Posts about identity

One identity or more?

Given the discussion about Facebook enabling other sites to use its comment infrastructure — and what that means for identity and anonymity in discussion — I thought I’d share some of what I’m saying about the question of multiple identities in my book, .

* * *

One tactic to cope with the fear of exposure and overexposure is anonymity. Anonymity has its place. It protects the speech of Chinese dissidents, Iranian protestors, and corporate whistleblowers. It allows Wikileaks to expose secrets. It helps people share, for example, medical data and benefit others without having to reveal themselves. It lets people play with new identities. When the game company Blizzard Entertainment tried to bring real identity into the forums around its massive, multi-player games, including World of WarCraft, players revolted, and no wonder: Who wants everyone to know that in your other life, you see yourself as a level 80 back-stabbing night elf rogue who ganks lowbies at the Crossroads? Taking on identities—pseudonymity—is the fun of it.

But anonymity is often the cloak of cowards. Anonymous trolls—of the human race, not the WarCraft type—attack people online, lobbing snark at Julia Allison, spreading rumors and lies about public figures, sabotaging a politician’s Wikipedia page, or saying stupid stuff in the comments on my blog. I tell commenters there that I will respect what they have to say more if they have the guts to stand behind their own words with their own names, as I do.

Real identity has improved the tone and tenor of interaction online. That was Facebook’s key insight. Twitter’s, too. Tweeters want credit for their cleverness; they are rewarded with followers and retweets, their nanoseconds of microfame. Facebook is built on real relationships with real people in real life. “The whole thing was based on this foundation of reality,” Mark Zuckerberg says in an interview. “That doesn’t mean that every single thing is true. But on balance, I think it’s a lot more real than other things on the internet. In that way, I think, yes, it does create authenticity.”

Zuckerberg believes we have one authentic identity and says it is becoming “less and less true” that people will maintain separate identities. Emily Gould, admitted oversharer, agrees. Julia Allison, on the other hand, sides with those who say we should maintain many identities—one for work, another for school, another for home, another for friends. Those folks say we get in trouble online when these identities mix and blur, when our boss sees our picture from the college beer party (as if bosses never had beer). In a New York Times Magazine piece arguing that “the internet records everything and forgets nothing,” Jeffrey Rosen tells the story of a 25-year-old student-teacher who was deprived of her diploma after posting a MySpace photo of herself drinking over the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” On his blog, Scott Rosenberg counters that “the photo is harmless; the trouble lies with the people who have turned it into a problem.”

What needs to change is not so much our behavior, our rules, or our technology but, again, our norms: how we operate as a society and interact with each other. When presented with someone’s public face, which may differ from our own, is our response to disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and snipe, or is it to try to understand differences, offer empathy, overlook foolishness, offer freedom, and share in kind? When we do the former—and we all have—we are guilty of intolerance, sometimes bigotry. When we do the latter we become open-minded. I suggested in my last book that because we are all more public, we will soon operate under the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation: I’ll spare you making fun of your embarrassing pictures if you’ll do the same for me. “An age of transparency,” says author David Weinberger, “must be an age of forgiveness.”

There are two forces at work here: identity and reputation. Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict. As I was discussing these topics on my blog, Weinberger left a sage comment wondering about what he called the private-public axis:

Marilyn Monroe was a public figure but most of us are private citizens. That used to be pretty easy to compute and, because of the nature of the broadcast medium, it used to tend toward one extreme or another: He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. But there’s another private-public axis: who we really are and how we look to others. We have tended to believe, at least in the West, that our true self is the inner self. The outer, public self may or may not reflect our inner, private self, and we have an entire moral/normative vocabulary to talk about the relation of the two: sincerity, authenticity, integrity, honesty….

Those are the two identities we are trying to manage—not our work selves and our home selves, not our party selves and our serious selves, but our inner, real selves and our outer, show selves. When our inner and outer selves get into conflict and confusion, we look inauthentic and hypocritical. In all our spoken fears about privacy and publicness, I think this is the great unspoken fear: that we’re not who people think we are, and we’ll be found out.

