Does OpenID need to be hard?

Prompted by posts by Randy Reddig and Tony Stubblebine and a conversation with Elliott Kember, I wanted to address, yet again, the big fat stinking elephant in the room: OpenID usability and the paradox of choice.

Elliott proposed a pretty clear picture of what he thinks OpenID should look like on StackOverflow, given the relative value of each provider to him:

How OpenID should look, by Elliott Kember

Compare that to how it actually looks today:

Login or Register - Stack Overflow

I’m with him. I get it.

We’re at this crossroads where it really doesn’t matter which OpenID provider you use — because while it might save you the hassle of creating yet another password — there’s little else that you can do with an OpenID beyond that.

And, if you’ve already got more than one OpenID, not much exists to help you decide which OpenID provider you should use (many people tell me: “I hate OpenID! I’ve got like 15 OpenIDs and I never know which one to use!”).

So on the one hand, we’ve done a poor job of building out the value of using an OpenID, and on the other, have failed to explain what it means to have an OpenID (or several) or how to go about deciding which one to use and why (hat tip to OpenID Explained for taking a crack at it).

Meanwhile, there’s a tension between the convenience of having one reusable and durable identity against the desire to express many aspects of one’s identity with many separate IDs, resulting in complex user interfaces.

Fortunately, OpenID as a technology can serve both needs, but communicating and demonstrating that effectively has remained a challenge.

Putting OpenID in context

For my part, I’ve used the metaphor of credit cards to try to explain OpenID:

  • Online identity is moving from its “cash and check” era to the era of “credit cards”.

    Before the advent of charge cards, payment systems were decentralized — inefficient, cumbersome, and prone to fraud. There were a number of different, non-interoperable payment mechanisms that took 30+ years to get straightened out. Indeed, the credit card system that we take for granted today (so much so that airlines have moved to relying on them as the sole form of in-flight payment) only came about in the late 90s, a good 70 years after Western Union began issuing the first credit cards.

    Imagine OpenID taking 70 years to get mass adoption!!

    Taking this metaphor at face value, it’s clear that we’re in the neonatal stages of the build-out of the OpenID network and still have much work ahead of us. Fortunately, adoption cycles have also accelerated — I don’t have the actual numbers off-hand, but I can tell you that it took longer than four years to get the first 500 million credit card users!

  • As with credit cards, you can have as many OpenIDs as you like for different purposes. I presume that common divisions will fall along work, personal, and affinity lines:

    Credit cards

    …and of course there are cases I’ve not even considered yet

  • To close out this metaphor, picking an identity provider should be like picking a bank or credit card provider: as a fourth-party service provider that advocates for your interest, since you’re their customer! Today, to Elliott’s point, there are not many obvious differences between providers; over time, I expect this to change and for this relationship to become core to one’s experience on (and enjoyment of) the web.

    Instead of agreeing to terms of service that disclaim all responsibility to you, the customer, I hope that competition in the identity space will lead providers to actually take responsibility for their services — charging good money for doing so. If your account gets hacked — no problem! — your identity provider can put back the pieces and make things right again! You could even take out online identity insurance in case your identity is ever stolen — so you can always get back to your life and recover your data without the hassle and interruption when it happens today.

    Which credit card company would you give your business to? The one that automatically credits back false charges on your account and investigates them or the one that harasses you when you travel and presumes the worst of you? I know which one I’d pick — and I’d apply the same decision heuristics to whoever provides my online identity.

The OpenID “NASCAR”

Apart from confusion over having multiple OpenIDs, the user interface that has resulted from having many top-tier providers in the space also causes confusion.

nascar-babyElliott’s criticism of the StackOverflow OpenID interface is really aimed at the noise of the brand logos displayed as buttons — intended to help people sign in using an account they already have. This kind of interface is what Daniel Burka refers to as the “OpenID NASCAR” because all the logos look like a NASCAR racecar covered with brand stickers, all jockeying for your attention.

