Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

There was a thoughtspurt the other day among several components of my distributed non-me thoughtspace – Fred and Warren Ellis commenting on a Techcrunch post, the Real Paul Jones commenting on Fred’s post and offering his own thoughts – and all of it together, and substantial other peer pressure, convinced me to join Twitter. And start thinking about it.

What I think is this – Fred frames Twitter as a social network service, and I think that’s right, with a particular emphasis on the service: it’s a plugin of sorts for digital identity. But where Fred says, “By locating the network around the profile, we were really locating it around “communication”. In Twitter, the “profile” is our communication, an always-on, interactive wall.” I’m not sure I agree entirely. I think Twitter is, if not exactly a digital ramora, then at least mostly dependent on the silt of our previously-established digital identities. We don’t need to restate our cultural preferences etc. again on Twitter because that’s asked-and-answered and, for most Twitter users (at least at this point) fairly easily accessible in one form or another – via Facebook, a primary blog, etc. But that identity – or an aspect of it – is, as Fred says, continuously reaffirmed via “an always-on, interactive wall.” Twitter is thus an expressive identity affordance in a way that isn’t possible on other channels of communication – SNS too static, IM limited person-to-person, blog limited to a particular set of expectations of the medium/audience demand, etc.

Twitter is definitely a medium-big deal at this point (though I do stick to my story that it only really burst on the scene because the WiFi kept crapping out on the third floor at SXSW Interactive ’07), but still mostly confined to an early-adopter multi-channel communicator population, which (in certain places) online makes it seem like a bigger deal than it is generally. So will it scale – will mobile phones be advertising their integrated Twitter clients in 18 (or 12 [or 9 {or 6}]) months? Maybe. But I don’t think that it’s necessary for the continued viability of Twitter – it could get along just fine as the kind of between-modes expressive affordance for high-use multi-channel communicators that it currently is. And I think that along the same lines, the coming death of Facebook is overstated – more cognitive energy might be directed to Twitter or other channels, but a functional, established, static SNS repository for that particular aspect of digital identity seems a viable long-term gambit. Especially if, as Twitter seems to suggest, new forms of SNS are increasingly not replacements for profile-based services but supplements.


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The Stories We Tell (Redux)

For a short time in my life, I distanced myself from previous sports fandom. Sports are, after all, kind of silly and often rather repetitive. But they drew me back in, for a variety of reasons, but I think the larger meta-reason is described better by King Kaufman today than I’ve ever seen before, as he writes:

We tell and listen to stories because they say things to us. Sometimes they say things about their subjects, sometimes about their tellers. If Leo Durocher didn’t really help himself to Babe Ruth’s watch after helping the drunken slugger into bed one too many times, well, he was a guy who would have done that, wasn’t he? And if the Babe hadn’t knocked the stuffing out of him over it, he would have, right?

And more important, these stories remind us that we know things like this about guys like that. They tie us to all the other baseball stories, and all the people who tell them and listen to them. Details aside, they’re all about the same thing, about being part of a crowd that cares about the same thing. Because you’re not getting past the table of contents if you’re not part of that crowd, the crowd that cares about baseball. [emphasis added]

Sports are, in the end, just another kind of story – but a really good story, one with a template that anyone can understand, that can be told over and over again in nearly infinite variation despite being almost the same. What kind of sport-story you like, and how you relate to it, says a lot about who you are – we all instinctively know this, and so can find trust and camaraderie in being fans of the same teams. There’s a kind of story and relation to the story that goes along with being a baseball fan – a different one that goes with being a soccer fan (in the United States), which is different from being a fútbol fan (everywhere else in the world) – which in turn is a different than being a curling fan (i.e., you’re Canadian, or King Kaufman). And there’s a different story that Yankees fans can relate to versus Mets fans, or Cubs fans versus… anyone; but you find that repeated with slight variations in Manchester United vs. Manchester City fans, or Tottenham Hotspur fans, or Arsenal fans, etc. ad infinitum. We are the stories we tell, but we’re also the stories we receive, and we’re especially the stories we receive together.

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Reading the following passage from this paper brought me back to the lobby of a hostel in Thessaloniki :

Figure 7

The Finnish network in Figure 7 is qualitatively different. It continues the trend observed in the Portuguese network in that it is smaller and looser, but unlike the previous networks, it lacks an apparent center. Rather, each seed journal and its friends constitutes an independent cluster. Moreover, rather than appearing mainly on the margins of the network, English appears in the centers of the clusters, and even in positions bi-directionally bridging between Finnish journals. This pattern is suggestive of a high degree of Finnish-English bilingualism among Finnish Live-Journalers; indeed, most of the English journals in this network appear to be written by Finns. Thus Finns have conversations on LJ in both Finnish and English, but mostly among themselves. [emphasis mine]

It was in that Thessaloniki hostel lobby that I came to a banal-but-then-amazing realization – while watching a Swedish gent chat up a Japanese lass, I consciously realized, perhaps for the first time, that every day there are probably somewhere in the dozens to hundreds of millions of people speaking to each other in English, for whom English is not a first language. And in the years since (that was in 2002), English has since become not only the default international lingua franca (ironically, mostly not in the Western Hemisphere, where Spanish is increasingly dominant as an international language due to its increased penetration Stateside) but basically the default language of business in the EU. Not due to British cultural imperialism, either – just because it’s easier.

