“Who am I? Why am I here?”

Admiral James Stockdale, Vice Presidential candidate, October 13, 1992


Is it the power of the individual, the power of the network or the power of commerce that shapes the Internet? Surely it is all three, for like art or politics, the Internet is full of amateur and professional expressionists who attract camp followers, adherents and adversaries. The Web is equally defined by the multiplicity of product offers that have given leverage to buyers who can meet the transactional requirements of sellers of products, services and information.


Given our focus on customer intelligence and Web analytics, what is grudgingly coming clear to the world of commerce are the distinctions between social presence and identity, and the rules of buying versus selling on the Internet. Business would like rules to some day become pervasive: a uniform identity attached to presence, not only to authenticate purchasers but also to provide tips to demographics for opportunities to cross sell and up sell in the name of customer service.


But the vast majority of Web users expect both presence and anonymity for anything short of a financial transaction. (Official transactions can also occur without the exchange of money, the quid pro quo being the exchange of my information for yours.) After all, it’s assumed that you can walk through a retail store and interact without overtly identifying yourself. It’s precisely why CANSPAM was created and legal opinions have steadily fallen on the side of the consumer.


And now, with the advent of social networks, the “consumer” can also be the seller. When political oddity James Stockdale ran for the White House with Ross Perot, he presaged the private, social and commercial sides of the Internet with his apocryphal quote: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Stockdale wasn’t out to buy anything but he was surely selling something. We’ve seen what the Web has done since for the campaigns of Al Gore, Barack Obama and notably Ron Paul, an obscure outsider who raised more than $4 million online in a one-day appeal to non-traditional contributors.


Today, presence with relative anonymity is being syndicated by making information and applications portable across social Web sites including Facebook, Ning, Yahoo (planned) and MySpace, who have newly announced they will allow users to piggyback lists of connections and content and port that information to different social Web sites. The quid pro quo here is portable content for users in exchange for allowing services to maintain some connection with their users as they surf other sites on the Web. Google has its own take, not through the creation of a social network, but through Friend Connect and Open Social, which allow users to embed applications from social sites into any Web page.


Compare this development (or Stockdale’s moment) with a quote from Deloitte’s new Predictions 2008 report which addressed the transition from anonymity to authenticity: ”It is often argued that one of the great benefits of the Web is anonymity. However in 2008, there may be an increasing clamor, from regulators, users and online traders, for the Internet to provide authenticated identity every time people undertake any transaction via the Web. A move to process online authentication could ultimately be good for both business and users.”


Wait a minute. People already need to deliver some sort of authentication when transacting online. That’s what secure socket layer Web sites were created to transmit. We’re not sure what “undertake” means or whether Deloitte is assuming that trading personal information amounts to transactions that require documentation. The unsubtle hint is that business would prefer this in order to collect and collate data to better target the customer.


The beauty of the Google model is that it skims content to target advertising that pays Google by the click, making the search engine an intermediary. Google collects information but leaves identity issues to the parties to the transaction. But now we can assume Google can scrape new Facebook profiles demographically if they choose to and better target its own advertising.


Marc Andreessen, the Web entrepreneur behind many online developments including Ning, writes in his blog that he doesn’t consider Google Friend Connect a competitor. “First, it's good for users, and whatever is good for users is good for a service like Ning. We think that’s obvious. Second, you don't get lots of flow into anything on the Web without having lots of flow out to the broader Web.” And after all, he reasons, isn’t the goal of Google to take you away from its Web site?


Andreessen was separately quoted in Wired to say that companies suffer from something he calls ‘strategitis.’ “Instead of launching a product, which would apparently make too much sense, they come up with a 'strategy’,” he told the magazine. “There's a strong temptation for companies that don't have strong social networking franchises to roll out social networking 'features' instead of products, and in reality, consumers like to have products.”


The social network product approach does have a parallel in the business world. Zoho.com, a sort of social community site for business, offers a surprising number of free, hosted productivity and work applications including document and spreadsheet support, email, CRM, project management and database reporting. The business model is to offer applications to individuals at no cost in order to eventually sell inexpensive business licenses with administration and management tools. In short, Zoho wants to be the IT department for SMBs and is in the game for the long haul.


Now Zoho is offering Google and Yahoo users the ability to log in with the user names and passwords from those sites. But rather than embrace the Open ID movement, Zoho is allowing access only to Google and Yahoo members for now. Raju Vesegna, an evangelist for Zoho, told me that the current Open ID registrations are too complicated for the common user, though that could change in the future. Plus, Zoho doesn’t advertise on its site and is more interested in attracting Google users because Vegesna feels Zoho’s free applications are simply better than Google’s. And, once signed on with a Google identity, Zoho users can share Zoho-hosted documents with people on their Google list.


Vegesna does believe in the idea of a single identity on the Internet. “It should act like your operating system where you have a single entity once you log in that gives you access to all your applications,” he told me. “The same has to happen on the Net for all the applications on the Web.” But he was unsure where to draw a line at the demographic side of identity, partly because social networks are not valuable to his business model.


Given all the hand wringing over who will profit from social networking, that’s a refreshing thought. Business surely wants to solve identity. Weren’t national identity cards Larry Ellison’s idea six or seven years ago? But it’s no more likely that Web users will want a common identity profile than it is to expect that banks will want to launch social networks (or am I underestimating?). With “transaction” as keyword, businesses can continue to amass, profile, segment and buy third-party data about customers, but cannot expect there will ever be a demographic license plate on the back of every Web user. Unlike driving a car, the Web is mostly seen as a right, not a privilege and even business wouldn’t want to change that.


(As of 5/23/08, the deal between Google and Facebook was shutdown pending further news.)of the deal was underway. -ed)

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