Reviewing identity

When I speak to people about identity, many of the responses go very quickly into detail about federated models and use of microformats and OpenID and and and. This is great, because we clearly have a community talking about standards and fashioning them via usage — trying them out — rather than abusage — pontificating in front of slideware.

As I said, this is great. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it’s a small community. We aren’t going to solve this issue unless we have a somewhat larger number of people truly engaged. One way of engaging people is to keep raising awareness of what identity is about.

Yesterday I promised to review what I thought and felt about identity, and to kick that off, here’s an extract from a year-old post:

The identity debate seems to encompass many disparate things, either directly or indirectly, so I’m going to just list them to begin with:

  • Ecce Homo: A means of identifying who I am, with some other relatively static data, eminently suitable for “microformat” treatment, and probably needing to be combined with some other way of confirming who I am, “two-factor authentication”. Like having a card and a PIN or signature. This is as permanent as can be, a metaphorical passport or fingerprint or iris pattern or whatever. This probably includes all the numerical tags I collect like frequent flyer and affinity memberships. It can include my credit cards and accounts. It is the same regardless of the specific relational or transactional conversation I happen to be in. My gut feel is that each person should have only one of these, and that it should be “small but perfectly formed”. And that it has to exist and be verifiable in a dotorg state.
  • Letters of Intent: A means of letting people know about my intentions, what I’m interested in or looking for. I make known my preferences and interests. Some of them are temporary, some of them are permanent. I choose who I want to tell. As in Doc looking for rental cars. As in my signalling to individuals in my social network that I will be within n miles of where they are at a given time. My information. Signalled to whom I want to. When and where I want to. Giving the listener an opportunity to converse with me and relate to me. Even things like last.fm are variants of this.
  • Tell them Phil sent ya: A way of associating other people’s perceptions of me with me, both qualitative as well as quantitative. This is trust that I can acquire but not control. Ratings I have, whether credit or eBay or college scores or whatever. Variable over time. Not suppressible by me. But challengeable by me, so that dispute or contention can be flagged. I may have many such ratings, used for different purposes, but inspectable at the behest of the requestor. And changed as a result of the conversation.
  • Trust me, I’m a doctor: A way of telling other people my own perception of me. Kitemarking my sites and blogs and articles and photos and quotes and whatever. Here what I am doing is endorsing stuff in the public domain about me, indicating (a) this came from me or (b) even though it does not come from me, I nevertheless approve it, I endorse it. This is like a great seal, a way of stamping that something is Orl Korrect. Or that Kilroy was Here.
  • My name is Bond, James Bond: A licence to do something. Granted by someone else. Usually not transferable. Usually not permanent either.
  • Come up and see my etchings: My choosing to expose things I have done, expired and executed letters of intent. Pictures of my activity with others. Kiss-and-tell. My information. My choice as to whom I share it with. And I can make this choice single-use or temporary or permanent. Probably even includes financial transactions and medical history.

Above and beyond this, I think identity is as much about what I stand for, the community I belong to, the community that will have me as a member. Identity itself is essentially social rather than individual. I will spend the next couple of days going through my own thoughts and notes on the subject, and then summarise them for readers. All this is distinct and separate from design and implementation issues, which will follow later.

5 thoughts on “Reviewing identity”

  1. JP, I am definitely looking forward to what comes next, because, at first blush, I am having a lot of trouble building a bridge between what you have said here and your claims to the effect that “getting Identity right” will bring us closer to making the Web a safer place (if not one that is free of evil). It is occupying my own through right now is not so much the many facets that the concept of identity has as much as the extent to which our own being-in-the-world is a matter of managing multiple identities. This is not simply a matter of the many masks we wear that so occupied “the Reverend Eliot.” It is more a matter of how we employ stratagems of “identity management” as a means of getting at the Habermas goal of mutual understanding. Think of it as a deliberate effort on my part to assume your life-world in the interest of smoother communication.

    What the Kathy Sierra incident reminded us, though, is that such identity management is a double-edged sword. It can just as easily be used for malicious intent as for furthering understanding, and I am not sure there is ANY aspect of identity that can be tethered in such a way to prevent such malicious intent. I have been worrying about this on my own blog over a recent attempt by the United Nations to make rulings over defamatory content:

    http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/03/road-paved-with-good-intentions.html

    So I shall be very interested in your next move in this particular language game!

  2. We may not be that far off. Anything digital and systematic can be cloned. In the physical world we have had ‘alternative’ ways to deal with signature and even fingerprint. Voice prints and even DNA have their limitations.which is why people look for multifactor authentication.

    But authentication, and its consequent permissioning, is not enough.

    Identity is richer than that.

    Managing multiple personae is necessary but not sufficient, particularly in cyberspace.

    I look forward to your criticisms.

  3. JP, I thought of another item for your list while doing one of my “major San Francisco walks,” from my place in the Civic Center to the celebration of the newly-dedicated Jack Kerouac Alley and back (with a stop in Chinatown for congee). In the spirit of your familiar phrases, mine comes not from the Bond movies but from MIDNIGHT COWBOY: “I’m walkin’ here!” (More explicitly, we might call it the looking-out-for-number-one syndrome.) Here is my reasoning:

    I have spent large portions of my life in large cities where hiding in my car was more trouble than either walking or using public transportation. However, whether you walk or drive, such cities bombard you with more examples of stupid behavior than you can shake a stick at. I used to joke about this being the result of our government putting something in the water. Then I had my insight: It isn’t the water; it’s the population density! While I find something very satisfying about being able to manage a major metropolis on foot, there are a lot of people out there who experience (not necessarily consciously) a strongly dehumanizing effect from the crowds. The result is a growing feeling of insignificance, countered by a need to act out in ways that will assert the self against all those “others” out there. (In this respect I am a Spinozist: there cannot be a sense of self except as a negation of the sense of other.)

    Let us now extrapolate “from the city to the Internet” (what a great title for a book). If the sense of self is besieged by walking up Van Ness Avenue, what happens to it in the cosmos of cyberspace or, for that matter, in specific “solar systems,” such as Second Life or the blogosphere? Think of your own musings about ranking:

    http://confusedofcalcutta.com/2007/03/24/musing-about-rankings/

    It is not to hard to imagine folks out there desperate to be something other than an insignificant (or nonexistent) blip on the Technorati rankings. If they get really obsessed over such things, who knows how they might lash out in an attempt to assert self? They might even start sending death threats to those who have elevated themselves beyond “blip status.” In that respect, then, my conclusion probably aligns very much with your own: Where the “social health” of cyberspace is concerned, it really IS all about Identity! It just happens to be about a particularly social aspect of identity that slipped through the cracks of the structure you were building!

    I also want to refer you to a post I composed this morning:

    http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/03/another-voice-of-reason-libby-purves.html

    I “discovered” Libby Purves at TimesOnline; and her latest column deserves to be a voice in this conversation. I think her perspective is particularly important at a time when your feelings above government are being reinforced not only by that United Nations resolution cited in my last comment but also by a recent attack by The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights against a rather unique approach to a crucifix statue:

    http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/03/i-dont-care-if-it-rains-or-freezes.html

Let me know what you think