The Need for Personae in Social Networking

Facebook is attracting a lot of attention from the identity community, with many of us signing up on the site. And the blog entries regarding the experience make for some interesting reading.

Pamela Dingle blogged about the basic dilemma that most of us faced when we first signed up – our disinclination to give up (what we feel) is too much information in the form of the overwhelmingly abused and dreaded “date of birth”. To say that Facebook needs a way to verify that you are of age is an understatement (as anyone who has been perusing the blogosphere would know from the number of posts regarding predators on social networking sites). Yet the age-old technique of “give me your date of birth and click this check box to assure me that it is correct” isn’t a reliable form of identity proofing. That is in no way a deterrent to those kids intent on joining the next cool hangout. And it creates one more potential source of PII for hackers and identity thieves. Kim Cameron said that he gave his digital date of birth during sign up, one that has little to do with his real birthday. And the cause for concern is legitimate because we don’t know where the data is going (See my rant in “Why Social Websites are really Faux-Social” about the lack of control around what data gets shared by Facebook with 3rd party applications). Anyone can create an application on the Facebook Platform and immediately start harvesting PII data.

My experience with Facebook has also brought up another thing that bugged me – the lack of support for a digital persona. Pamela touched on it indirectly in her most recent Facebook related post. Most sites give me no way to partition my online identity with them into clearly separated personae. Again an example of how “social” in the online world doesn’t quite mirror that  of the real world. In reality, most of us keep our personal and our professional lives separate, with few overlaps. The delineation is extremely important, allowing us to express and indulge our personal freedom without an impact on our professional sphere of life. And we all have some experience, however minor, of the consequences of any blurring of that line.

A site like Facebook offers no such separation. Unlike LinkedIn, a site like Facebook covers both my personal and my professional spheres. While I would like to connect with my friends and relatives that are on Facebook, I do not want those (highly personal and potentially embarrassing in the wrong context) interactions to be visible to my professional contacts. Yet I have no way of creating different personae that govern my different relationships –  just one more example of the “All or Nothing” approach to social networking that is so pervasive right now.

Maybe I’m an oddity in this age of tell-all openness. But I think a poll of most of the Facebook netizens who are also working professionals would reveal a desire for persona management as part of their online experience.

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