[Image by ArielP]
Who am I?
It depends who you ask, or what I'm doing.
I've always believed that there is a certain contextual fluidity to identity - we are different people around different people. That isn't to say we are all being false, rather that identity is an intensely complex construct and we don't have it all on display all the time. Certain situations and people bring out certain aspects of who we are and that version of you is simply one facet through which people perceive the whole.
That also doesn't mean you are being different people each time - consistency is the defining charateristic of, well, your character.
[What kind of person is she? A happy person. This means "She is usually happy". Without any consisitency, you couldn't really be said to have any identity at all. You could be erratic, but consistently so, which isn't the same thing as being random.]
Now what happens when lots of different people are with you at the same time? Or indeed all the time?
The idea of identity changes online and those changes are becoming increasingly significant. First of all, the distinction between your private and your public life begins to blur.
Increasingly, having an online footprint is a prerequisite for social interaction, especially, but not exclusively, among the young - FT recently called under 24s the networked generation in reference to their online behaviours and Computerworld recently posed the existential question:
If someone searches for you on the Web and comes up empty-handed, do you exist?
As the article points out, recruiters are using the web to check out applicants and they posit that soon, if you don't exist online, it may count against you.
Which, finally, brings me to Distributed Identity.
If you were to look for me online, you'd find lots of different mes.
There's TIGS, Flickr Me, Myspace Me, Ning Me, LinkedIn Me, Orkut Me, Del.icio.us Me, My Twitterings, Last FM Me and, pretty soon I imagine, even a Facebook Me [as hard as I've resisted I fear it's inevitable] - and that's just the stuff with profiles.
Online identity is a distributed construct, with different elements - professional, personal, different interests etc - represented in different ways on different platforms. If you're under 24 you may well have profiles / pages on MSN Spaces, Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and each will no doubt be slightly different. This is a goldmine of behavioural research information about how people think about themselves, and the way they want the world to see them in different contexts, including, often, what brands they feel strongly enough about to use as signifiers of who they are.
A new start up called Zoolit has just launched that allows you to list all your personal sites - an identity aggregator, if you will.
This distributed identity, archived online, throws up all kinds of interesting new situations. Y0u have to be careful what you say: you might get Dooced [lose your job because of an online comment] or expose your sexual exploits to a potential employer.
But, perhaps more interestingly, you can demonstrate the different facets of who you are and let people access you via the area that interests them.
Which is also possibly a model for how brands could exist online. There's a great post here about Brand Portals, but it occurs to me that brands could distribute their identity across different platforms and elements - just like we do - and thus engage different groups in ways that are relevant to them.
Which is exactly what new agency Zeus Jones has done. Their page is nothing more than an aggregation of their distributed online identity. As they point out:
Zeus Jones lives in many places online
Just like we do.