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November 16 2011

Four short links: 16 November 2011

  1. Q&A with Rob O'Callahan (ComputerWorld) -- an excellent insight into how Mozilla sees the world. In particular how proprietary mobile ecosystems are the new proprietary desktop ecosystems, and how the risks for the web are the same (writing for one device, not for all).
  2. Bikes That Charge USB Devices -- German bicycle maker Silverback has recently launched two bikes with built-in USB ports that can charge devices as the rider pedals. (via Julie Starr)
  3. Mobile Farm Robots (Wired) -- The Harvest Automation robots are knee-high, wheeled machines. Each robot has a gripper for grasping pots, a deck for carrying pots, and an array of sensors to keep track of where it is and what’s around it. Teams of robots zip around nursery fields, single-mindedly spacing and grouping plants. Think Wall-E without the doe eyes and cuddly personality, or the little forest-tending ‘bots in the 1972 sci-fi classic Silent Running.
  4. ThinkUp 1.0 -- out of beta, the software to build your own archive of your social network presence is ready for prime time. See Anil's post for a pointed take on why this is desperately important right now.

September 26 2011

Four short links: 26 September 2011

  1. BERG London Week 328 -- we're a design company, with a design culture built over 6 years, yet we're having to cultivate a new engineering culture that sits within it and alongside it, and the two have different crystal grains. It's good that they do—engineering through a design process can feel harried and for some projects that does not lead to good outcomes. And vice versa. But it throws up all kinds of questions for me: do we really want two domains of engineering and design; what is the common protocol—the common language—of engineering culture, and indeed of our design culture; how do these lattices touch and interact where they meet; how do we go from an unthought process to one chosen deliberately; how is change (the group understanding of, and agreement with a common language) to be brought about, and what will it feel like as it happens. I think more and more businesses will have to explicitly confront the challenge of reconciling design with engineering, novelty with constancy, innovation with repetition. Science is doing something once in a way that others might able to reproduce, however long it takes. Business is doing it the same way a million times, as fast as possible.
  2. Why We Love The Things We Build -- psychological research to look at people valuing the things they build. Lots of interesting findings: participants thought others would value their origami creations highly, despite assigning little value to the amateur creations of others and incomplete items were not valued as highly as completed items. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Gut Flora Social Network (New Scientist) -- although there's real science behind it, I think it's mostly a callous play to get web journalists to say "this social network is a bit shit". (via Dave Moskowitz)
  4. The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric (danah boyd) -- actual research on bullying and cyberbullying, indicating that those involved in cyberbullying don't think of what they're involved in as bullying, because that implies power relationships they don't want to acknowledge. Instead it's all part of the "drama" of high-school.

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April 26 2011

November 18 2010

Strata Week: Keeping it clean

This edition of Strata Week is all about making things easy and tidy. If you're eager to learn more tips and tricks for doing so, come to Santa Clara in February: check out the list of Strata conference speakers and register today.

Languages made easy: R and Clojure

Love "fruitful and fun" data mining with Orange? Wish you had an interface like that for R? Wish no more. Anup Parikh and Kyle Covington have created Red-R to extend the Orange interface.

The goal of this project is to provide access to the massive library of packages in R (and even non-R packages) without any programming expertise. The Red-R framework uses concepts of data-flow programming to make data the center of attention while hiding all the programming complexity.

Similar to Orange, Red-R uses a series of widgets to modify and display data. The beauty of Red-R is that it allows programming novices to leverage R's power and to interact with their data in an analytical way. Such tools are no substitute for actual statistical modeling, of course, but they are a great first step in piquing interest and providing a visual conversation-starter.


Red-R is still in its infancy, but as with all such projects, testing and bug reports are welcome. Check out the forums to get involved.

If R is not your thing, perhaps you've jumped on the Clojure bandwagon (I wouldn't blame you: Clojure is one exciting new language). If that's the case, check out Webmine, a library for mining HTML written by Bradford Cross, Matt Revelle, and Aria Haghighi.

Facts are stubborn things

A team at the Indiana University Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research has built the Truthy system to examine and classify memes on Twitter in an attempt to identify instances of astroturfing, smear campaigns, and other "social pollution."

Truthy looks at streaming Twitter data via the public Twitter API, filters it to extract politically-minded tweets, and then pulls out "memes" like #hashtags, @ replies, phrases, and URLs. Memes that constitute a high volume of tweets, as well as memes that have experienced a significant fluctuation in volume, are flagged and entered into a database for further investigation.

The Truthy system then visualizes a timeline, map, and diffusion network for each meme, and applies sentiment analysis in order to better study and understand "social epidemics." It also relies on crowdsourcing to train its algorithms. Users can visit the project's website and are asked to click the "Truthy" button on a meme's detail page when they suspect a meme contains misinformation masquerading as fact.

Check out the gallery for some fascinating network visuals and the stories behind them.


A clean bill of health

Kudos to Dimagi and CIDRZ for a creative solution to a serious problem. In order to provide standard interventions to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in rural Zambia for the BHOMA (Better Health Outcomes through Mentoring and Assessments) project, they needed a distributed system for capturing and relaying health data.

As in many other places in Africa, reliable internet is not easy to find in rural Zambian communities. But cell phones are nearly ubiquitous, and the best communication devices for relaying patient information from clinics and field workers and back again.

Enter Apache's CouchDB, which saved the day with its continuous replication. A lightweight server in each clinic now replicates filtered data to a national CouchDB database via a modem connection, and two-way replication allows data collected on phones to propagate back to each clinic.

Read more details of the case study here.

Refinement rather than fashion

You may recall that among a spate of Google acquisitions over the summer was Metaweb, the company responsible for Freebase. Now, a nifty open source tool formerly called Freebase Gridworks has been renamed Google Refine, and version 2.0 was released just last week.

Refine is a powerful tool for cleaning up data. It allows you to easily sort and transform inconsistent cells to correct typos and merge variants; filter, then remove or change certain rows; apply custom text transformations; examine numerical columns via histograms; and perform many more complex operations to make data more consistent and useful.

Refine really shines when it is used to combine or transform data from multiple sources, so it's no surprise that it has been popular for open government and data journalism tasks.

Also notable is the fact that Refine is a downloadable desktop app, not a web service. This means you don't have to upload your data anywhere in order to use it. Best of all, Google Refine keeps a running changelog that lets you review and revert changes to your data -- so go ahead: play around. A great set of video tutorials on Google's blog can help you do just that.

October 29 2010

Bookish Techy Week in Review

On occasion, bookish-techy weeks seem to unfold around a theme. This is one of those weeks, and the theme has been “social.” Social reading, social networking, being anti-social - and all in a bookish-techy way. Not to mention, a few Halloween-related items of bookish-techy interest. Read on...

A Bookish-techy “social" event

This bookish-techy social week actually got to a start last week at the Internet Archive’s Books in Browsers conference. BiB-related and/or inspired posts of note:

Social networks for teen readers come and go

Sharing news from Amazon and Wowio

New Nook Not News?

So says CrunchGear
The last thing the world needs right now is another Android tablet, especially when the focus for e-readers should be on distinguishing them from tablets and not trying to compete with more capable and connected devices. Amazon is already neck-deep in Kindle sales, and this gamble by Barnes & Noble essentially forfeits their portion of this generation of e-readers.

In honor of a Bookish-Techy Halloween

  • Stephen King on why ebooks aren’t scary
  • Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World Knowledge on how text book publishing got so scary
  • Mobile Read’s ereader giveaway more treat than trick

  • October 28 2010

    Strata Week: Building data startups

    Here's a look at the latest data news and developments that caught my eye.

    Registration open for Strata 2011

    You can find out just what has us so excited about data at the O'Reilly Strata Conference, Feb. 1-3, 2011, in Santa Clara, Calif. early registration rates are available through December 14.

    The Strata program features tutorials on data and visualization, an executive-level briefing event on big data, and two days of conference sessions and keynotes. We'll hear from big business, startups, and the brightest developers and researchers. Watch for further details about the schedule over the coming weeks.

    We find ourselves at the beginning of an industrial revolution of data, heralded by unprecedented volumes of data and connectivity, cheap and ubiquitous computing, and advances in interface technology. Strata will be the defining event of this movement, so I very much hope you'll join us there.

    From data to money: Building a startup

    Thanks to commodity computing power, it's possible to build a startup business based around big data and analytics. But what does it take to do this, and how can you make money? These questions were addressed recently in blog posts by Russell Jurney and Pete Warden.

    Jurney takes on the question of how many people you need to start a data product team. He draws out the ideal roles for such a team including: customer, market strategist, deal maker, product manager, experience designer, interaction designer, web developer, data hacker and researcher.

    Quite the cast, and not really the ideal starting point for a product or business startup, so Jurney condenses these roles into the more succinct definitions of "hustler," "designer" and "prodineer" -- a minimum of three people.

    Analytic products are such a multidisciplinary undertaking that in a data startup a founding team is at minimum three people. Ideally all are founders. There are probably exceptions, but that is the minimum number of bodies required to flesh out all these areas with passionate people who share the vision and are deeply invested in the success of the company. Someone needs to be good at and enjoy each of these roles.

    Once you start, and have a minimal product, Jurney recommends quickly connecting with real customers, and taking it from there. The next step is making money, of course, which is what Pete Warden has been thinking about.

    After running through a "thousand ways not to do it," Warden reckons finding a way to make money is the most important question for big data startups. He paints the stages of evolution a data product goes through to actually deliver value to customers.

