Weeks ago I was talking with a coworker about internet communities and web development, and other related topics, and our various experiences with "community websites." One of my largest complaints/points in this conversation was about how "community sites" always feel like walled communities in a way, and that while I'm often vaguely interested in any number of particular community sites at this point, I'm not particularly interested in joining yet another website, and "keeping up" and particpating in these pull based communities is, difficult.

Now before you call me jaded, I'll cop to it, and I'll clarify that I'm a really intense consumer of internet content, and I'm also really controlling about the format that I get my data in, so I don't think my experiences are particularly typical. Resume argument...

The obvious solution to this problem that I mentioned is Open ID which is a service where one website accepts the authentication credentials of another website.

So here's how it works. I sign in to an OpenID provider (I mostly use live journal for this purpose, but any will work), I take my LJ address and go to a site which accepts OpenID logins (like identi.ca), and the site which accepts openID, asks LJ (etc.) "is this really tycho," at which point LJ makes sure I'm logged in and asks me "do you really want me to do this?" I say yes, and then I'm logged in. No passwords to be compromized, no passwords to forget. no fuss. It just works.

There are a couple of other nice features, first that you can mask your login with a different URL. My Open ID url is this website, but the provider/verifier of my identity is live journal, and this works because of a tag that's in the HTML of tychoish.com. In addition to being pretty, if I at some point decide that I want a different LJ account or a totally different Open ID provider, I can change the URL in question in the HTML of tychoish.com, and everything still works.

Secondly, you can run your own Open ID server. Unlike other systems which unify identity management online, OpenID doesn't depend on one company providing authority, or security, which is nice, because there's no one target to hack, as there would be if a company like Google or Microsoft the unified decentralized server.

Open ID is of course open to the same kinds of problems around identity squatting and theft that having lots of logins can have, but it doesn't create any new problem or security risk, and there are ways that having fewer passwords, and fewer accounts could actually be more secure.

But online communities? How does that fit in. Well simple. Open ID makes signing up for communities a lot easier. It's the first step in opening up our participation in multiple online communities to a more federated environment, and I think it could conceptually make it more possible for a lot of smaller niche websites to coexist in a larger internet ecology.

I'm going to post more on the subject of the ecosystems of internet communities and federation later this week, but lets return to my conversation with the coworker where I said something like: "you know, if only people would actually use OpenID?"

And he said, "Yeah, good luck with that one."

Onward and Upward!