The Growing Web Identity Crisis, Courtesy of Facebook

A concerning trend is showing up in recent TV and print advertisements of companies using their Facebook profile pages as their web identity instead of their own domains. Most of these companies are big corporations with a well-established web presence. Using social networks to connect with consumers and promote brands is not new, but using these identities as the primary corporate web identity is new.

For the past few years, the web identity community has been focused on the engineering side of a distributed web identity platform, developing protocols and tools to improve its usability. These efforts have mostly failed due to lack of clear consumer demand, low value, and an unusable user experience. At the same time, consumers have been eagerly embracing proprietary and closed solutions such as Facebook Connect and Sign-in with Twitter.

While engineers love to debate protocols and solve engineering problems, the core issue has always been the identifier. What should people use to identify themselves to other users and when logging into web services. Such identifier solutions included HTTP URLs (such as your blog), email addresses, proprietary screen names, social networking accounts, PKI certificates, or new naming schemes (there is always a new identity startup just around the corner looking to sell you new moon lots).

The recent trend in corporate web identity is to move away from their own web presence to a page on Facebook or Twitter. This is likely to make deploying a distributed web identity solution even harder. Web users have been voting with their clicks and opted to use their social networking profiles as their web identifiers. This is largely due to a clean, simple, and useful design offered by Facebook and Twitter. But the growing participation of corporations in this space is signaling that consumers are now perceiving these closed platforms as a natural part of the “open” web infrastructure.

What was initially unacceptable – to put another company name on your ad – is now common practice: ‘facebook.com/target’ instead of ‘target.com’. Target no longer fear subordinating their identity to that of Facebook, because for most web users, the ‘facebook.com/’ part is just the new form of ‘http://’ – something they don’t care or understand which comes before the stuff that actually matters. Facebook in this context, is completely transparent to most users.

Facebook has always claimed to be a platform and a utility, and this is the most obvious manifestation of this goal. The real threat to the open web is not from proprietary protocols and closed networks, but from ‘facebook.com/’ and the ‘@’ screen name prefix becoming another well-known prefix like ‘http://’ and ‘www.’.

10 thoughts on “The Growing Web Identity Crisis, Courtesy of Facebook

  1. hi Eran..
    this is something i’ve been thinking about a lot lately.. i posted my thoughts on something related recently and while admittedly somewhat off the point it may be of interest…

    http://www.itison.net/blog/archives/9880

    It seems that people get swept away by the latest trends and are resigned to going with the flow. True, Facebook and Twitter are good platforms but even as much as it sometimes seems, they are not the be all and end all of the internet.

  2. Their own websites are so much less interesting than Facebook – that’s the issue I think. They were never able to get visitors to their own sites to subscribe to dynamic content, to expose their personal data and to advocate the brand to all their friends. That’s par for the course now on Facebook – it’s how the Like is structured. There was a failure of imagination and execution on almost every other corporate site around the web. Facebook gave them what they wanted, whether they knew before that was what they wanted or not. The fact that they are willing to share ad space with another brand, which is a very unusual thing to do, is evidence that what Facebook offers is very, very compelling.

    • You’re touching on a point which I think is important here. My perspective is that Facebook provides a unified experience across all of an identity’s interactions. If I want to tell Target I don’t like their latest ad campaign, then see what the latest specials are at Starbucks, then “like” photos from NatGeo, I can do it all in the same place using a pattern I’m well familiar with because I invested time there interacting with my social circle.

      Take the rapid rise of Instagram for example. They’ve had a meteoric rise in the public consciousness and brands are already using this distilled experience to tell their story. Starbucks went so far as to post their new logo design on Instagram in a faux polaroid before a huge ad campaign.

  3. This is the point that I made in my “Identity is the Platform” talk:

    http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2009/10/01/identity-is-the-platform

    Skip to 7:16 in this video (the zinger is around 9:20):

    I completely agree with your thesis, but would add that brands and marketers are in the business of connecting with customers — and that means going where their customers are. If their customers aren’t spending time on their own sites, those sites lose value and relevance over time, compared with the ability to visit people in their “digital living rooms” as it were, and “hang out” with them on Facebook and Twitter.

    Until brands find it easier or more lucrative to connect with their audiences through their own sites, I think this trend will continue, unabated.

    Also, you should add this photo to your post:

    An increasingly common sight...

  4. “Web users have been voting with their clicks and opted to use their social networking profiles as their web identifiers. This is largely due to a clean, simple, and useful design offered by Facebook and Twitter.”

    This statement is incorrect. Web users employ Twitter and Facebook as their web identifier because a majority got online in the first place just to use Facebook (or Twitter). They don’t want to create a new account for every website they visit. Facebook was the first stop on the web, therefore any other site must be secondary (or lower).

    I think the conclusion is the same, though. If you don’t want Facebook or Twitter to be the authoritative identity source on the web, then you must convince other sites not to support their login, which is a loss for users in terms of usability and friction. It may already be too late.

  5. now you’re the one who invent oAuth 2, i’ve get dizzy by the documentation of both gmail dan yahoo oAuth concept, don’t know what version they used.

    i’ve managed using facebook single sign on system, and it fairly easy, and i know how they work. and oAuth seems to make it more complicated and hard to understand, it seems that it’s the way of obfuscating the main purpose. can we make it a little bit simpler?

    if facebook think the SSO system already secured, then why don’t use the same way?
    i haven’t into the main core yet, not yet to think this is just a diverse technology

  6. I totally agree with you! But for most of these brands what you will find is that their consumers do not buy directly from them, but from supermarket shelves.We will have to assume this companies see face book as just another supermarket where everyone goes!

    I strongly suspect that future generations will actually end up going to social media to determine what the best product to purchase is, after all there will be a lot of unknown facebookers around to hey or nay the said product!

  7. Did stores subordinate themselves to the brand of the mall when they decided to locate there? Did products and brands subordinate themselves when becoming available to consumers at retailers? I think you are conflating two concepts here: brand identity, and identity ownership. While it may be abhorrent to use a private (closed) identity system as a proxy for your “true” identity, there are real and compelling reasons to associate yourself with a so-called “closed” brand (such as facebook).

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