    • Data: You need it, but selling it raw is the lowest level of business. Warden writes "The data itself, no matter how unique, is low value, since it will take somebody else a lot of effort to turn it into something they can use to make money".
    • Charts: Simple graphs, which at least help users understand what you have, but "still leaves them staring at a space shuttle control panel, though, and only the most dogged people will invest enough time to understand how to use it."
    • Reports: Bring a focus to what the customer wants. Many data-driven startups stop here and make good money doing that. But there's further to go: "It can be very hard to defend this position. Unless you have exclusive access to a data source, the barriers to entry are low and you'll be competing against a lot of other teams".
    • Recommendations: Your product now goes from raw data and produces actionable recommendations, a much more defensible business. "To get here you also have to have absorbed a tremendous amount of non-obvious detail about the customer's requirements, which is a big barrier to anyone copying you," Warden writes.

    Ending his piece, Warden offers this pithy advice: "More actionable means more valuable!"

    Data in the dirt

    What would you say to a pub full of people about data? That was my challenge as I gave a talk at Ignite Sebastopol 4, held in O'Reilly's hometown of Sebastopol, Calif. Explaining some of the 200-year history of Strata, I had to use twenty slides for 15 seconds each to get my point across.

    Dolphins, cellphones and social networks

    A couple of recent research reports bring interesting insights from social networks outside of the online worlds of Facebook and Twitter. Writing in Ars Technical, Casey Johnston reports on how the mathematics of text messaging might help mobile phone networks plan capacity. Researchers discovered that text-messaging patterns were generally bimodal.

    Text message sets often start off with a burst: the times between messages are short and follow a power-law distribution (that is, there are a lot of text messages with short intervals between them).

    Outside of an initial two- to 20-minute window, though, the time between messages falls dramatically. There are fewer, longer intervals between messages, and the tail can extend up to five or six hours past the initial burst, as the intervals continue to grow longer and the texts less frequent.

    The researchers took these observations, and developed models to explain what they saw. The model assumed that text exchanges were primarily task-focused, dealing with some issue the conversants had in common, such as deciding what to eat for dinner.

    Cliques in a dolphin community.
    Cliques in a dolphin community noted in a Microsoft research report (PDF).
    Karate students and dolphin pods feature in recent research from Microsoft, explained by Christopher Mims in his Technology Review blog. Using a new approach built on game theory, researchers were able to model cliques in communities. Possible applications of the research include urban development, criminal intelligence and marketing. Mims explains the wide applicability of the technique:

    Intriguingly, two of the data sets the researchers tested their work on, which are apparently standard for this kind of research, were data gathered by anthropologists about a Karate academy, and data gathered by marine biologists about a pod of 64 dolphins. Applying their game-theoretic approach to both networks, they were able to resolve cliques that other approaches missed entirely.

    Resolving cliques also has applications in determining identity, Mims points out. Individuals with non-unique names can be identified instead by the community footprint generated by their clique membership.

    Gangsta test data

    Perhaps one of the best known pieces of test data is the Lorem Ipsum text, used by graphic designers as a substitute for real text during the "greeking" process. This venerable text has now received an update for contemporary culture, courtesy of a couple of Dutch developers.

    The Gangsta Lorem Ipsum generator serves up such modern nonsenses as Lorizzle bling bling dolor we gonna chung amizzle, consectetuer adipiscing dizzle.

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    July 29 2010

    Facebook Mountain ("I wish I knew how to quit you")

    "Apple is 'Evil' and Facebook is 'a Photo-sharing Site'" -- Fred Wilson, VC (investor in Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga).

    Facebook-Mountain.pngIt's the ultimate form of respect when the competition vilifies and diminishes your accomplishments, so take respected VC and blogger Fred Wilson's comments in that light. After all, he's got investments in a number of companies that Facebook is a potential threat to.

    But let's face some facts. Love or hate Facebook, you don't grow to 500 million users if you are not doing something incredibly right.

    Moreover, you don't engage those same users to the point that 50 percent of the active user base logs in daily unless you have found a way to turn the social equivalent of lead into gold.

    Mind you, this is a service legions diss, dismiss and outright distrust. A service with customer satisfaction levels that rank below the airline industry.

    It begs the question: Why isn't this ship sinking, as opposed to being an unstoppable force that's swallowing up the web one 'Like' and Facebook Connect sign-on at a time?

    Understanding Facebook Mountain

    My take on this is that Facebook's success is a case of people generally not trusting Facebook, nor specifically wanting the company to push more and more of their "friends and family" content and conversations into the public bucket (as Facebook seems committed to getting them to do). Nonetheless people default to a simple truth. Namely, that no one else has matched Facebook's ability to seamlessly connecting the dots between content, conversations and social contexts -- wherever it promulgates.

    Facebook, for all of its failings, is delivering the consummate 1 + 1 = 3 experience.

    Think about it. Facebook Connect and the Like function is increasingly being hardwired into virtually every website. And because Facebook knows how to build a platform, they have facilitated better integration of the myriad popular services on the Internet within Facebook, such that your Facebook news feed is becoming a must-read, must-engage service.

    No less, they are already mining the heck out of that data, such that you can already see how, despite Google being the one that taught us about contextual advertising, it's Facebook that will be the one to actually execute in delivering ads that users will actually want to click on. Maybe not today, but very soon.

    Case in point: Facebook knows that I "Like" the band Rush and am a fan of the HBO series "True Blood" because, over time, I have fed it that information via profile, status and news feed updates. Facebook isn't shy about using that same information to recommend other shows, bands, fan pages and the like.

    It's the same reason that in asking "Is Facebook a Brand that You Can Trust?" and knowing the answer (i.e., not really), my usage -- and that of the people I know -- is only on the upswing.

    Facebook-TweetDeck.pngConsider the various ways that Facebook has inculcated itself into my daily online workflow:

    • Sending/receiving Facebook feeds via the TweetDeck social dashboard client.
    • Creating a Facebook fan page for my company.
    • Building multiple iOS apps that integrate with Facebook feeds.
    • Playing several iPad games that post to my Facebook feeds.
    • Micro-posting via Posterous that "auto posts" into Facebook.
    • Uploading of photos from my BlackBerry to my Facebook wall.

    And for all of these reasons, liking, commenting and conversational back-and-forth actions are becoming more frictionless by the day.

    Moreover, it's the same reason that when Facebook formally pursues the search engine play -- and they will, because they have an unbounded opportunity there -- Google, the king of all disruptors, will suddenly understand what it feels like to be on the disrupted side of the equation.

    A final thought. It's a topic that's best saved for another post, but if Apple, the king of mobile, mobility and post-PC, and Facebook, the king of social, were ever to strategically align so as to orchestrate a frontal assault on Google's loosely coupled approach ... now, that would be a battle royal!


    April 29 2010

    Promiscuous online culture and the vetting process

    Social networks, and the big data to analyze them, will forever change how we vet candidates, whether for security clearance, employment, or political office. Technology can help employers check candidates' backgrounds, monitor their behavior once hired, and protect their online reputations. But using the social tracks we share -- and what we omit -- has important ethical and legal consequences.

    Gov 2.0 Expo 2010According to CareerBuilder, 45 percent of applicants were screened in this way in 2009 — up from 22 percent the year before — regardless of legality. Seventy-four percent of Americans between 18 and 34 have an account on Facebook or MySpace, according to a Harris poll. At the intersection of promiscuous online culture and easy access to search lies a world where it's impossible to hide. And these days, you look suspicious for trying, or even forgetting something innocently.

    This changes the vetting process. What once took days of phone calls and pages of forms can be done with a few clicks — whether you're a government, an employer, a reporter, or a terrorist cell. Now that the Library of Congress is archiving every Tweet, ever, your past is a matter of permanent public record.

    The state of national security clearance

    In the U.S. government, candidates for national security positions must complete Standard Form 86 (SF-86). It collects a wide range of information, and it's the starting point for an investigation into your background.

    A public online life won't replace a questionnaire entirely. But doing some basic analysis of an applicant's social network can pre-populate much of the form. How much of your digital persona should be considered in an investigation? And how will processes like those surrounding SF-86 change in a world where applicants' lives are lived in public, online?

    One hint at what the vetting of candidates in a connected world might look like is the Obama campaign's questionnaire required of all political appointees. In addition to more traditional background questions, it asks for:

    • All blog posts, comments, and speeches you've made.
    • All emails, text messages, and instant messages that could suggest a conflict of interest or public source of embarrassment.
    • The URLs of any sites that feature you in a personal or professional capacity.
    • All of the aliases you've used online.

    Why we screen applicants

    Each of us has plenty of reasons to check someone's background before entrusting them with important matters or our endorsements:

    • We care about their identity. Are they who they claim to be?
    • We want to examine their background to identify past embarrassments.
    • Their past can help predict whether they'll do what we expect in the future<./li>
    • Once they're on board, we want to track their ongoing activity to identify security breaches as soon as possible and detect anomalies.

    Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It's enough to make Bond retire.

    What assisted clearance would look like

    Background clearance systems might be used at all stages of the employment process: screening applicants at the outset to speed the discovery process and find inconsistencies; tracking employees to decide whether clearance should be revoked; and protecting reputation by flagging and mitigating risky online relationships or disclosures.

