The Noisy Channel


Approach and Identify

May 19th, 2009 · 11 Comments · General

Back on my 30th birthday, my wife gave me a copy of Logan’s Run, with a card ensuring me that I’d found sanctuary. The joke is probably lost on those who haven’t seen this wonderful sci-fi B-movie, as is the title of this post, but you can crib from the script here.

But I’ll get to the point of this post, I just read in the New York Times that Equifax, one of the larger consumer credit reporting agencies in the United States,  is developing an “i-card” service that will let you create and then assert an online identity, backed up by them. Yes, they’re hardly the first to offer some kind of online identity validation, but their being a major offline player may make them different than OpenID or similar services. Then again, the article suggests that the service is complex to use, so it might just fall under its own weight.

In any case, I hope that the blogosphere takes these efforts seriously. As I’ve noted in the past (e.g., here), it strikes me as oddly antisocial that anonymous publishing is the norm in social media, at least for commenters. Yes, anonymity makes sense for whistle blowers, political dissidents, and anyone else who fears retribution. But it is hardly necessary for your average TechCrunch commenter. Instead, it makes it easy for people to post vitriol–or just nonsense–without any risk to personal reputation. I don’t see the social value.

Moreover, just imagine how easy it would be for someone who didn’t like you do start posting embarrassing comments and signing them with your name. Or perhaps someone might pursue a more subtle strategy, such as posting reasonable-sounding comments in order to advance an agenda. Less speculatively, we’ve seen how anonymity can be troublesome for the integrity of Wikipedia editing.

Given the growing role of social media, we’re going to have to cross this information accountability bridge sooner or later. I hope it’s sooner. Would it be nice if we developed a cultural norm that people stood proudly behind their online words?

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave Kellogg // May 19, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Agree on the information accountability front — and wonder if someday we don’t get it through some universal sign-on. Or if Facebook ends up dominating the world where, by definition, they know who you are. Which, by the way, might be a key reason why they or someone else ends up dominating the world.

    Loved Logan’s Run as well, by the way. “Last Day, Capricorn 5s”

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // May 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    If Facebook can become the identity server of record, they may yet achieve a $15B valuation. But judging from the number of hits on Google for fake facebook, I’m not holding my breath.

    Re Logan’s Run: I suppose my reference was timely, given the recent Farrah Fawcett documentary. 🙂

  • 3 coldbrew // May 19, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Well, I don’t think the simplistic view you have offered in this post rightly characterizes the precautions and challenges that need to be considered when talking about internet accountability and anonymity. But, since I haven’t read anything you have written that takes a deep-dive on the topic trust, I’ll just comment on the topic to which you linked (i.e. the Equifax PR move):

    I have known about this project at Equifax for quite some time, and my take is that Equifax is a B2B company without any of the ‘compassion’ required to operate a service on behalf of consumers. Another consequence of their company’s operational history is public perception, which I think is best characterized as “Shooting the messenger”, but not without good reason. If Equifax wants to get into direct relationships with consumers, they should start by making the user experience of disputing credit reports quite a bit more simple, transparent, even. The only reason I ever learned about “i-card” is because I was researching a possible project that would be competitive to this, but set-up as a non-profit, and that is where this type of project should be, imo. I don’t trust Equifax.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // May 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    I do appreciate the irony that an anonymous commenter (a rarity here) offers a blanket criticism of simplistic views on internet accountability and anonymity. I have written a fair amount about these concerns in the past, but I imagine you’re not a regular reader. I don’t think problems are that complicated, though I admit the solutions may be.

    Here are the problems as I see them:

    1) Anonymity, which is largely shunned as anti-social in the offline world, is the default online, and is thus an enabler of much online ant-social behavior.

    2) While it’s possible to prove your identity, it’s difficult, and the lack of a smooth infrastructure makes authentication rare. Probably the closest we have are services like OpenID and Facebook Connect, which at least allow someone to maintain a consistent identity.

    3) Despite all of the above, there is a presumption that authorship is legitimate, with the exception of people who have achieved enough celebrity to attract obvious poseurs. Hence, it would be quite easy to impersonate someone who was not a celebrity.

    As I said, I don’t know the solutions are simple. Equifax certainly has a lot of baggage from its track record in the offline world, as do the other credit agencies. Perhaps Facebook starts with a better slate, though they have their issues too. Regardless, I think it is an unmet need that will only grow as people wreak more mischief by exploiting the weaknesses of the current model.

  • 5 Craig VerColen // May 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    What are your thoughts on “corporate identities”? In other words, a poster (regardless of medium) identified as a company? I’m seeing it less and less with blogs — at least with authors — but services like Twitter and even FB have given it new life. They maybe inherently less anti-social or brazen BUT they could quite easily — and do often — communicate information/engage people with the same impersonal faceless, nameless protections afforded an anonymous poster.

    I hate to be yet another JetBlue social fan boy, but at least their approach is to identify real people on duty behind any postings/updates/conversations. Another tangible example is the @OmnitureCare customer support Twitter account. It’s actually a dude at Omniture — Ben Gaines — and that is made clear by the bio, pic, etc.

