Citizen Agency, Citizen-centric Web, Digital Identity, DiSo, Philosophy, Technology, Things I think about, Web building, What I do

Responding to criticisms about OpenID: convenience, security and personal agency

Twitter / Chris Drackett:  openID should be dead... its over-rated.

Chris Dracket responded to one of my tweets the other day, saying that “OpenID should be dead… it’s way over-rated”. I’ve of course heard plenty of criticisms of OpenID, but hadn’t really heard that it was “overrated” (which implies that people have a higher opinion of OpenID than it merits).

Intrigued, I replied, asking him to elaborate, which he did via email:

I don’t know if overrated is the right word.. but I just don’t see OpenID ever catching on.. I think the main reason is that its too complex / scary of an idea for the normal user to understand and accept.

In my opinion the only way to make OpenID seem safe (for people who are worried about privacy online) is if the user has full control over the OpenID provider. While this is possible for people like you and me, my mom is never going to get to this point, and if she wants to use OpenID she is going to have to trust her sensitive data to AOL, MS, Google, etc. I think that people see giving this much “power” to a single provider as scary.

Lastly I think that OpenID is too complex to properly explain to someone and get them to use it. People understand usernames and passwords right away, and even OAuth, but OpenID in itself I think is too hard to grasp. I dunno, just a quick opinion.. I think there is a reason that we don’t have a single key on our key rings that opens our house, car, office and mailbox, not that that is a perfect/accurate analogy, but its close to how some people I’ve talked to think OpenID works.

Rather than respond privately, I asked whether it’d be okay if I posted his follow-up and replied on my blog. He obliged.

To summarize my interpretation of his points: OpenID is too complex and scary, potentially too insecure, and too confined to the hands of a few companies.

The summary of my rebuttals:


Convenience

OpenID should not be judged by today’s technological environment alone, but rather should be considered in the context of the migration to “cloud computing”, where people no longer access files on their local harddrive, but increasingly need to access data stored by web services.

All early technologies face criticism based on current trends and dominant behaviors, and OpenID is no different. At one time, people didn’t grok sending email between different services (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, people didn’t grok IMing their AOL buddies using Google Talk (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, you had one computer and your browser stored all of your passwords on the client-side (this is basically where we are today) and at one time, people accessed their photos, videos, and documents locally on their desktop (as is still the case for most people).

Cloud computing represents a shift in how people access and share data. Already, people rely less and less on physical media to store data and more and more on internet-based web services.

As a consequence, people will need a mechanism for referencing their data and services as convenient as the c: prompt. An OpenID, therefore, should become the referent people use to indicate where their data is “stored”.

An OpenID is not just about identification and blog comments; nor is it about reducing the number of passwords you have (that’s a by-product of user-centered design). Consider:

  • if I ask you where your photos are, you could say Flickr, and then prove it, because Flickr supports OpenID.
  • if I ask you where friends are, you might say MySpace, and then prove it, because MySpace will support OpenID.
  • if you host your own blog or website, you will be able to provide your address and then prove it, because you are OpenID-enabled.

The long-term benefit of OpenID is being able to refer to all the facets of your online identity and data sources with one handy — ideally memorable — web-friendly identifier. Rather than relying on my email addresses alone to identify myself, I would use my OpenIDs, and link to all the things that represent me online: from my resume to my photos to my current projects to my friends, web services and so on.

The big picture of cloud computing points to OpenIDs simplifying how people access, share and connect data to people and services.


Security

I’ve heard many people complain that if your OpenID gets hacked, then you’re screwed. They claim that it’s like putting all your eggs in one basket.

But that’s really no different than your email account getting hacked. Since your email address is used to reset your password, any or all of your accounts could have their passwords reset and changed; worse, the password and the account email address could be changed, locking you out completely.

At minimum, OpenID is no worse than the status quo.

At best, combined with OAuth, third-parties never need your account password, defeating the password anti-pattern and providing a more secure way to share your data.

Furthermore, because securing your OpenID is outside of the purview of the spec, you can choose an OpenID provider (or set up your own) with a level of security that fits your needs. So while many OpenID providers currently stick with the traditional username and password combo, others offer more sophisticated approaches, from client-side certificates and hardware keys to biometrics and image-based password shields (as in the case of my employer, Vidoop).

