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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

Can identity survive abundance / does identity require scarcity?

posted: Oct 22, 2003 9:40:58 PM

The iCite net has a concept of an Identity iCite, that represents the identity of a content creator (person, group, or machine). But, I am thinking a lot about the value and issues with allowing people to have multiple identities within this network, and, in general, online.

In the physical world, identity is scarce (meaning: not easy to procure). It is rare and potentially illegal in some circumstances for individuals to hold multiple identities.

Online, since we have not had an ubiquitous identity system, identity has been in abundance where everyone basically has a different identity in each of many different online scopes (e.g., sites, discussion forums, etc.).

(Note: in this post, I am hoping to not have to address any semantic differences between identity, facets of identity, or personas. I am thinking about multiple identities in the way that, online, a single person can do things online in their name, and also do things under a pseudonym or anonymously.)

I have a hunch that part of the reason why ubiquitous online identity hasn't happened is that identity, as an information construct, is built on a scarcity of identifiers that the Internet, by definition, replaces with an abundance of identifiers.

Moderation systems in online communities have to deal with the possibility that an individual may try to participate in the guise of multiple individuals. The "email verification" feature in many services, combined with IP address tracking, looks to minimize this multiplication of identities.

Wherever there is a democratic concept of a group, whether it is "one person, one vote", or "one person, one voice (opinion)", there needs to be a way to tally that the number of votes or voices matches the number of actual people. At the same time, it is desirable in some forms of voting or voicing opinions to allow people to be anonymous or use pseudonyms.

With voting in the U.S., each voter uses a system I will call a voter "identity aggregator proxy". When I go to vote, my identity changes from "Jay Fienberg" to "one authenticated citizen of San Francisco" (or something like that). This system preserves anonymity and the one person, one vote authentication.

So, online, maybe a valid model is the development of identity aggregator proxies that can authenticate that each online participant (in a vote or a discussion, etc.) is actually a single person whose online identity has been authenticated, but that identity is obscured. (This seems possible in the iCite net.)

But, such proxies in the physical world work largely because they are also scarce! Online, if an abundance of proxies is allowed, individuals can represent themselves as multiple people through multiple proxies.

I keep avoiding mentioning one obvious solution, which is the "national ID" model of one person, one identity. And, perhaps with this, a "national ID proxy" for anonymity services. And, a variant would be to replace the nation with a corporation.

I just don't see these as being compatible with the non-governmental / non-corporate public interest of the Internet, so I am imagining other solutions must be worth exploring. Not that things like driver IDs and social security numbers can't also exist and be used for government purposes, but we need other kinds of proxy identifiers (e.g., IM addresses) for more casual uses.

I don't know if there is an absolute solution, but I think the solution may require the introduction of some artificial scarcity of identifiers. And I think any restriction will have to be maintained by a friend-of-a-friend network of reputation, plus maybe some reasonable financial barrier (e.g., if identities aren't free, there is some burden in having a lot of them).

This maybe can be conceived along the lines of the "barriers to entry" that online communities use, to keep people honest.

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trackback from: the iCite net development blog
posted: Nov 4, 2003 1:32:04 PM
title: The problem with abundance

Good article: The problem with abundance, by Peter de Jager, on the Globe

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