    The ethical implications

    Hiring is heavily regulated to ensure fair, equitable consideration of candidates. For example, if credit bureau derogatory data is used to disqualify a candidate, this must be revealed to the job seeker so it can be disputed. A similar model might be used for employment decisions based on publicly available social network data (e.g., statements by someone with the same name, yet a different person). If employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn't using social media. In other words, you can't discriminate against someone just because they're off the grid.

    A life lived in public changes the law, too. Onus probandi — the burden of proof — is the foundation of our legal system. In criminal proceedings, the burden is on the accuser, who must demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. For civil cases, the test is less rigorous. But in a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we're increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.

    When records are abundant and analysis is cheap, the line between a background check and a replay of our lives will be blurry at best. As that happens, we need to establish ethical and legal guidelines for dealing with the change.

    Note: The upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo will include a session that expands on many of the topics raised in this post.

    February 01 2010

    The iPad is real-life social

    As a computing device, the iPad has some obvious limitations that have puzzled many tech-savvy Apple devotees, provoking a variety of critical articles explaining where Steve Jobs has gone wrong.

    After reading one such blog post saying that the iPad was antisocial, because it didn't have SMS or the ability to run IM in the background, it struck me this was a restricted view of what it means to be social.

    The iPad is real-life social in a way that a phone and a laptop just aren't. You really can just hand it to someone to show them what you mean: share photos, videos, writing with real people right next to you. I can see using it to learn with a child, share pictures with my mother, discuss house remodeling, and many other tasks normally done with paper. In conversation with friends last week I realized that, sat in its dock, the iPad would be the ideal cookbook. And for us geeks, a great way to consult technical books as we use our computers.

    In the office, the iPad offers a middle-ground I've found lacking in electronic devices. Bringing my laptop into meetings puts up a screen between me and others, is a hassle to unplug and carry around, and can be personally distracting. Taking my iPhone to make notes makes people think I'm bored of the meeting and sending text messages to friends instead. So normally I choose paper, and tend to lose my notes afterwards.

    The iPad is a device that will find fans not only in a family setting, but in a creative setting where collaboration and comment is in person. Criticized for not being open because of digital rights management, the iPad is actually very open, in the sense that it erects few physical barriers to sharing.

    Reposted bykrekk krekk

    December 30 2009

    Being online: Conclusion--identity narratives

    An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

    (This is the final post in a series called
    "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

    After viewing in rotation the various facets of that gem that we call identity, it is time for us to polish and view them in one piece.
    This series has explored what identity means in an online medium, the
    most salient aspect of which is the digitization of information.
    Consider what the word digitization denotes: the
    fragmentation of a whole into infinitesimal, fungible, individually
    uncommunicative pieces. The computer digitizes everything we post
    about ourselves not only literally (by storing information in
    computer-readable formats) but metaphorically, as the computer
    scatters our information into a meaningless diaspora of data fields,
    status updates, snapshots, and moments caught on camera or in
    audio--as Shakespeare might say, signifying nothing.

    No computer--only a person--can reassemble and breath life into these
    dry bones, creating from them a narrative.

    Anthony Giddens, whom I quoted earlier in the section on selves, says
    that constructing a narrative for oneself is an obligatory part of
    feeling one has an identity. Giddens does not seem to take the
    Internet on in his writings. But it's a reasonable stretch to say that
    we build up narratives online, and others do so for us, through the
    digitized, disembodied (or to use Giddens's term, disembedded) bits of
    information posted over time.

    In place of the term narrative,
    some psychologists, who would probably love to do an intake interview
    on Hamlet, refer to the self as being established through a soliloquy.
    However you look at
    identity formation, taking it online extends its reach tremendously.
    The soliloquies we engage in, and the narratives we create for
    ourselves, reshape our memories and determine our futures. But these
    self-interrogations that used to take place in our craniums while we
    lay in bed at night now happen in full view of the world.

    College development staff and others who search for information on us
    are building up narratives haphazardly based on available data. On
    blogs and social networks, however, we quite literally provide them
    with the narrative. Perhaps that's why those media became popular so
    quickly, and why so many people urge their friends to follow them:
    social media take some of the anarchy out of our presentation of self.

    The next step to gain more control over searches about yourself or
    your business may be emotionally formidable as well as time-consuming:
    when someone comments about you on any searchable forum, answer
    him. The answer can be on the same forum as the original comment or on
    some site more under your control, such as your blog--use whatever
    setting is appropriate for what you have to say. You can then only
    hope that your reply is picked up and treated as important by the
    search engines.

    One indication of Shakespeare's genius was the parallel, distinct
    narratives he managed to create in Hamlet--or as Goffman
    might put it, his ability to develop two sophisticated frames that are
    totally at odds throughout the play. Similar stylistic devices have
    been worked into thriller moves, spy novels, and thousands of other
    settings since then.

    Everyone except Hamlet himself (and a few sympathetic colleagues)
    created a narrative as uncompromising as it was terrifying. Hamlet was
    seen as irrational, brooding, provocative, ungrateful, impulsively
    amoral, cruel, dangerously violent, and totally out of control.

    Only we, the audience, see Hamlet the way he saw himself: brilliant,
    sensitive, almost telepathically alert, courageous, unambiguously
    righteous, gifted with a hidden power, blessed by a divine mission--in
    short, a hero.

    Upon all my readers I wish narratives unlike Hamlet's. I hope you
    never feel the need to construct for yourself a narrative, online or
    offline, as desperate as the ones he constructed. At the same time, I
    hope that other people de-digitizing a narrative from your online
    signals do not see you as Polonius or Laertes saw Hamlet.

    But we have to accept that we are constrained in life by how others
    see us, that many will formulate opinions from the digital trail we
    are all building just by living in the modern world, and that we can't
    control how others see this trail. There are just a few things we can
    do to improve our prospects for surviving and thriving online.

    We can assess the economic value of what we reveal: what we are
    allowing others to do by revealing something, and what we may get back
    of value. And like economists, we have to think long-term as well as
    short-term, because the data we reveal is up there forever.

    We can also develop tolerance for others, learning not to judge them
    because we don't know the back story to what we see online, as I have
    recommended in

    an earlier article

    Finally, we should accept that we can't bring other people's image of
    us into conformity with what we feel is our true identity. But at
    least we can resist bringing our identity into conformity with their

    The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

    1. Introduction

    2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

    3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

    4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

    5. What you say about yourself, or selves

    6. Forged identities and non-identities

    7. Group identities and social network identities

    8. Conclusion: identity narratives (this post)
    9. December 28 2009

      Being online: Group identities and social network identities

      So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
      End in one purpose, and be all well borne
      Without defeat.

      (This is the seventh post in a series called
      "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

      Despite all the variations played on the theme of personal identities
      in the previous sections, remember that identity is a group construct,
      not an individual one. If we never took part in groups, our personal
      identities would scarcely matter.

      We're all members of certain groups without our choice: the particular
      race, social class, or gender that other people assign us to. When a
      woman posts a seductive picture online, she is helping to shape the
      way men and other women view womanhood in general. The same goes when
      she posts a demonstration of herself expertly fixing a computer or
      operating a super-collider. And the image every member of a racial
      minority puts up of himself or his cohorts, like it or not, determines
      the way all members of that race are judged.

      It seems an invariant of human culture to exploit the image of an
      individual in order to leave an impression about the entire group to
      which he or she belongs. It has been done by the arts and mass media
      ever since they were invented, but the Internet gives millions of
      ordinary people the chance to inflect the process. This diffusion of
      influence was recognized by Time Magazine in 2006 when it

      designated "you" as its Person of the Year

      Going by Goffman's extremely broad definition of "framing"--any
      assumption or shared knowledge that lies behind a visible act is part
      of the frame--identity might be the most important frame of all, and
      the locus around which other frames revolve. Thus, my identity as an
      English-speaker and US native frames the starting point of this
      series from the perspective of a world technological and cultural

      Others, though, may come to the Internet with an identity impaired by
      its very use. For instance, they may have to sacrifice their
      languages, or at least the character sets they traditionally use, in
      order to communicate online in a cost-effective way.

      As Lisa Nakamura points out in her book Digitizing Race: Visual
      Cultures of the Internet
      (University of Minnesota Press, 2008),
      individuals can expand or criticize conventional images of women,
      Asians, Muslims, and others by reusing images and mashing them up in
      challenging ways. Nakamura even suggests that the typical slicing and
      recombination of digital images reflects the way people create their
      identities from fragments of older traditions, which in turn have been
      shattered by the economics and culture of modern global change.

      Technology also groups us. Are we the first to jump on a new medium
      such as Voice over IP or Google Wave? Just as--to cite Giddens--we
      express identity through lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism or
      living in a downtown apartment instead of a house in the suburbs, we
      express identity through the devices we buy and the Internet services
      we use. And other people make assumptions about our identity based on
      these things.

      Let's turn now to groups at a more intimate level. Every online forum
      has the potential to be a small community--and even a small
      government, with rules backed up by unique punishments--where people
      train each other to carry out their identities in various ways.

      Groups must be explicit and conscious of group identity. Online media
      rarely provide chances for the equivalent of sitting at a bar with
      grizzled veterans and hearing their stories. That is why groups often
      post rules (check out Wikipedia's, which are complicated enough to
      call for an entire wiki of their own) to deal with churn and the lack
      of opportunities to pass on norms informally.

