Digital relationships under the microscope

* UC Berkeley Ph.D., candidate delves into the social aspects of online participation

At the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference last week, I came about a fascinating discussion called "Revenge of the User" given by Danah Boyd, a Ph.D., candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. While primarily about the ways people use so-called "social software" Web sites (Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, etc.), it also reflected the work she'd done for her Master's thesis: "Faceted Identity: Managing representation in a digital world."

In Boyd's own words, "Focused on giving users control over their digital identity, the thesis research documented at this Web site discusses issues of contextual negotiation, self-awareness, and faceting of one's identity for management purposes."

Where Boyd talks about "faceting" identity, there are similarities to the terms persona and role we've used to describe the components of a total identity.

In her talk, Boyd pointed out the digital nature of social software - that is, you're either a friend or a not-a-friend (a non-person?). She points out that some of this is U.S.-centric in that the notion of "acquaintance" appears to be disappearing from the American lexicography (while it still is useful in, say, a European context).

When everyone you meet calls you by your first name, then it's hard to accept that you aren't their "friend." Yet, real life is an analog continuum of relationships from spouse/lover through "nodding acquaintance" (someone you acknowledge because you're aware of them, you've seen them in a particular context more than once, but you've no idea what their name might be or, for that matter, anything else about them) all the way to the truly "unknown."

A second theme both of Boyd's talk and her thesis is that the individual needs the power to control the description of their identity. This fits in with the "personal directory" concept I've broached from time to time (see, for example, http://www.nwfusion.com/newsletters/dir/2003/0519ds1.html et seq).

As Boyd notes in her thesis: "I focus on the role of design in affecting an individual's ability to maintain control of personal representation and identity information. I argue that the architecture of current digital environments has altered our notions of context, motivating users to develop new mechanisms for managing their presentation. I take the stance that users should have the ability to control their digital identity for the same reasons that they seek to control their physical identity, most notably to present themselves in an appropriate manner in relation to the current situation."

Read the thesis and then look at Boyd's work on SecureID, which takes the concept of persona/facet and shows how to discriminate among the facets and keep the attributes of one persona from "contaminating" another one. It's fascinating reading.

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Danah Boyd

Danah's Master's thesis

Boyd's work on SecureID

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