The Null Device

Times of dissatisfaction

We haven't had a Wayne Kerr post for a while, so one is overdue. Anyway, I am Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate... it's websites attempting to coerce you into registering.

A while ago, there was an online newspaper named the International Herald Tribune. Owned by the New York Times but published in Paris, it was quite a good paper, with fairly incisive articles not too far from Economist territory. Then someone at head office decided to kill the brand and roll it into the New York Times brand, and iht.com became global.nytimes.com. And, with that, inherited the New York Times' draconian insistence on users requiring to register and log in to view their their precious content.

The New York Times, you see, is not satisfied with the standard online news business model (make their content freely viewable and linkable and sell ads to those surfing in on web links from wherever in the world they may be); that may be good enough for rabble like their London namesake, but the NYTimes' content is worth more than that. At the start, they even tried charging for online access to it. Of course, as Clay Shirky points out, this is not a viable business model for online news (current events cannot be copyrighted or monopolised, and someone can always do it cheaper), so the NYTimes soon dropped the demands for subscription. However, they have doggedly kept the other part of the equation: the insistence on users subscribing, remembering yet another username and password, and giving a valid, verified email address, as well as some juicy demographic information. Of course, there are ways around this; the most popular site on BugMeNot, a website for sharing free usernames/passwords to such sites, is the New York Times. However, such accounts usually have a very short lifespan; either they perish when the email verification period lapses or, failing that, the Times' web admins hunt them down and kill them, like an ongoing game of Whack-a-Mole.

The New York Times, however, is not the most irritating example of coercive registration; that accolade would probably go to a site named, ironically, Get Satisfaction. This is an external tech support site, used by a number of web 2.0-ish sites, including SoundCloud and ping.fm. As a web site, it is the very model of a modern website; rounded corners, quirky retro fonts (oh so San-Francisco-via-Stockholm), pastel-hued gradients, animated fades, you name it, it ticks the box; it would be perfect, but for one fatal flaw in the human interface design.

What somebody neglected to notice is the typical use case of such a site. One doesn't go to Get Satisfaction to socialise with friends, share photos or music, find a date or a flat, or do anything one does on a typical social web site; one goes there when one has gone to such a site and found that it doesn't work properly, and wants to notify somebody to fix this. Now when that happens, the last thing one wants it to have to think up another username and password, and be cheerfully invited to fill in one's profile and choose a user icon representing one's personality. As far as support forums go, less should be more, and Get Satisfaction, for all of its pretentions to being some kind of online clubhouse, falls short.

Not everything that isn't charged for is without cost; there is a cost, in time and finite mental resources, to keeping track of usernames and passwords. (Of course, you could use the same password across all sites, but that replaces a psychological/time cost with the security risk of all one's passwords being compromised.) And sites which put registration speed bumps in their users' way could find users going elsewhere where offers a smoother ride.

There are 12 comments on "Times of dissatisfaction":

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 9 12:26:44 2009

Interesting post covering two topics. You discuss whether people will pay for content that is delivered through the Internet. This is a big issue and while I have views they are probably not original - also this has turned into a religious argument and a reasoned approach is impossible. You then tackle the problem of managing online identity. This is also probably unsolvable because of contradictory requirements. Fundamentally, the WWW offers no way for users and organizations to be identified. This is fine when you're downloading papers from CERN, but for uses that arose after 1994 identity is sometimes essential. But to achieve it, people have to roll their own kludges. And sometimes people want privacy instead. Here is my 2c worth: I think part of the popularity of Facebook is that it offers a solution to identity. I see FB as a "new web" that offers features which were omitted by the first one. Application domains that require these features are migrating to FB and their older incarnations dying out.

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 9 13:17:14 2009

By 'new web' btw I don't mean 'web 2.0', which I think has become identified with user-created content and Ajax in most people's minds. I mean rather, what the web could have been if it had included an identity management system that worked over all web sites.

Posted by: acb Thu Apr 9 17:00:58 2009

Identity management would also allow things like "three strikes and you're out" copyright-enforcement laws to be implemented. (Download torrents three times, and all you can access is public information websites.) An identity system could become as much a public utility for reasserting control as CCTV is here.

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 9 21:59:16 2009

Yes. For an identity management to be accepted, people need to be able to switch it off, ie be anonymous when they choose to be. That's one of the "laws of identity" proposed in http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms996456.aspx . In systems that mandate identity but don't support choice, users often find ways around it. For example in Second Life everyone sets up alts for when they want to be incognito. Some FB users set up pseudonymous accounts known only to their offline friends.