      This article began with the hope of understanding the current state of
      the art in online group formation: social networking. The reason
      social networking sites hold promise is that they augment the
      individual, an echo of Douglas Engelbart's goal to augment personal
      achievement through the invention of the mouse and multimedia
      networking in the 1960s. In a 2004 article
      anthropologist danah michele boyd made the observation--or perhaps just
      reported a subject's observation--that these networks try to represent
      each person's identity as the set of connections he or she has. At
      Friendster, at least (where people look up each others' friends for
      potential dates), the networks of friends become the main show. The
      same criticism could be made of LinkedIn, where the chief goal is
      career-building rather than dating.

      Perhaps adding relationships to our definition of identity can
      humanize the concept, as suggested by
      Cynthia Kurtz.
      I explained the importance of sharing information with "friends of
      friends" in a comment added to an

      earlier section of this article
      But when viewed in the worst light, Friendster and LinkedIn cheapen
      your identity to the connections you can offer other people.

      Just as rudimentary digital cameras--especially when embedded in
      mobile devices--have confirmed the old notion that a picture is worth
      a thousand words, the connecting power of social networks will be
      multiplied a thousandfold if facial recognition improves to the point
      where it can automatically disseminate information about where we were
      and whom we met. If automated crawling tools could identify faces in
      millions of photos taken at parties, conferences, banquets, and even
      public places, and then combine the information to determine who knows
      whom, the amount of information that would become publicly available
      about our habits and associations would be staggering.

      For instance, imagine if the recently announced service for photo
      recognition, Google
      , evolves to the point where it can match faces against
      faces in other photos. And then imagine that Google provides Goggles
      as an API for use with social networks where people tag photos with
      names. A single tag by a cousin on your photo at a party could lead to
      your being associated with everybody else in all other photos of you
      posted online. These developments, while not imminent, are plausible
      in the light of past advances in the technologies.

      Social networks create a new personal information economy. We
      already have such an economy in real-life's customer reward cards: we
      give up valuable information about our long-term purchasing habits in
      exchange for discounts. Some business experts suggest a similar
      explicit arrangement for the Internet. Regulations would prohibit the
      retention of information unrelated to a sale, but allow retailers to
      offer discounts in exchange for the right to retain certain types of
      information. This would make privacy a class issue, because the
      affluent would be most likely to forgo the bribe and withhold their
      information. And because the affluent are the biggest spenders,
      businesses are unlikely to find it worth their while to support this

      Everyone on social networks is engaging in the new personal
      information economy. We choose to post our favorite movies in order to
      meet fans and learn about new movies we'd like. And we reveal the
      colleges we attended so we can meet potential business partners from
      those institutions. We even post jokes and casual observations to earn
      people's admiration. While we're all having fun, every nugget we
      release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key
      question: will we get some benefit from the social network
      commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give
      our contacts?

      This view of social network as economy provides a partial answer to
      the questions posed at the very start of this series:

      Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
      private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay?...

      The answer is that each of us is responsible for assessing the value
      of posting at every moment, taking into consideration the tone of the
      network, how many people are watching our postings, what they can
      offer us, and more.

      The economy extends to sending nude photographs of yourself to current
      or would-be lovers. A recent

      report from the Pew Research Center

      says no less:

      "Sexually suggestive images sent to the privacy of the phone have
      become a form of relationship currency."

      Exhibitionists don't seem to realize that their photos are likely to
      travel far beyond the person to whom they're entrusted--a bitter
      truth that, once admitted, would certainly alter the senders' economic

      While filtering our contributions to the network, we also filter those
      who are entitled to receive them--and here the economy is out of
      balance. Rampant are the complaints about receiving connection
      requests you don't want from old boyfriends or the guys who smoked dope
      with you in high school. Social networking urgently needs to establish
      a culture in which it's OK to say that you're filtering your
      connections. (A couple years ago I rejected a connection and got a
      death threat in return. Looking at the person's profile, I determined
      that it was a joke--but I still think twice about visiting the city
      where he lives.)

      Although connections on social networks are definitive, no one asks
      about the identity of the social network itself (except shareholders
      hoping to increase its popularity and critics trying to change its
      policies). But some online communities head in a very different
      direction. Law professor Beth Simone Noveck, in an essay titled

      A democracy of groups
      points out that self-organized groups can mold their own unique identities
      in order to effect collective action.

      Noveck's optimism regarding self-organizing groups led to the current
      experiments with online democracy pursued by the Obama administration,
      where Noveck was appointed to both the transitional team and a Deputy
      CTO position to start implementation of the Open Government initiative
      that Obama

      released on his first day in office

      In Noveck's theory, a group's effectiveness depends on each member's
      success is gelling his or her individual identity. "Through visual and
      graphical representation, this new technology enables people to see
      themselves and others and to perceive the role they have
      assumed. Appearing as a defined person--whether by name or in an
      embodied avatar--makes it easier to sense oneself as part of a group
      and, arguably, will facilitate the inculcation of the social norms at
      the heart of a group's culture."

      These are intriguing claims, but it's odd that Noveck does not
      consider the ability to import external markers of identity into the
      group space, or to check members' assertions of identity against these
      external markers. For instance, what if visitors to Second Life could
      receive a token from her law school (through the OAuth protocol, say)
      that validates her as a professor?

      One way to tie individuals more tightly together in online groups, as
      explained in her article, is to make online forums feel more like
      real-world places so that people can develop "forms of attachment" to
      the forums in ways that they feel emotionally attached to their town
      square, college, or other local "great good place" (to borrow the name
      of a popular book by Ray Oldenburg). As Noveck writes, "The new
      generation of technology is reintroducing the concept of space and
      place online." As an example she cites Second Life, which was growing
      rapidly in popularity at the time. Effectively, she is granting groups
      identities, just like individuals, and recommending that a group
      foment stronger ties among its members by creating a stronger group

      No one in the Obama administration has picked up the most aggressive
      suggestion in A democracy of groups, that the law recognize
      groups as entities--"new forms of collective legal personhood"--in a
      similar manner to how it now recognizes corporations. But Vermont has
      taken a step in that direction by changing its laws to allow virtual
      corporations, and ultimately we may be dealing with group identity
      online as much as with individual identity.

      The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

      1. Introduction

      2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves

      6. Forged identities and non-identities

      7. Group identities and social network identities (this post)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 26 2009

        December 24 2009

        Being online: What you say about yourself, or selves

        Which is the natural man,
        and which the spirit? who deciphers them?

        (This post is the fifth in a series called
        "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

        What we've seen so far in this series would be enough to shake
        anyone's sense of identity. We've found that the technology of the
        Internet itself fudges identity (but does not totally succeed in
        hiding it), that companies use fragmented and partial information to
        categorize you, and that your actual identity is perhaps less
        important to these companies than your role as snippet of a statistic
        within a larger group. This post demands an even
        greater mental stretch: we have to face that what we say about
        ourselves is also distorted and inconclusive.

        Sociological and psychologists tend to see our activities online as
        inherently artificial, referring to them as aspects of "the
        performative self." But the pundits haven't succeeded in getting their
        point of view across to the wider public. For instance, the millions
        of people who view personal video weblogs, or vlogs,
        fervently believe--according to a recent

        First Monday article by Jean Christian
        --in the
        importance of authenticity in people's video self-presentations. Viewers
        reject vlogs over such telltale signs as overediting or reading from

        The touchstone for discussions of people's appearances and what their
        appearances say about them is Erving Goffman's classic
        Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whose lessons

        I applied to the Internet in a recent blog
        The book suggested that we fashion our appearances not to
        hide our true selves, but to reveal them in a manner
        others find meaningful. My blog reinforced this insight, pointing out
        that, although we do prettify ourselves online as

        claimed in one newspaper article
        we can't compartmentalize aspects of ourselves. In other words,
        whatever presentation we make in one context or forum is likely to
        leak out elsewhere.


        another blog about Goffman
        I focused on the signals we give out and pick up instinctively about
        each other in real life, indicating that they have to be specified
        explicitly in online media (although graphics and video now bring back
        some instinctive reactions).

        Goffman's career ended before the Internet became a topic of
        sociological analysis, so at this point it's appropriate to bring in
        the chief researcher in the area of identity and the Internet,
        psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle. She claims that we
        do maintain multiple online identities, and that this is no
        simple game but reflects a growing tendency for us to have multiple
        selves. The fragmentary and divided presentation of self online
        reflects the truth about ourselves, more than we usually acknowledge.

        Turkle's research, unfortunately, got channeled early in the
        Internet's history into landscapes that don't reflect its later use as
        a mass medium. She became fascinated, during the early years of
        popular computing and gaming in the 1980s, with the whims so many
        people indulged for portraying themselves as someone of a different
        age, gender, or profession, or just for hiding as much as they could
        in order to try out a different personality. This orientation colors
        both of her books on the subject, The Second Self (1984) and
        Life on the Screen (1995), and relegates her work to a study
        of psychological deviation.

        Still, Turkle's work can make us think about the vistas that the
        Internet opens up for the Self. Surveying the multiple identities we
        create online and the ways we represent or misrepresent ourselves, she
        finds that people don't do this just for play or to maliciously
        deceive other people. Many do it to don identities that are hard to
        try on in real life.

        A woman pretending to be a man might open up scenarios for practicing
        assertive behaviors that would produce a backlash if she rolled them
        out in real life. A shy person might learn, through an invented
        personality, how to flirt and even to practice mature love. Both of
        these forms of mimicry, which go back at least as far as Shakespeare's
        As You Like It, have proven useful to many people online.

