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.’.