What is Identity?


Last week David Weinberger published an essay entitled There's No I in Identity. The essay discusses the way people talk about identity in the real world and how the word is used on the net. The gist of the essay is perhaps best summed up in its subtitle "Why Clark Kent Isn't Superman's Secret Identity." David ends with five conclusions:

So, what does the ordinary language meaning of "identity" in the real world suggest about digital identity?

1. In the real world, we don't identify everyone. We only identify those about whom we have doubts that we have to resolve for some purpose. Identifying is not the default in the real world. Nor, IMO, should it be online.

2. Real world identifying is the connecting of the thing/person at hand with information relevant to our purpose. There is nothing in this process about a "real self" that has "properties." In the same way, digital identification is about connecting what's in hand with other information we need for some purpose. That's the sense in which there's no "I" in "identity."

3. The cluster of information that gets connected to what's at hand should be limited to what's needed to accomplish the purpose of the identification. But the purposes of, say, a merchant and customer are at odds in this regard: merchants like to know lots more about customers than is required to complete a sale because merchants want a relationship, not a mere transaction. That's not what we mean by "identification," though. That's more like "investigation." Digital ID ought to be used to refer to connecting what's at hand to the minimum set of information.

4. In the real world, an ID is a unique token that is evidence that some other information about a person is true: A driver's license connects you to permission to drive and to a birth date, etc. It'd help people like me not be so confused if "digital ID" meant the same thing.

5. In the real world, not every case of going from doubt to certainty by connecting myself to other information is a matter of identification. For example, I can get out of the parking lot for free by showing a ticket that's been stamped by one of the merchants. That connects me to other information (that I made a purchase) but doesn't identify me. We should strive to keep the same range of options online; I should have to identify myself only when there is some legitimate reason to.

We have evolved a careful, subtle set of usages for the terms of identification. We've done so because they serve important social purposes. Let's hope that in bringing "identity" to the digital world, we're guided by the nuances shown in ordinary language, not by the ham-fisted assumptions we bandy about in our real world thinking.
From JOHO - April 15, 2004
Referenced Tue Apr 20 2004 15:29:13 GMT-0600

I think David's points are well taken. I like his distinction between identity and ID (the credentials) and I think his use of language to guide our thoughts about identity in the online world is a good approach.

Still, I can't help but agree with much of what Jon Udell says in a response called "Always-On Identification". In particular, I think Jon is right when he points out that the acts of identifying and authenticating in the real world happen so frequently at the subconscious level that letting language be our sole guide may be a mistake. We often don't have words for things that seem almost automatic. Borrowing Jon's example, when my 5-year old daughter tries to sneak up behind me in my office and scare me, I don't say I "identified her" I just say I "heard her" or something else. Still, my brain, supreme pattern matching engine that it is, is certainly "identifying."

Andre Durand's concept of identity tiers is instructive here in that it helps us define more clearly what we mean when we say identity. We often use "identity" to mean many different things that these tiers are good examples. I've written my own description of what Andre was saying, along with some interpretations developed during conversations with Doc Searls. Here it is, Digital Identity Perspectives, in language that David will almost certainly dislike. This is taken from a chapter of my upcoming book on Digital Identity. Your comments would be welcome.