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Summary:

The race to become the default identity platform for the social web continues to intensify, but while both Facebook and Google are determined to win and have substantial resources to throw at the problem, there are some compelling reasons to believe Twitter has the upper hand.

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As social media and social networks become a larger part of our online lives, the race to become the default identity platform for the social web continues to intensify, with Facebook, Twitter and Google all hoping to control — and profit from — the ways that users connect to various services. Although Facebook and Google both have massive resources to deploy in this battle, venture capitalist Mark Suster of GRP Partners argues that Twitter stands the best chance of becoming the go-to identity player for many users, and there are some pretty compelling reasons to believe he’s right.

As we’ve described before at GigaOM, the biggest and earliest moves in the identity arena have come from Facebook, with the launch of Facebook Connect and then the Facebook “open graph” platform, which allowed websites to integrate with the social network for login purposes. Allowing users to connect their Facebook profiles to a service solved all kinds of problems for companies running those services — since anyone logging in through this method was automatically verified by Facebook, as opposed to being just another anonymous user — which is part of the reason  so many newspapers and sites like The Huffington Post adopted the Facebook platform so quickly.

Facebook had a head-start, but it may not be winning

This gave Facebook a big head-start in the identity race, but it is far from winning. In fact, I’ve heard from a number of websites and services — and from sources within Facebook itself — that many users don’t want to connect their Facebook profiles to their behavior on other websites, for the same reason that many users were upset by the network’s ill-fated Beacon project in 2007. That project broadcast a user’s activity on other sites to their Facebook social graph. Other users have also reacted negatively to Facebook’s introduction of “frictionless sharing,” which is similar in many ways to what it tried to do with Beacon.

In his post, Suster makes the case that Twitter is better equipped to provide lightweight identity features in part because it is based on an “asymmetric” follower model — in other words, users can typically follow anyone without their approval, whereas Facebook until recently was a symmetrical network, in which both sides of a relationship had to agree to share information. While Facebook recently added an asymmetric feature called “Subscribe,” Suster says that Twitter is still the preferred network for this kind of behavior, and I think he is probably right:

So it is now very common for news organizations to announce on the air, “to follow my updates please follow me on Twitter at @myname. Twitter has become one of our major online identities and that is becoming mainstream in ways that people aren’t really talking about. Nearly every day now I see public figures telling people their Twitter identity instead of Facebook, email or other forms of identity.

To take just one recent example, a Mexican soccer team put the Twitter handles of all of its players (and of the team itself) on the backs of their jerseys instead of their actual names, to make it easier for fans to tweet about them during games. That’s a great illustration of what Suster is talking about: there’s no way that any of those players would put their email address on their jersey, or even a Facebook address, but they are probably comfortable putting a Twitter handle there because it doesn’t impose as much on them. Users can follow them or not, and they can choose to engage or not.

As Suster also points out, Twitter has a fairly powerful new partner in Apple, thanks to the deep integration of the network into iOS 5. Every service and app that runs on the iPhone or iPad now has the ability to connect directly to Twitter in a fairly seamless way, and that’s something Facebook and Google don’t have — and may never have. As mobile becomes a larger part of our online and social activity, that could give Twitter a substantial boost in the identity race. Could the Twitter handle become the ubiquitous identifier for online activity, the way an email address used to be in the early days of the Internet?

The race isn’t over, but Twitter has momentum

That doesn’t mean the race is over, of course — Google in particular is determined to make its Google+ network the default identity platform, as chairman Eric Schmidt confirmed earlier this year, and Brad Horowitz has said the network is going to become connected to everything the company offers. That’s a fairly powerful force for anyone who uses Gmail or other Google services, and there are plenty of companies that will want to work with the web giant because of that, just as there are lots that want to do business with Facebook because it has over 800 million users and huge levels of engagement.

Google has also said — in a reversal of its original rule requiring the use of real names — that it plans to support pseudonyms on Google+, something that has arguably made Twitter a more appealing service for many users than Facebook, which has a firm real-name policy. Google’s new network also offers an asymmetric follower model (as Facebook now does with subscriptions) so Twitter’s use of that model is no longer unique.

In other words, Twitter hasn’tt won the identity race yet by any means. Facebook and Google are both extremely large and well-financed, and both have their sights set on being the identity platform for the social web. But I think Suster is right when he says Twitter has a leg up on both, not so much because it has resources that they don’t, but because for many users and companies it has become the default real-time information network, and it includes a form of lightweight identity that users seem to find more appealing in many cases than Facebook or Google.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kathryn and See-ming Lee

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  1. When is someone declared the winner?

    Twitter best for marketing, facebook best for social (personalisation), google best for business and everything else.

    One company is never going to win out, same situation as the ‘Like’ buttons on your site, there will always be around 4 or 5 major players but they will wane and be replaced one by one as the time comes.

