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Identity and The Independent Web

By - October 21, 2010

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Are we are evolving our contract with society through our increasing interactions with digital platforms, and in particular, through what we’ve come to call the web?  

I believe the answer is yes. I’m fascinated with how our society’s new norms and mores are developing – as well as the architectural patterns which emerge as we build what, at first blush, feels like a rather chaotic jumble of companies, platforms, services, devices and behaviors.

Here’s one major architectural pattern I’ve noticed: the emergence of two distinct territories across the web landscape. One I’ll call the “Dependent Web,” the other is its converse: The “Independent Web.”

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.

A Shift In How The Web Works?

And therein lies the itch I’m looking to scratch: With Facebook’s push to export its version of the social graph across the Independent Web; Google’s efforts to personalize display via AdSense and Doubleclick; AOL, Yahoo and Demand building search-driven content farms, and the rise of data-driven ad exchanges and “Demand Side Platforms” to manage revenue for it all, it’s clear that we’re in the early phases of a major shift in the texture and experience of the web.

The dominant platforms of the US web – Facebook, Google, and increasingly Twitter- all have several things in common, but the one that comes first to my mind is their sophisticated ability to track your declarations of intent and interpret them in ways that execute, in the main, two things. First, they add value to your experience of that service. Google watches what you search, where you go, and what advertising you encounter, and at near the speed of light, it provides you an answer.

Facebook does the same, building a page each time you click, based on increasingly sophisticated data and algorithms. And Twitter is hard on its parents’ heels – to my mind, Twitter is the child of Google and Facebook, half search, half social. (Search’s rich uncle is the explosion of “user generated content” – what I like to call Conversational Media. Facebook’s rich uncle is clearly the mobile phone, and texting in particular. But I digress….as usual.)

Secondly, these services match their model of your identity to an extraordinary machinery of marketing dollars, serving up marketing in much the same way as the service itself. In short, the marketing is the message, and the message is the service. We knowingly go to Facebook or Google now much as we go to the mall or the public square – to see and be seen, to have our intent responded to, whether those wishes be commercial or public expression.

When we’re “on” Facebook, Google, or Twitter, we’re plugged into an infrastructure (in the case of the latter two, it may be a distributed infrastructure) that locks onto us, serving us content and commerce in an automated but increasingly sophisticated fashion. Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal – these services are extremely valuable to us. Of course, when we drop into a friend’s pictures of their kid’s Barmitzvah, we could care less about the algorithms. But once we’ve finished with those pictures, the fact that we’ve viewed them, the amount of time we spent viewing them, the connection we have to the person whose pictures they are, and any number of other data points are noted by Facebook, and added to the infinite secret sauce that predestines the next ad or newsfeed item the service might present to us.

Now I’m not against the idea of scale, or algorithmic suggestions – in particular those driven by a tight loop of my own actions, and those of my friends (in the case of Google, my “friends” are ghost cohorts, and therein lies Google’s social problem, but that’s grist for another post).

But there is another part of the web, one where I can stroll a bit more at my own pace, and discover new territory, rather than have territory matched to a presumed identity. And that is the land of the Independent Web.

What’s My Independent Identity?

What happens when the Independent Web starts leveraging the services of the Dependent Web? Do we gain, do we lose, or is it a push? We seem to be in the process of finding out. It’s clear that more than ads can be driven by the algorithms and services of the Dependent Web. Soon (in the case of Facebook Open Graph, real soon) Independent sits will be able use Dependent Web infrastructure to determine what content and services they might offer to a visitor.

Imagine if nearly all sites used such services. As they stand today, I can’t imagine such a world would be very compelling. We have to do a lot more work on understanding concepts of identity and intent before we could instrument such services – and at present, nearly all that work is being done by companies with Dependent business models (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a thing). This skews the research, so to speak, and may well constrain the opportunity.

The opportunity is obvious, but worth stating: By leveraging a nuanced understanding of a visitor’s identity, every site or service on the web could deliver content, services, and/or advertising that is equivalent in relevance and experience as the best search result is to us today. The site would read our identity and click path as our intent (thus creating the “query”), then match its content and service offerings to that intent, creating the “result.” Leveraging our identities, Independent Web sites could more perfectly instrument their sites to our tastes. Sites would feel less like impersonal mazes, and more like conversations.

But is that what we want? It depends on the model. In a Dependent Web model, the data and processes used to deliver results is opaque and out of the consumer’s control. What we see depends on how the site interprets pre-conceived models of identity it receives from a third party.