He’s got a point. Since he’s logging in with his Google account, he really only wants a Google button:

How OpenID should look, by Elliott Kember

For all he cares, it could look like this:

OpenID without choice

…and the result would be the same thing.

Indeed, it is this kind of lack of choice that makes Facebook Connect so seductively compelling.

And dangerous.

fbconnectIt’s a frigging button. You can’t mistake it. If you argued that reducing choice increases the likelihood that the user will “get it right” and be able to sign in to your site, you’d be correct.

But, that kind of restriction of freedom of choice impairs healthy competition in the marketplace. And lack of competition is, generally, bad for the health of an ecosystem, and ultimately bad for the consumer.

The harmony in the Yin & Yang of Simplicity and Choice

Ignoring your actual preference for Coke, if this were the universal experience for buying soda, one might argue that simplicity and fewer choices are better:

No Choice

But having choice is a better overall condition. Even when a popular brand is made more prominent, having alternatives means at least maintaining the illusion of control over one’s destiny:

Coke & Others

(Original photo by Bryan Costin shared under the Creative Commons license.)

So the question is, how can we simplify OpenID so that anyone can use it without reducing freedom of choice? Well, what if the backend technology was fundamentally interoperable, but every site simply supported a button, like this:

Uber-sign in button

…and upon clicking it, a new window would pop open and you’d be presented with a box, in which you could type just about anything: an email address, a URL, the name of a social network, your phone number… heck, you could even type your name (and if you were signed into a site like Facebook that leaks basic aspects of your identity), you could select yourself from a list of names and photos and then proceed through the typical OpenID flow to prove that you are who you are, completing the sign in process.

One problem that I’ve observed with OpenID input boxes, to date, is that they look far too similar to another solitary but familiar input box. Namely — the Google search box! …where anything goes:

Googlebox

Given the training that people have learned from using Google, we must balance the need for simplicity with the ability to make an informed personal choice about which identity to present to a site. Needs which are, in many respects, at odds. Yet, the future of OpenID depends on us unraveling these issues and developing suitable interfaces that are streamlined and straight-forward that also enhance individual freedom.

With the recently approved User Interface Working Group, headed up by Allen Tom from Yahoo!, and with the involvement of folks from Facebook and other organizations, I’m optimistic that we will make considerable progress this year.

And that ultimately, no, OpenID need not be hard. Making it so just won’t happen overnight.

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One day left for early-bird discounts to the Internet Identity Workshop

Internet Identity WorkshopI’ll be attending the upcoming Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) May 1820, 2009 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The event started in 2005 and has become a staple of the identity community over the past several years, contributing to the emergence of technologies like OpenID and OAuth.

This year’s event promises to continue the conversations begun at the first and second OpenID Design Summits, and will, for the first time, delve into some of the activity streams work with which I’ve been engaged for over a year now.

Through April 1, you can register to receive the early bird rate.

Considering the caliber of folks who will be in attendance and the importance of the work that gets done there, IIW is definitely an event worth attending!

My name is not a URL

Twitter / Mark Zuckerberg: Also just created a public ...

Arrington has a post that claims that Facebook is getting wise to something MySpace has known from the start – users love vanity URLs.

I don’t buy it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the omission of vanity URLs on Facebook is an intentional design decision from the beginning, and one that I’ve learned to appreciate over time.

From what I’ve gathered, it was co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s stubbornness that kept Facebook from allowing the use of pseudonymic usernames common on previous-generation social networks like AOL. Considering that Mark Zuckerberg’s plan is to build an online version of the relationships we have in real life, it only makes sense that we should, therefore, call our friends by their IRL names — not the ones left over or suggested by a computer.

But there’s actually something deeper going on here — something that I talked about at DrupalCon — because there are at least two good uses for letting people set their own vanity URLs — three if your service somehow surfaces usernames as an interface handle:

  1. Uniqueness and remembering
  2. Search engine optimization
  3. Facilitating member-to-member communication (as in the case of Twitter’s @replies)

For my own sake, I’ve lately begun decreasing the distance between my real identity and my online persona, switching from @factoryjoe to @chrismessina on Twitter. While there are plenty of folks who know me by my digital moniker, there are far more who don’t and shouldn’t need to in order to interact with me.

