Danger Men Working OverheadIt has been a great week, I have done lots of things and met lots of people. However, I haven’t blogged, and I feel the poorer for it. Writing is gradually becoming a part of my identity. This post is with thanks to Ann Michael of Manage to Change and Liz Strauss of Successful Blog, who started the chain of thought when I had the pleasure of meeting them. It also relates to a couple of posts on Ann’s blog. By the way, Ann and Liz are two excellent people that I highly recommend spending time with. So, from writing to identity… Technologist or not, it is a critical issue today. It is a fascinating topic too.

Depending on your background, you might understand identity in the sense of personal identity, or in computer security or perhaps even corporate identity. What is your identity? Why is it so important?

From an IT perspective, identity is critical in making sure that the right people have access to the right information, protecting the user and the information. From a personal productivity perspective, understanding our identity helps us work with our nature, rather than against it.

The Start of Identity

When I began using computer systems, shortly after the dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had a ‘login’ and password. It was a curious set of letters and digits, dished out by some guy in a lab coat with a particularly bad haircut. It didn’t tell the computer much about me, but it kept the riff-raff out of the system and my data reasonably private. My first encounter with identity was when I started working in the security arena. There was a need for a more meaningful view of ‘who’ a user was. Identity captured additional information, such as the user’s role and their membership of various ‘groups’. This meant the system might know that the user was an administrator in the marketing department. Adding properties made life as an IT manager simpler, because the computer or the firewall had a better concept of who that user was. The users could be managed in groups, rather than as individuals.

As the Internet blossomed and more on-line services emerged, I ended up with multiple identities. Today the number of identities I manage has exploded. Thankfully things have started to converge on the email address as an identifier, although I have even built up a large collection of those. OpenID is an initiative that will simplify the management of identity on-line by pulling all of these identities together (see the article on Lifehacker here for an example). That may or may not be a good thing. If you want to understand where on-line identity is going, do check out the presentation “Identity 2.0” from OSCON2005, and also get an example of Dick Hardt using the Larry Lessig presentation method as a bonus.

Understanding Our Identity In The Real World

If you think identity is a complex issue in the computer world, just wait until you think about it in the real world of flesh. and blood If I put my psychology hat on, I get a completely different view of what identity means. Psychologists have been researching the human identity for over a hundred years, although there still isn’t a unified theory to understand it. One psychologist, Manford Kuhn, created the twenty statements test as a simple way to capturing a snapshot of our identity. Try it for yourself and see what you learn: Open up a text editor or grab a piece of paper and a pen and give yourself twelve minutes to write down answers the following question: “who are you?”, use statements starting “I am…”, you don’t need to write more than 20. That is, if you get that far in the twelve minutes. Give it a try now.

Look back at your answers and see if you can group any of them together or sort them. What do they tell you about yourself? Does it reveal what is important to you? You can use this information to inform your personal goals and to help yourself be more motivated, by connecting with who you are. Even in the real world, we have multiple identities. This is an interesting discussion tool in the business context for teams: “who are we?”, “we are…”

The psychologist Erik Erikson put forward the theory that we create our identity as we resolve various crises at different stages of life. This is the origin of the term ‘mid-life crisis‘. Well, I always wondered what that was all about. Whilst our core identity that remains fairly constant, our identity does evolve as we grow up and grow old. One of the big shaping factors is the social groups we relate to. By the way, that the twenty statements test only tells us what we bring to mind at a single moment in time. We are much more complex than that. You might write something completely different a few minutes later.

You Are Who You Are, Or Are You?

Our identity is a totally unique thing, computer IDs rely on that, but it is also true in the physical world. I can find a dozen Benjamin Ellis’ using Google. We might have DNA that is 99% identical, but we are still totally different. Actually, another 1% difference and one of us could be a chimpanzee. How unique are we? Even if you are a twin, you have a unique finger print and a unique set of experiences and values. To date computers have only just got as far as understanding fingerprints, increasingly used in computer security.

