People aren't digitally embodied. As a result, their online relationships are anemic. As we think about the kinds of digital identity systems that will help people live authentic online lives, we must build identity systems that give people tools to operationalize rich digital relationships.

Identity is the ability to recognize, remember, and react to people, organizations, systems, and things. In the current web, companies employ many ponderous technological systems to perform those functions. In these systems, we are like ghosts in the machines. We have "accounts" in companies' systems, but no good way to recognize, remember, and react to them or anyone else. We are not digital embodied.

One of the great benefits of embodiment is the ability to form and operationalize rich digital relationships. I've written a lot about the nature of digital relationships.

One of the discussions at VRM Day caused me to think about a feature of digital relationships I hadn't considered before. Someone said that if you think about a graph with people (or things, organizations, and so on) as the nodes, the relationships are the edges, like so1:

A single, bi-directional relationship
A single, bi-directional relationship (click to enlarge)

In this figure Alice and Bob have a bi-directional relationship. This is how I've normally thought about it and how I'd have drawn it. But in today's discussion, someone said that the relationship is shared and that Alice and Bob both control it. But I realized that viewpoint is too simple. Specifically, Alice and Bob each have a different perspective of that relationship and will use it separately.

For example, imagine that Alice is the cashier at a grocery store and Bob is a customer. Alice gives great service, so Bob seeks her out when he shops. Alice on the other hand has no particular recollection of Bob from encounter to encounter. For Alice, the relationship is ephemeral, but for Bob, it's longer term. The nature of each relationship is different. So, we might look at it like this:

Two uni-directional relationships
Two uni-directional relationships (click to enlarge)

But after discussing it some more, I realized that these relationships aren't independent. They're entangled like this:

Entangled relationships
Entangled relationships (click to enlarge)

In the example I gave above, as Bob seeks out Alice more and more, Alice might come to recognize him and call him by name, changing the nature of her relationship with Bob. And that may influence the nature of Bob's relationship with Alice. Over time, these interactions influence both relationships. So, while Alice and Bob both have control over their relationship with the other, actions by one influence the other.

I frequently say that we don't build identity systems to manage identities, but rather to manage relationships. The problem with contemporary identity systems is that they are all one sided, controlled by one party—almost always a company. As I've said before, people are not digitally embodied and thus have no good way to manage their online relationships. As we strive to build better digital identity systems, I think it's paramount that we build systems that provide people with tools that embody them and provide them with the ability to operationalize their online relationships. These are more than decentralized; they are self-sovereign.


  1. Peer decentralized identifiers (DIDs) are a great technology for creating bi-directional relationships.

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Last modified: Thu Apr 25 10:13:41 2024.