One added benefit of OpenID is the ability to audit and manage access to your account, just as you do with a credit card account. This means that you have a record of every time someone (hopefully you!) signs in to one of your accounts with your OpenID, as well as how frequently sign-ins occur, from which IP addresses and on what devices. From a security perspective, this is a major advantage over basic usernames and passwords, as collecting this information from each service provider would prove inconvenient and time-consuming, if even possible.

Given this benefit, it’s worth considering that identity technologies
are being pushed on the government. If you’re worried about putting all your eggs in one basket, would you think differently if the government owned that basket?

OpenID won’t force anyone to change their current behavior, certainly not right away. But wouldn’t it be better to have the option to choose an alternative way to secure your accounts if you wanted it? OpenID starts with the status quo and, coupled with OAuth, provides an opportunity to make things better.

We’re not going to make online computing more secure overnight, but it seems like a prudent place to start.


Personal agency for web citizens

Looking over the landscape of existing social software applications, I see very few (if any) that could not be enhanced by OpenID support.

OpenID is a cornerstone technology of the emerging social web, and adds value anywhere users have profiles, accounts or need access to remote data.

Historically, we’ve seen similar attempts at providing a universal login account. Microsoft even got the name right with “Passport”, but screwed up the network model. Any identity system, if it’s going to succeed on the open web, needs to be designed with user choice at its core, in order to facilitate marketplace competition. A single-origin federated identity network will always fail on the internet (as Joseph Smarr and John McCrea like to say of Facebook Connect: We’ve seen this movie before).

As such, selecting an identity provider should not be relegated to a default choice. Where you come from (what I call provenance) has meaning.

For example, if you connect to a service using your Facebook account, the relying party can presume that the profile information that Facebook supplies will be authentic, since Facebook works hard to ferret out fake accounts from its network (unlike MySpace). Similarly, signing in with a Google Account provides a verified email address.

Just like the issuing country of your passport may say something about you to the immigration official reviewing your documents, the OpenID provider that you use may also say something about you to the relying party that you’re signing in to. It is therefore critical that people make an informed choice about who provides (and protects) their identity online, and that the enabling technologies are built with the option for individuals to vouch for themselves.

In the network model where anyone can host their own independent OpenID (just like anyone can set up their own email server), competition may thrive. Where competition thrives, an ecosystem may arise, developed under the rubric of market dynamics and Darwinian survivalism. And in this model, the individual is at the center, rather than the services he or she uses.

This the citizen-centric model of the web, and each of us are sovereign citizens of the web. Since I define and host my own identity, I do not need to worry about services like Pownce being sold or I Want Sandy users left wanting. I have choice, I have bargaining power, and I have agency, and this is critical to the viability of the social web at scale.


Final words

OpenID is not overrated, it’s just early. We’re just getting started with writing the rules of social software on the web, and we’ve got a lot of bad habits to correct.

As cloud computing goes mainstream (evidenced in part by the growing popularity of Netbooks this holiday season!), we’re going to need a consumer-facing technology and brand like OpenID to help unify this new, more virtualized world, in order to make it universally accessible.

Fortunately, as we stack more and more technologies and services on our OpenIDs, we can independently innovate the security layer, developing increasingly sophisticated solutions as necessary to make sure that only the right people have access to our accounts and our data.

It is with with these changes that we must evaluate OpenID — not as a technology for 2008’s problems — but as a formative building block for 2009 and the future of the social web.

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Ideas, Technology, The Web Arts, Web building

Where we’re going with Activity Streams

The DiSo Project is just over a year old. It’s remained a somewhat amorphous blob of related ideas, concepts and aspirations in my brain, but has resulted in some notable progress, even if such progress appears dubious on the surface.

For example, OAuth is a core aspect of DiSo because it enables site-to-site permissioning and safer data access. It’s not because of the DiSo Project that OAuth exists, but my involvement in the protocol certainly stems from the goals that I have with DiSo. Similarly, Portable Contacts emerged (among other things) as a response to Microsoft’s “beautiful fucking snowflakecontacts API, but it will be a core component of our efforts to distribute and decentralize social networking. And meanwhile, OpenID has had momentum and a following all its own, and yet it too fits into the DiSo model in my head, as a cornerstone technology on which much of the rest relies.

