Naturally, given my obsessions, I was struck by a subset of the Real-Time Club discussions about identities on the web at their evening with Aleks Krotoski. In particular, I was struck by the discussion about multiple identities on the web, because it connects with some work we (Consult Hyperion) have been doing for the European Commission. One point that was common to a number of the discussions was the extent to which identity is needed for, or integral to, online transactions. Generally speaking, I think many people mistake the need for some knowledge about a counterparty with the need to know who they are, a misunderstanding that actually makes identity fraud worse because it leads to identities being shared more widely than they need be. There was a thread to the discussion about children using the web, as there always is in such discussions, and this led me to conclude that proving that you are over (or under) 18 online might well be the acid test of a useful identity infrastructure: if your kids can’t easily figure out a way to get round it, then it will be good enough for e-government, e-business and the like.

I think the conversation might have explored more about privacy vs. anonymity, because many transactions require the former but not the latter. But then there should be privacy rather than anonymity for a lot of things, and there should be anonymity for some things (even if this means friction in a free society, as demonstrated by the Wikileaks storm). I can see that this debate is going to be difficult to organise in the public space, simply because people don’t think about those topics in a rich enough way: they think common sense is a useful guide which, when it comes to online identity, it isn’t.

On a different subject, a key element of the evening’s discussion was whether the use of social media, and the directions of social media technology, lead to more or less serendipity. (Incidentally, did you know that the word “serendipity” was invented by Horace Walpole in 1754?) Any discussion about social media naturally revolves around Facebook.

Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today’s lack of identity-forging social experience.

[From Facebook: the heart in a heartless world | spiked]

I don’t agree, but I can see the perspective. But I don’t see my kids fleeing into Facebook, I see them using Facebook to multiply and enrich their interpersonal interactions. Do they meet new people on Facebook? Yes, they do. Is that true for all kids, of all educational abilities, of all socio-economic classes, I don’t know (and I didn’t find out during the evening, because everyone who was discussing the issue seemed to have children at expensive private schools, so they didn’t seem like a statistically-representative cross-section of the nation).

Personally, I would come down on the side of serendipity. Because of social media I know more people than I did before, but I’ve also physically met more people than I knew before: social media means that I am connected with people who a geographically and socially more dispersed. I suppose you might argue that its left me less connected with the people who live across the street from me, but then I don’t have very much in common with them.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers

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