Facebook is winning the identity war

By | Facebook, Identity | No Comments

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 13.17.57

I know a lot of people won’t be happy to hear this, but new data out from Facebook suggest they are becoming the dominant provider of online identity. The numbers are a little hard to interpret but my read is that 850m first time registrations to services are made using Facebook Connect each month, and 81 of the top 100 iOS apps and 62 of the top Android apps offer Facebook login. That’s an awful lot of activity. I imagine the next most used identity service is Twitter and from my own experience I would expect that their service sees an order of magnitude less usage.

What we are seeing here is users choosing Facebook Connect for its speed and convenience despite concerns about privacy and app companies cluttering their feed with spammy posts. This is a movie we’ve seen before, and we’ll see it again.

Facebook knows this too and is working on both sides of the equation to make Connect even more attractive. It is getting faster (31% faster on mobile, 16% faster on web) and they are making it more difficult for apps to get permission to post on behalf of their users.

The takeaway is that if you are a consumer facing company you really should be offering Facebook sign up and login.

The difference between brains and computers

By | Identity, Ray Kurzweil, Startup general interest | 4 Comments

I believe that within my lifetime processors will get powerful enough and software good enough that we will see computers that emulate human brains and pass the Turing Test (for more detail see my earlier posts Kurzweil predicts we will reverse engineer the human brain using software, Kurzweil predicts computers with the power of the human brain by 2025, Scientists create artificial brain with 2.3m simulated neurons).

Today I read a good Economist article which explains the challenges of building ‘human computers’. Brains currently have three key characteristics that computers do not:

These are: low power consumption (human brains use about 20 watts, whereas the supercomputers currently used to try to simulate them need megawatts); fault tolerance (losing just one transistor can wreck a microprocessor, but brains lose neurons all the time); and a lack of need to be programmed (brains learn and change spontaneously as they interact with the world, instead of following the fixed paths and branches of a predetermined algorithm).

Having identified these characteristics scientists are now working to design around them, as detailed in the rest of the Economist article. In summary progress is being made but it is very early days. The third characteristic of not needing to be programmed runs contrary to our current notions of development, and is perhaps the most challenging.

The other issue at play here is consciousness. ‘Would human computers be conscious or not?’ and ‘What is consciousness anyway?’ are unresolved questions with inherently unknowable answers. My view is that consciousness arises from the mind and human computers would be to all intents and purposes be conscious. Any other answer creates more questions than it answers and hence falls foul of Occam’s razor. This question was debated earlier today here and on Hacker News.


Facebook, OpenID, data portability and the future of socnets

By | Facebook, Identity, MySpace, Social networks, Twitter, WAYN | 8 Comments

facebook open id

ReadWriteWeb broke the news a couple of days ago that Facebook is going to allow users to log in with their OpenID credentials granted by other sites, such as GMail, AOL, Yahoo, or dedicated OpenID providers.  You’ve probably seen this on other sites and the main benefit of reducing the number of passwords you have to remember (and making it easier to change).

The other benefit is that your OpenID account can carry some of your data, for existence your contact list.  The ReadWriteWeb speculates that Facebook has taken this step because it will enable them to more quickly provide utility for new members, thereby improving retention and increasing their growth.

I think this could change the face of social networking.  We are already seeing a shift towards tools that allow you to interact with multiple socnets from one place (our portfolio company WAYN now allows you to interact with Twitter and Facebook from within WAYN, and Tweetdeck and Friendfeed operate as social media dashboards) and data portability via OpenID could accelerate this trend.

I’ve long thought that we have multiple social graphs and most of them we just ignore, getting little value from the data they contain.  The longlist of my social graphs includes email, mobile phone, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, LinkedIn WAYN and this blog.  If contact lists become portable via OpenID then tools that allow me to consolidate and manipulate each of these for their different purposes would be very valuable.

For example if I was using the new Plans feature on WAYN to organise a night out it would help if I was offered a list of people I might like to invite based on those who I call and email most often, whereas if I was organising a work oriented cocktail party a set of recommendations derived from my LinkedIn activity would be more useful.