Subscribing to a person

Tonight I gave a talk specifically about activity streams. I’ve talked about them before, and I’ve written about them as well. But I think things started to click tonight for people for some reason. Maybe it was the introduction of the mocked up interface above (thanks Jyri!) that shows how you could consume activities based on human-readable content types, rather than by the service name on which they were produced. Maybe it was providing a narrative that illustrated how these various discreet and abstract technologies can add up to something rather sensible and desirable (and looks familiar, thanks to Facebook Connect).

In any case, I won’t overstate my point, but I think the work that we’ve been doing is going to start accelerating in 2009, and that the activity streams project, like OAuth before, will begin to grow legs.

And if I haven’t made it clear what I’m talking about, well, we’re starting with an assumption that activities (like the ones in Facebook’s newsfeed and that make up the bulk of FriendFeed’s content) are kind of like the synaptic electrical impulses that make social networking work. Consider that people probably read more Twitter content these days than they do conventional blog posts — if only because, with so much more content out there, we need more smaller bite-sized chunks of information in order to cope.

FriendFeed - Add/Edit ServicesSo starting there, we need to look at what it would take to recreate efficient and compelling interfaces for activity streams like we’re used to on FriendFeed and Facebook, but without the benefit of having ever seen any of the services before. I call this the “zero knowledge test”. Let me elaborate.

When I say “without the benefit of having ever seen”, I primarily mean from a programmatic standpoint. In other words, what would it take to be able to deliver an equivalent experience to FriendFeed without hardcoding support for only a few of the more popular services (FriendFeed currently supports 59 out of the thousands of candidate sites out there)? What would we need in a format to be able to join, group, de-dupe, and coalesce individual activities and otherwise make the resulting output look human readable?

Our approach so far has been to research and document what’s already out there (taking a hint from the microformats process). We’ve then begun to specify different approaches to solving this problem, from machine tags to microformats to extending ATOM (or perhaps RSS?).

Of course, we really just need to start writing some code. But fortunately with products like Motion in the wild and plugins like Action Stream, we at least have something to start with. Now it’s just a matter of rinse, wash and repeat.

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Citizen-centric Web, Digital Identity, DiSo, Technology, Web building

I’m a candidate for the board of the OpenID Foundation!

I'm kind of a big dealThe OpenID Foundation board election opened up on December 10. After a grueling nominations process (not really), we were left with 17 candidates vying for seven community board member seats. Your candidates are (alphabetized by first name):

So far, a great deal of discussion has gone on about the various candidates’ platforms on the OpenID general mailing list. Candidates have also written about things that they would like to change in the coming year on their blogs as well, notably Dave Recordon and Johannes Ernst.

For my own part, I wrote up many of my ideas when I announced my candidacy. I also maintain a wiki page of goals that I have for OpenID.

The three issues that are at the top of my list should I be elected to the board really come down to:

  • establishing OpenID as a strong consumer brand
  • improving the user experience and ease-of-use of OpenID
  • enhancing the value of adopting OpenID for individuals, businesses, and organizations

I will lay out my rationale for these positions in a series of upcoming posts.

In the meantime, if you’d like to vote in this election, you will need to register for a $25 year-long membership in the OpenID Foundation (basically providing you the privilege to participate in this and other foundation elections and activities).

I also solicit your feedback, concerns and wishes for OpenID. Though I have plenty ideas about the kind of work that needs to go into OpenID to make it into a great cornerstone technology for the open web, I’m also very interested in hearing from other people about their experiences with OpenID, or about their ideas for how we can advance the cause of OpenID in 2009.

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Citizen-centric Web, DiSo, Ideas, Life online, Technology, Web building

Adding richness to activity streams

This is a post I’ve wanted to do for awhile but simply haven’t gotten around to it. Following my panel with Dave Recordon (Six Apart), Dave Morin (Facebook), Adam Nash (LinkedIn), Kevin Chou (Watercooler, Inc) and Sean Ammirati (ReadWriteWeb) on Social Networks and the NEED for FEEDs, it only seems appropriate that I would finally get this out.