        But beyond these simple sorts of play-acting (for which real life
        provides its settings: acting classes, long journeys, spiritual
        retreats, "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas") we glimpse
        in online personas a contemporary view of the self that is
        multi-layered and multi-faceted--by no means integrated and

        Turkle also explores the psychological impact of computer
        interfaces. In particular, programs that act like independent,
        autonomous decision-makers push us to rethink our own human

        In the 1960s, people would spend hours typing confessions into the
        psychologist persona presented by Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA
        program. Trying out ELIZA now, it's hard to imagine anyone could be
        enticed into a serious conversation with it. But as we've grown more
        sophisticated, so have the deceits that programmers toss at us. Turkle
        reports an interaction with a robot at the MIT AI Lab that drew her in
        with a veracity that made her uncomfortable. "Despite myself and
        despite my continuing skepticism about this research project, I had
        behaved as though in the presence of another being."

        Affective technologies have leapt even further ahead since 1995.
        Someday, robots for the disabled and elderly will try to reflect their
        feelings in order to provide care that goes beyond washing and
        feeding. Turkle draws on many strands of psychology, sociology,
        neurological science, and philosophy to show how our intellectual
        substrate has been prepared throughout the twentieth century for the
        challenges to Self that sophisticated computer programs present. Had
        the field of synthetic biology existed when Turkle wrote her books, it
        would have provided even more grist for her thesis.

        This is one place where I part company with Turkle. I don't believe
        we're getting more and more confused about the dividing line between
        Computer Power and Human Reason (the title of a classic book by
        Weizenbaum, ELIZA's creator). I have more faith in our discernment.
        Just as we can see through ELIZA nowadays, we'll see through later
        deceptions as we become familiar with them. Simulated intelligences
        will not perennially pass the Turing test.

        Turkle's view of online behavior is more persuasive. I'm willing to
        grant that exploring identity on the Internet can help us develop
        neglected sides of our identity and integrate them into our real
        selves. She expects us to go even further--to develop these sides
        without integrating them. We can quite happily and (perhaps) healthily
        live multiple identities, facilitated by how we present ourselves

        Let's review the social setting in which Turkle inserts her
        arguments. Looking over the period during which the technologies and
        social phenomena Turkle researches have grown--the period from 1970 to
        the present, when MUDs and other online identity play developed--we
        see an astonishing expansion of possibilities for identity throughout
        real life. We have more choices than ever in career, geographic
        location, religious and spiritual practice, gender identification, and
        family status--let alone plastic surgery and drugs that alter our
        minds or muscles. People have reclaimed disappearing ethnic languages
        and turned vanishing crafts into viable careers. And people are
        experimenting with these things in countries characterized by
        repression as well as those considered more open.

        Changes in speech and clothing allow us to try out different
        identities in different real-life settings with relative safety. We
        can sample a novel spiritual rite without relinquishing our
        traditional church. But of course, doing all these things online is
        even safer than doing them in physical settings.

        Global information and movement lead to what sociologist Anthony
        Giddens, in his 1991 book Modernity and Self-Identity, calls
        reflexivity. I showed in the previous section how reflexivity
        works in the data collected by advertisers and corporate planners.
        Toward the cause of producing more of what we want and marketing it to
        us effectively, the corporations are constantly collecting information
        on us--purchases, web views and clicks, sentiment analysis-and feeding
        it back into activities that will, on the next phase, produce more
        such information. Reflexivity is a fundamental trait of modern
        institutions. But individuals, as Giddens points out, are also
        reflexive. We imitate what we see, online as well as offline. Online,
        it's even easier to try something and learn from the results. Goth
        clothing and body piercings we pick up online are cheaper and easier
        to discard than real ones when we have to clean up our image.

        However, we're becoming more circumspect over the past few years as we
        realize that people will be able to tie our online forays back to us
        in the future; this may cause the lamentable end to experimentation
        with the Self.

        Turkle refers to a story that was widely circulated and much discussed
        in an earlier decade, of a male psychiatrist who posed as a disabled
        but capable woman on CompuServe. He quickly entered supportive online
        relationships with a number of women. But as the relationships became
        too deep, he had to extricate himself from his virtual friends'
        dependencies, leaving a good deal of anger and numerous sociological

        But the most interesting aspect of the story to me is that no one can
        verify it. It appears to be a conflation of various incidents
        involving different people. In a way, drawing any conclusions at all
        would be pointless, because we don't know what emotions were involved
        and can't investigate the participants' positive and negative
        reactions. Thus does an influential and highly significant case study
        about Internet identity take on a murky identity of its own.

        Today's digital trails are more persistent than those ones that
        created the legend of the CompuServe psychiatrist. Anyone engaging
        with strangers today would probably carry on through social networks,
        blogs, or wikis that do a better job of preserving the trail of logins
        and postings.

        Thus, I return to my assertion that identity is becoming more unified
        online, not more fragmented. We may not be exactly as we appear
        online, but for the purposes of public discourse, what we appear to be
        is adequate.

        When college student Jennifer Ringley began her famous webcam of daily
        life in 1996, it was seen either as a bold experiment in conceptual
        art or a pathetic bid for attention. Soon, though, the inclusion of
        cheap cameras in cell phones fostered a youth culture that captured
        and distributed every trivial moment of their lives, a trend driven
        further by ease of using Twitter from a cell phone.

        Handy access to networks by cameras and video devices made it
        inevitable that people would impulsively send sexually suggestive
        photos of themselves to people with whom they were having intimate
        relationships, or with whom they wanted such relationships.
        A rather unscientific



        The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

        found that 20% of teenager send nude or semi-nude photos
        of themselves to other people.
        A less sensationalistic

        report from the Pew Research Center

        finds only 4%, but raises the mystique-shattering admonition that the
        trust shown by the senders of the photos is routinely violated by
        their recipients, either right away or later when the relationship is

        Addressing the safety issue in an

        earlier article
        I suggest that "along the spectrum of risky behaviors young people
        engage in (eating disorders, piercings in dangerous locations, etc.)
        to deal with body image problems that are universal at that age, a
        nude photo isn't so bad."
        But I would love to see a deeper psychological inquiry into why young
        (and not always young) people perform deal such blows to their own
        privacy. I think such counter-intuitive behavior embodies the very
        contradictions in image and reality that run through this series of

        Perhaps the eroticism of releasing intimate photos over the network
        reflects the core contradiction people sense in online identity. The
        nude photo is a unique token of one's deepest identity, without
        actually being that identity. Like
        René Magritte's famous pipe painting
        the photo of you is not you. But by sending it to someone with whom
        you want a sexual relationship, you're saying, "Hey bud, this could be
        me if you follow through in the flesh."

        For a long time the Internet was praised as a place to shed the
        baggage of race and other defining traits ("nobody knows you're a
        dog"). But as researchers such as Lisa Nakamura point out, postings
        that brim over with images and videos reintroduce race, gender, and
        other artifacts of daily life with a vengeance. And research by
        anthropologist danah michele boyd shows that people self-segregate in
        social forums, reinforcing rather than breaking down the social
        divisions that frustrate the prospects for mutual understanding among
        different races and groups.

        One could throw in, as another consequence of the growth of identity,
        the oft-observed tendency to read only political articles that
        reinforce one's existing views. Unlike other observers, who look back
        wistfully at an age where we all got our information from a few
        official media sources, I

        have applauded the proliferation of views
        but agree that we need to find ways to encourage everyone to read the
        most cogent arguments of their opponents. Censorship--even
        self-censorship--does not contribute to identity formation in a
        healthy manner.

        There's also more than a hint of the trend toward asserting identity
        in the participatory culture chronicled and analyzed by Henry Jenkins:
        the fan fiction, the commentary sites for X Files and The
        , the games and consumer polls held by movie studios, and
        so forth. This participatory culture is mostly a community affair,
        which creates a group identity out of many unconnected
        individuals. But surely, creating an unauthorized sequel or
        re-interpreting a scene in a movie is also an act of personal
        expression. I would call it placing a stake in the cultural ground,
        except that the metaphor would be far too static for an ever-changing
        media stream. It would be more apt to call the personal contributions
        a way of inserting a marker with one's identity into the ongoing reel
        of unfolding culture.

        It's a lot easier nowadays to be real when you're on the Internet. But
        some people still, for many reasons, adopt forged identities or
        non-identities. We'll explore that phenomenon next.

        The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

        1. Introduction

        2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

        3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

        4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

        5. What you say about yourself, or selves (this post)

        6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

        7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

        8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 22 2009

        Being online: Your identity to advertisers--it's not all about you

        Thy self thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing

        (This post is the fourth in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

        Voracious data foraging leads advertisers along two paths. One of
        their aims is to differentiate you from other people. If vendors know
        what condiments you put in your lunch or what material you like your
        boots made from, they can pinpoint their ads and promotions more
        precisely at you. That's why they love it when you volunteer that
        information on your blog or social network, just as do the college
        development staff we examined before.

        The companies' second aim is to insert you into a group of people for
        which they can design a unified marketing campaign. That is, in
        addition to differentiation, they want demographics.