According to this vision of the future socnets are less like portals and more like messaging hubs, with a variety of different modes for input and viewing content (including games and videos).  Right now the trend is towards consolidation – the larger guys are growing fastest, with Facebook and Twitter leading the way – but the logic above would lead you to expect that trend to go into reverse.  If things do pan out this way then tomorrows successful social media sites will be the ones that do one thing really well – Flickr for photos, maybe MySpace for music, maybe WAYN for making plans.

Right now data isn’t nearly this portable, as one of the commenters on the ReadWriteWeb piece points out Facebook is only really open on the way in – getting data out is more difficult.  Contrary to what I might have expected a year or two ago the trend is increasingly towards greater portability though – hence this post.

Are the days of multiple usernames and passwords numbered?

By | Facebook, Identity | 5 Comments

The dream of being able to sign in to just about any site with the same username and password took a step closer yesterday when Facebook joined the OpenID Foundation.

For me this is a very good thing.  Facebook Connect has been out in the market for a month or two now and their intergration with Disqus allows people to leave comments on this blog (and many others) using their Facebook credentials.  This simple feature makes the commenting experience quicker and easier for commenters and richer for the rest of us because we can see their Facebook picture.

This is a very small example of the value to be gained by sharing data from one service to another.  Marshall Kirkpatrick on ReadWriteWeb does a good job of explaining the benefits of integration like this:

  1. Both make it easier to participate in new websites because you don’t need to create a new account.
  2. Both carry payloads of user data that can yield immediate personalization for a richer experience.
  3. Both offer authentication that you really are who you say you are.
    That opens up a whole world of possibilities technically and culturally.

The Disqus example I gave above has all three of these benefits – easier participation via FB logon, and peronalisation and authentication via the picture (in a small way at least).

Coming through the uncanny valley?

By | Identity, Privacy | No Comments

My daughter Eira was watching kids TV programme Ernie the Engine on Saturday and I was struck by how lifelike the faces on the animated characters are.  They were lifelike and not at all disconcerting – so much so that I was left wondering whether children’s TV characters are coming through the uncanny valley.

I had a look on YouTube and Daily Motion to find a clip for you – but all I could find was this Ernie video where somebody is shooting the TV – should be enough to give you an idea though.

The programme led to the following thought train:

  • Maybe kids have a different view to adults on the uncanny valley – when my wife saw the programme she thought the characters were a freaky – i.e. still firmly in the depths of the valley, and there was a scene where they were dancing which I also thought was definitely a bit odd
  • If different groups can think about these things differently then crossing the uncanny valley become much more feasible – you can do it by finding the group that will most easily accept your advanced product and build a business around them which funds the development which will make your robot/avatar super realistic and acceptable to everyone
  • Going back to the analogy with privacy and targeted advertising you might be able to apply the same logic – build a great service on which people willingly accept highly targeted advertising as the cost of free usage and build out from there – that might get through the current impasse where privacy is a very emotional all-or-nothing black and white issue

Google’s OpenSocial a game changer

By | Consumer Internet, Facebook, Google, Identity, Microsoft, MySpace, Social networks | One Comment

Techcrunch announced earlier this week that Google is launching Open Social (URL will apparently go live later today) – a new set of APIs that will facilitate the transfer of data in and out of of social networks.  Specifically:

  • Profile Information (user data)
  • Friends Information (social graph)
  • Activities (things that happen, News Feed type stuff)

I think this is potentially a very big deal for the same reasons that I think the Flock people sidebar is a big deal – namely that it reduces or eliminates the benefits of having all your friends in the same social network.  Instead you can compartmentalise your identity and use a social network aggregator service which gives you a single view of all your friends across multiple networks.  Flock does this today for Facebook and Twitter, and out of the gate Open Social will support Orkut, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Ning, Hi5, Plaxo, Friendster, Viadeo and Oracle.

The other benefit is for application developers who will no longer have to write different versions of their application for different social networks.