These are new skills for everyone, celebrity and commoner alike. Marilyn Monroe never had to deal with blogs and Twitter, let alone 24-hour TV news. She had press agents to create and manage her identity and big, frightening security people to keep the scary strangers away. Today, stars and pols have to deal with being constantly exposed. When they are caught in a contradiction of words or deeds—not exactly a challenge—they suffer the gotcha. Then again, stars like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Howard Stern are grabbing the opportunity on Twitter to interact directly with their publics without scripts or PR people in-between. Reputation.com, which makes a business out of helping people whose online reputation is being harmed by others, suggests that the solution is not to hide but to publish more about yourself so that will rise in Google’s search about you. The way to improve your reputation is to share more of your identity.

The best solution is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk with your shrink. Better yet, blog about it.

Facebook’s identity opportunity – or somebody’s

Facebook has the chance to turn a problem — negative publicity about its latest privacy shifts and confusion about how to control them — into a business opportunity: It could become the protector of your identity instead of a threat to it. That’s a service we need.

Imagine if Facebook started a new and independent arm to take your side in any question about identity and privacy on Facebook — the ID equivalent of Google’s Data Liberation Front. This group’s job would be to simplify all the obfuscation that is confusing every Facebook user I know about how and where their data will be used and shared: create simple tools with simple rules and explanations and execute our wishes for us. That alone would help Facebook’s relationship with us today. If Facebook wants us to trust our identities to Facebook, then it better take that mission seriously.

Now imagine that Facebook does such a good job of that — turning its rumbling PR problem into a new asset — that we ask it to bring this service elsewhere on the web, helping us determine and decide what’s shared about me on the internet: what I share about me, what others share about me, what others can see of me, and how I can manage that.

I see a new identity dashboard over the web that lets me see how I’m seen and then adjust and publish as I choose — not just shutting down (which is what happens when people get overwhelmed with privacy control issues — even Leo Laporte is doing that) but also deciding what we want to make public (because I argue there is value in publicness).

Mind you, I am not publishing all the things that add up to me through Facebook, nor will I ever. I publish my identity every day all over the web; that is what Facebook should help me manage. Identity is distributed. So, as I argued here, I should control this on my own but I need help managing it. Current tools — ClaimID and such — are as difficult to use as Facebook’s privacy control and are ineffective.

There’s also a service waiting to happen to verify identity. Twitter does that for celebs; why not for all of us?

Facebook could do all this. Because it already has the tightest link to our identities online, it should do this. I’d argue it should do this to turn its relationship with us and our identities on its axis: rather than being accused of exploiting our identities, it should regain our trust — and value — by becoming our best protector, our ID agent.

Google could also do that. This might be a way for it to leapfrog Facebook in the identity and social front: help us organize not the world’s information but our information. The Google profile page becomes not something that lives on Google but something Google enables us to manage.

Even the Post Office could do this. Way back when, it proposed becoming an identity verification service. I know from my little bit of work with folks in the area that the USPS is certainly looking for new ways to bring value (read: new reasons to exist).

Startups could do this. As I tell my entrepreneurial students, whenever you see a problem, look for the opportunity in it. In all the yammering and schwitzing about Facebook and privacy and identity, it’s easy to see a big need and opportunity. Facebook should see it; others can, too.

Bizarro identity

I’m still trying to get my head around Facebook’s moves to become the king of identity online. Hell, if Leo Laporte couldn’t quite figure it out on yesterday’s taping of This Week in Google, then I’m not capable. But here’s where I am. Help me advance this….

I think my problem is this: I want the exact opposite of what Facebook did. I want the Bizarro Facebook. Instead of Facebook controlling my identity, I want to be able to control and publish and set access to and rules for the use of my identity online, allowing Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, anyone access to it under my terms.

When I tweeted that, ad man Rishad Tobaccowala tweeted: “you are right. What we want closed (our data) they want open. What we want open (create and transfer) they want closed.” He then added: “When it is so easy to “like” is it really like? A profusion of “liking” will soon be like… Noise.” Agree.

