Online Identity Isn’t a Transaction — It’s a Feeling


Former Twitter CEO Evan Williams noted in a blog post this weekend that online identity is one of the thorniest issues any web-based service has to deal with — in part because the word “identity” means a number of different things. Williams tried to parse the term’s various meanings in his post, including authentication, reputation and personalization. But one thing he doesn’t really grapple with is that what we mean by “our identity” can change depending on where we are and what we’re doing, and that may be the most difficult problem of all to solve.

The post — one of the first the former Twitter executive has written on his personal blog in almost two years — breaks down what Williams calls the “Five Easy Pieces of Online Identity,” something he and Twitter CTO Greg Pass came up with to help them understand the idea. These pieces include:

  • Authentication. This answers the question of whether you have permission to do something, and is most similar to your picture ID, a membership card or a set of keys to your house or home.
  • Representation. This involves who you are (or who you claim to be), and is most similar to a business card or a personal profile, because it tells people a bit about you and what you do or some background information.
  • Communication. This answers the question “How do I reach you?” and is most like a phone number, but now involves everything from email to Twitter and Facebook.
  • Personalization. This takes identity into the realm of action by trying to determine what you like or are interested in, and is like your favorite coffee shop recognizing you and starting to serve your preferred drink without asking.
  • Reputation. This is based around how others see you, and is similar to both word-of-mouth in the real world and also to profiles that are compiled by credit agencies and other third parties. This is the least developed of all five, says Williams.

Eric Norlin, founder of the Glue and Defrag conferences and a former staffer at Ping Identity Corp., took issue with some of the ways that Williams characterized online identity in his own post, saying (among other things) that the concepts the former Twitter CEO is discussing should be separated into two groups — those that are intrinsic to a user, and those that are merely “transactional” in nature, and therefore change depending on what we are doing at any given time. Venture investor Chris Sacca, meanwhile, said on Twitter that he thinks location has become a key factor in online identity.

I thought social business consultant Stowe Boyd had the best response, however, when he said in a response to Williams’ post that it was:

a very tool-centric, or marketing-centric approach, and leaves out — or dismisses — all the messy and interesting philosophical aspects of identity.

Boyd has a point. And those messy and interesting aspects are the ones that can be a ticking time bomb for anyone who tries to impose a functional understanding of identity. While Williams may have been deliberately trying to focus on the mechanical aspects of the problem in his post (perhaps because the new venture he left Twitter for involves identity somehow?), it’s easy to see how you can get all of these transactional details right and still miss the larger point about identity — which is that it is a very fluid concept for many people, and is arguably getting more fluid all the time.

Mark Zuckerberg may want to force (or persuade) everyone to use a single identity whenever and wherever they might go online, because he allegedly believes that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” He might even be right. But plenty of people are more than happy to have multiple personalities online — the free-thinking Twitter personality, the frat-boy Facebook personality, the conscientious work personality, and so on — and for them identity means something slightly different in different contexts.

The downside of the “transactional” or utilitarian approach to identity becomes fairly obvious when you look at a failed social venture like Google’s Buzz: When it launched, the search giant’s engineers thought that it made perfect sense to connect your Gmail contacts automatically to your Buzz account and then broadcast that relationship to the entire world. The outrage Google sparked by doing this probably took a lot of Googlers by surprise — after all, why wouldn’t someone want to do this? It was the most efficient way of connecting people to the network.

What Google failed to take into account was that some people have different relationships with their email contacts than they do with people they want to be friends with on a social network — in the same way that many people don’t want to mix their business and personal relationships on Facebook, and so they either don’t get involved in the network at all or rigorously prune their friend lists to make sure they keep those walls intact.

Williams is right about one thing: Identity is “still a messy problem.” But anyone who treats it as just a functional or transactional problem is going to completely miss the point, and probably wind up in a whole heap of trouble.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Klobetime

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