Category Archives: Identity and the Internet

Digital Humanity

Football rode a golden age to America’s true pastime, and only a half-century or so later did we stop to realize and start to come to grips with the epidemic of head injury and CTE which was the flip side of a sport that brought so much to players and fans.

In a similar vein, if the Internet (and software) is eating the world, then it’s worth stopping for a second to take stock of what is coming out the other side.

Twenty-one years after NCSA Mosaic, the internet indisputably has demonstrated its magic through interconnection, creativity, shared content, games, aggregated demand, quicker and more accessible communication.  This has led to new business models, ways to communicate, and political changes.

This has been enabled by a transformation in how we live our daily lives in which there is digital inter-mediation in most everything.  We daily create a ton of data and we have processing speed which enables the ability to recognize and make sense of the data.

These are all good things generally, but also in a sense are dangerous to the human condition which depends on anonymity, forgetfulness, the ability to make mistakes, limits on the ability of people to exert evil, and recognition of the complexity of personhood. Facial recognition, email, web tracking, digital purchases, and search histories can create unalterable biographies that can be abused.

This is seen in countless contexts: the ability of the NSA to spy on us; an arguably greater ability for many private firms to know about us with almost no legal guidelines, and the ability for teenage hackers to steal credit card information from a third of the US in one shot.  We can go on.

Our lives have become digital.  We need to confront the waste that is a byproduct of this otherwise immensely positive fact. The digital life excretes indelible trails. This will affect some very existential elements of our humanity.

Sign Up Fatigue

Two weeks ago, I attended a focus group for a friend’s start-up, one of the hottest right now.  It was fun, both in seeing the passion of the founder’s team, learning more about their vision and how it was received by others, and in contributing to something that is more than just a business.  Their vision — in creating a new category based on their individual passions to meet a real collective need and improve life for all of us it — is the type of vision that excites me the most.

One of the most interesting insights from the focus group was also the most applicable across startups.   A sign up button — as a gateway to seeing what the site is about — is like a stop sign or a barbed wire fence. It sends the message that users are unwelcome.  Even when there is a smaller bypass link nearby.

The group seemed unanimous on this point.  There’s a fatigue to another sign up — another password, more emails.  We are hyper-sensitive and it that leads us to see barbed wire fences even in cases when they are not there.

This is obvious in many ways, and it has been for many years.  But I think the success of some daily deal sites in getting your email address before showing their wares suggested otherwise.  In order to overcome the fatigue and the natural suspicion of handing over your personal information, you must put up a billboard-sized welcome sign, the red carpet has to be rolled out through wide-open doors, and you need people to see and taste the feast inside,  Maybe multiple times.  And then you have to ask them to sign up in a subtle way.

This is less of an issue after you have created the category — think Facebook — but a real issue when you are still trying to create the category.

Andreessen and the Long March to Real Names

I have previously written that the most profound legacy of Facebook in terms of Internet behavior is:

Facebook’s primacy legacy is not its site and service, but the profound changes it drove in Internet behavior.  Facebook made Internet users comfortable with using their real names and bringing their real lives onto the Internet.  Whether using real names is good or bad in certain situations, this was a real leap.

The reason it succeeded in changing behavior was:

Facebook modified this, taking it to new level.  How?  It found the group of people – college students – most comfortable with having their names associated with a real-time lens into their lives, whether through their own status updates and their friends comments.  In doing so, it became compelling.  Watching how much fun the college kids were having, the rest of us jumped in, in many cases more cautiously, by exercising a little more judgment about what we posted, but being more open than ever before.  By starting with a group that “didn’t know better” or “didn’t care,” it pulled the rest of us in.

In this interview in Wired this month, Marc Andreessen tells a resonant story about the shift from pseudonyms to real names — from the perspective of someone who lived through Mosaic, Netscape and Ning.

Andreessen: I often wonder if we should have built social into the browser from the start. The idea that you want to be connected with your friends, your social circle, the people you work with—we could have built that into Mosaic. But at the time, the culture on the Internet revolved around anonymity and pseudonyms.