Consider how most display advertising works today. As we roam the web, we are tracked, tagged, and profiled by third parties. An increasingly sophisticated infrastructure is leveraged to place a high-probability advertising match in front of us. In this model, there is no declared intent (no “query”) – our presence and the identity model the system has made for us stands in for the query. Because there is no infrastructure in place for us to declare who we might want to be in the eyes of a particular site, the response to that query makes a ton of assumptions about who we are. Much more often than not, the results are weak, poor, or wasted.

Can’t we do better?

For purposes of this post, I’m not going to wade into what many consider the threat of “our privacy being breached” as more and more personal data is added to our Dependent Web identity models (the ongoing debate about tracking and disclosure is robust, but not what I’m getting at here). Instead I see a threat to the overall value of our industry – if we continue to graft a Dependent Web model onto the architecture of the Independent Web, we most likely will fail to deliver the value that we all intuit is possible for the web. And that’s not good for anyone.

As consumers, we understand (for the most part) that when we are on Dependent sites, we’re going to get Dependent results. It’s part of a pretty obvious bargain. On Facebook, we’re Facebook users – that’s our identity in context of Facebook. But out on the Independent web, no such bargain has yet been struck. On Boing Boing, the Huffington Post, or Serious Eats, we’re someone else. The question is – who are we?

I Am What I Say I Am, For Now…

The interplay between Dependent and Independent services may set the table for a new kind of identity to emerge – one driven not by a model of interaction tracked by the Dependent Web per se, but rather by what each individual wishes to reveal about who they are, in real time. These revelations may be fleeting and situational – as they so often are in the real world. If I alight on a post about a cool new mountain bike, for example, I might chose to reveal that I’m a fan of the Blur XC, a bike made by the Santa Cruz company. But I don’t necessarily want that information to presumptively pass to the owner of that site until I read the post and consider the consequences of revealing that data.

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Let’s presume, for sake of argument, that the biking site has deeply integrated Facebook’s Open Graph (the way that, for example, Yelp or TripAdvisor does). When I show up, that site will know I’m a fan of Santa Cruz (let’s assume I have “fanned” the Blur XC on Facebook) and surface all sorts of articles and services related to that information. Somehow, that doesn’t feel right. It’s not that I don’t want the site to know that I like Blurs, it’s that I want to reveal myself to a new community on my own terms (and every media site is, at its heart, a community). In this example, the Dependent Web does the revealing for me. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for our industry. It runs counter to how people are wired to work in the real world.

Creating such a nuanced instrumentation of identity and how it might be conveyed across the Web seems a long way off, but I’m not so sure it is. It starts with taking control of your own identity in the Independent Web (for more on that, read A. Dash - from 8 years ago…). Who we believe we are in the world is pretty fundamental to being human, and as we bleed our actual identity into our digital one, it’s worth recalling that so far, at least, we don’t have a system that lets us really instrument who we are online in a fashion that scales to the complexity of true human interaction.  

Let’s take that last bike scenario and play it out in the “real world.” Instead of alighting on a post on some random web site I’ve stumbled across, let’s say I’m having a coffee at a local bakery, and I overhear a group of guys talking about a bike one of them recently purchased. I don’t know these guys, but I find their conversation (the equivalent of a “post”) engaging, and I lean in. The guys notice me listening, and given they’re talking in a public place, they don’t mind. They check me out, reading me, correctly, as a potential member of their tribe – I look like a biker (tribes can recognize potential members by sight pretty easily). At some point in the conversation – based on whether I feel the group would welcome the interjection, for example – I might decide to reveal that I’ve got a Blur XC. That might get a shrug from the leader of the conversation, or it might lead to a spirited debate about the merits of Santa Cruz bikes versus, say, Marin. That in turn may lead to an invitation to join them on a ride, and a true connection could well be made.

But until I engage, and offer new information, I’m just the dude at the next table who’s interested in what the folks next to me are talking about. In web parlance, I’m a lurker. As I lurk, I might realize the guys at the next table are sort of wankers, and I’m not interested in riding with them. I have the sense that this model of information sharing is, at its core, the way identity in what I’m calling “The Independent Web” should probably work. If, however, the Independent Web uses Facebook and/or Google services to determine what content to show me when first alight on a site, the model will be quite different.

A Third Way – The Revealed Identity?

I sense an opportunity to create a new kind of social identity for us to leverage around the web, one that is far more personal and instrumented than a Facebook profile or a Google cookie. It’s an identity that is independent of the one we’ve cultivated on Dependent platforms, but not necessarily separate from them. We can chose to include our Dependent Web profiles, but we don’t have to. At the moment, the model seems pretty black or white. If I’m logged into Facebook and the site I visit is using Facebook’s services, that site knows more about me than probably most of my friends do.

In other words, perhaps it’s time for a Revealed Identity, as opposed to a Public or Dependent Identity. As human beings wandering this earth, we certainly have both. Why don’t we have the same online?

I think it’s worth defining a portion of the web as a place where one can visit and be part of a conversation without the data created by that conversation being presumptively sucked into a sophisticated response platform – whether that platform is Google, Blue Kai, Doubleclick, Twitter, or any other scaled web service. Now, I’m all for engaging with that platform, to be sure, but I’m also interested in the parts of society where one can wander about free of identity presumption, a place where one can chose to engage knowing that you are in control of how your identity is presented, and when it is revealed.

One thing I’m certain of: Who I am according to Google, or Facebook, or any number of other scaled Dependent Web services, is not necessarily who I want to be as I wander this new digital world. I want more instrumentation, more nauance, and more rights.

The question is, however, how to create that better service? Is it in the commercial interests of the dominant Dependent Web players to do so? Are there startups working on this right now who already have the answers?

I think how we manage these questions will define who we are at a very core level in the coming years. As Lessig has written, code becomes law. It took tens of thousands of years for homo sapiens to develop the elaborate social code which defines how we interact with each other in the real world. I’m fascinated with the question of how we translate that code online.

(I’m not certain where I’m going with this post, but as I said it’s an itch I wanted to scratch. I know I’ve not done the reading I should in the topic, and I’m hoping readers might point me in useful directions – further reading, people to meet, companies to watch – so I might get a bit smarter and refine my thinking. This is all, of course, pointing me toward the “next book” which, as books tend to do, is not exactly writing itself.)


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48 thoughts on “Identity and The Independent Web

  1. CoCreatr says:

    Thank you so much for this clear vision, John. Thanks, Venessa, for caring to share.

    Inspired by Diaspora* and The Mine! Project, I envisioned how I want to share my info. Mocked up a rough model for personal data connector.

  2. Excellent blog! I really love how it’s easy on my eyes and also the facts are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which must do the trick! Have a nice day!

  3. Adam says:

    This is a fantastic essay. Could I ask a dumb question, concerning you distinction between Dependent and Independent web?

    The Dependent Web is like Google; when you put in a search term it doesn’t just give you the results it would give just anybody, it gives it to you based on who it thinks you are and therefore what you results you would probably want to see. I get that.

    It’s the Independent Web concept that has me puzzled. So this post, right here, that I am commenting on–that’s part of the Independent Web, right? Because no matter who I am, when I come to this URL I see the same post that everyone else sees. Maybe I see different ads, but the content remains unchanged.

    If I have understood this distinction clearly, then I don’t think that too many of the tools of the Dependent Web can be leveraged for the content side of the Independent Web. This blog post will always have the same content for everyone. That’s the point of a blog post.

    The only thing that can become more like the Dependent Web are the filters we use to pick out content from the Independent Web. So my Google Reader account consists of RSS feeds that I have picked out myself. Those feeds contain posts like this one, which are part of the Independent Web.

    But Google has also put “Explore” as an option in Reader, and the items it shows me are based on their algorithms. Is that more along the lines of where you see things heading?

    Thank you again for this fantastic piece. Essays like this one are exactly why you’re in my Reader account to begin with!

  4. Ardie Bakrie says:

    thanks for sharing.. now i know how web works…. thanks

  5. Nice post. It sounds like a thorough reading of Kim Cameron’s excellent work on identity could help to distill your thinking:

    http://www.identityblog.com/

    Kim is Chief Architect of Identity in the Identity and Access Division at Microsoft.

  6. Brian S Hall says:

    Great post. Thanks.
    (now I’m gonna go type in two words so you know my intent really is to write this comment)

  7. Chuck Teller says:

    John – I am not sure why you state that your essay does not “wade into what many consider the threat of “our privacy being breached”…?

    It is precisely how the Dependent Web interacts with the Independent Web that is at the heart of your article and the current privacy debate. What is the deal that we are striking with the sites we lurk on? Do we have to opt-out of our identity being shared or do we get to opt-in, as one might interpret the essence of the “Revealed Identity”.

    Can the advertising industry be patient enough for me to reveal my identity when they have to tools to know a lot about me when I enter a website?

  8. Drew says:

    Agree with you
    but I do not believe that the problem of identify can be resolved by good intentions of the companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc, they good to much profit from their control of identities to implement good intentions even if they have any
    I believe we need regulations so netizens — would be able use to enforce companies. So the identity control must be in users’ hands instead of corporations hands.
    Certainly any interaction between me and corporation property (youtube, facebook market etc ) can be a subject of a social contact, company does not want to provide services which cost huge amount of money for free..they want something in returns. perhaps a partial control of my identify since they know well how to monetize it
    But if they take this control, they must provide full info how this control is used.
    How does google/facebook/twitter use my clicks/browsing behaviour …if I allow them to collect it, they should provide me full info how well it is anonymized if it is anonymized, how is it used to predict my future behavior, with whom this info shared or by whom else this info used.
    My browsing behavior/clicks is private info as my SSN. It is a part of my identify. it contains information about my tastes/preferences and I want to be in full control how it is used if I decide to share ,my identity.
    Again, profits are too huge, after huge privacy scandals with Eric Schmidt, Facebook nobody believes in good intents. We need government regulations

  9. That’s a really good viewpoint from the perspective of individuals rather than technology ie outside of the bubble. However, as a Brit, the word w****r sounds weirdly out of context! ;-)

  10. Dave Evans says:

    OpenID, Identity Project, Cardspace, the Chop, Root Markets, attention/intention-based marketing, this is a whole fascinating ecosystem of possibility.

    Targeted advertising is so poorly done after all these years, and to hear day in and day out about all of our data being sold up the river, most people are just tired of this but it will *never* end.

    About all you can do is manage your google dashboard and install ad blockers(which need to get smarter and more functionality).

    It sucks that so many Facebook Connect-enabled sites are all or nothing affairs.

    And opt-in dashboard controlling our tastes and preferences is where Facebook seems to be going with the social graph. that makes the most sense to me at this time, but by no means optimal.

  11. Thoughtful posts like this are why I subscribe to Searchblog. TechCrunch, GigaOM, etc. just don’t do this kind of thing; they’re useful but ephemeral.

    I’ve thought a lot about identity on the web, so I could say a lot in response. For now, I’ll just say I think the time is ripe for what I call identity presentation services, which enable you to say whatever you want to say about yourself wherever you go, with precision and flexibility. Facebook Connect and its ilk are clumsy, and I’m confident you (John) and I aren’t alone in wanting more nuance and more rights.

    Putting my money where my mouth is, I’m developing such a service. It’s called CardVine, and it’s in private alpha right now, with a public beta coming in a few weeks.

  12. shehab says:

    I know people that work around this by actively maintaining multiple IDs (accounts on facebook / twitter), perhaps that is the way forward – after all we all have multiple identities in the offline world.

    It’s clear that granularity and nuance is needed in our online identities, implementing it without overwhelming users with complexity however is easier thought than implemented- likely the reason facebook has so far resisted moving in that direction (but groups is an opening shot).

    Interesting to think whether the idiosyncratic human edited independent web will become increasingly valued as the growth of the dependent web explodes.

  13. Pete says:

    Sounds a lot like Vendor Relationship Management (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Main_Page), which includes being able to “wander about free of identity presumption” whenever that best suits your needs.

    Zuckerberg is saying many verticals, with one identity provider. Google is saying “We have to look at the space differently for each situation.” http://www.google.com/buzz/touschner/a66yvENNT4p/We-have-to-look-at-the-space-differently-for-each

  14. mrg says:

    was this post brought to me by the Taiwan/California Bike Manufacturer’s Association?

    Seriously – good thoughts, all of ‘em. I hope you ruminate w/ a few synapses on Wikipedia and such sites in this context.

  15. Timothy says:

    John: You’re onto something, which I’ve been thinking about since the days 5 years ago when I wrote a blog on social shopping and widgets called Flying Seeds.

    While Facebook is the most efficient SRM (social relationship management) tool available today, it is also, ironically, only being used to manage half of our social relationships. Namely, FB manages our personal relationships but it does not manage our vendor relationships (see Doc Searls and his work with VRM).

    Our vendor relationships include relationships we have with brands, products, services, affiliations (schools, clubs, etc.), non-profits, etc. Think about your relationship you have with Santa Crux bicycle company. You not only have an ongoing relationship but you also “signal” to the world a little bit about yourself through the choice of riding a Blur XC bike. That choice is part of your “public persona.”

    SRM tools, such as FB, have two sides- a private one, which we use as an organizational/communication tool and a public one, which we use as a way to broadcast our identity (public personas).

    FB has nailed it for our personal relationships but utterly dropped the ball for our vendor relationships. This is the area where FB will ultimately monetize and perhaps change advertising as we’ve known it for a 100 years.

    But, as we all know, FB has not recognized the true value of FB Fan Pages. Fan pages are the single most valuable part of FB because it is there that FB will ultimately give it users the ability to manage and broadcast their vendor relationships while being able to sell to those very same vendors access to its user-base.

    A better organized FB Fan Page “wall” will become a proxy for users’ identities. Think about if you could see the hundreds of vendor relationships I have in my life. You would know what kind of car I drive (Nissan Murano), where I like to stay in NYC (The Roger Smith), which airline gets my business (jetBlue in the US and Aeroflot abroad), where I went to highschool (Phillips Exeter Academy), and on and on.

    While many “categories” might remain private, many others I would set to public. Were you to see and be able to do boolean searches amongst your FB friends (what kind of cabernet do ex Googlers who went to UC Berkeley like to drink) you would have little need for traditional Google searches, except for queries where you wanted a strictly data related answer.

    The benefits to users are two-fold:

    a. a tool to actually better manage those relationships (no more website user accounts)
    b. a tool to publicly display those relationships for which you wanted to share publicly.

    You touch upon such user access when you talk about “revealed identity.” Each vendor relationship within FB (or Google for that matter) will have an associated status that is controlled by the user herself. The status will be the switch that either gives the permission to the vendor to contact, sell, or pitch the user or, like a hotel “do not disturb sign” will block the vendor form any contact.

    Think about if FB could charge Ford motor company $1 to contact every user who activated their status for automobile to “actively looking to buy”? Users could further choose the level of personalization they wanted to share with the vendor. Some who go completely anonymous while others would share their name, age, sex, address, etc.

    Facebook would be the gatekeeper much like Google is today.

    Most interestingly, such a system will align Facebook’s commercial interests with the privacy interests of the user. Thank goodness )))

  16. Dave Goetz says:

    J,

    Is the more authentic Self offline or online in the Independent Web? I think we struggle to be authentic in offline social settings, positioning who we are in different ways.

    One question is whether the Independent Web can be a more authentic mirror reflection of our true Self, or merely more posturing.

    Dave

  17. Interesting post. I do think that the dependent/independent distinction rests heavily upon the currently unregulated tracking-enabled advertising paradigm, which has, at this point, yet to be validated by the understanding and approval of general public opinion. In other words, its a model that would be legitimately crippled if enough people were better informed. Right now, we know we’re being tracked, and seem to prefer to remain in the dark about how exactly it’s done because knowing more might compel us to change how we use the web, perhaps even, how we feel about it. Let’s have the debate, though.

    Regarding @Timothy’s comment (above mine): I think you’re assuming quite a bit about why Facebook has been so popular and about what people might be willing to do. I’m certainly not that much of a fan, but it’s important to acknowledge that Facebook has been popular because it actually enables people to communicate and express themselves, not just because it enables them to organize their personal relationships. It’s not simply a management tool, it’s much more than that, which is why assuming that it will be able to do for brands what Facebook does for people is a long shot.

    What is the benefit to the person to create a vendor-relationship identity? Some people are brand loyal, but others are not. What airline to I fly? Whichever has the cheapest rate for the dates I want to fly. I may use a Macbook, but if a better machine comes along from another company, I’ll use that one. While I do have some brand loyalties, they’re only as strong as the company’s ability to continue to make a better product (i.e. I will always choose a Unibroue over a Budweiser until the Unibroue tastes worse than the Budweiser). But even if I did have strong brand loyalties, why on Earth would I want to become an advertiser? I just don’t see the benefit to the user, though the benefit to the brand is obvious.

  18. Timothy says:

    @Christopher: I absolutely agree that Facebook’s success has been predicated upon it ability to enable people to express themselves. If FB were simply a management tool, it would be a contact manager, a la Outlook.

    Your point about the temporary nature of vendor (read: brand) relationships is correct but misses the point. The fact that the relationship is fleeting does not make it any less powerful as a way for people to signal to others information about their ‘public personas.’ We are very social animals, perhaps even becoming more social today than we were 100 years ago. Brands are simple those short-hand symbols that convey information.

    There are thousands of potential brand categories one may use to convey information about their public persona (identity) on a daily basis. Some categories matter more than others depending on who you are and what you value.

    You may feel that an airline is a commodity product and therefore a category where you have no need to signal to others your brand loyalty. However, there might just as easily be other people whose identity is closely correlated to the fact that they LOVE to fly Virgin America. Unlike a Lacoste polo shirt with its little alligator logo, you can’t wear your affiliation with Virgin Atlantic as easily. Thus, there is a latent opportunity for some company to provide people with a tool to signal to others their vendor loyalties.

