The Crying (about digital identity) Game

Image of hand against scannerOh, digital identity aggregation sites – is there anything you can’t do?

Apparently not, from my point of view. Last week, a relative e-mailed me a website intended to aggregate, and share, publicly available digital information for individuals. The database was searchable by first and last name. When I entered a search for myself, I inadvertently solved a longtime personal mystery.

I’m a man, baby.

At least, I showed up on the site as both female and male.  This realization actually isn’t surprising. I have a traditionally male first name. Moreover, this finding resolves a source of occasional irritation: I get a lot of junk mail addressed to me as “Mr.”

I tried checking the about page on the aggregator website to figure out the digital sources so I could pinpoint the source of a record for my name – not a common one, I might add – listing me as male. Unfortunately, the details about sources are vague – “people-related public records,” it reads. And some mention of an ominously-named “deepnet,” which I picture as a sort of digital Mariana Trench. (In reality, the deep web suggests content not in HTML format, or behind login scripts, for example, and it constitutes a wealth of information many times larger than the surface ‘Net, or what a user can typically browse or search.)

All of this made me wonder: where did my digital identity go wrong?

A person’s “digital identity” – the accumulation of records tied to one’s personal, financial, or professional life – can be a difficult thing to manage.  At best, one only has control over portions of it. Traditionally, theories about digital identity (or personas) include proprietary and public spheres.

The accounts I have opened online are in effect proprietary, meaning I have established an account or acted voluntarily. With sites such as social media, I can add content myself, or let friends add content. Most crucially, I have entered into some sort of agreement with the online company. In trying to stay on top of the privacy setting changes in social media, I ostensibly have some measure of control in shielding my content from public searches.

Importantly, however, proprietary digital identity also includes data about me in other “closed” systems, such as Social Security or medical records. Documents maintained in closed systems – a municipality for property ownership records, or information related to political donations – may be found with online searches at specific sites, but can be excluded from search engine results. Which leads to a somewhat gray area: this is related to the “deepnet,” mentioned above, where the proprietary and public spheres converge.

public persona can include data from proprietary sources such as Facebook or MySpace – which is where all the really juicy stuff resides, according to a former tabloid reporter – if a user does not override default settings. Other public identities include any information item findable with a search engine, such as this blog, for example. Individuals who are savvy with search engine optimization (SEO) techniques can have some influence over the page rank of search results (for instance, if I were to strategically link my academic portfolio at several well-traveled sites to drive that result up the page to the top result for my name). The conservative rule of thumb, though, is that there is no truly private sphere for any content posted on the Internet.

Digital identity issues will continue to evolve as a greater number of transactions, and particularly government services, move online. All I know, related to my discovery, is that I have certainly never posed as a man online or otherwise. That leads me to believe my public persona contains bad data, although this fact has not caused me any real problems to date. I realize it could be worse; no acute damage has been done to me financially or legally. For now, finding out I’m a digital man is sort of funny.

Sort of.

Image used per Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License. Photograph by DaveBleasdale.

I turned my back on social media

Facebook profile deleted. Twitter account deleted. LinkedIn has been spared for professional use.

I cannot deny that Twitter in particular has been a powerful tool. Every day the best minds in the UX/IA, Content Strategy, and Educational Technology fields shared their knowledge and invaluable learning resources. Following individuals from the iSchool at UW, I could learn about their varied interests: clean water initiatives, open government, social media trends.

Recently, a fellow Twit informed me that I had a too-long account handle: retweeting and crediting my thoughts or links took up a lot of space. This individual did not bother to follow me, either, as I was not adding much value with my tweets (and I am more or less obsessed with adding value).

Given those facts, I reconsidered my social media use. And once I began thinking, I concluded its use had also changed my information consumption in negative ways:

Sharing took precedence over creating. My Tweetstream or Facebook news feed always had some new tidbit or opinion on a current issue. I consumed these nuggets insatiably, rather than synthesizing a worldview. I became an increasingly lazy thinker.

These tools encourage reacting, not relating. Online posting feels safe, conducted from one’s home office, even when it is not anonymous. Discussions are unmoderated, have a low barrier to entry, and text conveys tone poorly. It is too easy to respond to a link with another link. I worried how that could be affecting my real-world discourse.

People online are so…human. Follow anyone for 24 hours a day on Twitter and he is bound to sound like a jerk at some point. I was surprised how many public figures throw Twitter tantrums (Twantrums?) about frustrations with air travel delays. I can now “follow” these figures through RSS feeds of their very smart blogs instead.

Privacy meant opting out. I was tired of reading about – then reviewing and managing – the privacy settings on the newest Facebook feature. Twitter was less worrisome, though it offers binary account settings: public or private are the two choices. Frankly, there is very little legal protection for the average person regarding the use of information shared online, though developments in Germany may point to legislative changes in the future.

Since this is a blog about managing information, I felt compelled to examine my failure to integrate social media into a personal information management strategy. At least for a time, I have to take a break from social media, which I perceived to negatively influence my information consumption. The costs of using Twitter or Facebook for personal reasons outweigh the benefits to me right now. It is back to Google Reader I go.

I would be grateful for others’ opinions about the uses of social media (in a personal capacity) in the comments.