Anonymous Cowards, Avatars, and the Zeitgeist: Personal Identity in Flux: Part I


Designing the ubiquitous experience

A column by Joe Lamantia
November 2, 2009

Our identity—our sense of who we are, in all the various contexts we negotiate, from personal to professional, from public to private, from individual to collective—is one of the most fundamental elements of our experience and awareness. We rely on our identity to make sense of almost all the experiences we have in life—digital and otherwise. And yet, experience designers rarely consider personal identity—either as an aspect of design or a factor affecting design.

The nature and meaning of identity is traditionally a question for disciplines like philosophy, religion, psychology, and the social sciences. At the same time, governments and large organizations, with legal and administrative concerns like taxation and security typically address the practical aspects of identity we experience on a daily basis—issuing IDs and credentials and deciding the mechanisms for their verification. This division of responsibilities for defining and executing the construct of personal identity is nearly as old as the mind/body schism at the heart of Western culture.

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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.
  • 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.
  • lets subscribers define facets of their composite online identities and choose which people see different facets.
  • 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.

A Look at Digital Identities

In looking at the nature of digital identities, I’ve collected what I see as their most important characteristics, in terms of their impact on our changing understanding and experience of personal identity. While this collection of attributes is neither exhaustive nor exclusive, it should serve us well as a catalyst for discussion about what’s happening to the concept of identity—both in the present day and looking ahead to the near future. If you have differences of opinion, notice missing attributes, or see especially good examples of these principles in action, please share them.