For Open Social to be truly successful it will need the two largest networks to play ball.  Most of the benefits will be lost if Myspace and Facebook refuse to support the standard – and this is something they might well do – as David Spark points out:

If you’ve got a popular product built on proprietary technology, defend your position. There’s no point in opening it up to allow others in.  ……  Disney doesn’t cough up Mickey Mouse’s image for anyone who wants it. Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T spent a lot of money on their networks and acquiring customers. You didn’t see any of them getting so excited about having to open it up for all to use on the 700 MHz spectrum. Telcos defend their position by forcing customers into multi-year contracts. Microsoft defends its position by making its software work just a little bit better on its own products rather than competing products. And Disney just sues everyone into oblivion who tries to appropriate Mickey’s image.

Facebook will be in a difficult position though.  On the one hand they have positioned themselves as the champion of open-ness, but on the other hand they probably have the most to lose from going open.  Plus they have Microsoft in their corner who has a history of exploiting dominant positions by remaining closed and won’t want to see Facebook co-operating with Google.

It will be really interesting to see how this plays out.  There are big bucks at stake and it could decide the difference between a social network future dominated by one or two huge brands (probably Myspace and Facebook) or one where there is space for a larger number of decent sized companies.

As you can imagine the blogosphere is awash with lots of interesting commentary on this subject.  Here is a sample from Broadstuff, Tom Raftery Marc Andreessen and David Spark.

Flock 1.0 beta changing the game for social networks?

By | Facebook, Identity, Social networks, TechCrunch | 7 Comments

I have been using the Flock 1.0 beta for a few days now and the People Sidebar feature has really got me hooked. The product is well hyped (Techcrunch 40 winner) and has lots of great features (review) – but the People Sidebar could have a significance which goes beyond this latest skirmish in the browser wars.

Through tight integration with social media services the People Sidebar gives you an aggregated view of your network across the different services that you use. The picture below shows the top 3-4 people across my Twitter and Facebook networks.

This reduces the importance of having all my friends on the same network. It may even eliminate it.

As Facebook sweeps all before it people are struggling with compartmentalising their identity. It is problematic when your boss can see the side of you that is designed for your friends, or family. One solution to this problem is for Facebook et al to add features which allow you to show different parts of your personality to different friends – e.g. different groups can see different photos or status updates only go out to the portion of your network that you want to see them.

Flock is now giving us a glimpse of an alternative future. Instead of having your whole network in the same service and using tools within that network to compartmentalise your identity, you can leave the different parts of your network in the services that are most appropriate for them and manage them through an aggregator service in your browser.

This has profound implications for the value of social networks. If the approach Flock is pioneering wins out (and it is very early days yet, both in terms of number of services integrated and functionality available at the aggregate level) then I think we will see a world where there are multiple large social networks. Today it looks like there will only be space for one or two.

Misuse of personal data

By | Identity, Privacy | 6 Comments

A couple of days ago I wrote a post Why are we concerned about privacy? in which I argued that sharing personal some personal data in return for better services was a good trade off. Alan Patrick and I had a privacy versus sharing debate in the comments which left me thinking that to move this topic forward we needed to talk more clearly about the data that would or wouldn’t be shared as well as the risks and benefits that sharing would bring.

One of the difficulties with this subject is that everyone has a passionately held opinion, and it is starting to look to me like that has gotten in the way of good communication. My hope is that in taking the debate to the next level of detail we might find some common ground. (Where is the fun in that I hear you cry!!!)

Yesterday’s FT had an article Fraudsters target social networkers sets out the privacy position pretty well and offers a good basis for moving the discussion forward. They opened with the following two paragraphs:

Millions of people signing up to Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites could be leaving themselves, and their companies, open to online crime, IT security experts are warning.

The practice of posting up personal information such as birth dates, addresses and phone numbers is proving to be a goldmine for identity fraudsters.

This is worrying, and I have made a mental note to check my Facebook profile for offending items. Everyone should be careful about things like this. Possession of the sorts of data that you use to identify yourself – date of birth, name of first school, home telephone number, favourite football team, mother’s maiden name etc. will be a big help to anyone who is trying to pose as you – i.e. steal your identity.