A new generation of web applications, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo are changing this. They are enabling computers to add social information to their concept of identity. They map out our relationships or “connections”. This is sometimes referred to as social graphing, an exciting new technology with lots of possibilities. These new services aren’t a passive thing, because they feedback into those relationships and affect our identity, by changing our relationships.

Early services, such as Friends Reunited, create ‘long tail’ relationships (thanks to Jon Bains and Fred Bassett for the conversation at a recent Chinwag Live event). They have enabled us to resurrect old friendships by reconnecting us. In the case of Friends Reunited, it was friendships from school days. With services like Facebook and Linkedin, it is via friends of friends, as the social graph grows.

The services also make it easier to sustain a greater number of relationships, by narrow-casting our lives to each other, and supporting an ‘outer ring’ of friendships that would not otherwise be sustainable, using traditional communication methods. They affect the inner ring of relationships too, by increasing the volume and reach of our daily ‘chatter’; we know more of what is happening in our friends’ lives, enabling us to communicate within more of a common context.

The Social Media Social Experiment

We are all unwitting participants in a grand experiment that will profoundly affect identity in the next decade. Who we are connected with affects who we are, because it affects what we know and how we view ourselves. Change your friends, and you change who you compare yourself to.

With the advent of social media, a new set of social norms are forming. As a blogger, I am watching with interest as this new medium and its norms evolves. Ann Michael’s recent post, connections and respect raises an interesting point. Bloggers blog about each other, but they don’t blog about business associates. For people who straddle both worlds this can be a fine line. Recently I had a discussion with Sarah Blow on this, but I’m still not sure how it will all map out. I’ll have to ask Mike of Techcrunch UK next time I see him, as he runs around with his 3G connection. If my business is blogging, or I am blogging for my business, what goes and what doesn’t? What is ‘private’ and what is ‘public’. It isn’t just blogging. Another of Ann’s posts raised some of the workplace challenges of Facebook: “your boss on facebook“. Who to connect with and what to share with them on social networking sites? Facebook has some granularity with its “view limited profile” feature, but this is hardly matches the complexity of our real-world relationships. This just the tip of an iceberg. The boundary between what is private and public is increasingly fuzzy in the new world of social media and Internet search engines. Recently, the mystery of where a man that had been missing for five years had been was solved. Someone found a picture of him with his wife on the Internet: Google solves the missing man mystery.

New Rules for New Media

There is a whole new set of social rules to evolve in this complex world. If I post a comment to a friends wall on Facebook, all their friends see it, but some of them aren’t my friends, they might be people I’ve never even met. Communication is becoming increasingly asymmetric and unbalanced in nature with social media. What parts of your identity are personal, and what are ‘public’? It isn’t binary, we have different ‘roles’ and ‘groups’ to our real identity, different pieces of information that we share with different people. If there is a feint line between the persona you have at work and the one you have for your friends, it will blur – just look at Facebook’s beacon. How do you feel about your Facebook friends all knowing what you have been buying? For those that don’t blog or do facebook, you aren’t immune. Digital information is leaky (just ask HMRC, who write a rather sad letter to me about loosing my personal data). It can be copied, pasted, forwarded and it doesn’t decay. There are comments on-line that I made in email conversations two decades ago, that is another form of long-tail. We all leave digital artefacts behind us on a daily basis.

One thing is for sure, we are heading for a time of increased and extended transparency, regardless of wanting it or not. Computers and other people may end up with a better sense of what our identity is than we have ourselves: “you are a blogger, you are a fan of Snow Patrol, you are a purchaser of violent games, you are friends with…”. There is a positive side to all of this. Through social graphing, we can more easily discover new friends, reconnect with old ones and keep in touch with new ones. We can gain a greater sense of our identity and be part of a community. Without blogging, I wouldn’t have met any of the people mentioned in this post.