  • local—Much like people’s hometowns affect their habits of speech and the food they prefer, digital identities take form in a specific locality—a digital environment—that permanently influences them. Knowing the origin of a digital identity tells us much about its history as well as its owner. For example, think of the first-name-only email addresses that belong to company founders—they act as calling cards. Likewise, telephone numbers, license plates, and IP addresses advertise their birthplaces and ages to people who know the history of their distribution.
  • multiple—Each of us has many digital identities—often one or more for every new environment we join. Some of these identities are unique, some duplicate our own existing digital identities from other environments—for example, a person’s signature nickname, moJoe in my case—and some likely recreate identities already belonging to other people in other contexts—like Fake Steve Jobs. For each identity, we define and manage a persona, complete with voice, style, demeanor, and habits. Many digital identities are very simple—comprising just a user name and some activity data—but others are quite rich and detailed. The composite of all the individual digital identities we maintain could potentially provide a comprehensive profile of our whereabouts, preferences, activities, utterances, writings, relationships, events, finances, and health. Figure 1 shows a composite view of my identity on the Internet, created using the MIT Personas Project.
Figure 1—How the Internet sees Joe Lamantia
Joe Lamantia
  • external—Digital identities are external and separable from the people they represent. Typically stored and managed in a digital format, they are literally disembodied.
  • prefigured—We have a digital identity before we are even physically born—from prebirth registrations with governments for identification documents to the medical and financial data halo—our own personal information shadow—that accumulates around us from the moment our parents engage with the healthcare system.
  • persistent—Digital identity persists as long as the information it comprises continues to exist—at scales that range from personally archived copies of data to the information durability a global network of data centers promises. Social awareness of an identity may fade, but the information management capabilities of digital environments mean the identity itself persists—and social awareness is easily recoverable. Individual identities can outlive their owners within specific environments—for example, as dormant blogs or user accounts—when people stop using their accounts, leave companies, or die before removing their active digital accounts.
  • reified and visualized—Digital identities are nearly always reified, or made tangible, through an avatar. The avatars for digital identities are often visual—either through a direct representation like a picture, dynamic avatar, or icon or the indirect representation of a user name—but avatars can take many forms, as students of comparative religion and mythology know. Some services take advantage of the digital medium to transform avatars into physical form, such as the Availabot, “a physical representation of presence in Instant Messenger applications,” or Olinda.
  • malleable—We can easily edit or update digital identities—for example, our LinkedIn headline, Plaxo status, or Facebook profile. In fact, anyone with the proper curatorial permissions can edit them, not just the owner or creator. Changes to an identity can result in dissonance, when they are not fully synchronized across all the environments in which a person’s identity exists.
  • immediate—Within a digital environment, people’s identities effectively change in real time, with every action they take and every event a system relates to them—either directly or indirectly. Not all changes or activities are fully public or visible, but they are reified and present.
  • techno-social—Techno-social infrastructures power digital identities, including the technology platforms, Web services, and databases for each digital environment. In many environments, infrastructure speed exceeds social speed—that is, the pace at which the community becomes aware of and understands an identity’s changes and actions is slower than the pace of the underlying technical systems. Even so, the social speed of many digital environments is accelerating. When identities, actions, and events cross the boundaries of digital environments, differing techno-social speeds often cause dissonance.
  • measurable—We can measure digital identities, using criteria from outside a given environment’s frame of reference—for example, measuring a person’s influence within a community based on social network analysis techniques.
  • quantifiable—It’s possible to quantify digital identities, using discrete units of measurement—for example, numbers of posts or comments, types of activities, or indications of preference.
  • analyzable—We can easily subject digital identities to powerful insight and analysis tools that consider the totality of their history. This can take the form of a lexical analysis of people’s writings—as with Wordle—a speech analysis of their podcasts, monitoring the times and locations of their digital activities, or analyzing their facial expressions in videos to determine moods—for example, iPhoto can already recognize people.
  • networked and nodal—In many environments, digital identities act as nodes in a larger network. The relationships these networks formalize directly affect our local digital identities, the identities of people who are connected to us locally, and also the composite identities of everyone belonging to our local social graphs. Our identities change as the groups we are part of change. The reputation, value, history, and status of our local and composite identities are explicitly linked to those of our connections—other nodes in the network—and their cumulative group value.
  • findable—We can easily find, index, cross-link, and search for digital identities—either in the global, public arena or within their closed environments of origin. In some cases, only the creators and administrators of digital environments can find identities, but in most cases, the primary obstacle to finding a given digital identity is knowing what to ask for.
  • fragmented—A person’s composite digital identity is scattered across many different digital environments. In each environment, identity has its own rules, formats, structures, and logic. System constraints can prevent many of our individual identities from connecting with one another digitally—even as we become aware of and begin to rely on our composite identities.
  • cross-media—Our digital identities span diverse digital media—from text messages, comments, posts, ratings, video, audio, and music, to art, geodata, photos, links, and status updates. The many different kinds of things we create digitally and the actions our identities take across these media are part of our composite digital identities.
  • faceted—Individual digital identities show only a portion of a person’s complete personal identity. We naturally think of ourselves in terms of the complete set of information comprising all of our identities, across all environments. However, the faceted nature of our identities necessarily introduces a level of uncertainty into our interactions with others—for example, Which facets of people’s identities are others aware of? Are they aware that we are aware?
  • chrono-located—All digital identities and the elements comprising them are precisely chrono-located, or time-stamped. As a result, we can place all actions, events, and changes in status explicitly within an international, standard time-stream.
  • digital age—Each digital identity has its own age and level of maturity, in parallel to the chronological age and maturity of the person who creates or owns it. Each individual identity a person creates has its own relative digital age, in relationship to other linked identities.
  • ubiquitous—Digital identity is available everywhere—and soon, everywhen. A person’s identity is no longer actively present and relevant only when in matching physical, social, or chronological contexts. Over time, our childhood friends see us take on many different personas; we are no longer just our youthful personas. And to our new connections, we have a history of many past identities.
  • connectable—Digital identities from different contexts can link to one another and directly affect one another—for example, our medical, financial, legal, criminal, spiritual, political, familial, and genetic identities.
  • portable—Our digital identities are portable. They are not tied to a single time, place, context, or location.
  • reproducible—We can copy, clone, duplicate, and, sometimes, recreate digital identities—sometimes independent of the person they represent.
  • recordable—We can capture and save everything in relation to a digital identity, including voice messages, activities, speech recordings, writings, and location data.
  • structured—Our digital identities have predefined rules and structures—comprising certain elements, components, or modules. The designers and creators of digital environments and standards determine the structure of all the identities within a local environment. Identities can also be modular—meaning parts of identities can be independent of one another. Unfortunately, the inevitable failures of supporting systems and infrastructures mean only portions of our digital identities may be available to us or others at any given time.
  • comparable—We can compare identities to other people—either real and fictional—other identities, or other identities of the same person at another point in time—for example, an older you versus a younger you, in relationship to either your identities’ digital ages or your real age.
  • parasocial—Our digital identities can connect to large numbers of people through parasocial, or one-way, relationships that transmit emotional intimacy along one-way vectors.
  • bureaucratized—Other people and groups administer our digital identities, for their own goals, using methods and tools suiting their own perspectives. Administrative agents and procedures differ across environments—for example, actions approved in one environment might be sanctioned in others. In different digital environments, the granularity and lifetimes of archives and historical logs for digital identities can differ and be subject to different update, revision, and deletion policies.
  • simulated—Software tools and agents can simulate and emulate digital identities. Simulations can let people predict the nature and future actions of their own and other digital identities. Individuals and organizations could make very important decisions based on outcomes identity simulations predict—for example, How influential would I be if someone connected to me? What would happen if I avoided connecting with someone? What would someone do if...?
  • monetized—Digital identities are directly subject to financial and business perspectives such as calculations of value, assessments of risk, and potential for change. Criminals buy and sell identities, just as they do all other illegal trade goods. Many business models rely solely on the accumulation of salable activity and preference data on the digital identities of visitors.
  • automated—Independent agents such bots, automation software, or hired staff could have an active part in creating your identity by acting on your behalf, either directly or indirectly—for example, by monitoring comments, responding to queries, or speaking for you.
  • accidental—Despite ourselves, we can get captured digitally when people create digital images or videos of others who are nearby us. You can get caught in someone else’s information shadow or digital identity facet. For example, you can see me in the background in this video interview with Marc Canter.

