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Why No One (Especially Facebook) Will Control Your Online Identity

Published onMay 10, 2010
Why No One (Especially Facebook) Will Control Your Online Identity

What does the following paragraph remind you of?

They were however still disjointed separate networks, served only by limited gateways between networks. This led to the application of packet switching to develop a protocol for internetworking, where multiple different networks could be joined together into a super-framework of networks.

Wikipedia’s History of the Internet (Emphasis Added)

If you took out a few instances of specific language and put the word “social” before every instance of the word “network” in the above paragraph, you would be writing an article about one possible future of social networking systems. In fact, the language in the above graph sounds so much like current conversations surrounding the social web that it leads me to believe that we are probably in the process of redefining the internet altogether along social lines.

It’s not like this is a totally new idea. Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants to “create a web where the default is social,” and all the big players realize that there is a lot of money to be made in the future of the social space. The problem is, unlike in the case of the networks that became the Internet, these companies are all driven by profit motive and feel a need to win the race to become the “default” social network. Unfortunately for them, by competing to become all-encompassing, they are all going to lose. Why? Because they are aiming at defining something that is fundamentally out of their reach: your online identity.

An Identity Problem

The problem with the modern social network (read: Facebook) is that it aspires to be your entire online life. By so doing, however, it is duplicating the very problem that lead to its creation, which is that the Internet doesn’t have a built-in method of establishing user identity.

This goes beyond just software. When the internet was first invented, identity wasn’t much of a concern. The dissociated networks that first developed were small and self-contained enough that merely identifying the limited number of workstations that could connect to them was enough. Moreover, because each network served a specific function, identity was also highly contextual. Even when networks like Usenet began to expand and become popular, establishing the firm identity of a user wasn’t important given that the network’s purpose was only to exchange information, and confined to specific subjects. In this context, there was no need for personal identity, only a need for one that could be established in relation to the content a user distributed. Trust could be established not based on any personal information but on the quality of the content distributed.

This all changed when TCP/IP was invented to unite these disparate networks. In solving one problem, it created the biggest problem set we are still grappling with today: on an open Internet, there is no built-in context for establishing identity, just as there is no built-in software for it.

Before the open internet (and even on the net before the rise of highly interactive websites), the internet was just a tool, used for sending and receiving information. In these contexts, identity was only as important as the data being sent. As more and more information was ported to the internet, and more linkages established between that information, the Internet moved from a mere tool to the de facto information source.

With so many people connecting to retrieve information, it was only natural that at some point or another, especially as web technology caught up, users would begin wanting to port their own personal data to the Internet. When this happened, originally in the form of personal website builders (ah, the fond memories of AOL Hometown, Expages, and Geocities), the web went from being a resource to being a lifestyle. Once we began to think of “people” as being online rather than just “information,” the person submitting and reading information became more important than the information itself, especially, as a side note, to advertisers. The problem remained, however, that unlike the contained environments of email, Usenet, and IM, these pages were just scattered haphazardly across the information superhighway, lacking any context, and were thus untrustworthy (remember that high school lecture about how geocities pages are usually not valid sources?) and nearly impossible to keep track of. They were also somewhat difficult to construct and time-consuming to maintain. Social networks – networks of people rather than information – were born to solve these problems by, as Zuckerberg is so fond of saying, creating a “graph of your social life.”

Integration is the ‘Killer’ App

This was all well and good as long as social networks stayed just that – graphs. As graphs of a particular part of your life, these websites function just fine because they provide a context for identity. Facebook is the place for friends. LinkedIn is the place for professionals. Twitter is the place to show how much of a nerd you are. It’s better this way, and it’s more realistic: just as in life I act differently and talk about different things at work than when I’m with my girlfriend, on the web I want to present myself differently based on who’s accessing my information. And the only way to control that, given that the Internet lacks that built-in identifying software, is to compartmentalize and self-select the information I share on a given site and select who gets access to what information.

Unfortunately, today Facebook has expanded so that it is not so much a graph of a preexisting social life as it is the place where you define what your social life, and increasingly professional and family life, is in the first place. If Facebook keeps expanding and becomes the de-facto social network, the same thing will happen to it that happened to the Internet as a whole: users will lose the context for their identity and all the information will become untrustworthy. Imagine if LinkedIn and Twitter shut down, and if Zuckerberg got his way and eliminated privacy on the site altogether (or even mostly). Would you share party photos with your friends when you know your boss will have access to it? Would you “like” an article about Star Wars knowing that high school bullies would see it and make fun of you? In an open environment, there is no context. Lacking context, there’s no way (or motive) to establish trustworthy identity. And the cycle continues.

We’ve seen it already with the limited integration of networks that has occurred, especially between Facebook and Twitter. What’s happened? The lack of context makes the quality of cross-posted content go down, because the user has to try to straddle two different audiences. Other users become frustrated at having to wade through out-of-context content. By trying to be the solution rather than trying to solve the problem, all of these networks are approaching the war the wrong way.

Instead of competing to control it, networks should compete to give you the most options to define your online identity, contextually. Imagine a social network that gave you total control over how you define yourself to subsets of users that you define, all from one piece of well-designed software. When that network appears, it is going to be the one that wins. More on that later.

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