• 03/12/2012
    3:20 PM
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SXSW: Social Login Is Magical But Tricky

Speakers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google explore the cutting edge and complexities of using one account to log into another.

When a new site allows you to create an account using an existing Web identity, it simplifies one of the thorniest problems in Web development, said Twitter API product manager Cynthia Johanson. "A big part of the signup flow is that you risk losing the user at every single step," she said.

Although all three of the major services can address this requirement, each has a different personality and different ground rules--for example, on the use of pseudonyms as opposed to real names--and might be suitable for different types of applications, Smarr noted.

The services "all have slightly different social graphs and different expectations," Johanson said. The key is that however data is used and shared "to make sure the user is aware of it transparently and that when we work with that data, we do so with the user's permission."

Kelly made the case for Facebook's clear supremacy, however. "We're really leading the charge in terms of figuring things out related to SSO and all the complexity around it," Kelly said. "Even if I wasn't at Facebook, I would definitely start with Facebook," he said, both because of the variety of Facebook services for websites and because Facebook's popularity "helps with distribution." For example, Facebook integration is a big part of the secret of the success of social media startup Pinterest, he said.

Janrain got a few nods from the panel as middleware for connecting to multiple social services, although Kelly cautioned against taking a scattershot approach by trying to connect to every possible service. "I would start with one, or a few," he said, in order to do a good job of integration with the select few. "Most successful companies we deal with A/B test everything," he said, referring to the technique for testing an application or online experience by exposing segments of the audience to alternative versions and measuring which gets the best response. Picking a more manageable number helps make that practical.

Rothenberg also warned that implementing social login can be deceptively simple. He found that out in a previous role at Flickr, "where we created a lot of problems we weren't aware of when we implemented this." Suddenly the biggest complaint coming in to Flickr support, he said, was to the tune of "Oh my God, you deleted all my photos, you bastards!" When the software failed to match a social login with an existing account, it would create a new account, and people would wind up logged into an account that looked like it was theirs except that it was empty.

"That tends to freak people out," Rothenberg said.

"I think we need to do a better job of leading by example," Smarr said, by pointing out the best and most successful social login implementations. "We need to give people a recipe to follow. We have reasonably good answers for these things now."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 26-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.


re: SXSW: Social Login Is Magical But Tricky

I think the "freaking people out" element cannot be underestimated. I think it's really scary for users (including myself) when you login via Facebook or Twitter and experience lots of unintended consequences.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard