When Fred Stutzman isn't working on his Ph.D. at UNC's School of Information and Library Science, he's working on Internet projects. He recently published academic research on social networking Web sites, including Facebook and MySpace. His quantitative analysis looked at how an entire generation of people share their identities online in unprecedented ways. ClaimID (claimid.com), a company Stutzman launched last summer with partner Terrell Russell, offers ways to harness one's online identity ('cause Google can be a cruel, cruel thing). You can read his blog, Unit Structures, at chimprawk.blogspot.com.
What is Claim ID?
Terrell Russell and I were looking at ways to help people manage their identity online. We realized that more and more people are searching for other people to make judgments about them. There are all sorts of problems with that: What happens when you share a name with somebody? What happens when search results bring up things that don't necessarily represent the work you do?
This is a way to create a central list of all the places you are online that you want to share. An article on a project that you've worked on might not mention you by name, and that wouldn't come up if someone Googles you, but on your ClaimID page, you can link to it with an explanation.
How is this different from just having your own Web site?
It's probably actually better to have "yourname.com". But if somebody creates a Web site about themselves, they're at a higher skill level than the average person on the Internet. So ClaimID is really designed to be very simple.
You also have a relationship with another service called OpenID that helps you manage a different kind of online identity.
OpenID (openid.net) is the answer to too many user accounts and too many passwords. OpenID lets you use your ClaimID URL as your account name. They call it a user-centric digital identity. The nicest thing about OpenID is that it's decentralized and it's open source.
Last year, you published academic research on MySpace and other social networking sites. Is this business connected to that?
A lot of the thinking about ClaimID came out of my research. College students are sharing their identities, and 90 percent of them aren't using privacy setting and sharing things that are very personal—their sexual orientation and their political orientation. And my thinking was, five or 10 years down the line, how are people going to be dealing with this? I don't know what people are going to do when all these people on MySpace are in the job market.
A lot of people don't realize that stuff stays on the Internet forever—even if you delete your own blog posts, they'll still show up in Google's cache.
Once you put something out there, there's a million ways in which it can be recaptured or saved or archived. I think that there's going to be a lot of people who wish they can take things back. If I can't get rid of things, at least I can talk about them, offer my perspective, put them in context. You can say, "Yes, this was me, I made this blog comment years ago, here's how I feel about it now."
What's your business model?
We still have to figure the business model out. Right now we're doing it for free for everyone—the caching, watching the pages. Probably 1 or 2 percent of people using ClaimID would pay $1 month for the caching and monitoring. But for now, it's not worth the cost of setting up payments. We pay the hosting bill out of our own pockets, but hosting is not expensive. Because we don't owe anybody any money and we don't have a lot of costs we need to recoup, we have some freedom to determine what are good business options.