Dealing with Online Profiles

January 28, 2011
Sometimes I feel like I’m having a profile crisis, or maybe that’s a profile anxiety attack. I mean, how many profiles do I have online, how up to date are they and how can I possibly keep track of them all, little lone keep them current? If you’re active online then you know what I mean, and my inclination to try every new site I find (I am an analyst after all) doesn’t make it any easier.

Sometimes I feel like I’m having a profile crisis, or maybe that’s a profile anxiety attack. I mean, how many profiles do I have online, how up to date are they and how can I possibly keep track of them all, little lone keep them current? If you’re active online then you know what I mean, and my inclination to try every new site I find (I am an analyst after all) doesn’t make it any easier. Of course with that level of experimentation comes a bunch of orphaned profiles as well, left to live on indefinitely, untouched, out of date and forgotten. The explosion of networks, communities, social tools, social media sites in the consumer world was the only the first wave of these profiles though, as social moves into the business world look for the number of profiles to rapidly increase again…and this time those profiles are tied to your professional image directly (although I’d argue that any profile you have online is tied to your professional image to some extent). What I’m saying is that if you think you have profile anxiety today, what will that look like in a year or two as more and more businesses implement and use social tools and those tools become increasingly business critical.

As the number and types of profiles explode there is ever increasing need for some way to manage them and control the different types of information they display. This year in our IDC predictions we talked about profiles, making this prediction: “Social profiles become the Internet fingerprint”. If you read our commentary on the prediction though, you’d see that there’s a lot more to this than the prediction seems to imply (sorry for non-IDC clients, that doc is a subscription required pub, but I’ll expand on the idea in this post anyway). While the “digital” fingerprint implies criticality it also points to the fact that the need to manage that digital fingerprint is even more important. Today, even though there have been a few attempts at solutions for profile management, there is no good, secure, single source way to accomplish this daunting yet critical task.

Now at this point I’m sure some of you are thinking what about Facebook Connect? Well, let’s see, I suppose with the momentum that Facebook has it is possible that Facebook Connect could evolve into a profile management platform, at least theoretically. Aren’t more sites supporting the standard as one way to sign up / set up profiles? I read about Quora’s recent experience with Facebook Connect and as they say, it ain’t pretty. (BTW, if you’re not familiar with Quora, it’s basically a crowdsourced Q&A site that has seen explosive growth over the last few months. All the “cool” people are congregating there, in fact feel free to check my profile out here and follow me, I’ll follow back…and yes, that’s a shameless plug). Anyway, as the story goes Quora launched with Facebook Connect as the only way to sign up for the service and after watching behavior for awhile they noticed that many more people visited the site than actually signed up. They added Twitter Connect as an alternative method and the number of connects to visit skyrocketed. I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence but still, it’s interesting. For me, I remember thinking that I was happy they provided FB Connect, but I’m lazy about building new profiles and I suppose I’m way to numb to the Facebook privacy issues. And speaking of privacy let’s not forget that many people do not trust Facebook and could easily be turned off by having Facebook as a profile management platform. So even though Facebook has a lot of the data that would be needed, has critical mass from an adoption standpoint and most probably the underlying platform that could be modified to provide the single source profile management functionality needed, I seriously doubt they could become the single, trusted, source of profile truth due to the strong perception of disregard for personal privacy…it’s simple, we don’t trust them enough. I’m not sure that a current network, community or other site could pull this off anyway, there’s a strong potential for abuse and if a profile platform is to succeed it cannot in any way feed that perception, it has to be above reproach to gain the level of trust and momentum needed to be successful. That said, I just read that apparently eHow has just announced that it’s going FB Connect for login and profiles exclusively.

I am convinced that current sites probably can’t pull off providing a profile management platform, the trust hurdle is very high. What about an open standards based approaches? There’s OpenID for example, which specifies an open standard for authenticating online ID’s through a distributed model of hosting web sites and relaying sites.  OpenID (read more about it here and the OpenID Foundation here) addresses the online identity portion of the problem effectively and has over a billions users on millions of sites (it’s hard to collect actual adoption metrics because of the distributed nature of the initiative). OpenID then, could be part of an online profile platform approach and at least defines a part of the profile standard.

By now, hopefully I’ve at least made you think long and hard about the existing ways that this problem could be solved. I’m convinced that there needs to be a fresh, new approach to this problem if we’re ever going to get it under some kind of control. So what might this magical profile management system look like? I’d think it should include:

  • Built on open standards
  • Highly secure, cloud based platform
  • Granular and wide ranging profile information – sort of converged resume / CV, social profile, and personnel data
  • Open API
  • Secure backup
  • Highly granular ability to control each profile data element. This is the key, the ability to control what data is shared to each site / profile based on the user selection. For example, on Facebook I want to show my favorite movies and not show my work history, but on my internal business network profile no favorite movies and detailed employment history…all user selectable.
  • Verified identity (and possibly incorporating OpenID standards)
  • Clear individual ownership of your own data

None of this sounds very hard, and technically it’s not. The hard part is getting something like this adopted by individuals and supported by most of the online places you’d need a profile. It’s the old chicken or egg problem as well, do you go for adoption to force support or would broad support drive adoption? There’s great value to individuals, ease of use and management, a single version of the truth, security, granular privacy management and most of all simplicity. There’s also value to the broader Internet community, especially with identity verification. There is also value for the sites that participate, as I’m certain more people would be inclined to open accounts / sign up if they didn’t have to recreate a profile every time they joined. The sites would also benefit from a richer and more complete profile and from independently verified identity. There’s even support from the Obama administration for solving the problem. The biggest barrier to getting support from the different sites though, I think, would come down to control of the data (and in many cases ownership of the data as well). This is an ugly problem that is just getting worse every day…waiting for a solution.