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Darkness Visible: some threads

Yahoo! and identity

When del.irio.us appeared on the scene, the attachment people form to their online, digital identities and the "places" where they meet, the web tools they use, was once again made apparent. Before that, back in May 2004, Clay Shirky commented on the MT 3.0 pricing debacle:

The dilemma for people who build communal tools is this: if you want something that hooks people emotionally, you cannot have rational users, and vice-versa. And when you build a tool that helps create a social fabric, changes to the tool trigger social anxieties. Always. … because MT has succeeded in creating social value, you cannot expect users to act rationally to change. If you want users to really care about a piece of social software, they will invest in it emotionally. If you change the bargain they think they are operating under, even if that bargain is merely implicit and obviously unsupportable and even if you have the absolute and unilateral right to change it, they will freak out. This reaction is part of the social weather, and like the real weather, complaining about it is both immensely satisfying and basically useless.

So, here we go/went again with Flickr and Yahoo!. Barb has a good post about this, quoting MIT professor Sherry Turkle: 'the opposition to the change illustrates the attachment many feel toward their online identities. So many of us don’t have a gathering place that feels comfortable and communal. … For those who found that on Flickr.com, its transformation into a ‘service’ on Yahoo is a loss'. Barb comments:

As we create these new facets of our digital selves online, it will become more and more critical that each individual have as much control over our own identities as possible. I believe the best way to do that is to ensure open standards, such that my growing, faceted digital identity is not solely under the proprietary control of each and every individual third-party I desire to do business with. Psychologically, we all have a drive towards wholeness and towards some holistic picture of self — and there is a real emotional effect generated by having bits of our identities increasingly fragmented into small, locked-in pieces that are ultimately under the control of profit-seeking corporations. The larger those corporations are, the more powerless we feel — compare trying to deal with Sprint customer service versus addressing an issue with an item you bought at a store locally. The transfer of identity from (once) small Flickr to ginormous Yahoo is a shift in power dynamic, and it has real psychological consequences for the site’s members.

I haven't joined Flick Off and will live with the change of login, but, on the one hand, the feelings aroused by Yahoo! itself and, on the other, the core issue of identity, do interest me. I see Tom Coates was surprised by the kerfuffle making BBC News: 'That the controversy about Flickr and Yahoo's merging has hit BBC News is incredibly startling to me. Yahoo clearly have some perception problems'. Yahoo! has had a lot of goodwill running its way recently, but reaction to the relationship between Flickr and the Yahoo! mothership has been edgy and has found a focus in this issue of login. (The ineptness of their Toolbar installation procedure is an unambiguous black mark. Jeremy Zawodny has been resolute in expressing his views — ' Leave my settings, preferences, and desktop alone!'. See also Lloyd Shepherd.)

Mary Hodder explored the Flickr login issue and commented:

My own Yahoo ID is not what I wanted, even from 9 years ago. It's got an extra "o" on the end of it, because at the time, the name I wanted (an old nickname from my boyfriend at the time) was gone. So since it had the extra "o" on the end, which I've never really felt good about. If it had some random number on the end, which at the time I was getting it, Yahoo offered me as a choice, I would feel even more random about my ID/email at Yahoo. It's one of the reasons I made that email sort of a dumping ground for (frankly) garbage. I couldn't get the name space I wanted, either for login (backend) , or as an email (front end and to be shared with others) that I cared about or for things that I want to keep well, like my Flickr account, which is perfect and pristine. So, by asking me to tie my perfect and accurately representative Flickr name space ID on their frontend, to my bastardized Yahoo namespace on the backend (for authentication), it feels bad. And I suspect this may also be what's behind some of the discomfort people feel when Yahoo asks us to enter a Yahoo ID to login, in order to come to a Flickr ID on the front end.

Put succinctly, 'When is a login not just a login? When it’s also an identity' (Barb). I don't understand why Yahoo! doesn't support more than one identity standard — as Marc suggests. What has surely emerged by now is that in this respect we're no different online than offline: we inhabit a number of (overlapping) "identities", we become attached to these and perceived lock-in is a turn-off. I go back to Barb's earlier posting:

There are those who will look at the whole debate as trivial. After all, we as Flickr members merely paid $40-ish dollars to use a service on the web — what’s the big deal? The big deal comes when users are not mere users any longer, and we’ve thrown heart and soul and effort into creating a body of work that stands as a reflection of ourselves, our lives, and our communities. In fact, this is precisely the allure of Web 2.0 — that we can invest a “mere” web service with so much meaning. It is also precisely this transformative process that makes the companies themselves valuable — if you can capture the hearts and minds of your members to such a degree that their participation in your site creates a new facet of their identity, you have what VCs consider gold in your hands. But tread lightly, for even the smallest amount of disrespect shown to those identities generates just as much animosity, anger and fear as it would in the non-digital world.

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