Indeed, English instruction starts so early in most Northern European countries that it can hardly be said to be a non-native language. Especially or the Finns and the Swedes, their export-and-knowledge-based economies (Nokia based in Finland, Linux born in Sweden) demand fluency not just in multiple languages but specifically the international language – and language of the Western internet – English [the Sino-Nipponese-Korean corner of the Net is another story entirely].

I often think about what impacts this will have long-term on the English language – the many divergent strands of slang and local dialect that are emerging among non-native English speakers even as American, Canadian and British regionalisms and colloquialisms are drowned in the ongoing homogenization of our national cultures.

Will an international English-language culture emerge? Has it already – is in fact the (Western) Internet just that? Is the emergence of a more-or-less global language a consequence of transnational trade harmonization – an outfall of GATT, NAFTA, EU, etc. – or does it set the stage for them? Or am I just part of an informational elite that makes it seem like there’s increasing internationalization when for most people, there’s not, and English is just the latest in a series of lingua francas for the transnational global elite? I’m not rightly sure, about any of these things. But it’s something, ain’t it?

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Open LifeBits

Terrell has some excellent thoughts on the convergence of all the nodes of identity management. Briefly, he’s talking about,

“…a system that plays by all the rules and ‘just works’ for the simplest of use cases today, and is ready to scale up and handle the use cases of tomorrow. I’m envisioning a wrapper – a specification that defines how data should be held and managed for an individual.”

And I think he’s right that we’re rapidly approaching the point where all the elements will be in place for a workable framework managing the various aspects of our digital lives, seamlessly (which he details very nicely in his post). He ponders,

“Is anyone going to see any value in this OpenLifeBits model besides the geeks among us?”

What this makes me think about is the driver’s license. It’s a pretty basic chunk of modern life, into which it’s integrated in a lot of different ways – air travel, need a DL # for bank acct., buy beer, get into a show, etc.. It’s easily enough procured by most people, but consists in the procedures required to get and maintain it and the materials and capacities it’s composed of, elements that’d be totally obscure to people a generation or two ago. Near-universal access to cars, driving schools, a massive and mostly-legally-mandated insurance system. And then there are the little, useless things – laminated plastic, holograms, magnetic data strip, cheap on-the-spot digital color photograph – that are still kind of amazing. And it all works, basically.

At its heart, it’s fundamentally a technological protocol that over time everyone’s learned how to acquire and use to such an extent that it’s basically invisible. It’s evolved to take over new, strange responsibilities because it was just there do it. And that’s really the model here – just as the driver’s license became the central node of identification as we came to spend more and more of our time on the road, a single digital sign-on/handle/location/whatever will emerge to be our works-well-enough node for digital identity and whatever welded-on functions come after.

All a roundabout way of saying that I think that, yes, people will see value in this, in not having to remember lots of different passwords and also in there being a unitary system for not just management of identification but remediation for identity theft and fraud.

Terrell again says,

“Additionally, the legal questions around ownership of data and the contractual obligations of those you share your information with remain unanswered questions. I have a hunch though that a lot of these types of questions have precedent – just not with the specifics of personal data archives.”

As laid out in two excellent papers by Michael Madison and Matthew Hodge [PDF], this case law here is a mess. There are a lot of possible precedents for all of these questions, and how that unfolds is going to depend on a number of factors like where the initial legal challenges are brought (probably better in the 9th Circuit than the 4th, but even the 9th has issued some infuriating rulings on these issues), when which issues trickle their way up to the Supremes, and what the Court looks like, then. In sum, we probably can’t count on a particularly workable solution emanating from the courts anytime soon.
And so, I think that there’s a role for the state here, not necessarily in being the repository for all this information but in doing what states do best: setting the rules for the functioning of a market. Not even specifying what goes in the wrapper, or what the wrapper’s made of, but in specifying how it functions as a protocol within all of the various other legal and practical structures of everyday life.

Moreover, I think that beginning to address these issues now, before some truly, truly scary and non-user-centric model gains hegemony, is the right move.

What would that look like? The key issues to address as I see them are privacy and property, and they’re very interrelated. I’ll explore this further in the future, but there are a few points that leap out to start:

  • individuals are surrendering their privacy and identity in their digital lives, and aren’t being compensated particularly well for it – surrendering ownership to of these commodotized rights to private actors
  • in those digital lives, in issues not relating to themselves, individuals take a pretty fluid idea of property and ownership – implicitly or explicitly eschewing claims of ownership of private actors over all manner of digital data, who feel in turn not well compensated for their products being freely available online

I’m not suggesting that MP3s are the same as Fourth Amendment rights. The latter are, and ought to be, far more valuable… really a rather amazing understatement, actually. But the patchwork of legal precedents, practice, unequally powerful interested actors and fast-changing technologies leads to strange outcomes. Citizens’ Fourth Amendment protections are violated daily as a matter of basic commerce in our digital lives, with little or nothing in the way of recourse, while record companies are able to receive legal judgments valuing individual digital copies of songs in the thousands of dollars. Something doesn’t add up.

The basic tenets of any solution here will be a framework that above all recognizes the real (both operative and desired) boundaries between private and public – between the digital individual and the sea of other ones and zeros in which they daily swim – while allowing for a seamless navigation of that sea of conversation, commerce and governance. It’s a conversation that needs to happen, and one in which people already have opinions (even if they aren’t clear on the technological particulars). So let’s have it.

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