Historically, this division has presented few problems. But now, at the dawn of the age of everyware, things are getting a bit weird. Anonymous Coward is a better-known identity than most of our own are. Analysts recommend corporations define official policies for their employees’ avatars. Everyone has a personal brand. Others can hijack, steal, or erase your identity—for example, by assuming your eBay identity to scam would-be buyers or using the healthcare services your medical insurance offers—and these identity-based crimes may originate from a different continent. At the same time, we can expect our own social network profiles to outlive us.
New tools, services, and measurements that directly manipulate personal identity as a digital and social object seem to appear almost daily. I’ll describe a few illustrative examples:
- unhub collects individual digital identities and presents them together, as a sort of personal, global navigation bar it superimposes on the Web sites a user chooses.
- MyID.is is a certification platform for digital identity.
- Claim.ID lets users “verify, track, classify, annotate, prioritize, and share the information” about people online, giving others a better picture of their online identities.
- Google Profiles lets people manage aspects of their identities within the ever-expanding Googleverse—such as the photo representing a user across Google platforms. Here’s my profile.
- OpenID is a standard that lets people use an existing identity to sign onto multiple services.
- Klout, Twitalyzer, twinfluence, and a host of similar tools apply assessment methods such as social network analysis, organizational network analysis, and lexical analysis to interrogate and compare people’s identities within Twitter and other social networks.
- chi.mp lets subscribers define facets of their composite online identities and choose which people see different facets.
- card.ly lets users create portable online business cards, containing links to selected digital identities, and place them on other Web sites.
- Twitter, already famous, recently began letting users create lists of people to whom they’re connected—thus, declaring their identity in terms of the groups they belong to or others who claim them.
These are just a few examples in the growing category of digital identity services and infrastructure that businesses and nonprofits have created.
Looking further ahead, digital thinkers contend that our identity is our primary asset in a co-creative, collaborative digital economy built on hybrid structures and is becoming the basic platform for business, government, and society.
Driven by dramatic shifts in technology, economics, and media, nothing less than a transformation in the makeup and behavior of our personal identity is at hand—what it is, where it comes from, how it works, who controls it, how people and organizations use and value it. As a direct result of this transformation, the experience people have of personal identity—both their own and the identities of others—is changing rapidly. As designers of the blended digital, social, and material experiences of everyware, we must understand the changing nature of personal identity. And now that humanity itself is within the design horizon, it is especially important for design to understand the shifting experience of digital identity.
In this and the next installment of Everyware, my focus is on the changing nature of digital identities and how it impacts our ideas and expectations for defining and managing our own personal identities. In the remainder of Part I of this two-part series, I’ll describe and make some observations about the important ways in which digital identities differ from identity in the real world. In Part II, I'll combine these observations into some patterns and make some predictions about the user experience they’ll engender.