Monday, March 3, 2014

Your Online Identity Crisis

Well, it has finally begun.  The intense identity aggregation of products like Google and Facebook is pushing users towards anonymous services.  Whisper and Secret are both making headlines, each promising to let you escape in some way from the ruthless scrutiny of the mainstream social networks.  While these services are great for providing a momentary distraction for their users, they are still doing nothing to address the core problem of online identity.

In real life, there are very few situations where it is useful or even desirable to be anonymous outside of explicitly anti-social or criminal behavior.  The standard examples – corporate leaks, personal confessions, honest reviews, etc. – do not benefit from true anonymity.  Instead, what people want is to expose some subset of their true identity  but nothing more.

For example - if I am an Apple employee releasing a corporate leak, I don’t want Apple to discover who I am, but it is still important that others know I am an Apple employee and not just some random fanboy.  Likewise, if I am confessing something about my personal life, I want to do it with a supportive community and not to strangers who don’t care about me and with whom I have no lasting relationship.    

It isn't about being anonymous or even pretending to be someone I am not.  It is about controlling which subsets of true facets of my person are relevant in different social contexts.  This is fundamentally not deceptive, but actually enables one to be authentic.

Outside of the internet, it is extremely difficult to find out information about a person so that we can easily and naturally compartmentalize our experiences.  I can go to my AA meeting and discuss my issues with alcohol, and then later I can go to a car show and discuss my love of 60’s muscle cars.  I don’t worry much about someone in the car show reacting poorly to me because I am an alcoholic.    Again, I am not a different person in these settings – it is always me – but different parts of my identity are relevant.

The Googles and FaceBooks (GoogleBooks?) of the world want to aggregate all of these into a single identity.  They want to do this, not because they think this is good for users or because this is how they think society works, but rather because it helps them monetize your interactions.  However, this type of aggregation is a very bad deal for users.

Users’ primary experience with this comes in the form of hyper-targeted ads.  A perfect example of this is when I go to my online AA support community to do some searching or posting, and then navigate to my car community.  In the car community, I receive ads targeting me as an AA member -- this scares the s*** out of me.  Even though users primarily are reacting to this “Google is stalking me” factor, there is actually a subtle but much more insidious force at work.

These services are making an extremely strong push to get you to sign in everywhere on the internet with a single ID.   This is initially great for users because, who wants to remember so many passwords?  But when you do this, GoogleBook is aggregating your identity into their system, and all activity on that new site is mixed with everything else you have told them before.  Most users are really unaware that this is undermining the trust relationships that you have with those new sites.

When I decide to share information with a service, I make a trust decision that is between me and that other entity.   I can decide to purchase things from Amazon knowing that Amazon will retain my purchase history and use that to create my “Amazon Identity”.  I am OK with OpenTable knowing where I go out to eat, I trust my bank with my account information, and I trust my fellow AA members with my personal struggles.   For each of these entities, I have made a conscious trust decision.

But when I use GoogleBook for these sign-ins, I am tossing that out the window.  I am implicitly granting GoogleBook the union of all of those trust relationships.  Through GoogleBook, I am giving it away to all of their advertisers and other players.  So, not only am I suddenly trusting GoogleBook with my Amazon purchase history, I am also potentially trusting OpenTable and Clash of Clans with that information as well.  This is a fundamental undermining of these original trust relationships, and will lead to very large problems down the road.  

It doesn't have to be this way though, and that’s why my company is working on solving these problems .  Stay Tuned.