Altogether, this list of the attributes of digital identities paints a dramatically different picture of personal identity—which is affected by its new digital elements. We’ve gone far beyond the familiar forms of mediated identity people have used over the years—from the handles of citizen’s band radio enthusiasts to signature files (.sig), hacker aliases, and personal Internet domains. In just the last ten years, we’ve seen the rise of multiple new forms of faceted personal identity, including blogs, social network profiles, lifestreams, gamer tags, and gravatars. Clearly, the pace of change is accelerating. As we’ll see in Part II, the implications for our experience of identity in all the settings where it matters—personal, professional, and public, both now and in the future—are startling.

But before sharing these implications, I invite the design community to join the conversation. Here are some questions I’d like to discuss. Are these the most important things designers should consider? Does this collection overlook important attributes of digital identities? And beyond the fast-moving surfaces of new technologies, tools, and measurements, do the changes I’ve discussed indicate deeper shifts in how we, as people, think of and manage our identities? 

User Experience Lead at Endeca

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Joe LamantiaA veteran architect, consultant, and designer, Joe has been an active member and leader in the UX community since 1996. He has crafted innovative, successful user experience strategies and solutions for clients ranging from Fortune 100 enterprises to local non-profit organizations, digital product companies, and social media startups, in a wide variety of industries. Joe is the creator of EZSort, the leading, freely available tool for card sorting, as well as the Building Blocks for Portals design framework. He is also a frequent writer and speaker on topics including future directions in user experience; the intersection of business, culture, and design; and systems thinking. Joe is currently based in New York, working as a UX strategy consultant for the enterprise architecture group of a global IT services firm.  Read More

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