Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Do you have a digital identity?

Last week I was in London at a workshop on "Digital Identities". The workshop was really interesting, and it made me wonder whether people really need to adopt digital identities to protect themselves online.

The work at the research group I am affiliated with at MIT, revolves around having transparent and accountable data on the web. This "data", I believe, includes the "online identities" of people as well. So, I am trained to think that you should be held accountable for whatever you say on the web! However, if the things you say are highly controversial, even unlawful in certain jurisdictions, and can have an adverse effect on your career, it seems reasonable to go under a pseudonym and write whatever you have to say, abdicating all the responsibilities and even the subsequent credit to yourself as a person in the real world.

Another point that was brought up in the discussion was that whether going under a pseudonym is at all better than writing something anonymously. To me, it doesn't appear to have much of a difference though. However, unlike an anonymous author, an author operating under a pseudonym will have a social circle who would promote the writings to a greater community under their own guises. There were so many interesting stories that came up in the discussion out of their own experiences!
If you are interested in these case stories and the "patterns" that emerged, have a look here.

Anyways, I still think that if you want to write about something you should fully disclose who you are. Coming from an open culture, where full disclosure means more visibility and hence more recognition to you and your work, it seemed a bit bizarre that you'd want to hide away under some name if you really want to say something on the web.

I wonder if someone would ever come up with a technical or a legal solution to this problem? If you have any thoughts on this issue, please do comment!


Tor Hershman said...

I find it amusing that folks are afraid to use their names when they DO have name & address in the phone book.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Anonymous said...


The name/address in the phone book is a proxy identification system without aggregation of your expressions. What is happening online is quite different and would translate in the physical world as each time you speak up in a public place, you give a copy of your id card and there is a public record of everything you said, even for those who were not in the context of the event. So your words might be contextualize in the environment of a Web site but at the same time, they are highly identifiable in a global environment. It reduces the social opacity and then collapse the shades of identities you might carry.

Garthee said...

I am not sure whether I understand the context of "Coming from an open culture", but in my opinion there are two reasons for hiding behind the pseudonyms.

1. Personal preference : I used "theebgar" for all online activities till I get gMail account somewhere in 2006 (I believe). Many people use this, as it enables them using a common identity without worrying about disclosing full information about themselves, or essential leaving the links to other bits and pieces about themselves. For example, you wouldn't want some social engineer to create a full profile of you for a well concerted attack.

2. Political repression :

I don't have to tell more on this, but this is happening not only in Sri Lanka, but anywhere freedom of speech is considered as a privilege but not a right.

PS: I personally don't like to comment in blogger because it requires you to sign in with Gmail / OpenID to comment.