February 1, 2007

Lessons in Identity

There is much consternation and gnashing of teeth today over the Flickr requiring a Yahoo! login from here forward, it has even made it to the BBC - Flickr to require Yahoo usernames. One of the Flickr co-founders, Stewart Butterfield, provided rationale that would have been a little more helpful up front. The reasons from Stewart are good, but are not solid value propositions for many.

Identity Lessons

There are some insanely important lessons in this dust-up. These lessons revolve around product versus mega-brand/mega-corporation; personal management of identity; and brand trust.

Product Brand versus Mega Brand

One of the primary issues in the Flickr and Yahoo! identity merging involves the love of Flickr the brand and what is stands for in contrast to the perception of the Yahoo!. Flickr was a feisty independent product that innovated the snot out of the web and bent the web to its will to create a better experience for real people. Yahoo is seen as a slow mega corporation that, up until recently, could not sort out how to build for the web beyond 1999. Much of the change in Yahoo is credited to the Flickr team and some others like Bradley Horowitz.

The change in Yahoo! has been really slow as it is a really large company. It seems to be moving in a positive direction with the changes to Yahoo! Mail (came from buying another company who got things right) and the new Yahoo! front door, but the perception still hangs on. Similar to Microsoft's operating system and software, changes to the corporation are like trying to turn a battleship under full steam forward. It is tough changing inertia of a corporation, as not only is it internal technologies and mindsets, but brand perceptions and the hundreds of millions of user perceptions and experience that are going to go through the change.

Take the hulking beast of Yahoo and pair that with a new product and brand Flickr, which is seen as incredibly nimble and innovative and there is a severe clash in perceptions.

Personal Management of Identity

There are a couple issues that are tied up together in the Flickr and Yahoo branding problem involving identity. First, there is the issue of being personally associated with the brand. There are many people who strongly consider themself a "Flickr" person and it is an association with that brand that makes up a part of their personal identity. Many of the "Flickr" people believe they are part of the small lively and innovative new web that Flickr represents. The conflating of the Flickr brand with the Yahoo! brand for many of the "Flickr" people is schizophrenic as the brands are polar opposites of each other. Yahoo! is trying to move toward the Flickr brand appeal and ideals, but again it is turning that battle ship.

The tying one's personal identity to Yahoo! is very difficult for many "Flickr" people. Even within Yahoo! there are battles between the old core Yahoo! and the new upstarts that are changing the way things have always worked. Unfortunately, with the flood of start-up opportunities the Yahoo employees who embrace the new way forward are the people who are seemingly moving out to test the revived waters of web start-ups. This makes turning the battleship all that much harder from the inside.

Second, is managing the digital identity and having personal control over it. Many people really want to control what is known about them by one entity or across an identity. I know many people who have more than one Yahoo! account so to keep different parts of their personal life separate. They keep e-mail separate from search and photos out of their own personal understanding of privacy. Privacy and personal control of digital identity is something that has a wide variation. This required mixing of identity really breaks essential boundary for people who prefer (mildly or strongly) to keep various parts of the digital lives segregated. Many people do not want to have one-stop shopping for their identity and they really want to control who knows what about them. This wish and desire MUST be grasped, understood, and respected.

Brand Trust

All of this leads to people's trust in a brand. People have different levels of trust with different brands (even if the brands are treating their information and privacy in the same manner). Flickr greatly benefited by being a small company who many of the early members knew the founders and/or developers and this personal connection and trust grew through a network effect. The staff at Flickr was and is very attentive to the Flickr community. This personal connection builds trust.

Yahoo! on the other hand is a corporation that has not had a personal touch for many years, but is working to bridge that gap and better connect with its communities around its many products (some of this works well, but much is neglected and the bond is not there). The brand trust is thinner for a larger organization, particularly around privacy and control over digital identity. Many of the large companies make it really difficult to only have one view of your identity turned on when you log in (myYahoo, Mail, and movie ratings are on and all other portions are not logged in - for example).

Conversely, there are those who would like to use their Yahoo! identity and login for things like OpenID login. Recently, Simon Willison (a recent ex-Yahoo) did just this with idproxy.net. And, yet others would like to use other external to Yahoo! logins to be used as a single sign on. Part of this is single sign on and another part is personal control over what digital parts of one's live are connected. It is a personal understanding of trust and a strong belief for many that this perception of trust MUST be respected.

One approach that should NEVER happen is what Google is doing with Dodgeball. This past two weeks I have been contacted by a few people using Dodgeball (I use this service), which was bought and is owned by Google. I was getting contacted by people who found my Dodgeball account by entering my Gmail identity. The problem is I never connected my Gmail to Dodgeball and was going to drop Dodgeball over the required joining of the identities. Google in this instance flat out failed at protecting my identity and privacy, but it does that regularly (personally believe that Google is not Evil, but they are not competent with privacy and identity, which is closely tied with Evil). Had Yahoo! done this with Flickr it would have been really over the top. [I have introduced people at Google to the Digital Identity Gang to better understand digital identity and privacy issues, which is a great sign of them knowing they need to do much better.]

Conclusion

There are a lot of tangents to identity, brand, and personal association that seem to have been left out of the equation in the Yahoo! and Flickr identity merger. A more mature approach to identity at Yahoo! would not have required Flickr members to change over, as for many the changes to value added by conflating the identities is not of interest to those who have not done so yet. For many of those that are feeling hurt it is part of their personal identity that is bruised and broken. Hopefully, Yahoo! has grasped this lesson and will treat other acquisions (Upcoming, del.icio.us, and particularly My Blog Log (among others)) differently.



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