Identity is more than a name

From the point of view of a binary mindset, identity is a pretty simple thing. You, an object = [unique identifier]. You as an object represented in a database should be known by that identifier and none other, or else the data is a mess.

The problem is, people are a mess. A glorious mess. And identity is not a binary thing. It’s much more fluid, variegated and organic than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves.

Lately there’s been some controversy over policies at Facebook and the newly ascendant Google + that demand people use their “real” names. Both companies have gone so far as to actually pull the plug on people who they suspect of not following those guidelines.

But this is actually a pretty wrong-headed thing to do. Not only does the marketplace of ideas have a long, grand tradition of the use of pseudonyms (see my post here from a couple years ago), but people have complex, multifaceted lives that often require they not put their “public identification attribute” (i.e. their ‘real name’) out there on every expression of themselves online.

There are a lot of stories emerging, such as this one about gender-diverse people who feel at risk having to expose their real names, that are showing us the canaries in the proverbial coal mine — the ones first affected by these policies — dropping off in droves.

But millions of others will feel the same pressures in more subtle ways too. Danah Boyd has done excellent work on this subject, and her recent post explains the problem as well as anyone, calling the policies essentially an “abuse of power.”

I’m sure it comes across as abusive, but I do think it’s mostly unwitting. I think it’s a symptom of an engineering mindset (object has name, and that name should be used for object) and a naive belief in transparency as an unalloyed “good.” But on an internet where your name can be searched and found in *any* context in which you have ever expressed yourself, what about those conversations you want to be able to have without everyone knowing? What about the parts of yourself you want to be able to explore and discover using other facets of your personality? (Sherry Turkle’s early work is great on this subject.)

I can’t help but think a Humanities & Social Sciences influence is so very lacking among the code-focused, engineering-cultured wizards behind these massive information environments. There’s a great article by Paul Adams, formerly of Google (and Google +), discussing the social psychology angle and how it influenced “Circles,” how FaceBook got it somewhat wrong with “Groups,” and why he ended up at Facebook anyway. But voices like his seem to be in the minority among those who are actually making this stuff.

Seeing people as complex coalescences of stories, histories, desires, relationships and behaviors means giving up on a nice, clean entity-relationship-diagram-friendly way of seeing the world. It means having to work harder on the soft, fuzzy complicated stuff between people than the buckets you want people to put themselves in. We’re a long way from a healthy, shared understanding of how to make these environments human enough.

UPDATE:
I realize now that I neglected to mention the prevailing theory of why platforms are requiring real names: marketing purposes. That could very well be. But that, too, is just another cultural force in play. And I think there’s a valid topic to be addressed regarding the binary-minded approach to handling things like personal identity.

There’s an excellent post on the subject at The Atlantic. It highlights a site called My Name is Me, which describes itself as “Supporting your freedom to choose the name you use on social networks and other online services.”

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  • http://www.r4isstatic.com Paul Rissen

    Good post – I particularly agree with the call for more humanities-schooled people to engage with the development of digital services. I’m not sure I agree with the point that an ‘entity-relationship-diagram-friendly way’ is incompatible with the complex nature of personality & history, but that’s my blind optimism, probably ;-)

  • http://jamesmelzer.com James Melzer

    The careful self-segmentation of an individual’s identity should be tremendously helpful to marketers. The social networks are closing the door on a huge opportunity. If a person takes the time to create a separate Facebook account for their knitting club identity, they’ve narrowed the focus considerably. Furthermore, that person has increased the relevance of all their relationships, their user-generated content, and their other behavior. That identity is all signal, no noise from a marketing perspective.

    The single identity, on the other hand, is a confused mess. Look how much effort Amazon puts into sorting us out, as people. Was this a gift? Okay, then Amazon won’t factor into your recommendations. But who was it for? Okay, Amazon will update your view of their wishlist to take that into account. Complexity!