Why OpenID at SmugMug?
We announced OpenID support last week. I then responded to some comments asking us why we were a provider first, rather than a consumer. Now, I’m answering some more comments basically asking why they should care about OpenID and how it helps SmugMug customers.
Honestly, I had no idea it wouldn’t be obvious how great this is. To me, the picture seems perfectly clear. There are no dastardly designs or secret agendas – to me, it just makes sense. Here’s are a few reasons why:
We are a pay site. Every SmugMug customer pays for the right to share their photos here. They get what they pay for. That comes with both pluses and minuses where identity is concerned, though. On the one hand, we have a much much stronger relationship with our customers than somewhere free like Hotmail, for example. On the other, we have no good mechanism to interact with viewers, who don’t and shouldn’t have to pay (or even sign up) to see their friends’ photos.
Let’s talk about the pluses first. There’s a much higher level of trust and respect between the customer and SmugMug than a free email provider. They feel secure in knowing that we treat their data carefully and with respect. They consider SmugMug to be their home (or at least a major part of their home) online. They strongly identify with the brand and even more strongly identify with the fact that their memories are stored and shared from our servers. They identify with us.
Do you see where I’m going with this? While everyone has multiple identities online, from email to IM, blogs to photo sharing, the ones where there is a volume of priceless content, such as their photo-sharing site or blog, are the ones our customers identify with the most. Email addresses are “less permanent” since they’re free, easy to forward, etc. Ask your typical passionate Flickr or SmugMug customer, though, and they’ll tell you about their passion for their photos and the pain and anguish it would cause them to move or if the service died. Note that not everyone falls into this category – but those passionate about photo sharing *do* fall into this category, and that describes every SmugMug customer.
Further, I believe the customer should get to choose which site they identify with most. I’d hate to limit them to only their email provider if they happen to hate their email provider. Just like everyone resonates with different brands of cars, jeans, computers, music, etc, they also resonate with different sites. Leave the power in the hands of the customer – let them choose their own identity.
Now, let’s talk minuses. Since there are no free accounts at SmugMug, we can’t interact as well with our viewers. They’re allergic to setting up “yet another account,” something I resonate with, or even passing over their email address. I completely get that – it really really sucks when you go to view someone’s photos at KodakGallery or Shutterfly and they demand your email address so you can get spammed till the end of days. It also sucks when you want to leave a comment at Flickr but can’t without signing up for a Yahoo account. What a pain.
OpenID goes a long way towards solving some of these problems. Comments can now be far more spam-free since identity can be verified, yet the commenter doesn’t have to go through the hassle of signing up for yet-another-account. Access controls to photos and galleries can be specified by the owner of the photos in such a way that sensitive data (like email addresses or passwords) no longer has to be exchanged. Even if we wanted to, SmugMug couldn’t spam someone using their OpenID to leave a comment or view a photo. That’s big – I hate giving my email address out to sites because so many of them *do* spam, you’re never sure which ones are the “good guys” like we are.
OpenID isn’t perfect. There’s no trust here – just identification. There’s still no complete single sign-on. There are issues with dangling stale IDs being left around. Consumer education is going to be interesting. But it’s still a huge step in the right direction. Just verifying that someone has an identity somewhere online gives you the ability to make your apps richer, regulate abuse more easily, and generally improve the user experience.
What’s not to love?