Every once in a while, the battle for online identity takes center stage in the blogosphere. The debate pits the champions of identity like @chrismessina and @marshallk against companies like Google, Facebook, and MySpace, positioned as evil corporations bent on locking user identity into their services in the name of profit. I certainly don’t disagree with the identity champions, and could not be more thankful for their contributions to the dialogue, but I think at some point it is important to bring the discussion down to earth.
The rejection of the notion that for-profit companies could possible own our identities online is so knee-jerk, so violent, that the real issue at stake is often obscured behind the vehement denials of any benefit to the user.
Unfortunately I think what we’ve lost track of in this discussion is exactly that: the user. We web nerds, while vocal, are in only a teeny tiny minority of the web population. I am a strong proponent of owning my own domain name independent of the web services my identity inhabits, yet trying to explain my rationale for this to a non-nerd friend is like trying to explain the key of C to someone who has never played an instrument. The reality is that these esoteric arguments about the importance of maintaining one’s identity independence online make no sense to the average web user.
We must arrive at the notion that while it is important to fight the good fight against the big web Co’s, our requirements for a successful transposition of identity from offline to online must relax to meet the less technologically-inclined halfway. It is important to spread the good word as much as possible, to educate users on the importance of identity independence, but we should not let our strict expectations for identity online confuse users to the point of apathy.
What matters more than identity is discovery, a point I mentioned a few weeks ago during the Facebook vanity URL debacle – I plan on following up with a more focused post on discovery soon.