May 19, 2005

Social networks and identity

For reasons I'd rather not publicize, I've not been running for exercise but instead riding the stationary cycle. The benefit of sitting for 40 minutes without distraction is that it gives you time to read some of the papers you've printed out and promised yourself you'd get to. Yesterday I did just that with a paper I found on First Monday some time ago called The Augmented Social Network: Building identity and trust into the next-generation Internet. The authors -- Ken Jordan, Jan Hauser, and Steven Foster -- go back a long way in the networked world and in this paper provide a view of digital identity on the base-line foundation of (the value and persistence of) online social networking.

From my vantage point the paper is well worth reading -- even the section on technical components (although I have to admit that I took them at their word that the components were there and need only be properly stitched together; I skipped that part) -- because of its libertarian, public interest slant. Be forewarned, it is dense. Underlying their notion of digital identity in these overlapping social networks to which people belong is the notion of "persistent identity." This, to my view, is what bears scrutinty. There may be something here.

First of all, their description of an augmented social network (ASN):

[It] would build identity and trust into the architecture of the Internet, in the public interest, in order to facilitate introductions between people who share affinities or complementary capabilities across social networks. The ASN has three main objectives: 1) To create an Internet-wide system that enables more efficient and effective knowledge sharing between people across institutional, geographic, and social boundaries; 2) To establish a form of persistent online identity that supports the public commons and the values of civil society; and, 3) To enhance the ability of citizens to form relationships and self-organize around shared interests in communities of practice in order to better engage in the process of democratic governance. In effect, the ASN proposes a form of "online citizenship" for the Information Age. [Emphasis mine.]
Can't argue with that. And, it aligns well with Kim Cameron's Laws of Identity, particularly, it would appear, no.'s 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7.

Moving on to digital identity itelf, they provide this statement which leads to their idea of a "persistent identity":

As in real life, when you go from one virtual social milieu to another your identity will acquire a history. But because this will take place in a digital realm, designed by code and made of data, information will be attached to your identity in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate. Who decides what that capability will be, and most important, whether it contributes or not to civil society? What will your "persistent identity" online say about you, and what shouldn’t it say?
A persistent (digital) identity is, in their view, "a representation of aspects of your self that accretes over time." Which is to say, it is a directory's worth of of breadcrumbs you've dropped as you've acted online that becomes a loaf from which slices (inferences and patterns) can be cut (extracted). Sounds a little spooky to me. Although the authors do go to great pains to paint out a picture that has the identified party in control of how that information gets distributed.

Nevertheless, they imply that, converse to the practise today offline where an official identity is as "thin" as possible, a digital identity will be fat because of this accretion. They are silent on the value or even the need for an "official" or otherwise reliable mapping of the digital identity to a real person. So, in theory, it would be possible to create an entirely synthetic digital individual -- a proxy, if you will -- through persistent use of it.

The authors favour a form of federated identity, although it would seem that they are yet to be satisfied by the current activity of Passport, Liberty, and WS-* (probably because it is all happening in the private, commercial domain without civil society input/consideration). To that end they make this statement about the potential pitfalls of a digital identity system in respect of the security of the personal information held:

. . . it does little good for progressives to respond to this situation by affecting a Luddite position, using a twentieth century model for "official identity" ("less is more") as the guide for policy in the twenty-first. Today’s Internet security is reliable enough to support a working system of federated network identity. Online identity will become an ubiquitous part of daily life. The greatest danger to civil society is not that the data associated with digital profiles is open to theft and illegal activity, but rather the real possibility that a system of federated network identity that erodes civil liberties and the public commons comes into being -- while following the letter of the law.
How invertedly interesting. So to address this they seem to favour a form of social network-based identity federation, but one that is intermediated between social networks by trusted third parties. Not necessarily the institutional kind of trusted third parties that we tend to gravitate toward (at least here) such as a bank or post office or government, etc., although they leave the door open to these participants. Rather, their trusted third parties are typically and essentially those individuals who cross social networks. Think about me between two groups of people on LinkedIn, willing to make a connection that will be trusted by both sides because of the trust they each have in me. (Nasty place to be for a variety of reasons that I've expounded about before in essays on trust located here.)

There is a lot to think about in this paper. And, I personally have only begun to internalize its message. Frankly I'm not sure I'm on board with all of its premises, although the intent resonates well with me. Be that as it may, the money shot about why this activity of trying to work out a digital identity paradigm is important and the results are so critical (and why our work is noble) is a single sentence in a section about the context and trends in online communities:

The technical architectures of communications systems implicitly carry within themselves political agendas and cultural values.
That's much more to address than technical mechanics, which we all resoundingly seem to agree is not the problem.

Get on an exercise bike and read it.

Posted by Grayson at May 19, 2005 06:38 PM