Redefining Identity in the Digital Age

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on July 17, 2013

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Who are you? There’s never a simple answer to that question, because defining who we are – coming up with the words to describe identity – is a complex and highly personal concept.

Not too long ago, there was a sense that we had public and private personas. We had a work self, a family self, a “get a little crazy watching a football game” self. We managed to keep them separate, or at least control how they related with each other…except maybe at one of those unfortunate office holiday parties.

But thanks to technology, social media and the vast amounts of data they’re collecting, the very notion of identity is going through some seismic changes that will continue to play out over the coming years.

Selves without borders

Now that we’re connected all the time, boundaries and borders are blurring. The most basic part of our identity – our name – is no longer singular, but plural. A driver’s license might identify a person as John Smith, but online, he may have different user names across the many sites he’s a member of.

Mr. Smith might, at first, have tried to separate his online selves, creating a work identity on one social media site while sharing a more personal version of himself on another. Being online, all the time, has also given us a virtual mobility that lets us transcend borders. The communities that make up a large part of our identity aren’t linked to physical locations anymore.

A third-generation resident of Brooklyn, John Smith isn’t as tied to (or identified by) his neighborhood anymore. He plays massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) against players from dozens of countries. His friends on social media sites number in the thousands. The local shops and banks and post offices that his parents frequented – where everyone knew their names – may still be there, but they’re competing against online merchants, where everything’s cheaper, but customers have become data sets.

You, digitally

Here’s a picture on the impact of mobile and social media. In this 2012 infographic, Deloitte Digital takes a look at the tech forces changing today’s world and why it matters.

845 million users have social media profiles. To put that into perspective that equates to more social media users in the world than there are cars. What’s more, 4.8 billion people own a mobile phone. Compare that to 4.2 billion that own a toothbrush.

Other findings are startling. By the age of two, 82 percent of children already have an online presence. 87 percent of Americans can be identified by name, through the use of public databases, with just three bits of data: their gender, zip code and birthday. In the first six months of 2012, more than 240 million searches using “people search engines” were completed – and that’s not counting searches from the mega online search engines, or via social media.

We’re all armed with mobile devices that allow us connect with people across the world, to photograph every meal we eat and trip we take and share those pics while we post to our friends.

The confluence of smart devices and being social online means we’re basically on display all the time. Like celebrities stalked by paparazzi, we never know when someone will tag us in an unflattering photo.

Memory of an elephant

And since information on Internet has no expiration date, so goes with it the idea of reinventing ourselves. As the use of social media expands, we should anticipate that more information will be discoverable. Becoming familiar with the challenges now to help rein in this identity crisis, we can take steps to limit the ever-growing cloud of personal information made public, as noted in this Social Media and eDiscovery: A Checklist for Practitioners article. Possible solutions will come from policy makers and privacy legislation as well as from innovators who provide tools we need – because being careful isn’t enough anymore. We need some measures of control.