Thursday, December 27, 2007

An open letter to Marc Canter re OpenID

Dear Marc Canter,

G'day mate... hey, wake up! Crikey, you fall asleep at the slightest chance. Okay, I want to ask you about OpenID: specifically why someone like me, who is building a Web site which incorporates a turnkey social networking app (which happens to be yours, but that's not the crux of it), should enable users to log in to my system using OpenID. I know you're one of the champions of OpenID, so perhaps you can address some issues I still haven't had answered to my satisfaction yet.

My concerns are more fully expressed on episode #2 of the On The Pod podcast with Duncan Riley, with the OpenID stuff starting about 13 minutes in and going for seven or eight minutes. I'll list the concerns raised in order:

Big social networks aren't leading adoption. Kevin Rose promised in February to allow OpenID logins by the end of the year... wassup? Chris Messina puts NetVibes,, PBWiki, MyBlogLog, Technorati and Wikipedia on his shitlist for breaking similar promises. This was Duncan's point, but I'm not so fussed about it from my own POV. I don't mind being a bleeding edge user of open technologies... if I was worried about that I wouldn't be integrating PeepAgg! :) However, I'm sure it worries a lot of other people in my position, so I guess it's part of the problem.

If big networks do finally get on board, small networks could be swamped by their users. As I said in the podcast: why would I want Facebook users (or users from AOL, one of the few existing implementors) to come in to my system and ruin the community I have set up with my own network of Tinfinger-specific users, when I am not going to get any benefit from them from a customer relationship management point of view? Building a distinct community is one of the fundamental tasks of starting a new social network. If everyone who is on Tinfinger is also on Twitter, and uses the same login, isn't it fairly difficult to forge a new identity for the collective userbase?

It's hard to build a business around a database of users, as most publishers do traditionally, when you don't own a distinct user database. I come from a niche magazine publishing background, where a lot of effort is put into building and maintaining a highly targeted user base, periodically culled to protect quality of readership so that advertisers can be delivered the best audience of potential buyers for their products. I understand that this mode of thinking has to be modified somewhat for the online environment, but it works bloody well for magazines, so I would need to hear a compelling argument as to why it can't be redeployed in some form for Web sites, particularly ones targeting a specific niche. OpenID seems to me to undermine that whole business plan.

So, there it is Marc. I've given you a little prior warning on this one and you said you'd get back to me in a day or so. I look forward to your reply.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, since you pinged me in your post, I thought I'd offer some quick responses, from my perspective.

1. Give it 3-4 months (even 1 month maybe) and you might see more adoptions now that OpenID 2.0 is final.
2. Suggesting that sites would be "swamped by [big social network] users" is being overly optimistic. ;) To put it another way, it's like you're worried about people with any random email address signing up for your service! There are issues to be resolved with OpenID to be sure, but in terms of getting folks to sign up for your service, it's best to lower the barriers to sign up and then go from there. OpenID helps with this.
3. Off that last point, rather than maintaining and managing a database of users and dealing with all the issues that come along with that, your job should be providing a great deal of value for anyone who shows up. It's moving from the role of the DMV and maintaining license and registration for everyone into being a shopkeeper, open for business to anyone. Community can still develop under the those circumstances, what's required of you is slightly lessened.

What do you think?

7:01 am, December 28, 2007  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

1. I'm sure you probably would have said that back in February when all those announcements of support were made, and it didn't happen.

2. Fair enough, lowering barriers to sign up is a good point.

3. It's not an either/or proposition. Of course we will be focused on providing a good product, but traditional niche publishing companies also dedicate an important level of resources to working on their user database. The whole point of being a niche publisher is that you define a community based on the content you provide as "group of people interested in that content". Niche publishers are not shopkeepers or the DMV, those are aimed at everyone - a more pertinent analogy would be a specialty wine retailer, or a gym, or a science fiction book shop. Knowing as much about your community as possible enables you to not only make a better product which more closely adheres to the community's tastes, it also delivers a higher quality audience for advertisers. Thus OpenID concerns me because it makes me wonder if I will lose control of the ability to define my user community.

1:42 pm, December 28, 2007  
Blogger Aswath said...

Regarding point 2:

Adoption of OpenID for authentication does not have to imply there will not be any further filters. But if a user belongs to multiple networks, OpenID makes it easier to exchange data between them.

3:07 am, December 29, 2007  

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