Toward a universal identity on the Web

[26 March 2008]

By Vindu Goel

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

Facebook is growing up—and could finally become a social hub that grown-ups find indispensable.

The fast-growing social-networking site unveiled new privacy features this month that allow users to group their Facebook “friends” into different categories, such as family or business associates. Users can then give each group a different level of access to photos, videos, phone numbers or the “news feed” that details their latest activities on Facebook and its partner Web sites.

Such controls are absolutely vital for any site that aspires to be an all-purpose tool to help us stay connected with everyone we know. We all have multiple personas that we present to the world, and we want to decide who sees what.

For example, you don’t want your boss—or your impressionable young nieces—to see that streaming video of your wild vacation in Cancun. You probably don’t want your mom reading the racy graffiti your girlfriend is scribbling on your “wall.” And you certainly shouldn’t subject your college buddies to those fascinating articles on semiconductor architecture that you’re sharing with your colleagues at work.

Facebook’s new privacy interface still needs some tweaking—it’s fairly complex to navigate, users must laboriously type in the names to include or exclude and you can’t quickly adjust access for, say, one video.

But the young Palo Alto, Calif., company, which counts more than 69 million active users, has clearly learned some lessons from its two previous privacy fiascos.

In 2006, Facebook started “news feeds,” which automatically sent details of users’ activities to all of their friends. Only after massive protests did the company offer the ability to limit or block those feeds.

Last fall, Facebook caused another uproar when it started a service called Beacon that broadcast users’ activities on affiliated sites, such as purchases on or Fandango, to all of their friends. Again, the company retreated and eventually offered opt-out provisions.

This time, Facebook made privacy the very point of the new initiative, although it simultaneously unveiled a feature that lets you expose your profile information more widely to friends of friends.

With the new controls—and the more than 19,000 applications built on Facebook’s open architecture—Facebook is now far more appealing than market leader MySpace as a tool that adults would actually consider using to manage both personal and business relationships. (Just try wading through those gaudy, ad-cluttered MySpace pages for even five minutes—you’ll get a splitting headache.)

Ultimately, though, managing your relationships shouldn’t be tied to a specific site. To be really useful, your identity, in all its various personas, should travel with you wherever you go on the Web. And other people’s personas should be easily accessible to you whenever you pull up their e-mail address or look up their phone number.

“You and I know each other. We’ve exchanged business cards. Why do I need Facebook to get in the way?” said Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research who co-authored “Groundswell,” a new book about the future of social networking.

Li points to the promise of industry initiatives like OpenID. Backed by such tech giants as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, IBM and AOL, OpenID aims to give users a single, universal sign-on and identity that they can carry with them to thousands of Web sites.

Another industry effort, the OpenSocial platform sponsored by Google, hopes to provide tools to create common social applications that can work across multiple sites and would make a universal identity more useful.

“Anybody who tries to hang onto people is going to have a full-scale rebellion on their hands: `What do you mean I can’t have Gmail on my Facebook page? What do you mean I can’t have my Facebook on iGoogle?’ You lose if you’re not going to allow your users to have that level of control,” Li said.

She predicts that tech companies will agree on common standards by the end of this year, and these universal services will start showing up within a couple of years.

I’m more skeptical. After all, it’s been more than a decade since America Online launched its first instant-messaging software. Users of IM services from AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google—and in a week or so, Facebook—still can’t connect directly to each other, although they can use third-party software to do it. Everyone professes to love cooperation, but no one wants to give up their customers.

But until universal identity happens, I’m just happy I can control my different faces on Facebook.


(Vindu Goel is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read his blog at

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