Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Secret identities?

Kim Cameron has a post today which, like all deep thoughts, makes me want to simultaneously jump up and down yelling "Yeah, he gets it!" and "Boo, he's an ignorant slut!"

It's a follow-up to his post on last weekend's NY Times story about "how companies are using information posted in Facebook (and other similar sites) to vet job applicants." Today's post points to the blog of an NYU grad student (who Kim calls "Tiara") who talks about Kim's post, the Times article and the problems of multiple personae.

It seems that people don't always behave the same way in different environments. Duh! We've actually known this for thousands of years, it's just that the internet and the rise of digital social communities have both made multiple personae easier while at the same time allowing each of us to have a greater number of them. We can also maintain finer grained differences among them, with each emphasizing a slightly different aspect of our personality. That's interesting, but what all the ink and bits are being spilled over is the fact that some people maintain a much "harder edged" on-line persona than the one they would like to present to a potential employer.

Cameron notes: "This brings us back to compartmentalization. In the old days, we said and even did things in our student days that we might later have regretted. But our acts and phrases weren'?t globalized, written into an eminently searchable Book of Life that would be read not by God, but by man, with all of his imperfections and pomposity." He seems to think that as long as young people will behave stupidly, we need to find mechanisms to protect them from themselves: "One question I have is whether it is possible for an operator to provide access to a site for specific reasons - and prevent it for others. In other words, is it possible to require those entering a site to sign a binding statement of use? Can liability be associated with breaking such an agreement? "

Yes, people since time immemorial have found ways to behave inappropriately, to shoot themselves in the foot, to say and do things which come back to haunt them. That's just a part of life. And life doesn't have the concept of do-over or mulligan. Still, Kim does correctly identify these behaviors as persona manifestations. YEAH!

But the whole concept of the "accepted use" policy he advocates is completely unworkable. First, it would be difficult - if not impossible - to police. Second, it would be difficult to enforce. And third, few employers are browsing Facebook looking for potential employees. Instead, they're Googling the job candidates. Reading the Google excerpt or the Google cache completely undercuts any terms of use the site might post because no employer is actually accessing Facebook! And even if Google could somehow keep the link without the cache there are other caching/archiving sites which would have the data.

Now I don't believe that young people will ever learn to not do dumb things. We did dumb things. So did our parents and so did our kids. What they may learn - at least those whose grasp of the situation shows them to be potential industry leaders - is that divergent personae need different identifiers.

In other words, don't use your real name! Both Kim & "Tiara" come to this conclusion. He quotes her as saying: "And here'?s what'?s actually happening: People are obfuscating personal data by using pseudonyms that can only be identified within situated, contextual networks..."

There will always be ways to tie together the various personae, even if the entity using those personae is the only unifying point. And that's the whole thrust of user-centric identity: the entity identified by all of the identifiers associated with the multiple personae is the only entity which has the ability to correlate the data among them. It seems so simple, yet like all simple things it's extremely hard to accomplish.

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