When considering SEO, it’s quite obvious that Google has already picked up on the correlation:

chris messina - Google Search

Ironically, in Dustin’s case (intentionally or not) he is not an authority for his own name on Google (despite the uniqueness of his name). Instead, semi-nefarious sites like Spock use SEO to get prominent placement for Dustin’s name (whether he likes it or not):

Dustin Moskovitz - Google Search

Finally, in cases like Twitter, IM or IRC, nicknames or handles are used explicitly to refer to other people on the system, even if (or especially if!) real identities are never revealed. While this separation can afford a number of perceived benefits, long-term it’s hard to quantify the net value of pseudonymity when most assholes on the web seem to act out most aggressively when shrouding their real names.

By shunning vanity URLs for its members, Facebook has achieved three things:

  1. Establishes a new baseline for transparent online identity
  2. Avoids the naming collision problem by scoping relationships within a person’s [reciprocal] social graph
  3. Upgrades expectations for human interaction on social websites

That everyone on Facebook has to use their real name (and Facebook will root out and disable accounts with pseudonyms), there’s a higher degree of accountability because legitimate users are forced to reveal who they are offline. No more “funnybunny345” or “daveman692” creeping around and leaving harassing wall posts on your profile; you know exactly who left the comment because their name is attached to their account.

Go through the comments on TechCrunch and compare those left by Facebook users with those left by everyone else. In my brief analysis, Facebook commenters tend to take their commenting more seriously. It’s not a guarantee, but there is definitely a correlation between durable identity and higher quality participation.

Now, one might point out that, without unique usernames, you’d end up with a bunch of name collisions — and you’d be right. However, combining search-by-email with profile photos largely eliminates this problem, and since Facebook requires bidirectional friendship confirmation, it’s going to be hard to get the wrong “Mike Smith” showing up in your social graph. So instead of futzing with (and probably forgetting) what strange username your friend uses, you can just search by (concept!) their real name using Facebook’s type-ahead find. And with autocompletion, you’ll never spell it wrong (of course Gmail has had this for ages as well).

Let me make a logical leap here and point out here that this is the new namespace — the human-friendly namespace — that Tim O’Reilly observed emerging when he defined Web 2.0, pointing out that a future source of lock-in would be “owning a namespace”. This is why location-based services are so hot. This is also why it matters who gets out in front first by developing a database of places named by humans — rather than by their official names. When it comes to search, search will get better when you can bound it — to the confluence of your known world and the known/colloquial world of your social graph.

When I was in San Diego a couple weeks back, it dawned on me that if I searched for “Joe’s Crab Shack”, no search engine on earth would be able to give me a satisfying result… unless it knew where I was. Or where I had been. Or, where my friends had been. This is where social search and computer-augmented social search becomes powerful (see Aardvark). Not just that, but this is where owning a database of given names tied to real things becomes hugely powerful (see Foursquare). This is where social objects with human-given names become the spimatic web.

So, as this plays out, success will find the designer who most nearly replicates the world offline online. Consider:

Twitter / Rear Adm. Monteiro: @mat and I are in the back ...

vs:

Facebook | @replies

and:

iChat

vs.

Facebook Chat

Ignoring content, it seems to me that the latter examples are much easier to grok without knowing anything about Facebook or Twitter — and are much closer approximations of real life.

Moreover, in EventBox, there is evidence that we truly are in a transitional period, where a large number of people still identity themselves or know their friends by usernames, but an increasing number of newcomers are more comfortable using real names (click to enlarge):

Eventbox Preferences

We’re only going to see more of this kind of thing, where the data-driven design approach will give way to a more overall humane aesthetic. It begins by calling people by the names we humans prefer to — and will always — use. And I think Facebook got it right by leaving out the vanity URLs.

Open-washing and the CamelOpenCircle …Jerk

CamelOpenCircle

(Filed under: sharks jumped.)

