Why Twitter could win the online identity race

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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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