OpenID, wherefore art thou?

I’m a strong supporter of OpenID, the personal identity management technology that let’s you take charge of your own online identity, usernames, and passwords instead of farming yourself out willy-nilly to every site on the web. I don’t support OpenID for the technology itself—OpenID is just a collection of tools that are part of the machine that will enable something way more important: the user-centered, open web.

What’s the user-centered, open web? It’s the web you already know and love (and hate), made better with extra you, right at the center of it all. I could go on about its advantages for people, business, government and communities of all shapes and sizes, but others have done a much better job and I’m really trying to get to a different point here.

Lately I’ve started to worry a bit about OpenID. We’ve seen some recent promise realized to be sure, like Facebook’s progress toward adoption, logging in to Sears with OpenID, and local Portland OpenID pioneers Janrain hiring @peat. Progress like that balances the sad demise of Vidoop, Portland’s other OpenID darling, which I’ve commented on elsewhere.

Yet something else has been gnawing at me for a while. Back in February, 2009, the OpenID Foundation (OIDF) that coordinates and supports OpenID development and adoption hired a new Executive Director (ED), Don Thibeau. I don’t know Don and I’m sure he’s a fine and capable person, but I was expecting someone more, well, open, and webby. Don’s background didn’t seem to match OpenID’s open, webby provenance, community, or future.

At the time, I figured that maybe the OIDF board of directors picked Don specifically for his background in business and government to help legitimize OpenID with the businessy, government types that we need on board to support widespread adoption and to help build the OIDF into a sustainable organization. That strategy made a certain amount of sense to me. The OIDF ED should be able to garner the attention and respect of the more buttoned-down communities that have substantial power over the practices and technologies where we want OpenID to intervene AND be able to help the OIDF grow and prosper.

But it’s been almost half a year now and I have yet to hear anything from Don. I have not seen a single post to the OIDF mailing lists, nor any blog posts, or even mere website announcements or old-school press releases. Don, where are you? Even my simple inquiries about the apparently broken credit card payment process for OpenID membership have gone unanswered.

If the OIDF is immersed in ensuring its own sustainability and important behind-the-scenes evangelizing and deal-making, that’s great. But the open, webby community that has been evangelizing, building and adopting OpenID heretofore and meanwhile needs to know what is going on. The ED reports to the OIDF board, but the position’s real constituency is the broader OpenID community. Inform us, involve us, respect us. If deep, sustained, open community engagement isn’t possible as the primary function of the OIDF, then something is seriously broken.

I want to stress that I’m not leveling any personal criticism at Don himself. I imagine he’s very busy with work that benefits the OIDF and OpenID. In fact, I have so little information about Don and what he’s doing that there’s really nothing to laud or criticize, and that’s exactly my point. Open up, often, as your first impulse, and make community engagement your first priority.

4 thoughts on “OpenID, wherefore art thou?”

  1. Thanks for this post Nate. You bring up a really good opportunity for us to talk about what has been going on behind the scenes, and what progress has been made and what work still needs to be done.

    In fact, I’ve had it on my list to post an interview of Don for the past few weeks and moving, travel and yadda yadda has delayed that. Since I’m getting back in the saddle — I’m curious, what three questions would you like me to put to Don to get answered? I’ll insert them into my list and post them to the OpenID blog!

    • Thanks for responding Chris. While I surely welcome the interview you describe, I’m still left feeling like it’s less information than I’d been hoping for. It seems like an interview with Don about every 6 months, instigated by a very busy board member, is not the kind of information stream I was expecting from Don or the OIDF. Part of my disappointment may stem from the very different communications habits I’ve come to prefer and practice myself, which lean more toward open, constant, mixed informal and formal statements in a wide array of channels. So, questions I might ask would include: 1) What specific, tangible steps is the OIDF taking or planning to take that will support the promises Don made in his first interview with you to communicate with and engage the broader community? 2) Will Don himself change his communication practices to personally engage in the broader community using the (open) social channels already in use to help support his position as a community leader? 3) What have Don and the OIDF been doing since February, 2009 and what activities are planned for the rest of 2009?

      • Okay thanks. I’ll probably focus on #3 — since Don likes to think of himself as a backend guy — rather than a front-end spokesperson.

        But in general your point about the foundation going mum is spot on. Thanks again for your feedback — I hope to have the interview up this week.

        • Thanks, Chris. And now I’ll sound like I’m really belaboring the point, but if Don’s a “backend” guy, I’m actually more interested in the answer to my first question. I think the OIDF needs to focus more on communication so we don’t find ourselves in the same position 6 months from now.

          On the other hand, this also raises the question of how important it is for the leader of an open web organization to have communications be a key part of their work.

          I’ll read your interview with great interest.


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