Brynn got this in the mail last week and shared it with me. Let’s just say that it struck a nerve.

I’ve worried for some time that “open” as a market differentiator is becoming diluted and washed out, just as “organic” and “green” before. Like “2.0”, companies are coming to see “open” as just the next checkbox-marketing-trend to hitch their fading brands to.

Consider my fears confirmed.

Camel doesn’t really believe in openness — let alone grok the concept — let alone give a shit about openness — but since all the cool kids are doing it, they’re happy to co-opt the label to win points. Let the backfire begin.

At the height of cynicism, we have a company whose primary business is architecting new schemes to kill people with their death products, aligning their brand with “openness”. Consider the line crossed.

Watch Mad Men for five minutes and see if you don’t think that these assholes should be strung up by the balls (since it’s predominantly white men who run these companies) and left for the vultures. Or left to be lynched by the families of the addicted and deceased.

Fuck it, I’m going to go ahead and break Godwin’s Law. In the spirit of openness.

It is estimated that the Nazis killed 20,946,000 people from 1933 to 1945 (R.J. Rummel, Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder, 1993.)

Guess how many people are killed by tobacco-related illnesses every year?

Roughly 20% of that number. Smoking and tobacco-related diseases cause on the order of 4.2 million premature deaths per year (according to the WHO Tobacco Atlas in 2000). That means that tobacco kills in five years what it took the Nazis twelve.

And, according to the World Bank, smoking also contributes a disproportionate number of deaths in the United States over all:

Mortality Ages 35-69/Cause Percent From Smoking
All Cancer, 1985 39%
All Cancer, 1995 42%
Lung Cancer, 1985 91%
Lung Cancer, 1995 91%
COPD, 1985 78%
COPD, 1995 80%
Vascular Disease, 1985 31%
Vascular Disease, 1995 33%
Mouth and Throat Cancers, 1985 67%
Mouth and Throat Cancers, 1995 68%

And the future? The World Health Organization projects that from 2025 to 2030, 10 million people worldwide will die from tobacco-related causes (the majority in developing countries):

WHO Estimated Deaths

So, you want to be part of the “open” revolution, Camel? Welcome!

I presume this means that you’re ready to start coming clean and owning up to the millions of deaths your industry has caused? Or is “CamelOpenCircle” just another marketing gimmick to trick people into thinking that you’re on the up and up of what’s trendy?

Newsflash muthafuckas: openness is hot not because it’s a gimmick, but because it means something to those of us who are tired of being lied to, being mislead, being cajoled and tricked by companies like you. FUCK YOU. Brands like yours could learn a thing or two from openness; too bad everything about you is the direct inverse of everything that we stand for.

Bottom line:

Smoking will fucking kill you

…and aligning yourselves with openness will never change that.

Generation Open

I spent the weekend in DC at TransparencyCamp, an event modeled after BarCamp focused on government transparency and open access to sources of federal data (largely through APIs and web services). Down the street, a social-media savvy conference called PowerShift convened over 12,000 of the nation’s youth to march on Congress to have their concerns about the environment heard. They were largely brought together on social networks.

Last week, after an imbroglio about a change to their terms of service, Facebook published two plain-language documents setting the course for “governing Facebook in an Open and Transparent way“: a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities coupled with a list of ten guiding principles.

The week before last, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) released a set of recommendations for open government that, among other things, called for government data to be available in formats that promote reuse and are available via public APIs.

WTF is going on?

Clearly something has happened since I worked on the Spread Firefox project in 2004 — a time when Mozilla was an easily dismissed outpost for “modern communists” (since meritocracy and sharing equals Communism, apparently).

Seemingly, the culture of “open” has infused even the most conservative and blood-thirsty organizations with companies falling over each other to claim the mantle of being the most open of them all.

So we won, right?

I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think it’s now when the hard work begins.

. . .

