Single Sign-On and Content Aggregation: a Preliminary Analysis of their Potential in Facilitating Progressive Social Change

What is the relation between the technology of single sign-on and community mobilization?

There are two approaches to – or models for – the twin issues of convenience and security in our current era of mass content browsing: (1) single sign-on (OpenID, MicroID) and (2) content aggregation (Jaiku, Pageflakes, Readr). Both solve certain problems in terms of managing content communities and users. There is no reason why either model cannot be employed to accomplish the same goal of mobilizing and invigorating communities – politically, culturally, environmentally, socially, and so on. Essentially, both approaches enable the construction of activity streams that users can publish, share, syndicate, and read.

There are crucial differences between these two approaches, though, which bear implications for their social deployment. Single sign-on puts users in a position to conveniently sign up for numerous applications and web services with the same ID (reducible to an email address, URL, or phone number), while content aggregation streams users’ many different accounts into a single location, giving them the freedom to import and export feeds from other sites (ranging from the lightweight Jaiku to the sprawling, all-encompassing Facebook).

The two models differ by degree. The amount of “in-house” functionality offered in content aggregating services makes a crucial difference in the ways in which these technologies are adopted – their bias, of sorts. Whereas OpenID simply authenticates “who you are”, Facebook more intensively mediates self representation by deploying its own services (messaging, mobile updates, profile pages, and so on), and by inviting developers to build little gates into its fenced (though not quite walled) content garden.

Facebook is also letting developers decorate the place with garden gnomes and suchlike. It is worth considering the potential negative implications of development solely for one corporately-owned platform, either presumptively (Facebook) or retroactively via buyouts (Google’s approach, e.g., their recent purchase of Jaiku). As a sidebar, these represent more systemic problems on the horizon of social networking and social change – the traditionally uneven political economy of the information economy, which keeps growing its corporate heads back like a hydra, no matter what utopian promises are being made at any given time by any particular indie widget pusher. But I’ll save that discussion for a later time. Here I am concerned strictly with considering which of two technical models might be more specifically appropriate for the function of enabling social change via open content and communications.

Ultimately the Facebook model (fenced in web within a web) will fail in competition with services that leverage the myriad multiple devices and software platforms that currently populate the growing mobile technical ecosystem. With no clear standard for operating systems on mobile phones, there is much work to be done to enable everyone to talk to everyone else. On the other hand, application developers have an immense opportunity to build tools that facilitate syndication and sharing over thousands of different mobile devices and networks – and crucially, in effective community mobilization crossing boundaries of culture, geography, and social class, this involves devices that range from iPhones and Nokia N-series computers down to the lowest tier SMS-capable phone. Given this variability, the argument for an authentication protocol that is as much as possible only that – an authentication protocol – and not an “environment” like Facebook (a web within a web), is more palpably constructive, in terms of bridging divides.

Where the goals are social, cultural, and political, primarily – mobilizing communities to create and share mobile generated content with the underlying aim of improving people’s lives in tangible, measurable ways – this can take many forms. The definition of “community”, or the definition of the user group is crucial here. For instance, a mobile web services platform can accelerate citizen activism (sousveillance of arrests and/or protests, which has proven highly effective in providing a limited “fourth estate” that keeps police, government officials and other powerful entities in check, a count on which traditional mass media has failed miserably). Mobile web services can also help invigorate communities of independent musicians and music audiences, providing platforms for content and fan-artist-remix interactions on-the-go. And, mobile web services can enhance and amplify existing community cultural infrastructure, something Mobile Muse 3 specifically aims to accomplish with its development of projects in partnership with cultural organizations around Vancouver and the Province of B.C. For all these instances, single sign-on and content aggregation provide good models for coordinating clouds of user data generated into a navigable, mappable semantic space.

There are other models of community media, however, that call into question the viability of single sign-on, and that point to content aggregation as the better model. In particular, there are two: contexts where identities are divisible, and contexts where identities are combinant.

Combinant identities
In many rural communities in the Third World, mobile devices are shared – by couples, by families, and in some cases by entire villages. In cases where the intent is to distribute and share not only the software – along with the text, images, audio and video carried over the mobile media service – but also the hardware (the phones), single sign-on poses complex problems. How do multiple users properly authenticate on a shared wireless account/phone number? How could a single phone be configured to accept multiple accounts? Obviously, swapping SIM cards doesn’t get around the problem, as this necessitates the purchasing of multiple wireless accounts. In Vancouver’s downtown east side, for instance, how would a shared mobile infrastructure (including shared handsets) work? Wi-fi phones – such as Nokia N-series phones – are only a partial answer, as wireless internet is not (yet) ubiquitous in Vancouver, and effective use of mobile browsers is not enabled by the current applications available for N-series phones or their competitors. In short, a combination of protocols (SMS, MMS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) are the best bet – enabling as many connections – both free and paid, both easy and challenging – as possible.

Divisible Identities
The second scenario in which single sign-on fails is where users deliberately maintain multiple identities within the same or different sites or environments. Youth and marginal and/or vulnerable populations may require these multiple identities in order to manage the diverse range of social contexts they must occupy in order to survive (for example, keeping family, friends, work, and school distinct even if overlapping).

There is also a third possible area of identity management (a mashup of divisible and combinant, if you will) that comes into view in the present analysis – the recombinant identity – particularly important in a (post- or non-modern) world of dynamically shifting alliances and antipathies – where identity may be continually shifted to accommodate a diverse range of individual and (recombinant) group needs and goals. Here, too, the notion of single sign-on cannot compete with the contextual flexibility afforded by the model of content aggregation.

As a structuring model for the development of community mobile services, single sign-on is problematic in terms of how it reduces individuals to indivisible and noncombinant entities. Content aggregation seems to be a far more viable model for community building and mobilization, as it is adaptable to a wider range of social and cultural contexts – in which identity may be conceived in different ways, or in which it may simply manifest in technical networks in different ways due to the exigencies of human survival.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.