In a world permeated by online social tools, individuals are willingly publishing more and more information about themselves. From the earliest iterations of blogging platforms such as Angelfire and Live Journal pages, people began discovering opportunities to share their thoughts with a much broader audience than was ever possible before. It was the first time in history that publishing was so accessible at the individual level.
The introduction of social networks enabled us to place ourselves (and our thoughts) within a broader map, where the links between us and our family and friends were now visible, further cementing the ties between our online activities and our offline lives. Today, each tweet, Facebook status update, or blog post leaves a digital footprint that gets compiled into this concept of our digital identity.
I would like to propose that the nature of online identities has evolved through six stages:
1. The Birth of Online Handles
It all started with the introduction of online handles, which allowed web users to create nicknames to identify themselves online, particularly when interacting with others on websites, message boards, and in chat rooms. People could pick whatever handles they wanted. As a result, there was originally a large divide between our online and offline lives. Users were protected by the anonymity of online handles, and could interact with other people without ever knowing who was really on the other end.
2. Link to Real-Life Identity Within Individual Sites
The widespread adoption of Facebook by users around the world helped herald the second big phase of e-dentity evolution. While the social-network giant had been preceded by several other players (including MySpace, Friendster, and Hi-Five), it was the first strong supporter of linking online accounts to real names. As a part of Facebook’s terms of service, users who wanted to activate an account had to use their legal names as they appeared on a piece of government-issued ID. This meant that people were linking their real names to their online behaviours. By 2011, Facebook boasted over750 million members, making it arguably the biggest push for the convergence of our online and offline identities in the history of the web.
3. Data Portability: Online Identity Across the Web
The next big push occurred in 2008 with the introduction of Facebook Connect and Open Social, services that enabled people to use their Facebook or Google account credentials to log on to various sites around the web. This meant that our online identities could be extended beyond a single social network – that we could take them with us as we visited various sites online, using them as we interacted with friends and family all over the web, not just within the walls of Facebook.
4. Geo-Spatial Technologies: Erasing the Online/Offline Boundaries
The next big push came with the introduction of geo-spatial technologies such as FourSquare andFacebook Places, and their uses through the mobile platform. Using smartphones, we are now able to “check in” to different locations in the real world and share information about our immediate activities with our Facebook/Google friends. This means that our online identities are no longer linked only to our online activities – they are now also tied to our offline actions and whereabouts.
5. Aggregation and Quantification: Online Reputation and Influence
With all the data we are uploading (Facebook estimates that there are over 30 billion new pieces of content created on the social network each month), there is an enormous overflow of information available. We are currently seeing the introduction of services that are compiling and analyzing this information. Sites like Mirror.me, which create a visual representation of what an individual posts about, are great examples of this. Facebook, which has been a pivotal driver in data aggregation, has introduced the concept of “ Frictionless Sharing,” where users can opt in to share even more information about their lives – including the songs they are listening to, the books they are reading, and the television shows they are watching – by enabling such information to be automatically updated to their profiles.
Perhaps the most interesting developments taking place are attempts to quantify the value of our online reputations. Services like Klout use a person’s online posts and interactions to generate a score that measures that person’s ability to influence his or her social network. Facebook will soon be getting into this game as well: At the latest Facebook Developer Conference (F8), CEO Mark Zuckerberg marvelled at the power of info-graphics, and wondered what a Facebook profile would look like if it generated “an annual report” for each individual.
As many of these services become more widely adopted, we will likely see more and more post-transparency curating, something that Google moved towards with its launch of Google+. Interestingly, Google has recently decided to change their terms of service to allow pseudonyms instead of requiring real names. As we continue to grapple with the ramifications of placing so much personal information online, I think more people will pull back from the features that allow their online presence to mimic their “real lives,” and instead use sites like Facebook and Google + to present a carefully curated image of how they want the world to see them, instead of how they really are. In this sense, Facebook is becoming a type of fun-house mirror, reflecting distorted and unrealistic images of its users.
I’ll be tackling the implications of Facebook’s recent changes in another post, as well as continuing the conversation around online identity in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!