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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Clay Shirky, in discussing his new book at TPM Café, concludes with the following question(s):

I can imagine that however unjust it may be to be relegate to the status of a despised cubicle rat, it’s gotta be worse to be a d.c.r. who doesn’t kick ass at WoW. The question it leaves me with is this: if we have a way of increasing people’s satisfaction with their activities in flexible social spaces, is that a net gain, because it increases satisfaction, or is it a net loss, because blissing out on our local social contexts lowers our sense of injustice, in a way that makes us less likely to fight against it?

Also at TPM Café, danah responds:

It is possible to gain satisfaction from achieving high status in World of Warcraft, even if popularity there is quite niche. In our ethnographic study of new media and youth culture, the Digital Youth group at Berkeley and USC also found that many youth involved in interest-driven digital practices rejected traditional status markers in preference for those that could be achieved in subcultures… [But] just because status markers can be rearranged does not mean that they universally are.

For most teens, the status that matters is that which is conferred in everyday life. Everyday friendship and dating matter more to them than the connections that they make online. This isn’t that surprising because, for as much time as teens spend online, they spend very little engaging with strangers and far more connected to people that they know. Finding interesting music videos or gross-out content online may heighten status amongst peers if this content is valued, but becoming popular with strangers online does not transfer to popularity offline.

I agree with danah here, but think there’s also more reason for hope regarding the value of online popularity. For introverted – nerdy, geeky, etc. – kids, online activity can be a source of validation absent elsewhere in their lives, and sometimes that affirmation can transfer back to their off-line lives either as greater self-confidence or, in some cases, more local social capital. In the upcoming Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser focus on the case of one introverted teen who was not classically popular – until word made it back to his school that he was a successful and popular video mash-up artist online.

Certainly there’s a n=1 danger here – most nerdy, socially awkward kids will remain, as ever, at the lower rungs of the social totem poll in high school (saying this as a proud alumnus of the class of nerdy, socially awkward kids), and danah also relates the thoughts of,

Dominic, a 16-year old from Seattle: “I don’t really think popularity would transfer from online to offline because you’ve got a bunch of random people you don’t know it’s not going to make a difference in real life, you know? It’s not like they’re going to come visit you or hang out with you. You’re not like a celebrity or something.”

Bringing this back around to Shirky’s original question – will this dull our sense of injustice? I would ring in here with a full-throated “NO.” What Shirky is really talking about when he says “blissing out in our local social contexts” is a very old idea, and a powerful one – you say esprit de corps, I say solidarity. Building social capital is a good thing, no matter how local it might be, because the alternative (could be) a society atomized down to the most basic component level of the individual. That doesn’t work, Thatcherite critiques notwithstanding: we’re social creatures, happiest and best when we’re most social. ICTs at their best can be a tools in creating greater solidarity among citizens: more people with a sense that working together and towards a common purpose might, as a general principle, be a good thing. And in my book, there are few goals more worthy than that. A generation raised with practice building solidarity – even if it is with “random people” (indeed, perhaps especially if it’s with random people) – is a hopeful sign for society.

(cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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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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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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