The people within Facebook not only believe in what they’re doing but are on the leading edge of Generation Open. It’s not merely an age thing; it’s a mindset thing. It’s about having all your references come from the land of the internet rather than TV and becoming accustomed to — and taking for granted — bilateral communications in place of unidirectional broadcast forms. Where authority figures used to be able to get away with telling you not to talk back, Generation Open just turns to Twitter and lets the whole world know what they think.

But it’s not just that the means of publishing have been democratized and the new medium is being mastered; change is flowing from the events that have shaped my generation’s understanding of economics, identity, and freedom.

Maybe it started with Pearl Jam (it did for me!). Or perhaps witnessing AOL incinerate Netscape, only to see a vast network emerge to champion the rise of Firefox from its ashes. Maybe being bombarded by stinking piles of Flash and Real Player one too many times lead to a realization that, “yeah, those advertisers ain’t so cool. They’re fuckin’ up my web!” Of course watching Google become a residue on the web itself, imbuing its colorful primaries on HTTP, as a lichen seduces a redwood, becoming inseparable from the host, also suggests a more organic approach to business as usual.

Talking to people who hack on Drupal or Mozilla, I’m not surprised when they presume openness as matter of course. They thrive on the work of those who have come before and in turn, pay it forward. Why wouldn’t their work be open?

Talking to people at Facebook (in light of the arc of their brief history) you might not expect openness to come culturally. Similarly, talking to Microsoft you could presume the same. In the latter case, you’d be right; in the former, I’m not so sure.

See, the people who populate Facebook are largely from Generation Open. They grew up in an era where open source wasn’t just a bygone conclusion, but it was central to how many of them learned to code. It wasn’t in computer science classes at top universities — those folks ended up at Arthur Anderson, Accenture or Oracle (and probably became equally boring). Instead, the hobbyist kids cut their teeth writing WordPress plugins, Firefox extensions, or Greasemonkey scripts. They found success because of openness.

ShareThat Zuckerberg et al talk about making the web a more “open and social place” where it’s easy to “share and connect” is no surprise: it’s the open, social nature of the web that has brought them such success, and will be the domain in which they achieve their magnum opus. They are the original progeny of the open web, and its natural heirs.

. . .

Obama is running smack against the legacy of the baby boomers — the generation whose parents defeated the Nazis. More relevant is that the boomers fought the Nazis. Their children, in turn, inherited a visceral fear of machinery, in large part thanks to IBM’s contributions to the near-extermination of an entire race of people. If you want to know why privacy is important — look to the power of aggregate knowledge in the hands of xenophobes 70 years ago.

But who was alive 70 years ago? Better: who was six years old and terribly impressionable fifty years ago? Our parents, that’s who.

And it’s no wonder why the Facebook newsfeed (now stream) and Twitter make these folks uneasy. The potential for abuse is so great and our generation — our open, open generation — is so beautifully naive.

. . .

We are the generation that will meet Al Qaeda not “head on”, but by the length of each of its tentacles. Unlike our parents’ enemies, ours are not centralized supernations anymore. Our enemies act like malware, infecting people’s brains, and thus behave like a decentralized zombie-bot horde that cannot be stopped unless you shift the environment or shut off the grid.

We are also the generation that watched our government fail to protect the victims of Katrina — before, during and after the event. The emperor’s safety net — sworn nemesis of fiscal conservatives — turned out not to exist despite all their persistent whining. Stranded, hundreds took to their roofs while helicopters hovered over head, broadcasting FEMA’s failure on the nightly news. While Old Media gawked, the open source community solved problems, delivering the Katrina PeopleFinder database, meticulously culled from public records and disparate resources that, at the time, lacked usable APIs.

But that wasn’t the first time “privacy” worked against us. On September 11, 2001 we flooded the cell networks, just wanting to know whether our friends and family were safe. The network, controlled by a few megacorporations, failed under the weight of our anxiety and calls; those supposed consumer protections designed to keep us safe… didn’t, turning technology and secrecy against us.

. . .

Back to this weekend in DC.