    1. Thanks, Daniel — I agree there will probably be multiple contenders, and possibly even specific identity providers for verticals (like LinkedIn), but I do think there will be one primary one most people use.

  2. and I just signed in with Facebook to post that!

  3. アンドリュース ジェイミー Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    I agree with Daniel – I find Facebook to be the best for social endeavours and personalization.

  4. While Twitter is gaining ground and separating itself in social media as the most up to the minute news, Facebook will ultimately rule the social media realm. Facebook is desparately seeking search engine options and, in all likely hood, purchase Bing. If Facebook doesn’t pursue the option to purchase Bing, they will surely create their own search engine. Facebook is drawing in massive amounts of cash by advertising; adding a search engine will only boost this cash in-flow. Facebook is also utilizing what made Twitter so populer; up to the minute updates that can be viewed anywhere by mobile device, just like Twitter “Tweets”. Statistics indicate that 40% of Facebook followers are from ages 13-25 while only 17% of Twitter users fall in that same age range. This data reveals that Facebook leans more on younger demographics in keeping an edge on the social media market while Twitter is relying on older, and with that, less than tech savvy individuals. While Facebook continues to innovate with younger peoples’ ever increasing knowledge of Internet and social media, Twitter will have to find some way to innovate while still being simple enough to use for older generations. What makes Twitter great is that you don’t have advertisements and pictures flooding the screen, but rather simply posts and updates that are quick and to the point. If Twitter were to implement more advertisement and move away from their current setup, they may feel negative effects. Facebook, however, has mastered marketing and advertisment on their social media pages and looks to continue to move forward taking market share. With Twitter-like qualities and mega-successful marketing, Facebook looks to be, and remain, the dominant social media outlet.

    1. Thanks, Kody — I think it remains to be seen whether a majority of people want to connect everything they do online to a personal profile like they have on Facebook.

  5. Facebook has more young followers by percentage than Twitter as well. Facebook is easier to customize and you can do everything on Facebook the same as you can on Twitter plus much, much more. Facebook is here to stay, especially since they draw so much revenue from advertisements. I just don’t see Twitter being anything more than just a supplement to Facebook.

  6. Twitter has everything already public. So- I typically use twitter for singlesignon – because there nothing more that a person can know about me than already available out there.

    This being said – How many people actually use twitter.And, 175 Million is not the number I am looking for

    1. Twitter twits are the most hacked on the Internet today. How do you like selling fur lined panties to CEOs under your name?

  7. Makes sense.

    Just today i was talking to someone about engagement on Facebook vs. Twitter and concluded that Facebook promotes “lazy behaviour”. If your friends (which tend to be largely acquitances) notice or like something on Facebook, at most they may hit the LIKE button. No further commentary or engagement. However on Twitter, even know people may not “know” you or be “friends” with you, they are in fact interested in you and what you have to say, especially if they follow you. Hence naturally there is better engagement on the Twitter platform.

    And like you rightly said, the race is clearly not over, but Twitter has the most momentum and opportunity.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Amrita — totally agree.

    2. Amrita,
      “lazy behaviour” reminded me of an article on aggressive-passive communication I had read long back. It was in context to Google Wave (RIP) but you might still find it pertinent. I have always believed that Twitter is the aggressive-passive platform :)

  8. On the quest to become default identity platform, I think there is a fundamental difference in approach between Twitter and FB,G+, LinkedIn etc
    The last time I tried creating a new Google (or Facebook I don’t remember) account for a friend, it required a mobile number to which the verification code was sent. This ties up your account with your physical world phone number ( which would have been provided after physical verification by cellular service providers) To some extent this does end up as an identity verification mechanism. Further, analysing Open Graph data and even data from Facebook’s original features can help not only determine identity but also know preferences etc. However, the user remains largely passive and since the user puts so much information,photos,videos etc she tends to be more concerned about identity. I guess Google+ would introduce something similar.
    In case of Twitter, since there is so little to data to be concerned about, users themselves reveal their identity.

    1. Exactly. With the way Zuckerberg has treated the privacy of FB users, more and more these days I don’t want my FB or G+ profiles visible to all & sundry. There’s just too much information on those sites. With Twitter, just like you said – there’s so little data to be concerned about exposed to the world, that I could really care less where that twitter name gets broadcast. I’d happily use my Twitter username to log into everything. I am not so comfortable having my FB or G+ profile tied so ubiquitously to everything I do in the same way.

  9. Sling Trebuchet Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    I don’t need some corporation like Google or FaceBook to log just about every page I view and every site where I comment. I’ll use an identity service that is as close as possible to simply being a universal login. I don’t want it to see every search and every page view.
    Twitter does fine for that.

    No sane person should allow one corporation to have view of everything they do online.

    1. I didn’t care for your last twerp about the rye seeds from the deli bread causing you discomfort.

  10. I believe Twitter will be the clear winner so long as we all get better at encapsulating deep thought in a constrained space.

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