Stateless Distributed Membership

At this past IIW, I convened a session to ask if and how it might be possible to do a stateless distributed membership for a website. There are two main ideas behind this proposal. First, I don’t really NEED to have a membership database of my own. That is, I don’t need to have another place for you to create an account, user ID and password. We can use OpenID, Information Cards, or other technologies for authenticating and authorizing you. Second, if I want to move toward a world where you control your own data, I don’t need to maintain the database of your comments. I only need to know where your comments are stored so I can properly assemble things as needed. It’s convenient but not technically necessary to own and control all the bits myself.

My proposal for a Stateless Distributed Membership is a mouthful, so I’ll unpack it a bit. There are three parts: a membership, being stateless, and being distributed.


Let me start with the easy part. You probably understand the idea of membership as a group or association of people contributing to something like a conversation or project. They’re members of a group, or in my case, members of a conversation or project on my site. Nothing unusual about this idea.

Being Stateless

Next is the idea of being stateless. In computer science, the http protocol that you use to call a web page and associated resources is stateless because you call a page from the URL or a link in your browser, the server responds by sending the page, graphics, or whatever, then you see it. Each request is separate; there’s no need to stay connected to the servers. In my case, being “stateless” means that each transaction is independent. Eve Maler talks about a stateless identity in her post Both a data borrower and a data lender be:

This is a kind of data statelessness, in that when you tell various sites they can set, read, and republish your [information from your Personal Data Store], they’re letting go of any pretense of exclusive hosting control so that they can offer you a different kind of value.

Now, in the IdM and VRM worlds, some of us have been talking about identity statelessness for a while, which is similar but looks more like straight data-sharing (reading) rather than arbitrary service access (setting).

For some reason this is a tougher sell — even though CRM systems and user accounts are shot through with pale copies of stale data (and, in the enterprise case, even though syncing directories and replicating databases is brittle and no fun).

Even when one party — say, you yourself — is authoritative for some piece of personal data (like your home address), all the sites insist on making you provision a copy of this data into their profile pages by hand and by value, and insist on thinking they own something truly valuable even after you move and forget to tell them.

The bottom line: if I don’t insist on “owning” your data, we both will realize more value from our trust and flexibility. It’s daring, and in the larger scheme of things, I believe it’s a Good Thing.


Finally, the term distributed refers to the fact that all parts of the conversation or projects are stored elsewhere on the net. If you wish to add a comment to a conversation on my server, your comment is added to your personal datastore (wherever it is, and whatever form it might take). When you wish to read the conversation, my server compiles the contributions as needed.

In this model, I do need to maintain a database of where to find your comments and a way to authorize you as the person who granted permission for me to include them in the conversation on my website. But think of it: if you want to revoke permission for me to use your comments, you can. How revolutionary (and potentially messy) is that?

Furthermore, you may choose to log in using an identity that’s different from the last one you used. That works on my server. For example, you might wish to be a regular person contributing to most conversations, but if you’re a professional fundraiser and one of the threads is about raising funds for a non-profit, you may wish to disclose your work and position in that context. Your two identities describe different parts of your life, and you may have good reasons to keep those parts separate.

The IIW Session

In my session, I described this concept and asked what people thought about it. I offered three scenarios where people might interact. One of them: a conversation or forum where blog posts and trackbacks can help create a threaded conversation. The session is an hour-long exploration and discovery of the possibilities. If you have questions or can add a piece to this puzzle, I’d love to hear from you.

My heartfelt thanks go to the people with whom I’ve spoken about this, including =JeffH, Eve, the guy at the end of the video talking with me about trackbacks (I’m sorry I can’t find your name), several others who made great suggestions and shared ideas at my session, and Joe, who spent considerable time exploring underlying frameworks with me.

Coaching moment: You probably have more than one account online, and have likely cursed the problem of forgetting user names and passwords. You may have wished that the picture of you holding a beer wasn’t online for your boss to see. Maybe you’ve been spooked by an advertisement for something that you really didn’t want. If you could do things differently, what would you do? How do you handle your accounts now? Do you feel secure about your online practices? Do you even want to be in control? Not everyone does.

1 Comment

  1. Judy, great post. This is something XDI is absolutely made for. I look forward to finding the time to explore it with you.