You put TransparencyCamp in context — and think about all the abuses that have been perpetrated by humans against humans — throughout time… you have to stop and wonder: “Geez, what on earth will make this generation any different than the ones that have come before? What’s to say that Zuckerberg — once he assembles a mass of personally identifying information on his peers on an order of magnitude never achieved since humans started counting time — won’t he do what everyone in his position has done before?”

Oddly enough, the answer is probably not. The reason is the web. Even weirder is that Facebook, as I write this, seems to be taking steps to embrace the web, seeking to become a part of it — rather than competing against it. It seems, at least in my interactions with folks at Facebook, that a good portion of them genuinely want to work with the web as it today, as they recognize the power that they themselves have derived from it. As they benefitted from it, they shall benefit it in turn.

Seems counterproductive to all those MBAs who study Microsoft as the masterstroke of the 21st century, but to the citizens of the web — we get it.

What Facebook is attempting — like the Obama administration in parallel — is nothing short of a revolution; you simply can’t evolve out of a culture of fear and paranoia that was passed down to us. You have to disrupt the ecosystem, and create a new equilibrium.

If we are Generation Open, then we are the optimistic generation. Ours only comes around every several generations with the resurgence of pure human spirit coupled with the resplendent realization of intent.

There are, however, still plenty who reject this attitude and approach, suffering from the combined malaise of “proprietariness”, “materialism”, and “consumerism”.

But — I shit you not — as the world turns, things are changing. Sharing and giving away all that you can are the best defenses against fear, obsolescence, growing old, and, even, wrinkles. It isn’t always easy, but it’s how we outlive the shackles of biology and transcend the physicality of gravity.

To transcend is to become transparent, clear, open.

How to use Twimailer securely

TwimailerTwimailer is a nifty service that launched recently that makes Twitter BACN (“email that you want, just not right now“) more useful and informative (example).

The only problem is that it requires you to change your Twitter account email to point to an address provided by Twimailer — on the whole, not a big deal if you trust Twimailer, but in general bad practice. (Rod Begbie also pointed out that this prevents people from being able to find you by your email address).

Fortunately there is a better and more secure way to take advantage of Twimailer.

I’ll demonstrate in Gmail but really I’m just auto-forwarding new follower notifications from Twitter to your Twimailer address. That’s it.

  1. First, go ahead and sign up for a new Twimailer account. To get started, they just need an email address to send your notifications to. Twimailer will assign you a unique email address like twitter1234567@twimailer.com. Set this aside (copy it to TextEdit or something).
  2. Next, load up your Gmail inbox and search for “is now following you on Twitter!”. Open up one of the notifications from Twitter (the From email should be something like twitter-follow-your.address=gmail.com@postmaster.twitter.com). In the right hand drop-down menu, pick “Filter messages like this“:
    Filter messages like this
  3. You should then see an interface like this (click to enlarge):
    Create a filter
    Go ahead and test this search to make sure it’s working (presuming you haven’t deleted all your notifications).
  4. If everything looks good, go ahead and click Next Step and at check off “Forward it to” and enter your Twimailer email address that you set aside in Step 1.

    If you don’t want duplicate notifications from Twitter and Twimailer, you should also check off “Skip the Inbox” or “Delete it” (the message will still be forwarded).

    My setup looks like this (click to enlarge):

    Twimailer Filter

  5. Bonus: to filter or create a label for Twimailer notices, use this search: from:(notices@twimailer.com) OR to:(notices@twimailer.com).

That’s it!

It seems to me that this kind of feature improvement is something that Twitter should really do itself, but of course it’s great to see someone from the community pitch in and add incremental value until Twitter gets around to it.

At the same time, putting Twimailer in between you and Twitter’s password recovery mechanism seems unnecessarily dangerous (i.e. Twimailer could go down, get hacked, sold or might be simply be implemented insecurely (consider Spotify’s recent security breach)). I actually have no insight into these things about Twimailer, but I’d rather not take any unnecessary chances.

The approach that I described above should mitigate any risk with using Twimailer and keep you in direct control over your Twitter account.

RIP @factoryjoe

Twitter / Mr Messina: Oh, and in case you missed ...

Sometime last week, after two Manhattans, I decided to change my Twitter username from @factoryjoe to @chrismessina. In the scheme of things, not a big deal (yeah, okay, so I broke a couple thousand hyperlinks…). And yet, I can’t but feel like I’ve shed a skin or changed identities… at least to a specific audience.

I started using Twitter in 2006 as “factoryjoe”. Of course, this is the nick that I use everywhere —from Flickr to my personal homepage — so that choice was obvious. I essentially own factoryjoe on the web — people even occasionally call me “Joe” when we meet, such is their familiarity with my online persona. But that’s not my actual name.

When I talk in front of people and I introduce myself as “Chris Messina”, the disconnect between my real name and my online persona becomes distracting. And, over time, my motivations for having a separate online identity have waned.

But first, I suppose, I should provide some background.

Where did “factoryjoe” come from?

Every so often I’m asked where “factoryjoe” came from: “Kind of like ‘Joe the Plumber?’” “Kind of,” I say. “But not really.”

Growing up, I drew comic books for fun. In fact, for most of my formative years, it seemed pretty clear that I’d pursue a career in art. I worked in pastels, watercolor, pen and ink; I preferred pen and ink above all the others though, taking lessons from Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and others as Image Comics came on to the scene. It was a fond dream of mine to someday pen my own sequential art.
1984 PosterIn high school, I read Nineteen Eighty-Four and became enamored with the character of Winston Smith, Orwell’s “everyman” character. In Winston Smith, I found a confederate, struggling to assert his individual humanity against the massive, dehumanizing forces of groupthink and oligarchy. Similarly, I identified with Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron and his struggle against homogeneity and mediocrity. The contours of “factoryjoe” began to emerge against the backdrop of the metropolitan “FactoryCity”, where industrialism was proven a sham and one’s conspicuous pursuit of passion ruled over the shallow pursuit of material consumption.

Factory City

Factory Joe was the anonymous shell in which I could plant my aspirations and designs for the future. He served as a metaphorical vessel through which I could mold a broader narrative.

So… changing your Twitter username?

In every superhero’s journey, there comes a time when the mask grows bigger than its owner. Is it the mask that provides the wearer with his power, or is it something integral to the individual?

I once believed that I needed to have a deep separation between myself and my online persona — that they should be distinct; that I should distrust the web. Over time I’ve realized a great deal power by closing the gap between who I am offline and who I am online. I suppose this is the power of transparency, developed through consistency and demonstrated integrity.

@factoryjoe was, therefore, my first go at creating an online identity for myself. A kind of “home away from home” that I could experiment with before this whole social web thing caught on.

As it happened, this was fine when I had a small group of friends who used similar aliases for themselves, but more recently — inspired by Facebook’s allergy to pseudonyms and non-human friendly usernames — it seems that not only owning your own identity is in vogue, but using your real name is an act of assertiveness, inventiveness or establishment. Heck, if you’re willing to share your real name with 150+ million compatriots on Facebook, is there really that much to be gained from obfuscating your actual name on the open web anymore (that’s rhetorical)?

So, back to Future of Web Apps… following my workshop with Dave, I took a step back to think about how it must appear for me to be working on the social web and identity technologies while maintaining this dichotomy between my offline and online personas — in name only. C’mon, when people have feedback and I’m talking on stage — who do I want them addressing? — my assumed identity … or me? The friction that I invented is just no longer necessary.

So factoryjoe isn’t going away — not entirely at least. It’s a useful vessel to inhabit and I’ll continue to do so. But on Twitter, Facebook, and on my homepage, I’ll use my real name. There is simply no longer a good reason to differentiate between who I am online, and who I am off, if ever there was.

. . .

Postscript: I’m now @chrismessina on Twitter. If we were friends before — no need to make any changes — Twitter took care of that already. @factoryjoe‘s been retired, but now that I got it back from Recordon (he was just jealous, since he has the worst username ever), who knows, maybe he’ll return someday. We’ll see!