Prof G Guest: ‘Identity Portability’ Could Be the New Number Portability

I don’t often listen to podcasts. Today was different. Out on a walk and tired of my usual playlists, I opted for a podcast instead. Just so happened that the one that was at the top of the queue was Scott Galloway’s “The Prof G Show”.

This episode began with a customary rant about the importance of 5G and the privacy positioning of Apple.  It then descended into a full-throttle endorsement of Disney and Disney+, the recently launched streaming service. Galloway suggests that at a $225 billion valuation, it is inexpensive when you consider the path forward. So much for that. 

Taking on the Hype Machine 

The meat of this podcast involved a discussion with Sinan Aral, a professor of management, IT, marketing, and data science at MIT. Aral’s recent book “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health—and How We Must Adapt.” explores ways to fix the challenges social media poses to our global society. 

This discussion resonated because Aral made a comparison to number portability. You know, that thing that happened 17 years ago. Having worked at one of the RBOCs in my youth, I knew what number portability was well before it was forced on the incumbent telephone companies. A little context. Before number portability, if you chose to switch wireless or wireline carriers, you had to surrender your number to your existing provider. And then start all over again with a new number from your new provider.

This restriction created considerable switching costs, which the incumbent service providers used to “lock” customers into their platforms. Then, along came number portability, which made switching carriers easy peasy. Number portability essentially means that if you pay your phone bill, your number can be yours forever. This has enabled the wireless industry to achieve nearly universal penetration. The Pew Research Center pegs U.S. mobile penetration at around 96%. 

Enter ‘Identity Portability’

Fast forward to 2020. Aral suggests that documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” do well in raising our awareness of the challenges of social media. But they stop short of offering concrete recommendations for how to fix things. Instead, Aral offers the notion of “identify portability”. It’s a concept whereby each of us has a common identity across all of the social media platforms. 

Yext figured out long ago that making sure your digital presence was consistent across the internet was an important and valuable service. If we take the notion of digital presence management and apply it to the social world, then the utility of social “identity portability” becomes clear.

If I as a business owner can have my business name, phone number, and website correct in every shape and size of a directory, shouldn’t I also be able to have my social identity be the same on Facebook and Twitter? But this isn’t the case today. I can’t take my social network from Facebook and port it over to Twitter or LinkedIn. Instead, I am in each social network’s walled garden. My @nealbp handle on Twitter means nothing on LinkedIn. 

Aral’s perspective is that only by having the government push for “identify portability” will the power of the social networks be held in check. This notion intrigues me. I know that almost two decades ago when number portability became mandatory for telephone service providers that it was met with strong opposition. Yet today no one argues against number portability. It’s been a clear net plus for consumers and for marketplace competition. How long will we wait for “identify portability” to become a reality? I have no idea. Perhaps you do?

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