    The key point here is not which vendor/brand products/categories you or me deem worthy of “signaling” but rather that this process is inherently human and a very significant part of who each of is. We do have relationships in each of our lives with more than just other human being and it is those relationships, regardless of time spent “dating,” that advertising tries to promote and foster.

    Facebook’s Fan Pages are perfectly positioned to become the dominant player in this newly emerging type of “advertising.” What they ought to do is hire Doc Searles entire team.

  19. @Timothy, I definitely understand what you’re describing. I think my questioning of how Facebook would translate to including person-brand relationships is not only due to acknowledging the temporary nature of these relationships, but also the irrelevance of them. But the key qualifier here, as I think you point out between the lines, is *for some people*. In other words, you’re absolutely right that for some people, brand relationships matter a great deal. For others (I suppose, like me), they don’t. In fact, I’m prone to going a bit farther than a passive disregard for person-brand relationships. But again, that’s me, and there have to be many who would be very interested in using Facebook in the way you describe. (In all honesty, there’s a considerable amount of self-loathing in my own use of Facebook, just so I’m being honest about my biases.)

    But I’m still left questioning the ultimate benefit to the person. Obviously, the benefit of millions of people filling up brand fan pages is great for the companies that nurture these brands. But aside from the immediately expressive aspect of the person’s engagement with a brand’s page, what would enable this to be a sustained mutually beneficial thing? Maybe I’m getting the wrong idea, but when I read your description I’m envisioning a system that essentially extends the scope of advertising on the backs of people’s identities. A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York for a conference and saw two people walking down the street with full-body-length billboards strapped to their backs. My response was as you could imagine – not pleased. It bothered me that to the company they worked for, these two were nothing more than supports for a big, static advertisement. I’m wondering if the Facebook person-brand relationship would be, in the end, just as objectifying.

  20. marko says:

    Excellent. I missed this post previously. This is my favorite piece you have ever written.

    “I think how we manage these questions will define who we are at a very core level in the coming years.”

    Pardon the melodrama, but i totally agree this is a fundamentally important issue for humanity. Its bigger than social media or advertising or personalization or a single company… its on the level of culture and values and religion and governance. We’re entering the next great renaissance & enlightenment period.

    Couldn’t help but want to contribute in a positive way… so we’ve been bootstrapping a startup… http://www.futureful.com

  21. Kim says:

    Really interesting post – I’m not sure why you distinguish independent and dependent web though. I have as great a desire to manage different “persona” on Twitter, Facebook, Google as I do on the “independent” web. The best way forward would be an independent service that allows me to manage how I reveal my various persona (including to FB/Twitter etc.). Originally I thought JanRain would have been a great place to do this. I’d certainly pay an annual fee if I had a secure place of storing and sharing “me” across the web.

  22. Kim says:

    Some really interesting thoughts here. I started thinking about this 4 or 5 years ago but from a corporate perspective. How do I reveal and discover others based on my current context (e.g. project I’m working on, sales opportunity etc.).

    The same concepts hold true for the public web. I don’t know why you distinguish between dependent and independent web though. I have just as much desire to manage various “persona” on Twitter/FB and Google as the independent web. Probably even more.

    For this to really work I think it has to be an independent service that people are willing to pay for. At one point I thought JanRain or SXIP might be able to play this role. They’re OpenID based and can manage rich profile data (at least JanRan can).

    I definitely think there’s an opportunity here and in layering additional services on top.

  23. Andrew Weber says:

    Building a bit on what Kim mentioned…

    I’m currently in the middle of a career transition. As I’m out and about on the web looking for best practices, I see tons and tons of material on building your brand online (LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, websites, etc., etc.). It’s all great stuff, but I struggle with the distinction of my professional self and my personal self (to the extent there is one). At the core level, I believe those two selves are ultimately the same, but the expression of them online may be different (I may be more fun-loving at heart than I want my ‘professional’ brand to show, I may not want to bore my friends (at least not all of them) with all my tweets about the latest happenings in social media, etc.

    The identities/selves/personas (Kim’s term) will also wax and wane depending on what’s happening in one’s life at any given time (I’m hoping I won’t always need to spend so much time reading career transition blogs).

    The tools which are out there today seem to be pretty blunt in their ability to accommodate these kinds of issues.

