Written by Jitendra Gupta of KarmaWeb and edited by Richard MacManus
recently wrote in her blog about throwaway identities in MySpace:Social Media researcher danah boyd
"Sara created a MySpace using an email address that she made specifically for that purpose. After vacation, she couldn't remember her MySpace password (or her email password). She created a new MySpace page using a new throwaway email address. When I asked her if she was irritated that she had to do this after investing time in the previous profile, she said, "nah.. I had too many Friends that I didn't know anyways."
danah notes that teens often start new accounts on a whim - in IM, email, website logins. The reasons for heavy use of throwaway identities by teenagers are explained by danah in a separate paper, where she posits that in real life "teens have increasingly less access to public space". However online, "youth can build the environments that support youth socialization".
So multiple throwaway identities is another manifestation of teenagers experimenting with new looks, new music etc. As these teenagers mature, I would imagine they will settle on a set of identities and focus on building a reputation around their chosen identities. Incidentally, another implication of throwaway identities is that we have to be more careful in evaluating the user stats for social media sites that cater to teenagers.
Identity management for grownups
Throwaway identities is very different from how I and probably most adults behave online. I have had the same My Yahoo account for 7 years. I hate losing access to an account that I created. As such, I try to keep the accounts that I use to a minimum. If I do create a new account, I use the same standard login name and password that I use for other accounts, to ensure that I can remember and maintain access to it. I do have a junk mail account that I use for registering to sites that I don’t want to get emails from, but I even check that regularly.
How many identities do you have and how do you manage them?
I don’t typically use throwaway identities but, really, there is noting wrong with using throwaway identities to avoid spam or to maintain privacy. This explains the existence and popularity of services like 10minutemail - a new service for creating temporary email addresses. These addresses can be used for registering on sites that require users to provide an email address. The goal is to rid users of a lot of unsolicited spam emails. See a more detailed review here.
But with the easy availability of throwaway identities there is a temptation to use fake identity without carefully thinking through the potential side-effects. If one is not careful, use of a fake identity in wrong situations can cause loss of trust, can ruin the community discourse and can cause serious harm to one’s reputation. See an example of such a blowback at Valleywag and VentureBeat (the Auren Hoffman case).
Commenter behavior in the blogosphere
How can we establish the extent of throwaway identity use in adult online communities? One place to look for an answer is the blogosphere. On serious blogs, commenters can leave comments under any name they like. I have always used my own name while leaving a comment, but does anybody have stats on how many people use fake or context-sensitive names and email address (like using a name ILOVEAPPLE while leaving a comment complimentary to Apple)? My guess is that the use of fake identities is a lot less prevalent in the serious blogosphere, compared to other teenage oriented social media. From my blog I have seen less then 10% of commenters use fake identities. From a discussion with a reliable person at Six Apart, I've heard that the number of Typepad commenters that use fake identities is much higher than 10%. What has been your experience at your blog?
Technology landscape for Identity Management
Passport (now called Windows Live ID) and TypeKey. The downside of these services is that the service providers, like Microsoft, are privy to all the user identities and so participate in user transactions. This aggregation of all user identities in a single service puts too much power in the hands of service providers. As a result such services have historically not fared well.Social media as a whole lacks a way to establish global identity of users. Most of the social media identities are based on an email id, and all of us know how easy it is to create throwaway email addresses. The earlier efforts around identity management were focused on providing a service to users to enable them to manage multiple identities together in one central place. Examples of such services are Microsoft
What is needed instead is to provide tools that make it easy for the users to manager their own multiple identities. This explains the recent popularity of OpenID – an open source project focused on providing end-users with tools to manage their identity.
One side effect of a lack of a reliable identity mechanism is that there are no incentives for participants in media to behave well, in order to build a reputation. So if a user feels like venting or flaming somebody, why resist? Who is going to remember anyhow? If we had a reliable way to establish user identity, one can build a reputation mechanism evaluating user contributions in social medium. Such a reputation mechanism has the potential to make the social Web medium and user generated content a whole lot more useful. Of course, such a system will need to support an opt-in system, such that users who are interested in using throwaway identities could still use them. But for users, who are interested in building a reputation based on contributions to social media, this will provide incentives and a mechanism to enable it. To a reader of social media, use of a throwaway identity will send a signal about the reliability of a particular piece of content (e.g. a post or a comment) and thereby help them separate signal from noise.