Anderson: You built in cookies so that sites could remember each user.

Andreessen: But we didn’t build in the concept of identity. I think that might have freaked people out.

Anderson: It might still.

Andreessen: Yeah, I’m not sure at the time people were ready for it. I don’t think it was an accident that it took, you know, 13 or 14 years after we introduced the browser for people to say, “I want my identity to be a standard part of this.”

Anderson: And it took Mark Zuckerberg to figure out how to make it pay off.

Andreessen: It was really a generational shift—a group of young entrepreneurs, including Andrew Mason and Mark Zuckerberg, who weren’t burned by the dotcom boom and bust. I came to Ning with all these psychic scars. They just looked at the Internet and said, “This stuff is really cool, and we want to build something new.”

Multiple Email Personalities

I have four email addresses that i use actively (one work and three personal), and through the course of the last 25 years have had numerous ones – think compuserve, aol, schools, different jobs, and different providers. My wife never quite knows what email address to email me at, and thinks this is all atypical.

I don’t think it’s so atypical for a person with my early intensity of network/ net usage. Perhaps the start of signing up for and maintaining multiple accounts was the various free Internet services – think hotmail, yahoo, and the forgotten mail.com and visto.com, and having to deal with small amounts of storage – 3 MBs (remember that!). Then there was the “commerce and list account” to deal with e-savers, purchases, and associated spam (before decent spam filters), gaming sign-on offers ($50 of free vitamins to sign up!), staking out your name on various services, and reasons I have perhaps forgotten.

Before my iPhone, where everything lands in a common inbox, I surely spent too much extra time due to the multiple accounts, but it made sense having the multiple accounts because the inboxes serve as my archive and different folks now email me at different accounts. That said, I think this was not typical for folks using the Internet for two decades but at a normal intensity like my wife. I am not sure, but I also don’t think it as typical for high-intensity but younger users (I think the distinction that remains is work and personal, which should be separated for many reasons). Otherwise, because things like spam and storage are much less of issues, and if anything, folks are trying to get less email or communicating much more publicly through Twitter, I would guess it’s not as common to have multiple accounts.

All the above is observation of internet behavioral changes through time, perhaps uninteresting to many.  But it is interesting to think of our ability and behavior in signing up for email accounts in connection with the “real names”/single identity debate.  (See my prior posts here and here.)  Email providers could have taken the position that we should all sign up for email accounts with our real names (although you would have to come up with a solution to people with the same names), but they didn’t, and perhaps that was essential for people’s willingness to engage early on with the Internet.

Our World (and the Internet’s) Unsettled Privacy Foundation

As we are seeing in the context of the Facebook IPO and Google’s privacy change, the FTC, European Union, and other jurisdictions are about to put privacy front and center.

The answers to those questions — ultimately societal and cultural questions — will determine the size of the Internet market, and whether Google and Facebook are truly companies worth 100s of billions or rather 10s of billions.  Society — and different jurisdictions may have different sensibilities — has to roughly balance two values.

One, we love and expect to get things on the Internet for free.  Pre-Internet, what was “free” — broadcast television and radio?  Now, much of the customer internet — tools of tremendous power, email, video, Twitter, social, and on and on — are free, and those are our expectations.  These are funded — think Google and Facebook — by tremendous advertising models.  Their ability to do so has democratized the power of information for people regardless of income or class.

Second, our notions of privacy, if we think of them, are being thoroughly tested. Our emails with our most sensitive thoughts are mined to deliver ads, but how many of us would allow our physical mail to be opened or our telephone calls to be monitored in the name of delivering ads.  Our search histories, Facebook profiles browsed, pictures opened are digital fossils of our thoughts, fears, desires, worries, etc.  In the past, most of these would have stayed private, otherwise risking profound embarrassment, but whether private or public would largely be in our control.  Now others control whether the windows to our histories are open or closed.  Perhaps, the targeting of ads can be made consistent with society’s evolving expectations of privacy, but what is to stop this data being used when considering insurance or hiring, being pulled out decades later when someone is running for office, or in satisfying someone’s general curiosity.  Even if the original collector of the information is held in check, what happens if a rogue employee or thief gets their hands on the information.

