In random moments I type my first name into Google to check on my long-running competition with Jon Stewart for the top spot. I thought that once he ousted me it would be all over, but strangely there are still days — like today — when I show up first. Except not really, because the top link goes to my InfoWorld blog, not my current blog which currently shows up at #40.

The situation is completely different in Live Search, by the way, where I’m way down in the list along with other Jons who are loved by Google but are not conventionally famous.

This Google love is a temporary anomaly that’s lasted longer than I expected. But if things really shouldn’t work this way, how should they work?

Part of the answer is a lifebits service that guarantees me a persistent lifelong online persona and namespace. That’ll present interesting challenges as people mix personal identities with institutional identities, and then move among institutions. But those challenges will also create business opportunities for a service fabric that manages identity, syndicates content, and measures reputation.

Suppose you’re a Microsoft blogger who has launched at blogs.msdn.com. You can choose to write a mostly professional blog, or a mostly personal one, or a blend of both. Or you can separate the professional from the personal by establishing separate blogs. But no matter how you slice it, there are no good answers to some vexing questions like:

How do you integrate the online persona that you developed before joining Microsoft, or the one you will develop if you leave?

or:

If you establish separate blogs for separate purposes, but wish to combine their reputation effects, how do you do that?

More broadly, this isn’t just about the reputation that accrues to your online persona, but also the reputation that it confers on others. Page ranking algorithms are numeric, not social. People who know me, and my work, value resources I cite because it’s me citing them. So they assign equal value to citations that emanate from weblog.infoworld.com/udell or from jonudell.net. But ranking engines have no idea that those two sources represent a common identity, and no idea of how other identities relate to that one.

The service fabric I’m envisioning would deal with this problem by means of:

1. Claims-based digital identity.

2. Persistent digital object identifiers.

From the identity metasystem manifesto:

Digital identities consist of sets of claims made about the subject of the identity, where “claims” are pieces of information about the subject that the issuer asserts are valid.

In this scenario the issuer of claims about me might as well be me. I have no need to appeal to some other authority, I just want to be able to say, definitively, “I published this piece of content,” and also, “I linked to that other piece of content.”

Now although we normally think of people having digital identities, it seems to me that digital objects can have them too. If those objects have unique and stable identifiers, then they can be the subjects of claims. In the case of a conventional hyperlink, the claim is simply that my digital identity has linked to a digital object that’s associated with some other digital identity. Your evaluation of me, of the object, and of the object’s author can leverage not only the numeric weights assigned by conventional search engines, but also claims made — about me, the object, or the object’s author — by people in your social network that you trust.

We can also imagine the service fabric supporting stronger claims, like “I recommend this object,” or “I assert that this object has been peer-reviewed,” or “This object is required reading at institution X for purpose Y.” These claims won’t be implicit in the web, but could arise from a federation of identity and content services.

It’s admittedly a stretch, but surely a worthy ambition. The recent brouhaha at TechCrunch, about astroturfing YouTube to make videos go viral, drew strong reactions from all quarters. Some people were shocked by the tactics described. Others were shocked by the naivete of the shocked. And still others were shocked in a Casablanca sort of way:

Captain Renault:
I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]

Croupier:
Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault:
[sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.

Piles of money will continue to be made in this way. But there are other piles that can be made by offering identity and content services that take us in another direction. I would like to gravitate toward those piles.