Yikes…I’ve got a grand total of two posts in February on here! Ouch. Not that I’ve been quiet online…plenty of stuff on FriendFeed, identi.ca and other sites. FF is a great place for a quick thought or comment on a news story, etc., but I like bringing long-form stuff back here. As social networking sites proliferate, the decisions about when and where to post become quite a challenge. But the good news is, a post about that is in my to-do pile for posting, so perhaps I can get another one out in February after all!

The embarrassment of riches that we now have online for making ourselves heard makes me, on some days, hanker for the old days of hanging a page off of my original webhost, with the good old tilde: http://www.io.com/~kenzoid (ok, not really, but it was an amusing line. *grin*). With a personal website, social networking out the wazoo, microblogs, location-awareness, and forums/discussion groups around every corner, it’s nirvana. Or, it’s a nightmare. Your Mileage May Vary.

With social networking sites in particular, the balkanization of one’s identity is both a frustrating challenge and a hidden virtue. Having to recreate your account, your ID, and your relationships every time you sign up to a new site can definitely be a royal pain in the ass. And yet…solving this problem will unleash a lot of unintended second order effects, I’m thinking. There’s both promise and peril (it was ever thus).

There’s a lot of very good and important work going on right now to allow identity information to pass between networks, with proper authorization, privacy, and constraints. (See OpenID, OAuth, and Portable Contacts, for starters). That’s good stuff. It’s important, and needs to happen. And in many cases, it will be INCREDIBLY useful. But some of the blue sky scenarios outlined by proponents give the (IMO, dangerous) impression that ALL social networking should be managed this way. I don’t agree.

Human identity is complicated. Complicated enough that despite every urge to have a grand, Unified Internet Identity, I think this is something to discourage. People are social facets, and while those representations sometimes (often, even) mix, sometimes they don’t. And much like Facebook’s experiments with Beacon in 2007 leaked information unintentionally into people’s FB news streams, the same thing could, and would, happen with overly integrated identity management.

I see our ability to create multiple virtual identities as an actual advantage that the virtual world has over the real one, in the same way that digital copying (creating non-rivalrous resources) and low-to-zero digital distribution costs are an actual advantage over knowledge dissemination and creative expression via physical objects. And just as digital copying and distribution changes that game (see Wealth of Networks and “The Public Domain” to get your feet wet), virtual identity has advantages that we shouldn’t ignore just for the sake of mapping back to the real world as closely as possible.

And please, don’t get the idea that just I’ve got some secret cheese and peanut butter fetish account somewhere that I’m trying to keep hidden. *grin* If only I were that interesting…LOL. It’s much simpler. Even now, with just the simple buckets of “current real-life everyday friends”, “friendly work acquaintances”, “online buddies”, and “folks I like and have known forever, and wave at online”, I’ve got identity issues. The easiest way to separate these buckets, IMO, is to use separate services…I mainly use FF for online friends, FB for work and casual friends, and email, mailing lists, and controlled access online groups for real-life friends.

It’s not that I have much to hide. Many of these accounts and publishing endpoints (including this one) are public. But they’re not all wired together, especially in a two-way sense. And I like that. It’s not secret that I go to a lot of sci-fi conventions, and I’m happy to have folks check out the public photos (Dragon*Con 2008, for example), but jamming a big hunk of those through my Facebook news stream just doesn’t make sense to me. Likewise, I do actually subscribe to a couple of location-aware services (Latitude and BrightKite), but the privacy issues obviously make that data something that I carefully manage access to.

So while I see the promise of improved identity management going forward, I worry about the “oopsies”. I worry about people linking accounts and merging social groups without thinking through the consequences. I’m worried about the mistakes that a person can’t undo. And once again, let me reiterate…this isn’t (necessarily) about merging your AA buddylist with your work “Happy Hour” group. There are plenty of lesser embarrassments waiting. Just be careful, and let’s think about consequences (and multi-order effects) as we go.

Addendum: Damn…I tread the ground of danah boyd (“just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should”, and “Putting Privacy Settings in the Context of Use (in Facebook and elsewhere)”). Oh well…it’s not like she isn’t worth citing…she pretty much defines thought leader in this space.

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