2014-04-13

Dimensions of online identity (about:me)

Ongoing discussion on how social accounts should be represented in schema.org is quite interesting to follow. I've not yet put directly my pinch of salt in this soup, just posted a side note on Google+, which triggered a small forking debate. I'm confident enough in people at schema.org to come out with some pragmatic decision, hence as +Dan Brickley likes to say those days, I don't worry too much
But underneath the technical issues, arise some good questions about online identity. Some people in that discussion seem to consider that their social accounts are not really identifying them. In a recent post, I defended the opposite view that URIs of social profiles are maybe the most representative of the online identity, and should be used as primary URIs at least in contexts where social interaction is at stake. I would like to go a little further in this analysis.
The following diagram is inspired by the work of Fanny Georges, with whom I had a few exchanges back in 2009 about those subjects of online identity. For those who read French, you can find some of the original concepts in this paper (see diagram on page 3), where she introduces the notions of declarative identity, active identity, and computed identity. I come out with a slightly different representation, but I wanted to acknowledge the source of most concepts in the picture.



This diagram defines two dimensions of the online identity : a personal-social axis, and a declarative-active one. Each corner of the diagram represents a combination of two poles of those axes. You can figure yourself easily where any resource linked somehow to you will fit, but better clarify by some examples :
Bottom left you find your good old' 96 web page : been there, done that, my home, my kids, my research papers, my collection of old bikes, whatever. All chosen and made by you. Today you will find there a static online CV, for example.
Upper left contains anything said online about you, if you are (un)happy enough to be a public person : articles about you, photographs and videos, library records of your publications, a Wikipedia article about you if you are notable enough (unless you have mingled into its redaction, in which case it will be somewhere on the middle left).
Bottom right contains the traces of your individual interactions on the Web : the pages you visit, the searches you perform, the transactions you make etc. This part of your identity is split on many servers. A piece at your bank, a piece on Amazon, a piece at Google etc. This is the most obscure and frightening part of your identity, because you have no real control on that. Many systems know many things about you, that you might have forgotten.
Upper right contains all the interactions you have on the social Web : FB wall, comments on you blog posts, retweets, GMail etc.

Orthogonal to those two axes is whatever is computed from those data. Many things have been computed behind the scenes long ago from your personal activity (bottom right) : cookies on your browser, suggestions from Amazon, and all sorts of adware or malware entering your computer. Things computed from the social-active upper right are suggestions (friends, books ..) and anything Google or Facebook or whoever "thinks" you would like to do, read, buy etc.
The Semantic Web on the other hand, has been interested mainly in computing on declarative identity : DBpedia descriptions (upper left), FOAF profiles (bottom left). 
Google, for the Knowledge Graph, seems to gather stuff from all over the place : what I say and what I do, what others say about me and what other do in interaction with me. And at the end of the day, even if it's scary to see all this stuff put together and crunched by mysterious algorithms on Big G servers, all together it might yield a more balanced view of my identity than any of its aspects. That's why I take my Google+ URI to be as close as possible to the "about:me" node in the center of the diagram.

[Added 2014-04-14] See also Cybernetics and Conversation. Quote from the reference article (1996) 
Thus we find ourselves being constructed (defined, identified, distinguished) _by_ that conversation. From this point-of-view, our selves emerge as a consequence of conversation. Expressed more fully, conversation and identity arise together.