    Corporations are really just a collection of actual people. And regardless of eventual transparency, authentication model, you could quite easily identify the people behind the brand.

    So the question is do your beliefs — with which I agree — extend to bio-less corporate posters? Should BRANDS be held to the same level of accountability?

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // May 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I think corporate identities have their place. For example, there are times it makes sense for Endeca and other companies to make statements using an official corporate voice. As far as I’m concerned, the speaker or writer is acting solely as a corporate representative, and what matter is who is taking responsibility–in those cases, the corporation.

    Putting a human face on such interactions can certainly make them warmer, and I can see how that makes sense for companies that use social media as part of their customer service / outreach. But I don’t think its a requirement. For example, a number of us Endecans sometimes post tweets as @endeca and don’t sign with our names (which is a pain to do withing 140 chars anyway). I don’t see that as a violation of transparency, and more than not having engineers’ names listed in our software documentation.

    In short, I do think brands should be held accountable, but I think part of being a brand is to have an identity that is independent of the people supporting it. But, like David Kellogg, I frown on ghost writing. People are people; brands are brands.

  • 7 coldbrew // May 21, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Tunkelang: I think you clearly demonstrated (though inadvertently) the complications with respect to anonymity and accountability. In your response to me you note the “irony” of my being an “anonymous commenter’, but I would refute that I’m anonymous for several reasons ( I suppose it depends on how you define anonymous, and you’ve obviously chosen your own criteria).

    To wit: I use the handle ‘coldbrew’ for numerous web services. I signed my comment with my email address which includes my first name and a domain which I own. It is quite trivial (for anyone ‘paying attention’) to determine the identity (i.e. their legal name according to their country’s government records) of someone that owns a domain.

    Because you’ve chosen to trivialize many of the complex issues at hand that would require a very long response, I will just say it sounds like your are pointing to others that have different expectations of privacy than yourself and said, “You’re doing it wrong!” and I take issue with that (among several things you say). It simply isn’t black and white.

    P.S. I don’t think I’ve displayed a propensity to, “post vitriol–or just nonsense”, though I am anonymous according to you.

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // May 21, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Coldbrew: you are right that there is nuance to anonymity. I believe you that your email address is valid and that you use this handle consistently. But not only did I not know that (and I only take that on faith now), but consider that someone actually felt the need to email me to assure me that he wasn’t you! In fact, since I was unfamiliar with your handle and learned nothing useful from the IP address associated with your comment, I assumed you were choosing to be anonymous.

    I didn’t think your comment was an example of vitriol or nonsense–I hope that was evident from my attempt to respond to it. But do you disagree that the of vitriol and nonsense in the blogosphere as a whole is disproportionately anonymous? I’ll admit that I don’t have hard data, only an impression fueled by years of personal experience.

    And I concede that I’m glossing over nuance in this short blog post. But I think you are also either oversimplifying or misunderstanding my point. I’m all for options: complete anonymity, the use of a persistent handle, authenticated disclosure, etc. What I want is transparency. I want there to be a difference between me posting as me, offering proof of identity, and you posting as me, taking advantage of the fact that practically no one will know the difference. I want a system that is not vulnerable to trivial defamation attacks.

    Reread the post. I’m advocating a cultural norm. I’m not insisting that this level of disclosure be mandatory, but rather that it be an option–and that I further think it should be the *default* option. I’d certainly settle for it being one that is ubiquitous and easy for people to use. Right now it’s not even a choice.

  • 9 coldbrew // May 25, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I’m advocating a cultural norm.

    Good luck with that 😉

    I think one could either create a WP plugin that would set-up a page for one’s comments elsewhere on the web with an included bookmarklet (to make it resource efficient) that, upon clicking takes one’s comment and places an entry to the page created by the plugin. One could also use Backtype or Twitter to ‘Cc’ their comments pro-actively. FriendFeed could also be used, although it wouldn’t be quite as straightforward.

    Obviously, OpenID, FB Connect, and Friend Connect are all aimed at achieving the same thing, but I prefer solutions that can be self-hosted and within one’s own control.

  • 10 coldbrew // May 25, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    Please ignore the mistakes above. If clarification is needed, let me know.

    I believe your issues of concern relate to debates held about other software/ service:

    Both Google and Facebook have developed their own methods for creating a web-of-trust which are widely used. I believe a web-of-trust must be built organically with open source software where the users are in control, but also paying the bandwidth bills.

  • 11 Daniel Tunkelang // May 25, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Indeed, my blog already serves as a loose authenticity test for my comments–though someone subtle enough could certainly write something consistent with my blog but nonetheless damaging. The larger problem is that anything with my name on it would be presumed to be written by me.

    Nonetheless, I do like the idea of a browser plug-in that automatically posts my comments to my blog, Facebook, or some other site where I maintain a consistent identity. Indeed, such an approach would work just as well with a persistent pseudonym as with a real name.

    And I’d love to see a web-of-trust approach for the blogosphere, along the lines you describe. But that would require a breaking down of siloed barriers that I don’t expect to be imminent–precisely because it’s not in the interest of those who have built and are maintaining today’s social networks. So I’ll wait for things to break down before they get better.

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