[This article first appeared on Adobe's CMO.com - April 2015]
There’s a famous cartoon by Peter Steiner, published in the New Yorker in 1993. It features two dogs sat in front of a computer. One says to the other, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.
Today, on the internet, everybody knows you’re a dog. They also know what breed of dog you are, where your kennel is, what you ate for breakfast, who your canine friends are, your doggy political views, what your puppies look like, your favourites trees, how many balls you’ve chased this week, and so on.
Through digital channels we are comprehensively observed by our social and business connections, corporations and the state.
The digital components of our identity are more complex than perhaps many data-gathering systems recognise though. Our digital identity isn’t a singular thing like a record in a database. Digital identity is becoming increasingly multi-faceted, like a cut gemstone, composed of many sides.
Digital identities may be thought of as having three broad components:
This is self representation. We project a version of ourselves that describes how we wish to be perceived. This includes the things we say about ourselves (our bio etc), the avatars we choose to represent us, our digital tone of voice, the content we choose to share with others, etc.
What other people say about us in a network environment inevitably becomes a component of our digital identity. Algorithms, in particular, constantly update the jigsaw-like image they have of an individual based on the available fragments of information.
What we say is often not what we do. Many systems on the network define our digital identity purely based on what we do, where we go, what we click on, what we buy or subscribe to.
Even taking these three broad components of the digital self together, they do not describe who we really are. We are compound personalities, an idea present across philosophy, the esoteric and neuroscience.
We are developing Trace Bodies that extend out across the network. Individuals have a digital halo that is perceivable in a digital channel even when the individual is not currently “present”. Every digital action that we take, every website, app, game or wearable we use, we leave an echo of our actions behind. As sensors start to proliferate in the physical environment we will leave digital footprints everywhere.
Some of these traces are more actively tracked by organisations than others. There’s something unsettling about the language used by the industry. Tracking is something traditionally associated with a hunter following prey. The more you learn about how your digital identity is being followed and profiled, particularly along the path-to-purchase, the more it can feel as though you are the prey of a large organisation.
Perhaps this partly explains the rise in the use of ad blockers and related privacy-enhancement tools. Adobe and PageFair reported last September that ad blocking was now mainstream behaviour, particularly amongst younger male demographics. Adoption of these tools is accelerating, more than doubling from 2013 to 2014. There’s a proliferation of available tools from simple browser plugins like Privacy Badger, Adblock Plus, Lightbeam and Ghostery to more comprehensive software for managing your digital traces like disconnect.me and Tor. Me & My Shadow maintain a useful list of these services and is worth a look if you want to see what your digital trace body looks like.
Digital Identity Services
As privacy concerns increase, perhaps we’ll see a gap in the market filled. As far as I’m aware there is currently no standardised, user-friendly system that permits an individual to control how their digital “trace body” is accessed or used by third parties. The UK government has the midata initiative which is designed to give people better access to the data companies hold about them. The initial focus is data held by energy companies, mobile operators and banks. Comparing current accounts is a clunky process that requires you to download a csv file of your transaction data then upload it to the Gocompare comparison engine. It’s a step in the right direction though.
Given recent revelations, are governments the most trusted provider of these digital identity services? Should the W3C be working on open standards for the management of personal data, in the same way they investigate standards for payment innovation and cryptocurrencies? Will we see an independent body or an enterprising social business create simple tools that allow people to control which facets of their digital identity may be accessed by an online grocery service and which may be accessed by the tax man? Perhaps we’ll see services that let organisations pay individuals for access to certain valuable elements of their identity. Might we see advertisers paying their targets to view advertising, or Facebook paying users to participate on their platforms? In the insurance and utility industries, every year many customers are forced to research the market to get the best deal. Could there be a better way where deals are automatically and proactively tailored to customers based on the aspects of their identity they choose to share via a software system?
Towards a Human API
An API (application programming interface), normally created by software businesses, is a set of procedures allowing third parties to access and use the features and data their service has. Imagine if every individual had an API into their digital identity, that they controlled, not the state or a corporation. People might elect to share anonymised elements of their identity (say, their domestic energy consumption) to relevant services, receiving customised products and services in return. Beyond Pricing has created an algorithmic pricing service that allows airbnb hosts to dynamically change their prices based on market conditions. If customers had personal APIs, we could see something like a stock market for accommodation where algorithms representing airbnb hosts and others representing potential customers negotiate price in real time.
Human APIs (hAPI™) would stimulate a revolution in the development of products and services across all sectors. We might also begin to see a sea-change in the relationship between the individual, corporations and the state. As Doc Searls wrote in his influential piece about Vendor Relationship Management:
“The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or "capturing") buyers.”
Expressed more bluntly in the recently updated Cluetrain Manifesto:
“Don’t worry: we’ll tell you when we’re in the market for something. In our own way. Not yours. Trust us: this will be good for you.”