Virtual identity - which one do I choose?
Often when I blog I want to refer to something or someone. When it's a something, then in the world of the web, there is a beautiful thing called a Uniform Resource Identifier or URI for short. Sometimes URIs are also known as Uniform Resource Locators or URLs. These are the hypertext links we see in our web browser. The URI for my weblog is http://www.synop.com/Weblogs/Peter/ for example. These things all exist in a virtual world, and thus are identifiable.
When it's a someone, the answer is not so clear.
Why is this important? When working with computers, it's very important for them to understand the notion of identity. To answer the question, is A identical to B, the computer needs to know the identity of A, and the identity of B. Vice versa, it's at least equally important (often more so) to know when A is not identical to B. Of course, in computing, A may be equivalent to B in some circumstances, but equivalence is not the same as being identical.
As people, we have the same needs. We like to know who we are talking to. It really does matter that I'm talking to my best friend, and not my best friend's friend. We have highly evolved senses that learn to discriminate between individuals, so that we can recognise people that are important to us from fragmentary bits of identification - the tone of their voice, the sound of their footsteps, or the curl of their hair on the back of the neck. We can make this identification in fractions of a second, from considerable distance, and with lots of other distracting information surrounding them.
So when I wish to refer to someone, and provide a hyperlinked virtual "identity" what do I use? I can choose from among the following options:
- email address (bad, don't like spam, but most people online have one - and there again, which email address do I use if they have several?)
- home page URI of their website (if they have one)
- public key block (but only the geeks would know what this is, or have one available for use, and a string of hash digits seems wrong)
- mobile/cell phone number (if they have one, or I know it, or they're happy to use this publicly; this one seems odd, but with the growing convergence through VOIP of the notions of being "online" and "having a personal telephone", this may not be so bad)
- instant messaging nym (but which one, if they have 3 or 4 like many people do?)
- blog URI (but what if they have multiple blogs - a work one, a personal one?)
Of course, organisations such as Microsoft (with Passport) or the Liberty Alliance Project, are working to provide a notion of digital identity. But these are not readily available, or (in the case of Microsoft's Passport) are tied to an email address.
The proliferation of different virtual identities arises from the proliferation of different modes in which we insert our physical presence into a virtual medium. Nearly all of these are focused on communication:
- email address - asynchronous (mostly) text messages
- home page - one-to-many (typically infrequent) multimedia publication
- public key block - security wrapper over asynchronous communications
- mobile/cell phone number - immediate live (voice) communication
- IM nym - immediate (synchronous) text messages plus "online" presence information
- Skype nym - immediate live (voice + text) communication plus "online" presence information with privacy modes
- blog URI - one-to-many (typically frequent) (mostly) text (but increasingly photos and audio) publication
None of these are perfect, but this may be because the (communication) context in which we are operating differs at times. [An interesting question from a semantic point of view, are these identities the same?]
At the moment, my preference is the person's blog URI. The reason is that it's a good recent snapshot of their public information, it's a conversation between themselves and the world (at least implicitly), and they get to publish what other virtual identities for communication you can share in. Sometimes (as happened recently to Russell Beattie) your virtual identity may even help you get a new job.
So by presenting this as their virtual "identity", I get the best compromise. Particularly in that if you're reading my blog, you're in the right communication context to see someone else identified by what they write publicly on their blog.
As the conversations become deeper, and trust grows, the people concerned may let out more of their virtual identities to each other. The key is in letting them manage the disclosure level, as Jon Udell writes. Ultimately, they may even meet! (Which can be disconcerting as Dave Pollard found.) Of course, other people (like Robert Scoble) are inherently trusting, and share their virtual identities with everyone anyway. Call me paranoid, but I'm not quite ready to do that just yet! Maybe next year ...