Posted by: kstop Fri Apr 10 03:04:44 2009

The other thing about Get Satisfaction is that it's kind of a weak protection racket - they collect user feedback for sites and services they don't actually support, in the hope the companies behind said services sign up with them to get at the data.

Also, centralized identity online is bollix and we all know it's bollix. We may have one identity for tax purposes, but even in the offline world we all have different personas for the different environments in which we find ourselves. Where's the motivation for the consumer for a single trackable identity online? And if there isn't a compelling reason for it, why do we ever expect that it would be implemented without massive coercion?

Posted by: Anonymous Fri Apr 10 09:28:37 2009

@Greg, re "FB is new web":

The old web was a part of the old Net, in which one did actually have one global online identity, which was the combination of his username and the host name of the server where his account resided. So if you had the account "user" at host.dom, your mail and news posts would appear as written by user@host.dom, the URL of your web page would be http://www.host.dom/~user/, IRC servers would identify you as "user@host.dom", in order to see whether you're online one could "finger user@host.dom" (or "finger -l host.dom") and then possibly "talk user@host.dom", etc. Assuming another identity was not simple, and if someone had a good reason to find you, they would, and consequences could be dire: at the time it was quite easy to ban a person from the Net permanently for spamming, as commercial Internet access didn't exist, and one couldn't just get another account.

Around 1994 you're talking about, more single user workstations were connected to the Net, IDENT daemons were disappeari

Posted by: Anonymous Fri Apr 10 09:30:10 2009

Around 1994 you're talking about, more single user workstations were connected to the Net, IDENT daemons were disappearing and dynamic IP addresses were becoming popular, which made it harder to identify a connection as belonging to a particular user. On the web, which started morphing from get-one-file protocol into an application platform, the problem of identification was solved by using cookies and having site-wide logins. This made the web (which started becoming the main part of the Net) pseudonymous, which angered old farts and control freaks. But some users resisted tracking, disabling cookies, creating multiple e-mail accounts on Hotmail and using sites such as BugMeNot.

But 1994 is not "new". A newer type of web sites allows contributing anonymously, without logging in. Some, unlike this comment box, don't require a name to be entered, or even discourage it. Here's an interesting advocacy piece about such sites: http://wakaba.c3.cx/shii/shiichan

It seems to me that people don't want global ide

Posted by: Anonymous Fri Apr 10 09:30:40 2009

It seems to me that people don't want global identity. Nobody wants their MySpace account to be connected to their E-bay account or, Heavens forbid, to their porn browsing. Nobody wants his network activity tracked. Nobody wants to login just to read an article. And some don't even to login in order to post.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Fri Apr 10 10:18:11 2009

One of the things about the web is that the software and setup of sites shapes the community there. Anonymous sites tend to be wilder and more noisy than ones where people are encouraged or required to tend identities, and encouraging people to set up an identity and giving them ownership of it (a user page, an icon, links to other site) is a way of giving them a stake in the site.

So why haven't I done this here, you ask? Mostly because I haven't had the time to work on it. It's planned for a dev.null.org rewrite, sometime in the future.

Posted by: Anonymous Fri Apr 10 14:52:58 2009

It's true that anonymous fora tend to be noisy; however, the upside of not having an identity is that you're free to say what you really think, whether it's an unpopular opinion, an embarrassing story, a critique of another post or just trolling. It's the lack of anything that ties one of your posts to another (and, therefore, lack of reputation) that gives you this freedom. Which, needless to say, can be and is used for both good and evil. Also, hail Eris.

Read the link I posted above; it's biased but interesting.

Posted by: Greg Sat Apr 11 00:20:21 2009

I agree that people often don't want to be identifiable. But a lot of people want it *sometimes*. (Of course, some people would prefer *other* people to be identified :-) I mentioned Facebook because I speculate that it is evidence that people do want reliable identification for some activities. I think of FB as a subset of the web that mandates identity and semi-public accountability (and makes a couple of other things easier, such as maintaining presence information, which was hard for people without personal web pages). The fact that many functions formerly conducted using other applications are migrating to FB is evidence that people want identity in some situations.

@anonymous: I remember the good old days of internet=unix. But wasn't it fairly easy to put a false name on outgoing emails and usenet posts? And there was some fluidity with unix logins - you could have several, or change them as you changed job or studentship.

Posted by: Anonymous Sat Apr 11 17:06:51 2009

"But a lot of people want it *sometimes*."

Sure. And sometimes you want to be identified reliably (e.g., when dealing with your bank). But usually you don't.

It was easy to forge the sender address, but the point is that it was easy enough to find you given a good reason. There was some fluidity of Net accounts, but it was far from what's happening now. In general, the Net was much more controlled.

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