If you’re not sure what that means or if you never understood OpenID, you’re not alone. Up until recently, I didn’t either. I always saw the opportunities to use them, but I never had a full grasp of what they were. Basically, an OpenID is a way to make yourself a central “online identity” that can be used on other websites. This way, instead of insisting that you register for a blog or website in order to be able to leave a comment, their website can just request your OpenID. Then you don’t need to worry about keeping track of a username and password for every site under the sun. Seems like a logical solution, doesn’t it? The confusing part is actually that you would think that an OpenID is just an all-encompassing username and password. Yet, when a website asks for your OpenID, they’re really asking you for a URL. What they’re looking for is a website that will vouch for you and act as your “identity.” When you’re on a website and it asks for your OpenID, it’s saying, “Point me to a website that will tell me who you are.” That may still be a little confusing, so keep reading.
There are (at least) 3 ways you can get yourself an OpenID. You can sign up for a free OpenID account at any number of websites, like myopenid.com. This is less than ideal for most people who already have an “identity” established online. Even if you don’t, is a profile on a simple website really what you want to point people towards when they ask, “Who are you?” In fact, (as a second way) many of you probably already have an OpenID if you have an account at many popular web services like AOL, Blogger, Flickr, Yahoo!, or WordPress.com. To use them, you just need to know what URL to use when a site asks for your OpenID. For example, if you’ve got a blog on wordpress.com, you can use username.wordpress.com as your OpenID. If you’re on Flickr, you can use www.flickr.com/photos/username. This means that if you already have an account at one of these popular websites, you never have to make a username and password at any other website if they’ll let you use an OpenID. Plus, a Flickr photostream, a blog, or even a list of your favorite links on Technorati is probably a good representation of “who you are” online.
The third option for getting yourself an OpenID only applies if you have your own website. This is the method I’m using. It seems kind of redundant to sign up for “yet another free account” on myopenid.com to manage my identity when this website is already my identity online. I just had to “teach” my site how to properly identify me. “This is Jonathan, who runs encephalosponge.com.” Plus, what if I don’t feel like I can trust the myopenid.com service? Or what if they decide to close, and I “lose my identity”? I set up a nice PHP script called phpMyID, which is able to identify me to other sites.
Regardless of what service hosts your OpenID identity, if you have your own website, you can turn the URL into an OpenID. You just need to add 2 lines of HTML code to your site. Then, when you’re on a website and it asks for your OpenID, you can use something like encephalosponge.com instead of myusername.myopenid.com. You might ask, “What does it matter?” Well almost anywhere I use my OpenID, a link will be generated with my name, and that link is supposed to point to “me.” It matters because why should some plain, lackluster profile on a site like myopenid.com represent my “identity” on the web? This site is my “identity,” and when people click on my name somewhere in the blogosphere, I want them brought to my website, not to some profile on myopenid.com.
Since I’ve set up my site as an OpenID, it will be easier for me to leave comments on other people’s sites. In order to facilitate the use of OpenID on this site, I’ll be adding an OpenID plugin for WordPress so that anyone who wants to leave a comment can easily do so using their OpenID.
One of the real pitfalls of OpenID is that they’re not currently ubiquitous. That means that you probably will still have to register for an account at many places. The more sites that support it, however, the less you’ll have to worry about making a million new accounts any time you want to contribute a comment on a website. It will help promote participation in discussions, which is a hallmark of the Internet.