  24. When I’m at a site, I may or may not want that site to know what my intent is. I could see having a selection of profiles to apply to the site; sometimes I’m searching Amazon as a developer, sometimes as a startup guy looking for inspiration, sometimes as a food geek. Amazon guesses my intent when I first arrive, and funnels my attention, regardless of my intent. Then they assume my intent as a browse or search.

    Fair enough, but when I’m browsing, sometimes I want to be exposed to things that are surprising–something not subject to the guesses. Worse, if I enter a query, instead of getting a wide range of results, I get results tailored to me based on prior searches or online behavior, which robs me of my own ability to choose.

    What would be nice is to have a mode where I’m simply an anonymous visitor, without the…ah. incognito mode…

  25. This is the money quote “Who I am according to Google”. I sure would like to know how they can give me “Search Results from my network” (below the standard results, if you have seen that). I haven’t given them a thing about me, and they know who is in my “network”.

    I can understand with Facebook that you’re leaving breadcrumbs every where when you interact and add friends, as it’s all based on a single ID- but how does Google see us as individual users?

    I would like this instrumentation as well.

  26. William says:

    John, just seeing this post thanks to a link on Fred Wilson’s blog. Great stuff. Question: what if the assumption of the Dependent Web flipped, and everyone assumed that the intricate, real-time mapping of personal identity belonged, not to Google or Facebook or Twitter, but to the natural persons so mapped?

    Users could then charge corporate interests, formerly known as “advertisers,” to access appropriate layers of mapped identity. Better yet, an aggregator on the scale of Facebook could probably insist that would-be advertisers expose supply chain and pricing information that could be analyzed and shared with its user base behind a fence over which the “advertiser” could not peer.

  27. Robert thuston says:

    Commenting from Fred’s blog also. John, since you wrote this post a while back, I know we’d all be interested to hear from you again on the subject.

    My thoughts stem from a Chris Dixon post (wish I had the link, it was maybe from around early December). In one sentence it said, their will be a great importance on information revealed to you from people in your networks, as opposed to algorithms on the “dependent” web guessing who you are. This can be justified with the decrease in web searches, and the increase of people spending time on Twitter, facebook, Tumbler, etc. Social graphing can take lessons from the former of the latter. Hopefully the former.

    How could social graphing use this? Maybe the user is shown what mentions your other friends have made on bikes, or what sites some of your other friends have purchased bikes from, etc.

  28. John says:

    Thanks for all the fresh comments, folks, I will be writing more on this topic in coming days, am newly energized thanks to your input…

  29. Excellent thoughts all around…the entire time I was reading this I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly the sort of thing that a service like Disqus ( http://disqus.com ) could be solving.

    They already have access to many blogs and are strongly tied to people’s identity…adding in basic filters to allow you to reveal certain bits of data to a given site at a given time would make a lot of sense to me (and I think fits well with a real way to implement your example of choosing after reading a post if you want to reveal your bike interests or not).

    BTW – I have no official connection with Disqus or any knowledge of what sorts of things they are working on…just a user and a fan.

  30. Roshan says:

    one thing for sure – we don’t have tens of thousands of years to figure that out!
    but some interesting points that you raise, although the points seem little mixed up right now regarding giving away privacy Vs the ‘revealed way’

    But in general I think this could open up to whole new form of information sharing.

  31. Spot on John.

    Much of the above concepts are encapsulated in Doc Searl’s (@dsearl), bottom-up, VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) meme: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Main_Page & http://www.ProjectVRM.org

  32. kunti says:

    I think its Fair enough, but when I’m browsing, sometimes I want to be exposed to things that are surprising–something not subject to the guesses. Worse, if I enter a query, instead of getting a wide range of results, I get results tailored to me based on prior searches or online behavior, which robs me of my own ability to choose.

  33. Excellent ideas! And very much related to VRM, in my opinion, as well. I’ll be watching the web for more about ‘revealed identity.’ And you do a great job explaining some of the problems with Facebook. This helps me manage my Facebook identity better, as well.

  34. John Verdon says:

    John,

    This is a fantastic post. In part what you point to is a new debate about the public and the private space. A farmer’s market is public property, a mall is private property.

    One of real milestones of the advance of human society is the relatively recent comfort with anonymity. Always and everywhere the first reaction to seeing a stranger – the ‘other’ has been one of caution and wariness (in the least extreme – the ‘hackles’ prickle). The arise of cities conditioned human to accept more easily encounters with the unknown other and the market system allowed societies to develop conditions for trusted impartial/impersonal exchange.