But, and this is the critical point, that is not the sort of data that I am talking about sharing. That data is much less useful to someone who wants to target ads than information about your hobbies, which sites you visit, what sort of holidays you take, when you take them, etc. That is the sort of information I am thinking about sharing, and unless I am missing something there isn’t much there that someone could use to steal my identity.

It is important to protect against spam though and that might come through some kind of profile/filter system which masks my IP address from the advertiser. That way I can choose to block any offending advertisers from having access to my information just like I block emails from the domains that spam me. As a further level of security the company that hosts and manages my profile for me could keep a blacklist of offending companies as well and refuse them access carte blanche – much as hotmail blocks email from known spammers.

Hopefully being careful about the data that is shared combined with a blacklist functionality should be enough to assuage most people’s fears. We won’t know, though, until someone puts it to the test. It would be very interesting to see a service which offered extra functionality to those who shared their data and permitted targeting. Then we would see how much people really care. Whilst the debate remains in the abstract there is little incentive for people to examine whether their fears are valid in the context of the gains on offer.

Why are we concerned about privacy?

By | Facebook, Identity | 6 Comments

This post has been forming in the back of my mind since I read Privacy and Personalisation: From Clickstream to Targeted Advertising on Read/Write web last week.  I was waiting until I met with Luke Razzell this morning to discuss the final two posts in our identity and startups series to make sure there wasn’t any overlap – there isn’t, so here we go.

For a long time I have thought that concerns about privacy are overdone – or more specifically that the benefits to be had from sharing some personal information far outweigh the risks.  If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have seen that thought as a recurring theme.  It is a issue that is at once critically important to predicting the future and difficult to do much more than guess at.

I will borrow the question from Helen on Technokitten:

Will the prospect of privacy become irrelevant as the myspace generation start to do the jobs we’re doing now?

Answer – YES – (and apologies for choosing the question to get the answer I wanted).

This is where the Read/Write web post comes in.  I’m going to take three brilliantly simple and clear quotes which convey all bar one of the reasons why it is my guess that privacy will diminish as an issue.

Firstly, these are emotional concerns, not rational ones:

Many times over the past few years I had conversations where people asked: But what about privacy? My answer is always: What exactly are you concerned about? The majority of people just worry about privacy as a word; they can’t express what it is that worries them. It is a conservative, mostly uninformed behavior: “I just don’t want them to know about me.”

Secondly, when you look at it there isn’t much to be worried about:

The good news about the people stalking our online behavior? They don’t want to hurt us, they just want our money. The reason retailers want to know our private information is because they want sell us things.

And finally, people are already showing they will give up on privacy pretty easily:

It is particularly odd to hear privacy concerns and then login into Facebook and see people putting everything about themselves in their profiles.

The final reason, and one that isn’t brought out explicitly in the Read/Write Web post is that sharing a little personal information is good for you.  It will allow advertisers to market to you more effectively, which increases the CPMs they can pay to your favourite sites who will then have more money to invest in improving their service to you.

OpenID starting to take hold

By | Advertising, Identity, Social networks | 2 Comments

OpenID logo

The number of sites where you can log in with OpenID is growing rapidly – this is big news in the identity/single-sign-on world. The standard has been around for a while but its complexity has stopped it really taking off.

Clearly something is changing.

And it is changing ahead of the much vaunted release of OpenID2.0 later this year – a release that is supposed to address many of the usability issues that have dogged the standard to date.

According to Pete Nixey of Clickpass at coming on to 4,500 sites supporting OpenID it is now 20 times more widely accepted than Microsoft Passport was at its peak.

Total Relying Parties (aka places you can login with OpenID)

OpenID graph

You can find the presentation which contained this graph and other related resources on the OpenID website.

All this isn’t just important because it gets us over the hassle of having to remember all of our usernames and passwords – that is important and will be an initial driver of adoption – but the more interesting thing to me is that the OpenID service provider then becomes the natural place to store other information about you.
That could be your friends list – providing an open option for social networks (which I know would please Sam).

Or it could be profile information generally which could be used to auto populate sign up forms and check-out processes or to target ads.

It is this last one which is the biggie for me. If Tacoda achieved enough to be worth $275m then the potential for targeting ads against self maintained profiles is mind-blowingly huge.