My identity already exists online. It is my name, my email address(s), my URL(s) (for my blog, work, etc.), my Twitter account, my Flickr, my YouTube, my reputation culled from various services, and more. It is distributed. I have control over most of that.

What’s needed versus the present? Three things, I think:
* Organization. As Google organized our information, the war here is to organize us.
* Verification. No one, I hope, wants to verify as passports do. But Facebook has a leg ahead of everyone else on nearly verified identity simply because of how its service works: fake identities tend to be ejected from the bloodstream because they are irrelevant and irritating; Facebook is about real identities and real relationships and the one feeds the other.
* Connections. That, I think, is what Mark Zuckerberg means when he talks about making things social, about the social graph. He wants to link us to each other and information and that enhances our identities (what do I like and do and think….).

Fine. But I don’t think Facebook approached that opportunity asking first, “What can we do for the world of users online,” and second, “How can Facebook benefit?” If Facebook adds value, I have no objection to it benefiting, just as I believe Google should benefit by organizing our information and creating platforms; it’s what makes that benefit sustainable. But Facebook clearly asked the questions in the wrong order: It figured out what would benefit it most and then we get a few dividends: we get to tell our friends what we like and find out what our friends like.

But in the process, Facebook controls our identities with no relationship to our true identities online — that list above from email addresses to blogs to photos. Indeed, I’d argue that Facebook separates us from our true identities, for that is in Facebook’s favor; it gives Facebook control.

Far better and more experienced minds than mine are trying to get their heads around this. Dave Winer likes the idea of liking but also won’t put all his eggs into Zuck’s basket and so he suggests:

So perhaps there’s a compromise? Let me implement my own Like feature and have it connect up to Facebook through a feed. And let it connect up to Facebook’s competitors just as easily. I’m sure the smart guys at Facebook could figure out how to do this, perhaps they already have? I’m willing to do a little extra work to keep the web independent of any one company.

Right. Don’t all the identity standards and structures already exist openly. This is what irked Kevin Marks, who has done a great deal of work on identity, much of it while he was at Google. When he complained about this false openness last night, I said and he retweeted, “Open Graph is open as in ‘open your underwear drawer.’”

But as Swom_Network tweeted as I was tweeting about all this today, “Yep. but who is to do it?”

That’s really the question. Openness and standards are wonderful but if they don’t add up to applications that accomplish things, then we only open the door for companies to step in and seize the opportunity. Perhaps that’s inevitable. And I can live with that.

But we, the people, aren’t going to build these new applications and systems then we at least need to hold those who do to a set of principles, which means we need to have a set of principles to point to (and I’ll point to mine again).

Facebook’s Open Graph, I think, does not give us full control over our data and identities; it is not built to open standards; if it were, I’d be able to do what I want to do because others could build competing applications atop those standards. Then I’d be able to publish my identity on my own or through Facebook or through Acme ID Inc. and anyone could come along and verify my identity and publish that and developers would be able to come along and offer services based on that identity. But that works only if it is built to standards and principles, if it’s distributed and open. Open Graph is not.

As Dave Winer also says in his post, this is about more than identifying us. This structure leads to identifying places, sites, data, information. We will add a tremendously valuable layer of data atop the world — what we look at, what we like, what our friends like…. That is the wisdom of the crowd. Who owns that wisdom? No one but us. If you add value to it, you can extract that value (that’s what search engines do). But if you own the crowd’s wisdom then isn’t the crowd screwed?

Or that’s what I think I think. What do you think?

: MOMENTS LATER: As soon as I tweeted this, I saw that Rick Klau, a good guy at Google, is the new PM on Google Profiles and he suggested talking about it. I’ll think out loud first:

Google could build the open system I hope for … could. It has profile. It has the stuff around ID Kevin Marks showed me when I visited the company. It has lots of knowledge about our distributed identities.

