Apr 162008

I was reading through my feeds this morning and came across an article about how H&R Block is using social media. Basically, they’re using twitter as a mechanism to see what people are saying about them and responding to those people. Additionally, they’ve got a couple of applications on facebook – a tax return estimator and a financial quiz application.

This is pretty interesting on a couple of fronts. First, if I twitter (twit? tweet?) about H&R Block and get a response from them, I imagine that would be pretty impactful, particularly if the message I get back is helpful. From the perspective of H&R Block, that interaction is valuable, at least for now. People will probably receive it well until every single time they mention any brand they get a message from that brand. I can see people starting to censor themselves regarding brands when they share something on twitter.

As far as H&R Block’s applications, I haven’t tried them (and won’t), but they don’t seem all that social. What is social about a tax return estimator? My taxes are between me and Uncle Sam. And Uncle Stan (my spontaneously created name for New Jersey – you like that?). As for the financial quiz application, yes, that one is more social. I still don’t think it’s very useful or valuable though. Granted, its users are getting more H&R Block brand messaging just by using it, which does have some value for them, no doubt.

I just thing they could do better. I propose “BlockNet”. H&R Block should build their own, branded social network that ties in with Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, and all of the others. This network could consist of H&R Block customers, tax preparers, and/or people interested in finance and tax information. Brand “BlockNet” as a financial social community, brought to you by H&R Block, of course. They could very easily convert their regular customers to be users of this branded network directly. They could expand their market by bringing users in from financial based web sites like fool.com, smartmoney.com, etc. And every single user could have the ability to be social regarding financial applications across all of their networks via Social Identity Mapping.

So they’ll probably need some software to help them with this…perhaps Ringside Networks could provide it, and free at that!

Feb 252008

So I was listening to an IT Conversations podcast today, and Valdis Krebs offered quite an interesting perspective. Lately I’ve been thinking about social identity and how people can manage their online identities more efficiently, since I’m not aware of any tools that enable users to bridge social networks with one identity.

Anyway, Krebs asserted that today’s “social networks” such as LinkedIn and Facebook are in fact not very representative of the real world. A person’s social network consists of various groups of people, such as family, friends, coworkers, former coworkers, etc. It does not typically include people that sent you an invite that you feel obliged to accept. Regardless of that, he asserts that the technology that most realistically mirrors a person’s true social network is E-Mail. He suggests that people who go to LinkedIn or Facebook are going to a location that is not part of their natural social network in order to connect with people online; he refers to this as the ‘top down’ approach.

In contrast, a ‘bottoms up’ approach might be to leverage the communications technologies that people already use to build their online social networks. For example, building social applications based on a person’s IM client, E-Mail account, and twitter account would
more closely represent a person’s true social network, while at the same time providing convenience for that person. So the ‘bottoms up’ approach builds the network from the person out, instead of from the network down.

I find this idea very intriguing. From a technology perspective, I don’t see why applications couldn’t be built on top of IM clients as a starting point. As a former colleague of mine (excitedly) points out in a recent blog post, XMPP is an extensible protocol that sits at the heart of some IM client implementations. Why couldn’t social profile information be built out on top of these IM clients?

In fact, some IM providers are halfway there already (XMPP or not). If you try to edit your profile in Yahoo IM or AOL IM, you end up at a web page. This seems like a great place to build out a Facebook clone, if you ask me. It wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of having multiple social identities (unless that IM provider worked towards that goal via partnering agreements and open standards), but it would bridge the disconnect between the ‘social network’ web sites and the actual social networks that people already have in their IM clients.

So maybe OpenID isn’t the best answer to the problem. Maybe XMPP is. I’m certainly not making a proclamation here, but I’m convinced that XMPP deserves more careful thought.

Feb 252008

When I investigated OpenID for the first time, I thought it was a good idea, but not sufficient to solve the problem of online identity management from the standpoint of a single person with identities at many, many web sites.

But what if we narrowed the scope? Instead of asking whether OpenID could be an identity solution for all sites, maybe it could do the job for some segment of web sites. For example, could OpenID be a solution for social identity management? I don’t know about you, but I’m part of four social networks (Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook), though am active on only two (LinkedIn and Facebook). Certainly there are more social networks out there, and certainly there are many people who are an active part of all of them. I’m sure those people would love it if maintaining their profiles was as simple as making a single update.

Of course this raises another issue: privacy. Some people maintain a professional profile in some networks, and a more social profile on others. To have one social identity would mean that users would need the ability to manage access control of profile information as well as application information. This could definitely be handled technically, but by whom? This is probably going to be the topic of another post.

Feb 222008

Last night I decided that I’m tired of not knowing what OpenID is all about, so I got one and learned how to use it, and thought about whether or not it is a good thing.

So the big idea as I understand it is that people should be able to have one login for all internet sites, instead of having to create an account at each of the 42 web sites that you use. This can be accomplished via the use of a single trusted source (that being your preferred OpenID provider), and having other web sites defer to it for authentication. Sounds good, right?

If you want to experience this for yourself, here’s how you can do that:

  1. Set up an account with a trusted OpenID provider. I set mine up with Verisign because I trust them.
  2. Go to a web site that supports OpenID and login with your newly created OpenID. Try Plaxo.
  3. Use the OpenID login you created (such as http://[username].pip.verisignlabs.com)
  4. Fill in whatever information is requested (this is made easier by the OpenID provider if you’ve fully set up your profile already)
  5. Determine whether you want to trust Plaxo forever, until a specified date, or just for this one moment
  6. Click “Allow”

So there are a couple of things going on here. First, you’re doing the work of setting up your OpenID up front, so that you may save yourself some time later by not having to re-enter that information when you login to a web site that supports OpenID. Second, you’re setting up your trust relationship with Plaxo up front, so that when you need to login there again, all you have to do is enter your OpenID (such as http://[username].pip.verisignlabs.com) and you are into the site (unless you are not currently logged into your OpenID provider’s site).

What does it all mean? Well for one, you don’t have to remember a password to login to Plaxo or any other web site that supports OpenID; you only need to remember the password for your OpenID and the string that represents your username (such as http://[username].pip.verisignlabs.com or http://[username].myopenid.com, depending on your provider). Additionally, you are you across all OpenID supported sites since your OpenID is unique.

It also means that you have to hope that the entire internet supports OpenID at some point in the future, if you only want to remember one password. If this really is your goal, I don’t think OpenID is your answer; you’ll fare better with some sort of locally installed software package that manages your internet credentials for you.

So all in all, I like OpenID, but it needs much more support. Specifically, I’d like to be me across GMail, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Facebook for starters. In the meantime, if anyone out there knows of some good online identity management software that I could install locally, please comment here and let me know about it.