The basic premise is this: lifestreams, alternatively known as “activity streams”, are great for discovering and exploring social media, as well as keeping up to date with friends (witness the main feature of Facebook and the rise of FriendFeed). I suggest that, with a little effort on the publishing side, activity streams could become much more valuable by being easier for web services to consume, interpret and to provide better filtering and weighting of shared activities to make it easier for people to get access to relevant information from people that they care about, as it happens.

By marking up social activities and social objects, delivered in standard feeds with microformats, I think we enable anyone to run a FriendFeed-like service that innovates and offers value based on how well it understands what’s going on and what’s relevant, rather than on its compatibility with any and every service.

Contemporary example activities

Here are the kinds of activities that I’m talking about (note that some services expand these with thumbnail previews):

  • Eddie updated his resume at LinkedIn.
  • Chris listened to “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie on Pandora.
  • Brynn favorited a photo on Flickr.
  • Dave posted a message to Twitter via SMS.
  • Gary poked Kastner.
  • Leah bought The Matrix at Amazon.com.

Prior art

Both OpenSocial and Facebook provide APIs for creating new activities that will show up in someone’s activity stream or newsfeed.

Movable Type and the DiSo Project both have Action Stream plugins. And there are countless related efforts. Clearly there’s existing behavior out there… but should we go about improving it, where the primary requirement is a title of an action, and little, if any, guidance on how to provide more details on a given activity?

Components of an activity

Not surprisingly, a lot of activities provide what all good news stories provide: the who, what, when, where and sometimes, how.

Let’s take a look at an example, with these components called out:

e.g. Chris started listening to a station on Pandora 3 hours ago.

  • actor/subject (noun/pronoun)
  • action (verb)
  • social object (noun)
  • where (place)
  • when (time)
  • (how the object was created)
  • (expanded view of object)

Now, I’ll grant that not all activities follow this exact format, but the majority seem to.

I should point out one alternative: collective actions.

e.g. Chris and Dave Morin are now friends.

…but these might be better created as a post-processing step once we add the semantic salt to the original updates. Maybe.

Class actions

One of the assumptions I’m making is that there is some regularity and uniformity in activity streams. Moreover, there have emerged some basic classes of actions that appear routinely and that could be easily expressed with additional semantics.

To that end, I’ve started compiling such activities on the DiSo wiki.

Once we have settled on the base set of classes, we can start to develop common classnames and presentation templates. To start, we have: changed status or presence, posted messages or media, rated and favorited, friended/defriended, interacted with someone (i.e. “poking”), bookmarked, and consumed something (attended…, watched…, listened to…).

Combining activities with bundling

The concept of bundling is already present in OpenSocial and works for combining multiple activities of the same kind into a group:

FriendFeed Activity Bundling

This can also be used to bundle different kinds of activities for a single actor:

e.g. Chris watched The Matrix, uploaded five photos, attended an event and became friends with Dave.

From a technical perspective, bundling provides a mechanism for batching service-to-service operations, as defined in PaceBatch.

Bundling is also useful for presenting paged or “continued…” activities, as Facebook and FriendFeed do.

Advanced uses

I’d like to describe two advanced uses that inherit from my initial proposal for Twitter Hashtags: filtering and creating a distributed track-like service.

In the DiSo model, we use (will use) AtomPub (and someday XMPP) to push new activities to people who have decided to follow different people. Because the model is push-based, activities are delivered as they happen, to anyone who has subscribed to receive them. On the receiving end, this means that we can filter based on any number of criteria, such as actor, activity type, content of the activity (as in keywords or tags), age of the action, location or how an activity was created (was this message auto-generated from Brightkite or sent in by SMS?) or any combination therein.

This is useful if you want to follow certain activities of your friends more closely than others, or if you only care about, say, the screenshots I upload to Flickr but not the stuff I tweet about.

Tracking can work two ways: where your own self-hosted service knows how to elevate certain types of received activities which are then passed to your messaging hub and routed appropriately… for example, when Mom checks in using Brightkite at the airport (or within some distance radius).

