Robert Scoble posted an interesting discussion topic on his Facebook wall, asking the deceptively simple question: Who will win the Identity war in 2010?
The question was asked with specificity towards tech platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, Google and so on, but it’s an important question to ask of ourselves: to whom are we giving the leverage of our primary identification on the web?
Like a lot of others who are best suited to interface, I’m an adaptable person. This is both a great help in my work, and a hindrance with my friends for one simple reason; when I spend time with you, I’m going to start to sound like you. If I spend an evening watching QI, I have a flare-up of British in my speech. If I spend too much time reading Justin Kownacki, I get ornery. Too much Seth Godin and I fall afoul of sweeping inspirational pessimism. I’ve been accused of having a weak identity, but I don’t think that’s it, primarily because I’m not alone in this behaviour; I just happen to display it as a very visible means of communication. I’m in the habit not only of speaking your language, but speaking your accent as well.
Identity is a touchy subject for a lot of people. We like to be ourselves, but easily fall afoul of pop culture epidemics. Every teenager falls into a category during high school – those who try not to get branded as “outsiders” by their peers, which makes demarcation an impossible process to avoid; it only goes away when everyone stops participating, and it’s not human nature to remain intentionally ambiguous. Social networks make this even more difficult to avoid – Twitter has lists, Facebook has the friend system, as do so many other networks. It’s not a bad thing, but as with so much else, awareness is the key to safe navigation.
The idea of identity, of finding peers to connect with, is so easy to reconcile with our daily lives that technology has adapted it as a mode of operation – we can’t ignore this. Peer to Peer filesharing. Friends lists. Contact lists, address books, RSS feeds, folders, libraries, right down to the DLLs that run your computer programs. Grouping is everywhere. And because it’s everywhere, it’s possible to manipulate.
I recently read an article on Brad J Ward’s blog from last year about “FacebookGate” where a group had severely infiltrated student-run graduation groups for various schools – for who knows what purpose. Perhaps data mining. Maybe stalking. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this event as a demonstration of the very demarcation we use to identify ourselves being used for purposes we did not choose when we claimed the label in the first place.
It gets worse: Over the last month I’ve seen both Chris Brogan and Amber Naslund suffer outright plagiarism. Brogan’s world saw a hack marketing an eBook made out of a collection of Chris’ blog posts. Naslund had a blog post ripped right from her site and posted, no claim of attribution whatsoever, on another site. This goes beyond casual emulation for the sake of communication; this is outright personality theft.
So how does this apply to technology as a communicative and cultural force? In practice. I make a habit of signing up for every social networking site I can lay my greedy hands on, whether I’m aiming to use it or not. I’ve been trying to snap up my own names as a username for the last three months as well, for branding purposes, it just makes sense. Now, think about that for a second. Think about what I just said.
Sounds funny, doesn’t it? We talk about personal branding all the time, but it’s always as an external force, information we’re carefully aligning outside ourselves on networks, website after website, trying to make a name for ourselves. We get annoyed if our names are already taken, but how do we fight back? Not by making a mass acceptance of the fact that our personal brands are facets of our identity – that would be silly, applying a business term to ourselves – but rather by setting up “Verified Accounts” and other measures to make sure the people represented by certain usernames really are themselves. It’s a good thing, but it’s still external.
Scoble’s question about who will win the identity war this year – and it will be this year, it has to be, or it will never come – is a big one. I answered by asserting that it won’t be the creation of utility that wins. If we’re looking for utility we already have a mesh of social networks for that. Facebook for friend gathering Twitter for grapeshot conversation, LiveFyre for in-depth enquiry. FourSquare and Gowalla for relational location. We build our online identities out of these things, among many others (personally branded websites, I’m aware, are a big deal as well. I’ve got mine, did you get yours?) and often forget that the idea of identity is more about accessibility than it is about utility. We use these networks to get our words out to others, to track interest in what we say based on how, when, and how loud we say it.
Whatever wins the identity war will provide the greatest power of accessibility and cross-feeding to the largest number of people with the least amount of hassle. Google’s profiles are a great start, but it’s not quite enough. If I know El Goog half as well as I hallucinate that I do, they’ll improve it; I can see the potential there for the perfect outward-facing home base meshed with the ultimate inward-facing dashboard. I wonder if they do, too.
Maybe it won’t be Google. Maybe it’ll be something, or someone else that brings up that killer app.
I just can’t wait to use it once it’s there.