The new Identity Equation

A few days ago, I tweeted about this CNET article that talks about the plans that Twitter has to expand their search service into what could be one of the most powerful real-time search engines anywhere. The key to this whole thing is the idea of reputation – that ephemeral quality that will improve the search quality by bubbling to the top results that are more relevant based on how reputed the source is.

Twitter Search will also get a “reputation” ranking system soon, Jayaram told me. When you do a search on a “trending” topic–a topic that is so big it gets its own link in the Twitter.com sidebar–Twitter will take into account the reputation of the person who wrote each tweet and rank the search results in part based on that.

The article does mention that the engineering team at Twitter is still trying to figure out how to do this. But no more than a day later, Stan Schroeder of Mashable pointed out one of the key aspects to making reputation work – it has to be context-sensitive with respect to the identity of the source and their authority on the subject.

Thinking about it, it seems that this reputation ranking system is far more complex than a simple combination of factors such as followers and retweets. The system needs to be contextual; it needs to recognize which tweeple are important for a certain keyword or phrase. For example, tweets from the White House, Barack Obama and politicians aren’t that useful in the context of a Gmail outage, but they’re crucial during some political event.

In other words, the reputation engine (if it is to be done right) can’t just look at the number of followers, the number of retweets and hashtags. It also can’t rely purely on the 140 character biography that all the tweeples have posted on their twitter profiles. No, to really do this thing justice, Twitter (or some other company that could step in) would need to navigate the semantic, social and identity web in a way that builds up an accurate picture of a persons authority regarding a particular subject. And it is not just based on what we put out there, but even more so on what others put out there in response.

If this feels like somebody is about to start building a credit score of our online lives, it isn’t too far off the mark. The implications in the area of personal identity management and privacy could be huge!

This highlights a change we are seeing in the personal identity space. Since there are no secrets any more (as Bob Blakley is wont to remind us every now and then), relationships and reputation are likely to become the primary variables in the identity equation. The question therefore is, what tools do we need to manage and control our online identity in light of this new perspective on identity? Is it simply about having an OpenID and clean living? What tools do the social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn need to incorporate that give us control over not just what we put out there, but what others put out there about us? It’s a tough nut to crack, and should make for some interesting discussions at IIW next week. Maybe I’ll throw it up there on the board as a topic.