An application called Accounts, live now on iOS to start, is a new attempt at developing a universal address book. While many competitors that have gone before it have focused on aggregating user accounts from the major social networks – like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, Accounts is interesting because it’s trying to catalog the long-tail of users’ social networks. On Accounts, you can add social accounts as niche as Yo, Steam, Fitbit, Reddit, Tango, Venmo and much more, and then determine which group of contacts (Work, Home, School, etc.) are allowed to view that information about you.
The app has been in development for some time, and has gone through a number of revisions since founder Ben Guild first shared his idea with us back in May. This week, it’s launching out of beta on the iTunes App Store, after having iterated on the concept following user feedback.
The idea in and of itself is intriguing. With the rise of mobile messaging apps, many of which we associate with different aspects to our overall identity – Yammer is for work, Snapchat is for fun, for example – our social presence has become fragmented. Few address books out there today allow us to identify, aggregate and connect with all our many accounts.
With the new app, that changes. After sucking in the contacts on your phone, you can go into your profile in the app and add in your username for dozens accounts ranging from social networks to mobile messengers to gaming networks and more. Each account you add can be toggled to be visible or invisible to a particular group, or you can set the account as visible or invisible to “everyone.”
As you make changes to your own accounts, others connected with you have their address books updated too.
This automatically-updating address book idea, of course, has been tried before. From the spammy Plaxo service years ago to more recently, apps like Cobook (acquired by FullContact), Humin or Brewster.
Accounts doesn’t have the polish and user-friendliness of these newer apps, though. Its dark black background makes it seem as if it would be more at home on an Android phone, while the manual effort involved with setting up your own information in Accounts is tedious.
Then there’s the ever-present challenge that faces any address book newcomer: your friends won’t be on this thing, which ultimately limits the usefulness of any proprietary feature that gets built-in. (For example, in Accounts, you can instantly connect with new people in wireless range if your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is turned on. Nifty, but who’s around to connect with? The app could also alert you when friends join new apps, the company says.)
At the end of the day, Accounts leaves me wondering if the big-picture vision is ultimately flawed. Do I really want to aggregate my multiple, niche social identities under one roof then worry about who has access to that information? Maybe it makes more sense to mentally associate the many apps themselves with one identity and develop unique contact lists within each one. Your gamer self is on Xbox Live. Your gym buddies are on Fitbit. Your family is on Apple’s Find My Friends. And so on.
There’s less configuration and permission setting to be done this way, and all you have to think about is the activity at hand: photo-sharing, texting, video chatting, etc., not “who can see this?”
The former I.T. nerd side of me was initially drawn to the permissioning options within Accounts, but just like dragging people into Google+ circles, it’s a cool concept that just doesn’t scale.
Accounts, in my opinion, is an interesting experiment in managing identity, but not one that makes sense for me personally. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.