What it doesn’t have is that close link to an almost verified identity. Sure, I can go and build a Google Profile page. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t really interact with the world the way my Facebook page does, so it lacks the opportunities for verification through relationships, right?

What could Google do about that? It could create a value-added service to verify identities (as Twitter has begun to do with the famous) but we’d find value in that only if others used it to some good end: if we could use it to publish comments on sites or make transactions. Is that enough?

Maybe Google can create the algorithmic authority (and identity) Clay Shirky dreams of: rather than verifying manually, it gives our identities a score and that increases our value in other transactions.

I still don’t know what to think.

The ethic of identity

My ethic of identity is simple and clear: I stand by my words here and elsewhere with my name. I tell commenters that I will give them credence if they do likewise.

Elsewhere, online and in journalism, the ethic of identity is less clear today. Take as illustration the case of this post involving Politico and a bit of sockpuppetry from an employee of the newspaper in the comments.

The shortest possible synopsis: Politico’s Michael Calderone criticized Off the Bus’ Mayhill Fowler for criticizing Todd Purdum’s “hatchet job” on Bill Clinton — her words — and for misrepresenting herself — his word — when she questioned and recorded Clinton … and I, in turn, criticized Calderone parenthetically using this as an illustration of the clubbiness of the press. Calderone emailed me twice and then called me in short order to complain about my complaint and about the context (a discussion of race in newsrooms). We disagreed.

I arrived home and found a comment on my post that echoed his opinions closely under the name Mary. I looked up the IP and found it came from a Politico-related company. I responded to Mary and noted the source — and the irony that this appeared to be a person at Politico misrepresenting herself. Calderone emailed me saying he did not write the comment — which I hadn’t said — but acknowledged that a colleague did. He then left a comment on my post — which is how I would have preferred this discussion to have happened, in public. I looked at the IP address and it was identical to Mary’s. So I then asked him point-blank whether he wrote Mary’s comment. He said he did not and I take him at his word. I suppose the IP is the company’s firewall.

So I wrote to Politico’s editor, John Harris, asking his policy and views for this post. (Here is the complete email exchange.) On reporters’ identity, Harris said: “At Politico I expect reporters to identify themselves clearly as journalists when asking questions of public officials or average citizens alike. If there were exceptions to this, I would want as editor to be closely consulted about the reasons.”

But then I was rather shocked at what he said about hidden identity in comments — sockpuppetry: “My preference is that if Politico staff are going to engage in debates about journalism they do so with name attached. But the case of leaving comments on a blog or submitting a question to an on-line chat strikes me as not exactly involving sacred principles. When I was at the Post I would frequently send in questions under various to colleagues for their on-line chats, just to be mischievous. These days with a new publication I’m too busy for that nonsense. In any event, have you never done something similar?”

No, I have not. I am surprised that Harris would treat this as a prank even as he acknowledged that “Mary” not only did not reveal her Politico affiliation or reveal a last name but also gave a false first name. This is how you want your employees to act in a news organization? I would think that news organizations would be particularly sensitive to this after the cases of Lee Siegal of the New Republic and Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times.

I especially find it odd that Politico is not living up to the standard to which Calderone holds Mayhill Fowler. Why the slack? Well, after all, it’s only a blog and only a comment, eh? Said Harris: “I don’t get the fuss about the identity of the blog commenter.”

So what of Mayhill Fowler? I agree with Off the Bus cofounder (and friend) Jay Rosen that ideally, she would have revealed her affiliation to Clinton. But in a good profile of her in the LA Times, she makes it clear that her recorder was in the open. And I repeat my contention in my debate with the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky that this idea of playing by journalism’s rules becomes almost moot when journalism can done by any witness with a tape recorder and a blog. Says the Guardian’s Neil McIntosh:

I’m not sure how traditional journalistic rules of engagement (off the record, on the record, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) can be enforced when everyone has a camcorder in their pocket, and an easy way to reach millions via WordPress and some Googlejuice. In the reporting of public, or semi-public, or even private events where there are more than a few present, the only battle left is over who does the story best, and gets it up first.

This is about a few things: publicness., professionalism, and identity.

The acts of public figures in public places and even our lives there are now more public than ever. In an age that values transparency, I think that’s a good thing.

I understand the wistfulness for a set of professional rules carried out by a finite set of professionals. It seemed so in-control then. But I also think it is a very good thing that journalism and the sunshine it brings are opened wide. And my point to Calderone (and to Tomasky) was that we need to beware using these rules as a means to limit journalism to a closed club.

So now back to identity. This is more than an issue of professionalism (though I do think Politico and other news organizations should hold to a standard of open and persistent identity in their sets of rules). I think open and honest identity is an ethic for everyone online or off. Standing by your words and thoughts is a matter of etiquette and honor and respect for those with whom you are speaking. I believe that true identity is the secret to Facebook’s success. I see a layer of identity on the internet that will have higher value than the that without identity or with false identity.

If you want to disagree with what I say, great. But at least have the balls I do and say it under your own name.

: LATER: It gets worse. I got email from the person calling herself “Mary.” She misses the point by a mile. I won’t quote her by name; I leave it to her to have the guts to add her name to this discussion. She asked me not to post her email. I said sorry, but she works in public. I have to quote some of what she said:

My conduct seems standard practice. My stories frequently get hundreds scathing comments and spark harsh e-mails from readers that don’t identify themselves or where they work. If I’m interested in engaging further or curious whether they work for a particular campaign, I write them. . . .

This was the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog and I ended up embarrassed at work as a result, which leaves me questioning whether it’s worth it to join in on the great democratization of media.

Now that I realize anything I say can be escalated to my boss — without any obligation to contact me first — I think I’ll be staying off the Interwebs for a while.

Some of my response:

You miss the point by a mile.

This is a matter of honesty, integrity, and ethics.

You lied. You did not disclose your identity and affiliation. You even made up your name.

Should journalists lie? Ever?

Standard practice? God forbid. . . .

You say that you shouldn’t interact on the internet. That is precisely the wrong lesson to take from this. You should interact with your public but you should do so in a transparent and honest manner. . . .

I said more. I’ll spare you and her. Mind you, this is not a discussion with an unwashed blogger. This is a discussion with a journalist at a journalistic organization with a journalism degree. I find that shocking.

Truth is not a hard lesson to teach, is it?

: LATER STILL: Jacques Steinberg picks up on the Fowler story in tomorrow’s Times. There w have Jonathan Alter taking the clubby position and Jane Hamsher firing a grenade launcher through it:

“This makes it very difficult for the rest of us to do our jobs,” Jonathan Alter, a columnist and political reporter for Newsweek, said in an interview. “If you don’t have trust, you don’t get good stories. If someone comes along and uses deception to shatter that trust, she has hurt the very cause of a free flow of public information that she claims she wants to assist.”

“You identify yourself when you’re interviewing somebody,” Mr. Alter added. “It’s just a form of cheating not to.”

But to Jane Hamsher, a onetime Hollywood producer who founded Firedoglake, a politics-oriented Web site that tilts left, Mr. Alter’s rules of the road are in need of repaving. For starters, she said, the onus was on Mr. Clinton to establish who Ms. Fowler was before deciding to speak as he did. That he failed to quiz her at all, Ms. Hamsher said, was Mr. Clinton’s problem, not Ms. Fowler’s. As a result, Ms. Hamsher said, the public got to experience the unplugged musings of a former president (and candidate’s spouse) in a way that might never have been captured on tape by an old boy on the bus like Mr. Alter.

“It’s hurting America that journalists consider their first loyalty to be to their subjects, and not to the people they’re reporting for,” she said. Told, for example, that the Times ethics policy states that “staff members should disclose their identity to people they cover (whether face to face or otherwise),” Ms. Hamsher was dismissive. In the context of political reporting, she said, such guidelines are intended to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.”

“That,” she added, “is not the world we’re living in anymore.”

Davos07: On identity

One of the thin threads I saw cutting through much of my Davos experience was the notion of identity:

* We are what we make. Our YouTubed videos, Technoratied blogs, Flickred photos, Facebooked pages, Amazonned reviews, and iPodded podcasts and playlists altogether are an expression of us. There was a lot of hubbub at Davos about avatars: interviews with the players in Second Life (I wonder how many saw those sessions vs. read blog posts about the proceedings vs. read news accounts… vs. didn’t care). I remain skeptical about Second Life. I don’t need an avatar. What I put on the internet is my avatar. Our creations express us.

* Caterina Fake of Flickr gave the media people an elegant explanation of the value of “publicness” (they like to make up words at Flickr; see “interestingness“). She said that was what separated Flickr from his predecessors: the realization that people want to make what they make public; it is an expression of their identity.

* Often, creation is its own reward. At Davos, Chad Hurley revealed that the service will share revenue with producers. But he said he started YouTube without remuneration (and I suspect he couldn’t afford it on top of the bandwidth bill) because he didn’t want people running off to the next highest bidder. He wanted to give people a voice and build a place where they would share. Creation creates community.

* Anonymity is a virtue that can enable freer conversation, especially in repressive environments. But anonymity also cloaks the bad guys who spam and bot our internet or troll our blogs.

* Privacy is a concern. Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner of Information Society and Media, kept raising fears for the privacy of the individual online. And yes, there are concerns. But what the parental types don’t realize is that standards of privacy are changing rapidly: Privacy matters less to the children of the internet because you have to give up something of yourself to make connections with other people. You have to have an identity on the internet to find friends.

* Transparency is identity, too. You have to give up something of yourself for people to trust you. Journalists are having a terribly hard time understanding that; they keep thinking they should be trusted because of who they are (or whom they work for). But we don’t really know who they are.

* Every mogul wants a social network like Rupert’s; media people kept begging for clues about how to build social webs about and around their stuff. One of the young moguls at Davos said that media properties are not meant to be social networks. I’ll disagree somewhat: The sad thing is that old media don’t realize that if they had just opened up years ago, they’d have seen that they already had social networks. I tell magazine people that they have communities gathering around the good stuff they create or find that we all like; newspapers have local communities. But because they were closed castles that kept their communities outside, they didn’t realize this. And so the people outside have gone to build their own social structures — which they clearly always wanted — now that they can. Too late for the big, old guys? Maybe.

* All this opens up lots of opportunities in technology. I said to a couple of my fellow participants at Davos — a media mogul, an internet entrepreneur — and I will say it in another post here that I think the real opportunity is not to start a social network but to better enable the social network that the internet already is, to pull together our distributed identities and help us manage them and make the connections we want to make. That comes through the expression of our identities. We express that both with our content and our connections: We are the company we keep.

You link, therefore you are

The Observer writes about some of the digital identity speculation going on leading up to this week’s WWW conference in the UK:

The babies of the future, for example, will have a web address instead of a National Insurance Number. Hall said: ‘I have a vision that in the future when a baby is born you’ll get some sort of internet ID that is effectively your digital persona, and it will grow with you. It will actually represent you in some way – what you know, what you’ve done, your experiences. I guess you’d call it your URI [Uniform Resource Identity]. This is the thing that always identifies you. Every time you do something on the internet, it is effectively logged, building up this profile that is with you for your life. Then you have your life’s record, which can include any legal documents or photographs or videos that you might have, that you can pass on to your children. We will be able to build software that can interpret that profile to help get the answer that you need in the context that you’re in.’ …

Hall likened the moral dilemmas posed by the collection and use of personal data to those thrown up by human embryo research, and called for the government to establish a regulatory body. ‘There are very deep ethical issues with this. I think we need not government itself but a well trusted, respected committee that will have oversight of the moral and ethical issues involved here. The UK has done very well out of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, where we have a very good way of deciding ethically whether we should do stem cell research, for example.

‘Like an embryo is potentially a human life, your digital profile is actually you. You’re dealing with people’s health, emotional and educational records, and I think it’s too important to just say, well, the businesses will take care of that.’