Yahoo! steps in a pile of identity

Yahoo! has found that people have a lot of their personality invested in their Flickr IDs and don't want to give them up. Is there a better way?

Last week, I wrote about the release of Google Talk and how it plays into Google's identity strategy.  Giving unique IDs to its users and adding presence is a great move on Google's part, but it's old hat to Yahoo!, MSN, and others.   But then, Google's forte hasn't necessarily been being innovative on fundamentals, but in following along behind the leaders and doing it better.  Perhaps, then, Google can learn from Yahoo!'s latest misstep.

If you haven't been following along, Yahoo! found itself in a minor controversy when it announced its intention to integrate Yahoo! IDs with the IDs of newly acquired Flickr.   What Yahoo! found was that people have a lot of their personality invested in their Flickr IDs and don't want to give them up.  In fact, a group of Flickr users has created Flick-off and are threatening to kill their accounts before the deadline rather than give-in to identity hegemony.  This may seem like a response that's way out of proportion to the issue, but like it or not, people are sensitive about their names and how those play into their identity--a lesson Google and others should take note of.  As Mary Hodder wrote:

Yahoo reset my cookie (and everyone else's) last week for Flickr. I was presented with a login screen which had two entry points: one for my Flickr ID and one for my Yahoo ID, with a note underneath the Yahoo entry saying that once I used the Yahoo ID, I would need to always login with the it. This was a bit jarring. I could not go back to my Flickr ID. I love Flickr. I use it everyday. It's my photos, my emotional representation of how I spend time, who my friends are, who I see now and then, what I care about. And they want me to integrate with my Yahoo ID, not something I feel is the least bit cool or fun or that I have emotional attachment to compared to Flickr.

Mary goes on to suggest that inames are the answer.   If you're not an identity geek, you probably don't know what an iname is.  Simply put, an iname is kind of like a domain name for people--a single, universal ID that can be mapped onto various other IDs.  Mary's suggestion is that Yahoo! become an iBroker (like a DNS server for inames, to continue the analogy).   That would allow Yahoo! to keep both Yahoo! and Flickr IDs and map them back and forth easily.  Strictly speaking, Yahoo! doesn't need inames to do this.  There's lots of federation technologies they could use--they could even roll their own.  One wonders then, why did Yahoo! see an imperative to consolidate user IDs? 

My guess is that the answer comes down to Yahoo! trying to do the right thing for its users and simplify its ID management infrastructure at the same time.  After all, one of the chief complaints about identity is users having multiple IDs all over the Web and having to remember lots of different logins. But the Flickr story shows that many people actually prefer having unique IDs (and by extension, identities) at various Web sites.  What they dislike is having to remember them and their associated passwords. 

Using inames, Yahoo! could allow people to map their Yahoo! and Flickr IDs to a single iname which could be used at either site, while still maintaining independent logins for people who identify themselves primarily as Yahooligans or Flickrians.  Yahoo! could, with user permission, associate the IDs to offer services that blend the services of the component sites.  As Mary points out, solving this the right way leads to a general solution for all future acquisitions as well. 


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