        The first aim, differentiation, is fairly easy to understand. Imagine
        you are browsing web sites about colic. An observer (and I'll discuss
        in a moment how observations take place) can file away the reasonable
        deduction that there is a baby in your life, and can load your browser
        window with ads for diapers and formula. This is called behavioral

        Since behavioral advertising is normally a pretty smooth operator, you
        may find it fun to try a little experiment that could lift the curtain
        on it bit. Hand your computer over for a few hours to a friend or
        family member who differs from you a great deal in interests, age,
        gender, or other traits. (Choose somebody you trust, of course.) Let
        him or her browse the web and carry on his or her normal business.
        When you return and resume your own regular activities, check the ads
        in your browser windows, which will probably take on a slant you never
        saw before. Of course, the marketers reading this article will be
        annoyed that I asked you to pollute their data this way.

        Experiences like this might arouse you to be conscious of every online
        twitch and scratch, just as you may feel in real life in the presence
        of a security guard whose suspicion you've aroused, or when on stage,
        or just being a normal teenager. Online, paranoia is level-headedness.
        Someone indeed is collecting everything they can about you: the amount
        of time you spend on one page before moving on to the next, the links
        you click on, the search terms you enter. But it's all being collected
        by a computer, and no human eyes are ever likely to gaze upon it.

        Your identity in the computerized eyes of the advertiser is a strange
        pastiche of events from your past. As mentioned at the beginning of
        the article, Google's Dashboard lets you see what Google knows about
        you, and even remove items--an impressive concession for a company
        that has mastered better than any other how to collect information on
        casual Web users and build a business on it. Of course, you have to
        establish an identity with them before you can check what they know
        about your identity. This is not the last irony we'll encounter when
        exploring identity.

        But advertisers do more than direct targeting, and I actually find
        the other path their tracking takes--demographic analysis--more
        problematic. Let's return to the colicky baby example. Advertisers add
        you to their collection of known (or assumed) baby caretakers and tag
        your record with related information to help them understand the
        general category of "baby care." Anything they know about your age,
        income, and other traits helps them understand modern parenting.

        As I
        wrote over a decade ago,
        this kind of data mining typecasts us and encourages us to head down
        well-worn paths. Unlike differentiation, demographics affect you
        whether or not you play the game. Even if you don't go online, the
        activities of other people like you determine how companies judge your

        The latest stage in the evolution of demographic data mining is
        sentiment analysis, which trawls through social networking messages to
        measure the pulse of the public on some issue chosen by the
        researcher. A crude application of sentiment analysis is to search for
        "love" or "hate" followed by a product trademark, but the natural
        language processing can become amazingly subtle. Once the data is
        parsed, companies can track, for instance, the immediate reaction to a
        product release, and then how that reaction changed after a review or
        ad was widely disseminated. Results affect not only advertising but
        product development.

        Once again, my reaction to sentiment analysis mixes respect for its
        technical sophistication with worries about what it does to our
        independence. If you add your voice to the Twittersphere, it may be
        used by people you'll never know to draw far-reaching conclusions. On
        the other hand, if you refuse to participate, your opinion will be

        Google's Dashboard tells you only what they preserve on you
        personally, not the aggregated statistics they calculate that
        presumably include anonymous browsing. But you can peek at those as
        well, and carry on some rough sentiment analysis of your own, through
        Google Trends.

        Considering all this demographic analysis (behavioral, sentiment, and
        other) catapults me into a bit of a 21st-century-style existential
        crisis. If a marketer is able to combine facts about my age, income,
        place of birth, and purchases to accurately predict that I'll want a
        particular song or piece of clothing, how can I flaunt my identity as
        an autonomous individual?

        Perhaps we should resolve to face the brave new world stoically and
        help the companies pursue their goals. Social networking sites are
        developing APIs and standards that allow you to copy information
        easily between them. For instance, there are sites that let you
        simultaneously post the same message instantly to both Twitter and
        Facebook. I think we should all step up and use these services. After
        all, if your off-the-cuff Tweet about your skis from the lounge of a
        ski resort goes into planning a multimillion dollar campaign, wouldn't
        it be irresponsible to send the advertiser mixed messages?

        My call to action sounds silly, of course, because the data gathering
        and analysis will obviously not be swayed by a single Tweet. In fact,
        sophisticated forms of data mining depend on the recent upsurge of new
        members onto the forums where the information is collected. The volume
        of status messages has to be so high that idiosyncrasies get ironed
        out. And companies must also trust that the margin of error caused by
        malicious competitors or other actors will be negligible.

        We saw in an earlier section that your online presence is signaled by
        a slim swath of information. At the low end, marketers know only your
        approximate location through your IP address. At the other extreme
        they can feast on the data provided by someone who not only logs into
        a site--creating a persistent identity--but fills out a form with
        demographic information (which the vendor hopes is truthful).

        As another example of modern data-driven advertising, Facebook
        delivers ads to you based on the information you enter there, such as age
        and marital status. A tech journal reported that

        the Google Droid phone combines contacts from many sources
        but I haven't experienced this on my Droid and I don't see
        technically how it could be done.

        Most browsing takes place in an identity zone lying between the IP
        address and the filled-out profile. We saw this zone in my earlier
        example from the coffee shop. The visitor does not identify himself,
        but lets the browser accept a cookie by default from each site.

        Each cookie--so long as you don't take action to remove one, as I did
        in my experiment--is returned to the server that left it on your
        browser. If you use a different browser, the server doesn't know
        you're the same person, and if a family member uses your browser to
        visit the same server, it doesn't know you're different people.

        Because the browser returns the cookie only to servers from the same
        domain--say, sent the cookie, your identity
        is automatically segmented. Whatever knows about
        you, and do not. Servers can
        also subdivide domains, so that can use the
        cookie to keep track of your preferred mail settings while serves meteorological information
        appropriate for your location.

        This wall between cookies would seem to protect your browsing and
        purchasing habits from being dumped into a large vat and served up to
        advertisers. But for every technical measure protecting privacy, there
        is another technical trick that clever companies can use to breach
        privacy. In the case of cookies, the trick exploits the ability of a
        web to can display content from multiple domains simultaneously. Such
        flexibility in serving domains is normally used (aside from tweaks to
        improve performance) to embed images from one domain in a web page
        sent by another, and in particular to embed advertising images.

        Now, if advertisers all contract with a single ad agency, such as


        (the biggest of the online ad companies), all the ads from different
        vendors are served under the domain and can
        retrieve the same cookie. You don't have to click on an ad for the
        cookie to be returned. Furthermore, each ad knows the page on which it
        was displayed.

        Therefore, if you visit web pages about colic, skis, and Internet
        privacy at various times, and if DoubleClick shows an ad on each page,
        it can tell that the same person viewed those disparate topics and use
        that information to choose ads for future pages you visit. In the
        United States, unlike other countries, no laws prohibit DoubleClick
        from sharing that information with anyone it wants. Furthermore, each
        advertiser knows whether you click on their ad and what activity you
        carry on subsequently at their site, including any purchases you make
        and any personal information you fill out in a form.

        Put it all together, and you are probably far from anonymous on the
        Internet. In addition, a more recent form of persistent data,
        controlled by the popular Flash environment through a technology
        called local shared objects, makes promiscuous sharing easy and
        removing the information much harder.

        The purchase of DoubleClick in 2007 by Google, which already had more
        information on individuals than anybody else, spurred a great protest
        from the privacy community, and the FTC took a hard look before
        approving the merger. A similar controversy may surround Google's
        recently announced purchase of

        which provides a service similar to DoubleClick for advertisers on
        mobile phones.

        So far I've just covered everyday corporate treatment of web browsing
        and e-commerce. The frontiers of data mining extend far into
        the rich veins of user content.

        Deep packet inspection allows your Internet provider to snoop on your
        traffic. Normally, the ISP is supposed to look only at the IP address
        on each packet, but some ISPs check inside the packet's content for
        various reasons that could redound to your benefit (if it squelches a
        computer virus) or detriment (if it truncates a file-sharing session).
        I haven't heard of any ISPs using this kind of inspection for
        marketing, but many predictions have been aired that we'll cross that

        Governments have been snooping at the hubs that route Internet traffic
        for years. China simply blocks references to domains, IP addresses, or
        topics it finds dangerous, and monitors individuals for other
        suspected behavior. The Bush administration and American telephone
        companies got into hot water for collecting large gobs of traffic
        without a court order. But for years before that, the Echelon project
        was filtering all international traffic that entered or left the US
        and several of its allies.

        One alternative to being tossed on the waves of marketing is to join
        the experiments in Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), which I

        covered in a recent blog
        Although not really implemented anywhere yet, this movement holds out
        the promise that we can put out bids for what we want and get back
        proposals for products and services. Maybe VRM will make us devote
        more conscious thinking to how we present ourselves online--and how
        many selves we want to present. These are the subjects of the next section.

        The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

        1. Introduction

        2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

        3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

        4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (this post)

        5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

        6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

        7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

        8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 21 2009

        Four short links: 21 December 2009

        1. A Taxonomy of Social Networking Data (Bruce Schneier) -- he divides information by who gave it, why, and who controls it. Useful to remember that not all social data are equal.
        2. Five Ways to Revolutionise Computer Memory (New Scientist) -- the physics and economics of new memory technology.
        3. News at Seven -- project to automatically generate news report, complete with Flash-animated news readers and text-to-speech voices. A project from the Intelligent Information Lab at Northwestern University.
        4. Bacteria-Powered Micro-Machines -- A few hundred bacteria are working together in order to turn the gear. When multiple gears are placed in the solution with the spokes connected like in a clock, the bacteria will begin turning both gears in opposite directions and it will cause the gears to rotate in synchrony for a long time. Video embedded below (via BoingBoing)

        December 20 2009

        Being online: Your identity online--getting down to basics

        What men daily do, not knowing what they do!

