I’ve been engaged in the discussion around Attention (APML), Identity (OpenID) and Data Rights (Data Portability) for most of my career. At the height of the conversation, in 2009, we were coming out of the pseudonym age with tools like IRC, Forums and AOL chat rooms and into the Age of Facebook’s ‘Real Names’.
The discussion swirled around a range of topics including...
- Did people have a unique, canonical and fixed identity (ala Facebook)?
- Should they use it across across multiple applications and contexts across the web (ala Facebook Connect)?
- Did using a real name connected to a full profile create more civil conversations?
- Who had the right to own this data and broker it for the internet?
- Were there ways to create decentralized architectures for brokering this information?
- Were there (and should we architect for) many Publics/Personas?
- Was the death of anonymity going to create a death of full freedom of speech?
- Did users even care?
- Should we, as technologists, care?
Fast forward to 2014 and many of the same discussions are still happening - albeit partly using different terms or emphasizing different aspects.
Just the other day I was fortunate enough to have dinner with some of the same people leading the 2009 discussion who now happen to be leading significant aspects of the top social networks. Here too the conversation seemed to have not moved on very far. We all started geeking out about the perfect tool/techniques to reduce fragmentation and manage a canonical view, identity or set of personas.
But for me, the thinking has actually changed quite a lot.
I used to believe that we had an architectural problem that needed fixing. Too many social networks, too much identity fragmentation, too many proprietary implementations and far too little control for the end user.
But hearing my peers discuss these challenges once again over dinner, and watching the identity vs. anonymity debate unfold again in the context of Secret and Whisper, has helped me clarify my new position.
I still believe that there must be baseline level of interoperability between services that allow for simple discovery and data portability. But my reasons - and the extent of the imagined homogeny - have evolved.
I now believe each of the apps/tools/social networks/identity brokers represent facets of ourselves. They are the truest embodiment of ‘The medium is the message’. There is no canonical truth or architectural problem to solve here.
When a user picks an app its analogues to picking an outfit, a restaurant or a nightclub - it's an act of self expression.
Let me say that again: The mere act of choosing the app is part of the self expression just as much as what you do with the app.
Once in the app (the medium), it's implementation of identity (or lack there of) and various content creation tools (what we used to call 'Social Gestures') then, of course, affect the interactions that take place. Each medium has its own social contract, engenders its own user behavior and allows the user to decide and declare something new about themselves. The fragmentation and inconsistencies between each medium are the entire point.
Even the 'silo' effect created by using different apps - which we fought so hard against in 2009 - is part of the point. Often times users don't want their Instagrams on their Facebook wall. This is not a bug, it's a feature.
In short - and despite my engineering/systems brain demanding an elegant, one size fits all solution - there is actually no architecture problem here. There isn’t even a ‘Real names’ or ‘Anonymity’ problem. Each app offers us a digital medium inside which we can express very human, very ancient parts of ourselves in the virtual world. And we need all forms of expression with all gradations of identity mixed in. Everyday users seem to want the fragmentation.
Instead (and as usual) it’s about a wide spectrum of mediums that come and go, trend and then fall away - much like the next new hot club opening in your city (only to precipitously fall in cool factor once it becomes mainstream).
It’s up to each of us to choose the clothes we wear, the clubs we party in and the apps we use. We get to choose the kind of interactions we have and, in doing so, say something about ourselves.