    It is the experience of anonymity that introduced the idea that we could design a new identity or change or expand our identity. In the family, the clan, the tribe, the village – our identities become easily cast in stone and changing ourselves – can cause fear, disconcertion, turbulence in the identiesw of all those close to us (the shadow of close ties is the clentch on who we are). To explore new dimensions of being is to encounter the ‘other’ without presumptions of our old identities – each engagement with ‘other’ is an opportunity to constitute and reconstitute a fresh sense of self.

    Although Marshall McCluhan was right about the global village, the globe is still a vastly diverse and arena for encounters of discovery – and we would be poorly served to have those personnaly unexplored territories ‘pre-plowed’ with old seeds of self. Unless of course that is what we choose to do (sometimes we want the comfort of our habits and the familiarity of modest fame).

    Thank you for this post.

    john verdon

  35. John says:

    Great post, John. You point out a key deficiency in many/most social media services today; they don’t allow us to wander the Web as ourselves, instead forcing us into captive or proprietary identity management systems that don’t allow us to form and shape our identities as we go from one environment to another. In theory Google’s new social initiative is to bring us towards that vision, but it will be a first step at best. In the meantime, publishers still focus on trying to lock up platforms and channels rather than trying to cater to audiences as they use the nomadic environment of The Second Web to bring content into its most valuable contexts.

  36. Henry Story says:

    Partial idenity may be something that is possible with a number of techniques including WebID, an incubator group just started at the W3C
    http://www.w3.org/2005/Incubator/webid/charter

  37. Sam Balsama says:

    Thanks for this very thoughtful article. When I read of both platforms at which we are users on the web, I wonder if service providers such as Google, Facebook, etc., are capable of providing us the honesty and control of enabling a personally independent/dependent web experience? I feel like the platform that can provide the user the ability to manage their “online” profile, with regard to the dependent web, is the browser. Will Chrome have accounts that can be set up to reflect a particular users persona that you would like to use for a particular session?

    I think the browser could serve as the ideal gateway to a more honest and fair web experience between provider and end-user. The dependent web gets the data it needs and the end-user gets the control to their identity that they desire.

  38. Gene says:

    the experience of anonymity that introduced the idea that we could design a new identity or change or expand our identity. In the family, the clan, the tribe, the village – our identities become easily cast in stone and changing ourselves – can cause fear, disconcertion, turbulence in the identiesw of all those close to us (the shadow of close ties is the clentch on who we are). To explore new dimensions of being is to encounter the ‘other’ without presumptions of our old identities – each engagement with ‘other’ is an opportunity to constitute and reconstitute a fresh sense of self.

  39. Jean says:

    sometimes I want to be exposed to things that are surprising–something not subject to the guesses. Worse, if I enter a query, instead of getting a wide range of results, I get results tailored to me based on prior searches or online behavior, which robs me of my own ability to choose

  40. jeni says:

    In part what you point to is a new debate about the public and the private space. A farmer’s market is public property, a mall is private property.

    One of real milestones of the advance of human society is the relatively recent comfort with anonymity. Always and everywhere the first reaction to seeing a stranger – the ‘other’ has been one of caution and wariness (in the least extreme – the ‘hackles’ prickle). The arise of cities conditioned human to accept more easily encounters with the unknown other and the market system allowed societies to develop conditions for trusted impartial/impersonal exchange.

    It is the experience of anonymity that introduced the idea that we could design a new identity or change or expand our identity. In the family, the clan, the tribe, the village – our identities become easily cast in stone and changing ourselves – can cause fear, disconcertion, turbulence in the identiesw of all those close to us (the shadow of close ties is the clentch on who we are). To explore new dimensions of being is to encounter the ‘other’ without presumptions of our old identities – each engagement with ‘other’ is an opportunity to constitute and reconstitute a fresh sense of self.

  41. James says:

    John, very interesting argument. Only thing I fundamentally differ on is your site-centric (or tech-centric) approach to defining a visitor’s intent. Generally you seem to define intent based on things like someone’s query, clicks to, clicks from, imported social graph from a Dependent site, etc.

    I think intent must be viewed more people-centric. My intent is my purpose for navigating inside any site — Dependent or Independent. Sure I could get sucked into browsing photos of my friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. But that seems to ignore me purposefully seeking out a range of content for specific purposes, such as a school a colleague attended for use in a company bio.

    By making this argument purely based on things like social graphs, platforms, clicks and other technology signals, I think we ignore a huge factor in the design and utility of Dependent and Independent websites. In a sense we may be blinded by the bright and shiny tech object, and unable to focus on the human aspects of these social interactions.

    Thanks for a great essay, seems like the beginnings of a fascinating book.

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