I have to once again invite all my “friends” to use it or find them in the system. It’d be much nicer if I could just suck all that info from dodgeball, LinkedIn, MySpace, facebook, upcoming, flickr, and whatever other system I’d linked up with other people in.

I don’t fancy sending out a spam message to all these people: instead what I’d like to do is find existing people in the system that I already know and link up with them. Some sites do this by allowing you to import an address book, but that’s always somewhat imprecise esp. if the matching is on email addresses (I used a different email address for every site for spam tracking). Not to mention you usually end up spamming a bunch of people.

the ORG

Breaking the geo-location taboo in the ORG

Ze Frank’s the ORG is another social-networking-enabled site that’d be much better if I could suck in and find existing users. The great thing about the ORG (so far) is that it’s ignored the taboo of displaying your location to the world. Of course, you can opt-in and out of that.

What this taboo-breaking means is that once I tell it where I am, I get a list of people close to me. This is fascinating because there’s enough people in the ORG that there’s actually a few people in my neighborhood. Will I actually go meet them? Who knows? But it makes the site a lot more connected to the real world, instantly, than other social networking sites.

Consequently, I keep going back to the ORG to see what’s happening and who’s close to me. Of course, this is another instance where I’d like to bring over all the connections I have in other sites but, aside from sending out a spam email, there’s no way to do it.

Making My Life Easier

In both of the above cases, we have nice web sites that I’m liking using. To be fair, they’re also both fairly new and haven’t quite entered the luxurious position of adding in gold-plating.

That said, this problem of disconnected web applications has existing forever. When it comes to making connections transportable, there’s even a spec/microformat, XFN that’s been around for-equally-ever. For some reason, sites don’t seem to use it. Not having worked directly on that kind of code, I don’t know why. Is it not useful enough? Does no one care? Is it the old cliché of customers not asking for it?

OpenID has been a promising bundle of technology and standards over the past year as well. I’ve been delighted to see sites of like LiveJournal and claimID adopting OpenID and I’m waiting to see the attribute (or “profile sharing”) parts evolve and get more use by other sites.

Mega-money sites whose core business is providing its users with a social networking service, like MySpace, have almost no motivation, ostensibly, to open up a user’s information. Sites like eBay that relies on keeping reputation data in a roach motel have little motivation as well.

Friends in NetFlix

Smaller sites like the ORG, Twitter, and even flickr would be so much more the awesome if I could bring in and export not only my profile information, but also the existing networks I have. Other sites, like Netflix, whose core business has little to do with the social networking aspects, would benefit as well. I have a limited set of people added as my “friend” in Netflix, but I know there’s a ton more users out there who I could hook up with. And, with more friends comes more movie recommendations, which brings more use of NetFlix.

In addition to the initial import, I’d like to see these sights unexpectedly delight me by finding new “friends” that come along. As an analog, the music event site monitors my data for bands I like and sends me an update (via RSS or email) when one of them is coming to town. Speaking of data, their neighbor’s feature is a great example of the unexpected delight I’m talking about.

Still, there’s the issue of locking down the community by not allowing other sites to poach the profile and social networking data. At the moment, I have nothing but blind faith in Metcalfe’s law that expanding the networking beyond the site’s domain name will, ultimately, increase the over-all value for both the users and the company/web app. If users could glide between different sites would there really be the danger of “loosing” users to other sites?

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Categories: Collaborative, Community, Identity, Social Software, The New Thing.

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12 Responses

  1. Seems like classic chicken and egg. Everyone wants one place to store all this stuff. Until one site gets traction to store everything, every site replicates the same functionality. The core question is what will make consumers demand this. For example, if a store did not take your credit card, then you stop shopping there. The same thing needs to happen with identity on the Internet. Either the site supports the directory service or people stop using it…

  2. Sounds a lot like what is going for, should be interesting to see what they come up with in 2007.

  3. SIP is for implicit presence service. something twitter like for explicit user defined presence.

  4. SIP is for presence if you're a masochist. Try XMPP.

    anonymousJanuary 5, 2007 @ 5:56 am
  5. Brandon: perhaps the portability of your hard point building work would make it worth it to consumers. That is, if I spent all this time on site X building up some numbers of content, if I could bring it over to site Y. But, that's just a re-hash of the point I was making. It may be that (a.) that kind of concern is just a tech-head thing, and/or, (b.) re-building up all that stuff is part of the fun of a new site. That said, it seems like the portability of data would appeal to all people. But, so much seems like it'd be the case in identity.

    Craig: too bad they just have a blank page 😉

    On SIP: SIP and XMPP certainly seem like "attribute" servers. To Brandon's point, it's just a matter of adoption. I have noticed, however, that many new services are hooking themselves into existing IM network (twitter,, LiveJournal) which helps get that egg out of the chicken.

  6. I'll ping them about the page – they did have something more up before now not – we'll see how fast I — I mean they get something back online.

  7. I totally agree, and I know the answer is in OpenID. But we need demand a use of it. That's the answer! Don't sign up if you have to re enter your information!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] Surprise and Delight – Cote actually addressed this principle fairly well in a recent posting where he talks about how companies can “unexpectedly delight him” by doing things he wouldn’t expect but are useful to him, the customer. At Starbucks, one of the primary principles the company is built on is cultivating this ability to delight customers and go beyond their expectations. The book gives some really good examples of this type of behavior. […]

  2. […] People Over Process » Blog Archive » Desperately Seeking Personal Directories, The Identity 2.0 Wind-mill, or File Under Declarative Living cote on identity (tags: cote redmonk identity) […]

  3. gps monitors…

    haha gotta love it……

  4. […] Image by cote For use in this post.Share and […]