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Throwaway Identities

Written by Jitendra Gupta of KarmaWeb and edited
by Richard MacManus

Social Media researcher
danah boyd recently
in her blog about throwaway identities in MySpace:

“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

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

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
(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

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 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. 

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.

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