Identity from the Inside Out
Back in 1995 or so, when my wife started using a browser, she came up with a wish list of features that nobody has come close to filling over the seven years since. One was a shopping cart that would persist from one site to the next. Another was a pull-down menu called “purse” that would contain credit cards and other identity items required for doing business in the world. Neither would be owned or provided by one vendor (not even the browser's). Instead they would be features of the user's own identity as an autonomous customer in the marketplace.
In other words, she wanted the browser to be an instrument of demand, rather than of supply. And she had reason to be encouraged. That's what early versions of Netscape seemed to be about.
But our family's view of the browser business was a little biased. One of the top executives at Netscape was a close relative. So we rooted for Netscape in its famous battles with Microsoft. We proudly wore Netscape T-shirts and other schwag. We were also quietly frustrated when the company began to add all kinds of extraneous crap to the browser and to become obsessed with its portal: a site cluttered with partner links through which users would be funneled to troughs of content, some of which were called channels in the manner of television.
Rather than develop ways to empower customers to do business in freshly networked markets, Netscape desperately went looking for ways to “aggregate eyeballs” and make money the old-fashioned way: as a media company. That seems to have made Netscape attractive to AOL but not to its browser users.
Back in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, we wrote “markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies” in The Cluetrain Manifesto. That thinking was influenced (in my case, at least) by what I saw happening in the development bazaar where Linux was growing and flourishing. Linux was proof that markets were more than just labels that suppliers tacked on demographics and product categories. Like the Net on which it grew, Linux was good for both the demand and the supply side, even when it was just being put to use as available free material rather than as something bought and sold. A market that used Linux resourcefully was more than a smart market; it was ahead of the curve.
What makes markets smart is the ease with which people can share information and expertise. But what is it that makes markets powerful? Is it just what economists call buying power—a sum of money ready to be spent? Would it not also be about how goods get valued and money gets spent?
Most of us are only familiar with a few ways to spend money: cash, checks and credit cards. But what if there were more ways to spend money? And better ways too? Let's take it a step farther. What if markets were comprised of something more than the presence of buyers and sellers transacting business? What if markets were also comprised of relationships? I'm not just talking about the relationships each of us have with our phone companies, our banks, our credit-card companies and various retailers (although those are on the table here). I'm talking about relationships with experts whose opinions we value and whom we might be willing to compensate for informing our buying and selling decisions—if the means were in place and the costs were minimal. One example would be magazines; we could pay a small sum on an à la carte basis for expert opinions they've aggregated about wines, cars, travel, music or other topics.
What if each of us had the power to control the terms of our relationships with every company whose goods and services we value, including the ability to exchange micropayments for microservices and microproducts on an as-needed basis?
What if every channel carried by every cable and satellite TV system were available on an à la carte basis? Yes, you could subscribe, or you could pay as you go—up to you.
The main reason we have a hard time imagining these scenarios isn't just that the technical problems are daunting. It's that we're too accustomed to operating as consumers. We see all our power located in near-binary choices. Which will it be...local cable, DishTV, DirecTV or nothing? End of menu.
Yes, the Net might make us smarter customers than we used to be; but in way too many categories, supply is still in charge.
But what if we stop looking like wallets with eyeballs? What if we start looking like a business interface, with our own native protocols and APIs, wrapped around a unique identity that nobody outside ourselves is free to manage? What if we possess a lot of ways to do business other than presenting cash or credit cards? What if the nature of our personal protocols and APIs allowed continuous relationships within which many transactions might take place over a long period of time—and involve more money, and more value, as both parties get to know and trust each other over time?
This is the kind of stuff that's been going through my mind—and through e-mail, phone and meat-space conversations—ever since Andre Durand told me about PingID and asked me to serve on its advisory board. Andre is the founder of Jabber, Inc., on whose advisory board I also serve. Like Jabber, PingID has a .org and a .com side, with an open-source development model for one and an independent commercial development model for the other. Unlike Jabber, the idea is to create something for everybody, namely an identity framework controlled by the individual rather than by any one company, including PingID. This framework would embody the ability to be anonymous, pseudonymous and polynomolous. Most importantly, it would serve as the infrastructural framework for all kinds of businesses that welcome and value full-power customers, ready not just to talk and to transact but to relate over a period of time.
Andre describes identity as a three-tier affair. At the center is tier one: that's your core identity alone. You're in charge of it. Outside that is tier two. This is the identity issued to you by the government, by retailers, by airlines, by insurance companies, by credit-card companies. Every piece of plastic in your wallet is a tier-two identity. Tier three is the cloud of highly presumptuous identity information held by direct marketers and others who hope you may be the one consumer in 50 who responds to a promotional message.
When tier one becomes fully empowered, tier two suddenly takes on fresh meaning and tier three becomes obsolete. Tier two identities become links over which relationships can grow in both directions. It's up to both parties. More significantly, new relationships, and new kinds of relationships, are invited in.
Let's say your palm phone knows by its GPS that you're in Austin, Texas. You're looking for a good barbecue place. There must be a lot of them, and maybe you could look around on the Web for one, but you'd rather take advantage of local expertise on the matter. Thanks to your relationship with Zagats, information about barbecue places is pushed down to your device by an XML stream. By prior agreement about these kinds of events, a micropayment is made to Zagats for the information. And since Zagats has similar relationships with its own sources of expert information, some of your micropayment gets passed along to its original sources. Yes, it's easy to imagine all the things that could go wrong here. But what's right is that your relationships are between equally empowered participants. You're not just an infodump at the end of some intermediary's conveyor belt for content of its own choosing.
Andre's ideas here are still new and barely tested. As I write this, development is only beginning on the project. But what has me excited is that for the first time I'm seeing an identity project that respects the individual as both an autonomous and private soul, and as a fully potentiated participant in real markets where customers, vendors and everybody else can operate on agreeable terms, and everybody is fully capable of forming any relationships they want.
If this goes the way I hope and expect it will, the project should be equally attractive to both open-source and independent commercial developers (which are not mutually exclusive categories). And I believe the degree to which it can succeed depends utterly on how well we can jettison the industrial concepts that have enslaved our minds ever since industry won the Industrial Revolution.
Linux gave us a way to do exactly that with operating systems and by helping us create the worldwide commons we call the Net. Apache helped us do the same with web service. Sendmail did it with e-mail. Jabber is starting to do it with instant messaging and XML routing. Maybe PingID can do it with identity. If so, it will contribute to the business ecosystem we call the Net's commons.
This commons is an ideal platform for real markets. Without completely autonomous customers, our markets will stay captive to Supply. Even if they live on the Net.
Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.