On the other hand, individuals could choose to publish their activities to some third-party aggregator (like Summize) and do the tracking for individuals, pushing back activities that it discovers that matches criteria that you set, and then forwarding those activities to your messaging hub.

It might not have the legs that a centralized service like Twitter has, especially to start, but if Technorati were looking for a new raison d’etre, this might be it.

This is a 30,000 foot view

I was scant on code in this post, but given how long it was already, I’d rather just start throwing it into the output of the activity streams being generated from the Action Streams plugins and see how live code holds up in the wild.

I also don’t want to confuse too many implementation details with the broader concept and need, which again is to make activity streams richer by standardizing on some specific semantics based on actual trends.

I’d love feedback, more pointers to prior art, or alternative suggestions for how any of the above could be technically achieved using open technologies.

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Citizen-centric Web, Digital Identity, DiSo, Life online, microformats, Technology, Web building

Inventing contact schemas for fun and profit! (Ugh)

And then there were three.

Today, Yahoo! announced the public availability of their own Address Book API. Though Plaxo and LinkedIn have been using this API behind the scenes for a short while, today marks the first time the API is available for anyone who registers for an App ID to make use of the bi-directional protocol.

The API is shielded behind Yahoo! proprietary BBAuth protocol, which obviates the need to request Yahoo! member credentials at the time of import initiation, as seen in this screenshot from LinkedIn (from April):

LinkedIn: Expand your network

Now, like Joseph, I applaud the release of this API, as it provides one more means for individuals to have utter control and access to their friends, colleagues and contacts using a robust protocol.

However, I have to lament yet more needless reinvention of contact schema. Why is this a problem? Well, as I pointed out about Facebook’s approach to developing their own platform methods and formats, having to write and debug against yet another contact schema makes the “tax” of adding support for contact syncing and export increasingly onerous for sites and web services that want to better serve their customers by letting them host and maintain their address book elsewhere.

This isn’t just a problem that I have with Yahoo!. It’s something that I encountered last November with the SREG and proposed Attribute Exchange profile definition. And yet again when Google announced their Contacts API. And then again when Microsoft released theirs! Over and over again we’re seeing better ways of fighting the password anti-pattern flow of inviting friends to new social services, but having to implement support for countless contact schemas. What we need is one common contacts interchange format and I strongly suggest that it inherit from vcard with allowances or extension points for contemporary trends in social networking profile data.

I’ve gone ahead and whipped up a comparison matrix between the primary contact schemas to demonstrate the mess we’re in.

Below, I have a subset of the complete matrix to give you a sense for where we’re at with OpenSocial (né GData), Yahoo Address Book API and Microsoft’s Windows Live Contacts API, and include vcard (RFC 2426) as the cardinal format towards which subsequent schemas should converge:

vcard OpenSocial 0.8 Windows Live Contacts API Yahoo Address Book API
UID uid url id cid cid
Nickname nickname nickname NickName nickname
Full Name n or fn name NameTitle, FirstName, MiddleName, LastName, Suffix name
First name n (given-name) given_name FirstName name (first)
Last name n (family-name) family_name LastName name (last)
Birthday bday date_of_birth Birthdate birthday (day, month, year)
Anniversary Anniversary anniversary (day, month, year)
Gender gender gender gender
Email email email Email (ID, EmailType, Address, IsIMEnabled, IsDefault) email
Street street-address street-address StreetLine street
Postal Code postal-code postal-code PostalCode zip
City locality locality
State region region PrimaryCity state
Country country-name country CountryRegion country
Latitutude geo (latitude) latitude latitude
Longitude geo (longitude) longitude longitude
Language N/A N/A
Phone tel (type, value) phone (number, type) Phone (ID, PhoneType, Number, IsIMEnabled, IsDefault) phone
Timezone tz time_zone TimeZone N/A
Photo photo thumbnail_url N/A
Company org organization.name CompanyName company
Job Title title, role organization.title JobTitle jobtitle
Biography note about_me notes
URL url url URI (ID, URIType, Name, Address) link
Category category, rel-tag tags Tag (ID, Name, ContactIDs)
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Citizen-centric Web, Digital Identity, DiSo, Ideas, Life online, Open source, Philosophy, Technology, Web building

Facebook, the USSR, communism, and train tracks

Low hills closed in on either side as the train eventually crawled on to high, tabletop grasslands creased with snow. Birds flew at window level. I could see lakes of an unreal cobalt blue to the north. The train pulled into a sprawling rail yard: the Kazakh side of the Kazakhstan-China border.

