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November 11, 2009

Attacking the Web's Beverly Hills and Schenectady Problem

Not too long ago, every new site you joined on the Web forced you to provide a daunting array of details about you in order to join. Full pages of pull-down menus asking about your date of birth, your marital status, your home address and other information was standard. But over the last few years, with advents such as OpenID, OpenSocial, Facebook Connect, and more recently, Twitter OAuth, personal identities are becoming portable - letting you sign in with a dedicated login to a new site, and reducing your need to store yet another password.

Kevin Marks, vice president of Web services at BT, formerly of Google and Technorati, relayed at the Defrag Conference this afternoon that under the old way, companies, after accumulating a high number of users, would often find they had an extremely high number of users responding they lived in either Beverly Hills or Schenectady, New York. Why? Because they were saying their zip codes were either 90210 or 12345. They were lying - sick of answering page after page of personal data for yet another Web site.

In the years since, thanks to efforts like OpenSocial, we have seen the rise of Web standards that interoperate, letting you pass along your personal information and credentials to new sites without having to create yet another user name and password.

"Over the last two years, we worked out the sanitization of protocols, so it could fetch things from one site to another," Marks said. "In that time, OpenSocial is up to 1 billion users. There are sites all over the world who are using this."

Marks broke down the solution to the real identity problem into four pieces:
  • Me
  • My Friends
  • What We Do
  • The Flow
Tools like OpenID and WebFinger solve for "Me", Portable contacts, through the unification of the Vcard specification, solve for "My Friends", activity streams solve for "What We Do", and new protocols like AtomPub, PubSubHubbub and Salmon are solving the "Flow". As you know, I have been a big proponent of tools like PubSubHubbub, Salmon and tools like Facebook Connect and Twitter OAuth, as they not only pass along data between sites, but also make data pass between sites more quickly. And while they are causing what could be considered a revolution, it is happening through the simple evolution of activity that is already happening.

"All these standards are empirical standards," Marks said. "We first did this with microformats. We asked what people are doing already, and agreed we would do the same thing."

Now, if you do tell companies you live in Beverly HIlls or Schenectady, New York, there's a greater chance that you really do, and maybe we'll believe you.