        (This post is the third in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

        Previous posts in this series explored the various identifies
        that track you in real life. Now we can look at the traits that
        constitute your identity online. A little case study may show how
        fluid these are.

        One day I drove from the Boston area a hundred miles west and logged
        into the wireless network provided by an Amherst coffee shop in
        Western Massachusetts. I visited the Yahoo! home page and noticed that
        I was being served news headlines from my home town. This was a bit
        disconcerting because I had a Yahoo! account but I wasn't logged into
        it. Clearly, Yahoo! still knew quite a bit about me, thanks to a
        cookie it had placed on my browser from previous visits.

        [A cookie, in generic computer jargon, is a small piece of data that a
        program leaves on a system as a marker. The cookie has a special
        meaning that only the program understands, and can be retrieved later
        by the program to recall what was done earlier on the system. Browsers
        allow web sites to leave cookies, and preserve security by serving
        each cookie only to the web site that left it (we'll see in a later
        section how this limitation can be subverted by data gatherers).]

        Among the ads I saw was one for the local newspaper in my town.
        Technically, it would be possible Yahoo! to pass my name to the
        newspaper so it could check whether I was already a
        subscriber. However, the

        Yahoo! privacy policy

        promises not to do this and I'm sure they don't.

        As an experiment, I removed the Yahoo! cookie (it's easy to do if you
        hunt around in your browser's Options or Preferences menu) and
        revisited the Yahoo! home page. This time, news headlines for Western
        Massachusetts were displayed. Yahoo! had no idea who I was, but knew I
        was logging in from an Internet service provider (ISP) in or near

        What Yahoo! had on me was a minimal Internet identity: an IP address
        provided by the Internet Protocol. These addresses, which usually
        appear in human-readable form as four numbers like, bear no
        intrinsic geographic association. But they are handed out in a
        hierarchical fashion, which allows a pretty good match-up with
        location. At the top of the address allocation system stand five
        registries that cover areas the size of continents. These give out
        huge blocks of addresses to smaller regions, which further subdivide
        the blocks of addresses and give them out on a smaller and smaller
        scale, until local organizations get ranges of addresses for
        their own use.

        Yahoo! simply had to look up the ISP associated with my particular IP
        address to determine I was in Western Massachusetts. But the
        technology is a bit more complicated than that. I was actually
        associated with three IP addresses--a complexity that shows how the
        fuzziness of identity on the Internet extends even to the lowest
        technological levels.

        First, when I logged in to the coffee shop's wireless hub, it gave me
        a randomly chosen IP address that was meaningful only on its own local
        network. In other words, this IP address could be used only by the
        hub and anyone logged in to the hub.

        The hub used an aged but still vigorous technology known as Network
        Address Translation to send data from my system out to its ISP. As my
        traffic emanated from the coffee shop, it bore a new address
        associated with the coffee shop's wireless hub, not with me
        personally. All the people in the coffee shop can share a single
        address, because the hub associates other unique identifiers--port
        numbers--with our different streams of traffic.

        But the ISP treats the coffee shop as the coffee shop treats me. The
        coffee shop's own address is itself a temporary address that is
        meaningful to the local network run by the ISP. A second translation
        occurs to give my traffic an identity associated with the ISP. This
        third address, finally, is meaningful on a world scale. It is the only
        one of the three addresses seen by Yahoo!.

        However, an investigator (hopefully after getting a subpoena) could
        ask an ISP for the identity of any of its customers, submitting the
        global IP address and port numbers along with the date and time of
        access. The coffee shop didn't require any personal information before
        logging me in and therefore could not fulfill an investigator's
        request, but a person doing illegal file transfers or other socially
        disapproved activity from a home or office would be known to the hub
        system and could therefore by identified--so long as logfiles with
        this information had not been deleted from the hub.

        The combination of IP address, port numbers, and date and time allows
        the Recording Industry Association of America to catch people who
        offer copyrighted music without authorization. And this technological
        mechanism underlies the European Union requirement for ISPs to keep
        the information they log about customer use, as mentioned in the first
        section of this article.

        If I want to hide this minimal Internet identity--the IP address--I
        have to use another Internet account as a proxy. In the case of my
        visit to Western Massachusetts, I was protected by logging in
        anonymously to a coffee shop, but in some countries I'd be required to
        use a credit card to gain access, and therefore to bind all my web
        surfing to a strong real-world identity. Many European countries
        require this form of identification, outlawing open wireless networks.

        To generalize from my Amherst experiment, the information we provide
        as we use the Internet is very limited, and can be limited even
        further through simple measures such as removing cookies (a topic
        covered further in a later section of this article). But what the
        Internet still allows can be used in a supple manner to respond
        instantly with ads and other material--such as the nearest coffee shop
        or geographically relevant weather reports--that are hopefully of
        greater value than the corresponding material in print publications we

        This post has explored the use of IP addresses metaphorically, as
        well as illustratively, to show how our Internet identity is
        context-sensitive and can change utterly from one setting to another.
        Usually, we provide more of a handle to the people we communicate with
        over email, instant messaging, forums, and so forth. Here too we have
        multiple identities and spend hours collecting each other's handles.

        Email, the oldest form of personal online communication, ironically
        has one of the better hacks for combining identities. You email
        accounts can be set up to forward mail, so that mail to the address
        you kept from your alma mater goes automatically to your work address.

        In contrast, you can't use your AIM instant message account to contact
        someone on MSN, so you need a separate account on each IM service and
        no one will know they all represent you unless you tell them. Twitter
        is experimenting with ways to assure users that accounts with
        well-known names are truly associated with the people after which
        they're named.

        If IM services all agreed to use XMPP (or some other protocol) you
        could reduce all your IM accounts to one. And if every social network
        supported OpenSocial, you could do a lot of networking while
        maintaining an account on just one service.

        A widely adopted protocol called OpenID allows one identity to support
        another: if you have an account on Yahoo! or Blogger you can use it to
        back up your assertion of identity on another site that accepts their
        OpenID tokens. OpenID and related technologies such as Information
        Card don't validate your existence or authenticate the personal traits
        you have outside the Internet, but allow the identity you've built up
        on one site to be transferable.

        My next post shows how the minimal elements of online identity
        have been expanded by advertisers and other companies, who combine the
        various retrievable polyps of our identity. Following that, we'll see
        how we ourselves manipulate our identities and forge new ones.

        The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

        1. Introduction

        2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

        3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (this post)

        4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

        5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

        6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

        7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

        8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 18 2009

        Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

        But he that writes of you, if he can tell
        that you are you, so dignifies his story.

        (This post is the second in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

        Long before the Internet, much of our private lives were available to
        those who took an interest, and not just if we were a celebrity chased
        by paparazzi or a lifelong resident of a small village. Investigators
        with many good reasons for ferreting out such knowledge--non-profit
        organizations, college development offices, law enforcement
        professionals, private detectives--pursued their quarries with
        incredibly sophisticated strategies for uncovering as much information
        as they could and shrewdly deducing even more. The Internet has simply
        infused these methods with new ingredients.

        For background, I interviewed a development professional at a private
        college. The goal of such professionals is to deduce a person's
        ability to contribute, using publicly available information such as
        purchases and sales of land, marriage and divorce records, and stock
        prices for the companies in which prospects hold leading positions. A
        few golden sources exist for tracking the most attractive fundraising

        • Publicly traded companies reveal the compensation (salary, bonuses,
          and stock) of their five highest paid employees.

        • Law journals report the compensation of the partners at the top 200
          law firms.

        • Foundations owned by prospective donors file public reports, as Series
          990 tax forms, listing the foundation's assets and donations.

        • Salaries of public officials are open records.

        More generally, Lexis-Nexis offers easy and powerful searches on
        articles from which development professionals can glean valuable
        biographical information and indications of how well the prospects'
        companies are faring.

        If your name is John Smith or Ali Khan, you may be a bit hard to track
        over the decades. But casual details such as place of residence or
        number of children can allow the development staff to piece together
        information sources. If you provide the alumni office with even one or
        two scraps of such information, you help snap the connecting rods in

        The Internet has sprung upon the development field like a geyser--with
        particularly rich pools of information in's real estate
        listings, corporate biography sites, and donor lists for philanthropic
        organizations--while the new social networks make fund-raising
        professionals even giddier. For instance, social network traffic makes
        it much easier for development offices to keep track of alumni's
        family members, which offer indications of their financial
        means. Weblogs where a prospective donor trumpets his or her passions
        can help shape the right appeal to loosen the purse strings.

        If any of this has made you nervous, let me stake out the position
        that legitimate development research is crucial for social progress.
        Colleges and non-profits depend on the donations of those fortunate
        enough to have disposable income. People whose incomes render them
        subjects of this sort of tracking know the score; dealing with
        fund-raisers is just part of the responsibility of wealth management.
        And the fund-raisers have high professional standards, such as the

        Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement's statement of

        The general population is less well informed than the rich about the
        public aspects of their private lives, which is why I've chosen this
        section to begin my survey of identity. I myself run into surprise
        from ordinary citizens I call up when I'm volunteering for a political
        campaign and trying to mobilize potential supporters. Some people
        express annoyance that I know they voted in a Democratic or Republican
        primary. Indeed, although their choice of candidate on the ballot is a
        secret, the fact that they voted on that ballot is public information.
        (Forty-eight states in the US provide it to anybody who asks, while
        the other two have ways of getting it less directly.)

