A new you?

[As ever you can read this on the BBC News website]

A business user who forgot the password for their account on the corporate network would probably get a withering look from the IT department as they grovelled to have it reset, but it seems that young people who forget their MySpace logins are just as likely to make a new account as fret over their lost friends or painstakingly constructed homepage decorations.

I’ve seen this myself with my daughter, who has been through more user accounts, social sites and email addresses than I could even begin to keep track of and seems to see nothing unusual in abandoning a profile because it doesn’t feel right any more.

But recent work by US-based social media researcher Danah Boyd, one of the more astute observers of network behaviour, indicates that it is a more general attitude.

Her observations of young net users have led her to believe that ‘many teens are content (if not happy) to start over with most of their accounts in most places’, and she has noted that for young people an online profile is ‘not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but something to use to talk to friends in the moment’.

She was particularly impressed by the kids who start a new profile simply because they can’t remember their login name or password.

It isn’t an attitude I share, perhaps because I’m less willing to spend time setting up new accounts but also because I work hard to manage my online presence and to present a unified identity wherever I happen to be logged on.

I even try to use the same login name for every service I sign up for, but perhaps teenagers, experimenting with their identity in relationships, clothing styles and all other aspects of life are simply extending this playfulness and willingness to try out possibilities to the virtual realm.

Not all young users are casual about their online identity, of course, and Boyd is at pains to point out that many young people invest heavily in aspects of their online activities. However the willingness to abandon a profile as a work-in-progress and start over is definitely something I’ve observed in my children and their friends.

Nor is it a new phenomenon. When my daughter was younger she was hooked on Neopets and had five or six accounts going at the same time, partly because she could then trade with herself and game the  system but also because she expressed different aspects of her personality in the different accounts.

This approach to online identity has a number of implications for anyone trying to understand the way the internet is growing, and also carries an important lesson for those trying to build services or make money out of them.

One positive aspect is that it will make it harder to pin online activity onto a real person, since accounts that are created and quickly discarded will contain fewer identifying details.

Given the growing use of online searches to find out more about applicants to college or for jobs, it would wonderfully ironic if the disorganised kids with a dozen MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and DeviantArt profiles end up being the ones who make it to university simply because the admissions tutors can’t find enough evidence of their partying.

More importantly, this casualness clearly renders any statistics about the number of signed-up users effectively meaningless, and this could be a big problem for the sites themselves as companies vie for investment and point to signups as an indicator of popularity and future success.

Commentator Clay Shirky has been waging a campaign against the sloppy journalism of those who quote Linden Labs figures for Second Life ‘residents’. He points out that many happily accept the headline figure of two million users without considering that only 36,000 of those are paid-for accounts while a high but indeterminate proportion of the remainder are inactive, set up for free by people who tried out the service and then moved on.

It is the same with MySpace, Bebo or any of the other social sites, of course, and shows how poor we are at measuring what really goes on online.

Websites, having struggled for years to adapt to the idea of the pageview instead of the server request as the key measure of site activity, are now building interactive pages that occupy user attention and time but don’t generate hits or page views – and they don’t know how to measure this usage.

Now it seems that the millions of signups on MySpace, Bebo and the other social network sites could be the same set of forgetful teenagers coming back again. And again.

It may just be that I’m older and therefore more boring, or it may be that I simply have less time for that sort of thing, but there’s a part of me that wants a way to match online identity with real-world identity in a solid, straightforward way.

Organisations like the Liberty Alliance offer tools for managing online identity that can limit the information we share with other people and still prove who we are for the situations where assured identity is absolutely vital – like when dealing with a bank, or getting academic credit for an online course.

But there are many other areas of life online where the fluidity of non-identity, of the carnival mask and the assumed name, are also vital, and not just for furtive encounters in chat rooms.

I had always thought that this would involve carefully-chosen pseudonyms and some sort of identity management system, but the answer seems to lie in throwaway accounts and a far more casual approach.

As with so much else about the digital world our kids, having grown up with this stuff all around them, seem to be finding ways to make it work for them that escape those of us who will always be digital immigrants.  But at least we can learn from them.

Bill’s Links

Danah Boyd observations

Clay Shirky on Second Life

Second Life official stats

O’Reilly on PageViews

Liberty Alliance

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5 Responses to A new you?

  1. Dominic Self says:

    This is very interesting because I’ve noticed it as well – although I’m very much in your ‘unified branding’ camp. It’s not an exclusively online thing though, I have quite a few friends with multiple mobile numbers and SIM cards along with the instruction to ‘try them all’.

  2. Kent Olsen says:

    What the internet is what I would understand as the Buddhist understanding of the self, that there exists no self, that the construction, modification and rebuilding of the self is a process and it is not as concrete as people believe it to be. On example I give to my friends is human logic. Human logic is fuzzy logic. For instance one day I may say that my favorite color is blue. The next day I go out with my friends and say I just say a car with my favorite color. They respond by pointing out the blue car, but I point to a yellow car. They are confused cause I said that my favorite color was blue. However, hours after I said blue was my favorite color, I saw a beautiful girl with a yellow shirt. So, logic, identity and what is associated with my favorite color has changed as a result of environmental influences. Therefore, creating new identities in MySpace is nothing new. The human experience has not changed as a result of the digital age, but the digital age is better reflecting the human mind. Identity is not as solid as one imagines.

  3. Barry Lock says:

    just read your article on multiple identities – in the early days of freeserve I had 5 accounts for different purposes – my children and wife also had their own accounts – when freeserve was sold for several billion this meant each account was valued at over £1000 – our family was worth over £10,000 to the investors !!!! – this proved to us that the whole dot.com frenzy was bound to crash. I see the same fictitious figures being used again for the newest crazes.
    I am in hi-tech sales (for last 35 years)and I am continually amazed at how marketing and financial people seem to assume growth for one product/system can go on forever – all markets have a percentage at which you reach saturation. Also they project figures for teenage crazes into the whole population. All these things live for a while and are superseded by the next “latest” thing. By the time the city investors put their money in most have gone over the crest.

  4. Bill Thompson says:

    Hi Bill Thompson I wonder If we are related for I’m Bill Thompson too I can go back four generations of Bill (William) Thompsons in my Family, the first I know of being killed at Mons in 1914.
    nice touching base
    I’ll come back from time to time.
    Bill

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