Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Online Identity: what is it?

With the hype of Web 2.0 and social networking, online identity has been a popular term. The management of online identities, however, is gradually becoming a severe problem. Identity overload is a fundamental problem of Web 2.0. To solve it, we need to have a better understanding about the details of online identity.

By definition, identity means the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity. There are three key terms in this specification---individual, distinct personality, and persisting entity.


An identity (no matter whether it is "online") is for an individual. Therefore, an individual person must exist before his identity exists. Although this derivation is trivial, do individuals always exist?

In the real human world, the answer to the former question is trivial. By nature, humans exist as individuals. Nobody lives due to the live of another person and nor does anybody lives because of the existence of any natural or social context. Being removed all context and relatives, an individual person is still himself. Being added any context or relative, an individual person remains also just himself; no more, no less. Every human being is a unique individual, or he is a unique, though shallow, image of God.

When we look for the answer on the Web, however, it becomes very different. Can anybody tell an individual person on the Web? Most of the time, we cannot. Most often, on the Web we may only tell a portion of an individual. For example, at YouTube we may tell an individual eye, at LinkedIn we may tell an individual hand, and so on. But does a unique individual person ever exist on the Web? Generally the answer is no till now.

Then back to the initial derivation stated at the beginning of this section. If online individuals even do not exist, how is it possible to produce online identities for these individuals?

Distinct Personality

An identity is about personality. This is an important catch of meaning because a common misconception says that an identity is such as a name or a social security number. In fact, either a person name or a SSN is just a reference to some real identity instead of the identity itself.

We may clarify a few important thoughts after insistently distinguishing reference to identity from identity itself. For example, identity is unique not due to the uniqueness of references. In the other words, whether references to identity are unique actually does not matter much; identity (if it is identity) is always unique discarding how it is referenced.

But there is a problem---personalities in general are not unique. As we know, varied persons may have the same personality. Hence identity is not just about personality, it is about distinct personality.

When identity is about distinct personality, online identities must be about the distinct online personalities. Moreover, the distinct online personalities are not the same as the references to the distinct online personalities. That is, an URI (or URL) is not and should not be an online identity because it does not determine any real distinct personality, even if the personality is online.

Persisting Entity

An identity is an entity. By being entity, identities are verifiable. Note that it is not verifiable in general to everything that is about personality of an individual. But if a thing belongs to an identity, the thing must be verifiable. Beyond, an identity is not only verifiable but also persistently verifiable. That is, an identity must be a persisting entity.

The property of persistence shows the existence of a constant methodology of identity checking. In the other words, we do not have to enforce the uniqueness of URL in order to perform identity maintenance. Allow me explain it using an analogue. I can always identify whether a woman is my wife not by checking her name, her look-like, her SSN, etc, but through the direct communication between us. I identify her by her unique personality and such a personality is actually an persisting entity.

Discussion wrap-up

So have we answered what online identity is? Not yet. But at least we now have a few insights about the answer.

1) We need to have online individual before assigning online identity to individual.

2) Online identity is not reference to online identity.

3) Online identity is an invariant on the Web.

4) Online identity can have very rich content (because personality is rich).

5) There exists an objective, constant method to verify online identity.

Any more words? Yes, on Web 3.0 the issue of online identity will be generally solved.


Unknown said...

Good points, at the moment most identities online are just facets of an individual. An individual may choose to display one or many. In real life we can easily choose which facet to show at appropriate times, on the Web it is not so simple.

Maybe initiatives such as openid are a step in the right direction.

Yihong Ding said...

thanks Chris. As you said, online identity is actually not an easy problem. OpenID may be part of the solution but it might not be the entire solution. We are still thinking and experimenting. But this problem gets to be solved when we are approaching Web 3.0 rapidly.