Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Is My Email Address My Identity?

Google and Facebook may act like toddlers fighting over a toy, but there is a lot more going on in their recent too-public spat about user emails.

Google publicly shamed Facebook this week for not giving its users the option to export the email contacts of their Facebook friends and import them to Gmail. The rapid-fire kerfuffle between the two companies came after private talks about sharing such data had broken down, and is apparently working, with tech industry opinion seeming to side with Google, even though few if any users seem to actually care about the issue. Sooner or later, if users start demanding to own their email lists and complaining about Facebook being evil, it will happen.

But the actual battle isn’t about reciprocity. If it’s on purely moral grounds, everyone’s hypocritical here. Facebook has arrangements to share user email addresses with Microsoft and Yahoo, and Google has in the past impeded Orkut users from exporting emails to Facebook. The reason this is playing out this way is because of the contentious relationship between Facebook and Google, and Google’s planned competitor to Facebook, a.k.a. Google Me.

As a larger question, what captivates me is how much value people are putting on user email addresses. Are our email addresses really the best proxy for who we are?

If you peel back the back-and-forth, the substance of Facebook’s argument is that Facebook users are on the service because it’s a social network, not an email application. When you use Facebook, your friends are identified by their (usually real) names, and you hardly ever see their email addresses. From Facebook platform tech lead Mike Vernal’s comment on TechCrunch:

Email is different from social networking because in an email application, each person maintains and owns their own address book, whereas in a social network your friends maintain their information and you just maintain a list of friends. Because of this, we think it makes sense for email applications to export email addresses and for social networks to export friend lists.

But to Google’s point, if people want to deactivate their Facebook accounts and/or try another service, they shouldn’t lose what they’ve created. When you join a new service, the best way it becomes useful and interesting is to quickly find and invite your existing friends (see: network effects)–and the best way to do that is to import a list of your email contacts.

The problem is you don’t own your friends’ email addresses; they do. Email is the only successful example of a decentralized social network.

Facebook has a privacy setting that lets you decide who specifically can view your email address. But that’s just within the centralized system of Facebook; you don’t (yet) get to choose where your email address can be shared. Plus, as we all know, Facebook’s privacy settings can get rather complicated, and both we users and the company change them over time.

Say I have a business contact I don’t want to share my personal email with, and she goes and exports her Facebook email contacts so she can fill out her Yahoo Mail contact list. Those settings need to carry over. And even if they do, spam and invasions of privacy are pretty much inevitable.

But am I my email address? As someone who’s very recently changed jobs, I know firsthand that link can be broken. I registered for so many of the sites I use with my old work email, and my whole address book was locked up there too. Now I have to reconstruct those relationships with a new identity. But I can do it. I’m still myself, after all.

Probably all of you reading this have more than one email address, and often multiple people use the same email address or the same computer. There’s not a one-to-one link between self and email, and the overlaps are often confusing and annoying.

Besides email, other options for an identity token might be your phone number, your social security number, your Facebook user name or your fingerprint.

But email seems to be the agreed-upon best proxy for Web services. Companies like RapLeaf run their businesses on connecting and aggregating information about people based on identifying their valid email addresses (and incur concerns about the implications of getting all that data in one place and selling it).

The stakes in this battle are increasingly high. Both Facebook and Google want to be our identity on the Web. I stay logged in to Gmail and Facebook all day from my laptop, and reap the benefits of those services being integrated with other ones, whether it’s a related service like Google Calendar or a new doodad that I can use Facebook Connect to register for.

Both Facebook and Google are striving to do two things:

  • Represent us best by collecting our connections and experiences
  • Be our token to bring that identity the rest of the Web

So think about where this is going. Facebook last week introduced a single-sign-on feature for phones (first on select Android apps and soon iOS). The way this will work is when you open a participating app, you have the option to connect to Facebook and bring your identity and friends with you. So the first time you use the app, it knows you and your context. You can imagine if this were to extend to Facebook’s Instant Personalization product, and you were to get a phone that out-of-the-box got your Facebook account and then automatically set up your contacts, preferences, apps and anything else you want or need. It’s powerful stuff.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle