Big Ben and the Moon - by Benjamin EllisI was wandering the streets of London this week, in a productive way of course, when I saw a familiar face. I nodded and he nodded back. “Are you who I think you are?” I said. “Well, that very much depends on who you think I am, doesn’t it?” he said.

As it turns out, he was the one and only Boris Johnson. As we chatted, walking together towards city hall, I have to say I was impressed. If I had a vote, I might even vote Boris for London Mayor. It must be draining having people saying, “Are you who I think you are?” all day, sorry Boris!

We are all increasingly public figures these days, with the proliferation of social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, …), messaging (like twitter), and blogging. All of these systems create new challenges, as aspects of our identity are increasingly digitised and stored.

We aren’t that clean and distinct individuals. I’m not talking about our personal hygiene, but about us as social objects. In the words of Paul Simon, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” In the case of digital identities, one man’s sealing is another man’s flaw:

Take Robert Scoble and Facebook. Scoble used a script from Plaxo to read information from Facebook, syncing his (very large) social graph from one to the another. However, Facebook like to seal data into their systems. For Scoble this was a flaw. You can read more in the article “Facebook bans Scoble…” by the ever present Mike Butcher of Tech Crunch UK. There is also more detail on the Plaxo script in wired.: “Scoble’s Slap…” .

One of the issued this stirred up is exactly who’s data is it on Facebook anyway? And what rights do different people have over it?

  • Is it yours? It is your social graph after all, which is part of your digital identity.
  • Is it Facebook’s? They created the platform that crystallised and stored the data – see the Facebook terms and conditions.
  • Does it belong to your friends? You are part of their social graph and identity too.

The philosophical answer is probably a resounding ‘yes’ to all three, but that doesn’t help in the real world. The portability of social data is going to be a serious issue for a while, both for businesses and for users. Social tools have some great productivity benefits, but they are raising many new challenges.

There is a reasonable desire to easily move data from one silo to another. This is being championed by the open data movement. They are driving ways to make identity data more portable, but this forces the question of data ownership. If you want to follow more on this, I recommend Jeremy Keith’s blog, starting here. The standards and technology exist to do this (APML, OPML, RDF, microformats, openID, …). It is a question of them being used. Why have a different login and profile for every supplier and system that I use? Why have to re-import all of my contacts and connections. The business world faces the same challenges of cross business identity, and also stands to benefit – one person’s CRM is another’s VRM as they say.