Who Are You Online?

maskWhen Google announced Google+, its small-group social network this week, it was clearly a response to Facebook’s growing capabilities for connecting people not just with other people, but with things that you can buy. Google can tweak their search algorithm all they want, but it won’t really matter if you’re now mostly relying on your Facebook friends and Twitter followers to help you find cool new music, movies, gadgets, clothes, or travel.

But I think there’s something even bigger at stake than whether people will migrate from Facebook and Twitter, where the default behavior is to share with everyone, to Google+, which focuses on connecting small groups of individuals.

What’s at stake is who you are online.

Today, when you want to interact with a web site for the first time, the standard practice is to authenticate your identity by creating a new username and password combination, then responding to an email that the site sends to verify your ownership of that email address. But many people now find it practically impossible to keep track of all those usernames and passwords. In response, many web sites now provide a “social login” option (using tools like those provided by my employer, Gigya). These typically support social network providers like Facebook and LinkedIn, but also email providers, like Yahoo! and Google. And that’s where things get interesting.

A couple of years from now, many people will use a single social media identity for just about everything online (other than perhaps financial transactions). As long as Facebook is the leading social network, it’s likely to become the default identity provider, a priceless position to hold over the next few decades.

Google dominates search and thus online advertising, plus it has Gmail, Docs, YouTube, Maps, Voice, Chrome – even driverless cars. But aside from YouTube, these aren’t social tools, though Gmail’s 200-million+ users could provide a solid foundation for a standard digital identity.

There’s something different about Google+. By focusing on small groups – private groups – Google has recognized that identity is often strongest when we’re among family and friends. Privacy matters. And social identity is a lot more than an email address.

If Google+ can successfully tap into innate human behaviors around families and clans, the company could finally have a credible challenger in social media – and digital identity.