Workers unhitched the cars, lifted them, one by one, ten feet high with giant jacks, and replaced the wide-gauge Russian undercarriages with narrower ones for the Chinese tracks. Russian gauges, still in use throughout the former Soviet Union, are wider than the world standard. The idea was to the prevent invaders from entering Russia by train. The changeover took hours.

— Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

I read this passage today while sunning myself at Hope Springs Resort near Palm Springs. Tough life, I know.

The passage above immediately made me think of Facebook, and I had visions of the old Facebook logo with a washed out Stalin face next to the wordmark (I’m a visual person). But the thought came from some specific recent developments, and fit into a broader framework that I talked about loosely to Steve Gillmor about on his podcast. I also wrote about it last week, essentially calling for Facebook and Google to come together to co-develop standards for the social web, but, having been reading up on Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Central Asian history, and being a benefactor of the American enterprise system, I’m coming over to Eran and others‘ point that 1) it’s too early to standardize and 2) it probably isn’t necessary anyway. Go ahead, let a thousand flowers bloom.

If I’ve learned anything from Spread Firefox, BarCamp, coworking and the like, it’s that propaganda needs to be free to be effective. In other words, you’re not going to convince people of your way of thinking if you lock down what you have, especially if what you have is culture, a mindset or some other philosophical approach that helps people narrow down what constitutes right and wrong.

Look, if Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door but had ensconced them in DRM, he would not have been as effective at bringing about the Reformation.

Likewise, the future of the social web will not be built on proprietary, closed-source protocols and standards. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Google wants OpenSocial to be an “open standard” and Facebook wants to be the openemest of them all!

The problem is not about being open here. Everyone gets that there’s little marginal competitive advantage to keeping your code closed anymore. Keeping your IP cards close to your chest makes you a worse card player, not better. The problem is with adoption, gaining and maintaining [developer] interest and in stoking distribution. And, that brings me to the fall of the Communism and the USSR, back where I started.

I wasn’t alive back when the Cold War was in its heyday. Maybe I missed something, but let’s just go on the assumption that things are better off now. From what I’m reading in Kaplan’s book, I’d say that the Soviets left not just social, but environmental disaster in their wake. The whole region of Central Asia, at least in the late 90s, was fucked. And while there are many causes, more complex than I can probably comprehend, a lot of it seems to have to do with a lack of cultural identity and a lack of individual agency in the areas affected by, or left behind by, Communist rule.

Now, when we talk about social networks, I mean, c’mon, I realize that these things aren’t exactly nations, nation-states or even tribal groups warring for control of natural resources, food, potable water, and so forth. BUT, the members of social networks number in the millions in some cases, and it would be foolish not to appreciate that the borders — the meticulously crafted hardline boundaries between digital nation-states — are going to be redrawn when the battle for cultural dominance between Google (et al) and Facebook is done. It’s not the same caliber of détente that we saw during the Cold War but it’s certainly a situation where two sides with very different ideological bents are competing to determine the nature of the future of the [world]. On the one hand, we have a nanny state who thinks that it knows best and needs to protect its users from themselves, and on the other, a lassé-faire-trusting band of bros who are looking to the free market to inform the design of the Social Web writ large. On the one hand, there’s uncertainty about how to build a “national identity”-slash-business on top of lots of user data (that, oh yeah, I thought was supposed to be “owned” by the creators), and on the other, a model of the web, that embraces all its failings, nuances and spaghetti code, but that, more than likely, will stand the test of time as a durable provider of the kind of liberty and agency and free choice that wins out time and again throughout history.

That Facebook is attempting to open source its platform, to me, sounds like offering the world a different rail gauge specification for building train tracks. It may be better, it may be slicker, but the flip side is that the Russians used the same tactic to try to keep people from having any kind of competitive advantage over their people or influence over how they did business. You can do the math, but look where it got’em.

S’all I’m sayin’.

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