These are profound questions, both in terms of the way individuals and societies decide to maintain themselves, and in the size and nature of existing and future internet business models.  We will be spending enormous energies for decades balancing the competing and compelling values at stake, and it’s time for everyone to join in this conversation.

Authenticity

I re-acquainted myself with the word “authenticity” recently and it ties together many of my thoughts about the history and direction of the Internet.  To summarize my definition in this context, the concept is letting people be their raw and real selves, and encouraging them and enabling them to.

From moving from the notion of collecting eyeballs as the root of a successful business model (like traditional media) in the mid-late 1990s, this has been one of the guiding trajectories of the Internet.   See some of my prior posts on the Internet’s history: from its role as providing us better soap boxes over time, to enabling expression and sparking an unprecedented conversation among hundreds of millions of people, to enablement where people can express themselves through events, to Facebook and Friendster and others’ role in letting us be out there with our real identities.  The internet has become more personal and more of a peer-to-peer conversation.

The word is authenticity. Focusing on it and finding ways to give that power to people will help create new killer Internet businesses.

Facebook Legacy: Making the Internet About Us (Real Names, Real Lives)

Facebook’s primacy legacy is not its site and service, but the profound changes it drove in Internet behavior.  Facebook made Internet users comfortable with using their real names and bringing their real lives onto the Internet.  Whether using real names is good or bad in certain situations, this was a real leap.

Non-anonymous communication, while not always optimal, expanded active usage by opening up content creation to personal topics. The fact that your kid is walking is not interesting when posted anonymously, but it is more likely to be interesting when directed to your friends or those with a personal interest.  Even if it’s not interesting (even your friends don’t care that you are eating cereal right now), the fact that a user has an audience encourages them to broadcast themselves.  Many people, other than flamers and spammers, have a higher bar when posting anonymously: do I have something profound to say?  People have fewer profound than personal moments, so there is less interest and raw material to post.

Before social, people used handles that masked their identity.  Friendster opened the door to using real names, but my experience with the user base was caution: put your highly curated self up and control the “testimonials” others posted about you.  The effect was more like a static, controlled photo album than a real-time, unedited feed.

Facebook modified this, taking it to new level.  How?  It found the group of people – college students – most comfortable with having their names associated with a real-time lens into their lives, whether through their own status updates and their friends comments.  In doing so, it became compelling.  Watching how much fun the college kids were having, the rest of us jumped in, in many cases more cautiously, by exercising a little more judgment about what we posted, but being more open than ever before.  By starting with a group that “didn’t know better” or “didn’t care,” it pulled the rest of us in.  Indeed, Facebook claims over 750 million users globally (of 7 billion total population).  Starting with college communities was Zuckerberg’s genius and luck.

Now, we are all much more open.  Whether it’s Twitter, FourSquare, Disqus, there is a greater willingness to be ourselves.  This is doubly important because this greater willingness now coincides with the smart phone revolution, which has made it so much easier to broadcast ourselves in so many ways.

Medical School, Facebook, and the Future of “Real Names”

There has been some debate recently on the relative value of real names versus pseudonyms on the Internet.  See, e.g., Fred Wilson.

One observation. Take this for what its worth; I am not sure what if any conclusions to draw.

In talking to some younger relatives, all applying to or recently enrolled in medical school, I learned that the common practice today is for applicants to disguise their Facebook identities before applying through a variety of techniques (by using middle names, permutation of real names, nicknames, etc.) to ward off unwelcome visits by medical school admissions people.  I assume applicants to undergrad or other grad schools are doing the same.  Those putting on these disguises are the first generation of Facebook users — those who were most comfortable with putting their lives online — who have years of status updates, photos, and other things who now must navigate a world of non-Facebook generation gatekeepers. It will interesting to see how this perceived need to disguise oneself evolves over time: do users switch back to their identities after they get into the schools or does the caution carry over; will this even be necessary when the Facebook generation also are the gatekeepers, etc.