Faceted vs. Centralized Identity

One of the interesting effects of the internet has always been the lack of a direct connection between online identity and real world identity.  While Pen Names have been a fact of life since the dawn of modern literature, something did change when we went from addressing someone as “Sean, yeh I know him” to “sdague on freenode, yeh I know him”.

Back when I first registered dague.net, I did so with a very specific rationale.  I’m a fan of centralized identity.  If you follow the web links on my homepage you’ll be able to find out all the relevant identity bits about me, my employer (IBM), my marital status (married), projects I’ve worked on in the past.  Consolidating all that information around dague.net made that my central identity.  Using sean at dague dot net as my email address, and putting http://dague.net in my signature meant that all my various internet posts could easily be tracked back to me.  My online identity is a whole, made up of all the things I’ve put out there over the years.

But while this is my take on identity, it isn’t the only one.  Other people are much more interested in distributed identity, or faceted identity.  When AOL first started giving out real email addresses to people, they started with giving out up to 5 email addresses per account.  The assumption was that a family of 4 would take advantage of this, but that it wouldn’t be interesting to most people.  This assumption turned out to be fatally flawed.  Their biggest uptake on accounts was by individual account holders, who would create 5 discrete faceted identities to interact with different online communities.  They wanted the freedom to act as they would in each of those communities, with no connection back to their real life identity.

The test case for each of these is the “Resume via Google Test”:

Assume you are in an interview with an employer in the future, and they’ve got a ready index of every bit of your information that has reached the public internet that can be corolated back to you.  Does this help or hurt your chances in getting the job?

This test could be applied to any arena actually, be it jobs, dating, politics, etc.  Everything you’ve ever said on the internet will be there for ever.

If we take each approach to its extreme you find the following:

  • Centralized: content is created on the internet to enhance the reputation of the creator.  If someone can’t track your content back to you, you can’t capitalize on the fact that that content was good, which may lead to: jobs, dating, etc.
  • Faceted: the internet is a brutal place.  People like to take things out of context and will persecute you for being different.  It’s better participate in seperate communities with a fresh reputation per community, as context within that community is much easier to understand.

Where are you on the Identity Spectrum?

Recently I’ve been asking this question to a lot of my colleagues, gotten some funny white board diagrams, and found some interesting results.  In the small sample set that I’ve got so far, I’ve found that while there is a generational element to faceted vs. centralized identity (them kids are quite a bit more into faceted identity), it doesn’t look like it is the overwhelming factor.  Most of the people that still have strongly faceted identity also found As a kid, did you have a single large group of friends, or very specific friends that you did specific things with.

These are some early thoughts on the subject, with no real conclusions at this point.  I do think this would make for a quite interesting area of real study (instead of anecdotal interest), but that is definitely not my field. 🙂  I’d love to get comments from people about where they feel they live in the Identity spectrum, or even that I’m off my rocker for characterizing it like this.

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