        Democracy relies the use of voter rolls by campaign workers like me to
        reach out to our neighbors, drum up the vote, and convey our
        message. The extensive time we put into these pursuits is one of the
        few counterbalances to the dominance of TV and radio ads in
        determining public opinion. Those who don't understand the value of
        open records in voting might be even more upset to know that anyone
        can easily find out what candidates they gave money to, and how
        much. But get used to it: your actions matter to society, and our
        right to know often trumps your right to be left alone.

        Of course, I haven't recounted the ways banks, retail chains, and
        insurance companies track us; we're all aware of it. A section of this
        article is devoted to the slice of this activity that makes up
        behavioral advertising online. When WIRED journalist

        Evan Ratliff gave a up month of his life to be voluntarily hunted
        ditching his identity and trying to hide
        behind a new one, he discovered that savvy investigators, working
        with cooperating vendors but with no help from law enforcement, could
        decipher when and where he got money from ATMs, made routine
        purchases, and arranged air flights.

        Ultimately, you can be most reliably identified through your DNA, but
        the methodology and data are usually available only to law
        enforcement. The police used to trace you through fingerprints, but
        we've learned over the decades how unreliable those are. So DNA is the
        gold standard for identity.

        The British police have been using any excuse to take a DNA sample
        from everyone they come across. Recently, upon being told by the
        European Court of Human Rights that preserving samples for indefinite
        lengths of time were a violation of privacy, the police grudgingly
        agreed to destroy the samples taken from innocent people after six

        In many British localities--and a number of American ones as
        well--your identity is extended to include your automobile. These are
        areas where governments have installed cameras to capture license
        plates, and where the traffic ticket will come to you if some other
        person driving your car goes through a red light or exceeds the speed

        To the security system at your workplace, you may be your key card, or
        the numeric code you enter on a touchpad, or your facial bone
        structure or iris image. Security experts like to distinguish three
        kind of identifying traits that correspond to these security checks:
        something you possess, something you know, and something you are.

        Even anonymized data such as census figures can be associated with
        individuals through a little--surprisingly little--bit of additional
        information. In the most famous and dramatic demonstration of the
        power of joined data, a

        Carnegie Mellon student obtained the health records of a public

        simply by combining publicly available information. Such exploits are
        fodder more for identity thieves than for fund-raisers or advertisers,
        but they show how exposed you can become when tiny pieces of your life
        float around on public sites. The Internet provides an enormous,
        integrated platform for retrieving identities.

        The next post in this series, turning to our presence on the
        Internet itself, reduces our focus to the minimal data technically
        available on the Internet. As we'll see, while it restricts what web
        servers know about us, it compensates by providing immediate, dynamic
        exploitation of that information.

        The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

        1. Introduction

        2. Your identity in real life: what people know (this page)

        3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (to be posted December 20)

        4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

        5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

        6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

        7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

        8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 17 2009

        Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between

        To be or not to be: that is the question.

        Hamlet's famous utterance plays a trick on theater-goers, a mind
        game of the same type he inflicted constantly on his family and his
        court. While diverting his audience's attention with a
        seemingly simple choice between being and non-being, Hamlet of all
        people would know very well how these extremes bracket infinite

        Our fascination with Hamlet is precisely his instinct for presenting a
        different self to almost everyone he met. Scholars have been arguing
        for four hundred years about Hamlet's moral compass, whether his
        feigned insanity masked a true mental illness, whether the suffering
        and death he inflicted on those around him was a deliberate strategy,
        what psychological complexes fueled his cruel excoriation of Ophelia,
        and other dilemmas that come down to questions about his identity.

        We can appreciate, therefore, why actors up to the present day have to
        memorize Hamlet's "Speak the speech" passage. As a thespian, Hamlet
        outshown all the Players.

        We can bring this critical perspective on identity into our own
        21st-century lives as we populate social networks and join online
        forums. When people ask who we are, questions multiply far beyond the
        capacity of a binary "to be" digit.

        No matter how candidly we flesh out our digital representations
        online, they remain skin-deep. They can never reflect how we are known
        to our families, neighbors, and workmates. Even if we stole a vision
        from science fiction and preserved a complete scan of our brains, the
        resulting representations would not be able to demonstrate the
        dexterity we've built by playing basketball every Saturday, or show
        the struggles we have to control Tourette's syndrome.

        I don't believe anybody has tied down the meaning of online presence,
        and I don't presume to do so here. But we may find better resolutions
        to some of the everyday dilemmas we face by exploring, over the course
        of this article, facets of self that have been discovered and debated
        in the age of computers.

        Before widespread participation in Web 2.0-style forums, the question
        of online identity was framed as an issue of privacy under assault by
        large institutions. Only governments and major corporations could
        install and program the mainframe computers that stored the digital
        evidence of our identities. Within that framework, starting in the
        1970s, European countries that were still shadowed by the history of
        Nazi round-ups started to limit the sharing of personal information
        gathered during commerce and other transactions.

        But at the same time that these laws, enshrined in a 1995 Data
        Protection Directive and further extended to transactions that the EU
        carries out with other countries, set a standard for the regulation of
        commercial data collection, these same European governments have also,
        ironically, unleashed surveillance in response to the terror that hit
        them during this decade. Internet providers are required to retain
        information about the connections made by their customers for periods
        of time ranging from six months to many years. London has led the
        world in putting up more than one million surveillance cameras--which
        helped to identify the 2005 Underground bombings--and yet, according
        to the BBC,

        has fewer cameras per capita than many other cities

        To faceless spies and intrepid marketers, our identity is defined by
        the web site we just visited about surveillance cameras, the tube of
        spermicidal jelly we bought on vacation in Florida, or other odds and
        ends that allow them to differentiate us from other people with
        similar ordinary profiles. The result may be a knock on the door from
        Interpol or just a targeted ad for romantic getaways.

        But in the age of social networks and Web 2.0, we become the agents of
        our own undoing. And therefore, discussions about identity must be
        fashioned with a subtler clay. At every juncture--morning, noon and
        night--we redefine our own identities.

        Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
        private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay? (Data-crawling
        programs can make a pretty good guess about it even if we don't.)
        Should we boast on Twitter that we applied for a grant? Should we talk
        about the ravages of chronic Crohn's disease? This article will lead
        its readers, hopefully, to a fruitful way of thinking about these

        Next, what about the elements of our identity that are controlled less
        by us than by other random individuals? Should we ask that freshman to
        take down the photo he posted where we lay passed out at a party?
        Should we respond to the blogger who mangled the facts during a
        blustering attack on our latest political activity?

        And the ultimate arbiter of identity: what turns up when people search
        for us? Yes, our selves are all in the hands of Google (and for the
        most wretched of all--the famous--Wikipedia). Admitting its
        hegemony over identity, Google now lets us store our own


        to be served up when people search for us.
        They also reveal (at least some of) how they're tracking us at a
        service called

        As we'll see, social networking allows us more control over the image
        we present--at the cost of entering discussions that are not of our

        Truly, social networking is the Internet phenomenon of the year and deserves an end-of-the-year profile (this post is the first in a series of eight). In a recent 19-month period, Facebook rose from 75 million to 300 million members, and Twitter has gone from perhaps 1.3 million users (depending on how you count them) to an estimated 18 million.

        Not only have the sites dedicated to social networking swollen
        voluminously, but their techniques have been watched carefully by
        others. Analysts advise corporations that, to maintain their customer
        bases, it's not enough to offer a good product, not enough to market
        it adeptly and back it up with good service, not enough even to invite
        comments and customer reviews on popular web sites--no, the
        corporation must build community. They have to entice
        customers to socialize and come to feel that they're part of a common
        mission--a mission centered on the corporation.

        Increasingly, the forward march of social networking can be seen on
        site for other services and organizations. It inspires things as
        trivial as visitor pictures and profiles, or as complex as mechanisms
        for encouraging visitors to sign up more recruits, mark other members
        of the site as friends, form affinity groups, post content, and
        compete for points that harbor some promise of future value.

        Although I'd like to drop in to buy a cup of coffee or a shirt without
        social networking, and many of the ground-breaking techniques for
        building community turn into gimmicks when reduced too crassly to
        attention-getting techniques, I think this trend is beneficial. People
        are more effective when they know each other better. And the basis for
        knowing each other will be found in personal and group identity.

        Before the end of the year, I'll post eight related entries that add up to a treatise titled "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between:"

        1. Introduction

        2. Your identity in real life: what people know (to be posted December 18)

        3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (to be posted December 20)

        4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

        5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

        6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

        7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

        8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

        December 15 2009

        Four short links: 15 December 2009

        1. Opticks -- Opticks is an expandable remote sensing and imagery analysis software platform that is free and open source. Hugely extensible system. (via geowanking)
        2. Best Buy, Samsung, And Westinghouse Named In SFLC Suit Today (Linux Weekly News) -- the Software Freedom Law Center is suing them for selling GPL-derived products without offering the source. They've been unresponsive when contacted outside the legal system.
        3. Twitter Helps Reunite Owner with Camera -- Kiwi blogger saw camera fall from car in front of him, posted a picture from the camera to his blog and asked "anyone recognize someone from this picture?". How long do you think it took to get a hit? I love that New Zealand is a village with a seat at the UN.
        4. R vs The Internet -- seminar held in New Zealand about the effects of the online world on law, including matters of suppression and contempt. See session notes from TechLiberty and video of the sessions from R2.

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