Identity matters – it’s a vital piece of context in conversation whether it’s established by digital footprint or physical presence.  One aspect of moving conversations from the informal to the formal sphere is the reconciliation of your online persona with your legal citizenship.

People, like places, have a digital wrapper which extends their identity from beyond their physical presence in to the online environment.  This wrapper is asynchronous and pervasive but is also malleable and manageable if you choose to make it so.  The more alarming consequences of this is laid out in this article on Münchausen by internet where the author describes in detail the ease with which someone can create a false identity and the impacts of them doing this.  Few people take the possibilities of online identity in this direction – but its important the remember that this represents the risk of online identity – you don’t really know who you are dealing with.  The question is whether or not this matters.

Your identity online is currently a dynamic and self-reflexive creation with necessary external reference to the physical world.  Its part of the seduction of the online world that you do as Boyd says ‘write yourself into being’.  Few people do this consciously – most react to content and follow our friends behaviours rather than actively trying to create an identity which is distinct from your offline life.  As use of social media grows beyond the personal sphere where you are talking to your friends and family and into the professional and civic space where you are talking to your communities its clear that there is a growing awareness of the impact of the content that you create on your reputation and public persona – it recently cost a Caerphilly Councillor £3K plus costs.

This self-reflexivity can be seen as a consequence of modernity rather than just technology – Giddens describes it like this:

“Self identity becomes a question of reconciling the different narratives that we have in abstract systems.”

Giddens argues this from the perspective of a breakdown of traditional structures and agreed value sets rather than as a result of the network society but the effect is the same – the stories and ideas which express our sense of self may be different to different people but they collide online in a way which either requires enormous self-discipline to keep separate or a new kind of authenticity and openness in the way in which we create our self-identity.

We don’t yet know what the impact will be of having huge amounts of the narrative of your life being available to publicly look back on in years to come but its clear that we are en route to finding out as we build up the digital narrative of our lives.  Of course for many people this narrative, in this country at least, is largely if not entirely on Facebook – an environment that has a publicly stated lack of belief in privacy and an commitment to openness which means that you don’t even own the data that you post there.

Whether you like it or not it is increasingly difficult to keep your personal and professional lives separate – what does this mean for your democratic identity – you citizen-self?  Do you even have one?

Researchers such as Sherry Turkle (Life on Screen, 1997) have established the fact that online environments can play a central role in people’s lives with individuals considering online interactions to have at least the same significance as those that happen in their physical world.  She has also explored the fact that for many people the potential for anonymity and role playing which the online world brings is its greatest attraction, with participants exploring aspects of themselves, trying out different opinions or working through problems.  In this context the participation of other people is irrelevant except as a mirror to see their own actions – the issue of course is that other people are real – even if you don’t see the consequences of your actions upon them.  However Turkle’s more recent work focuses on her concerns as to the implications of a life on screen.  The following is take from a 2007 article she wrote for Forbes magazine called “Can you hear me now?” (she develops these themes in her recent book – more on that when I have finished it)

We have become virtuosos of self-presentation, accustomed to living our lives in public. The idea that “we’re all being observed all the time anyway, so who needs privacy?” has become a commonplace. Put another way, people say, “As long as I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares who’s watching me?” This state of mind leaves us vulnerable to political abuse. Last June I attended the Webby Awards, an event to recognize the best and most influential Web sites. Thomas Friedman won for his argument that the Web had created a “flat” world of economic and political opportunity, a world in which a high school junior in Brooklyn competes with a peer in Bangalore. MySpace won a special commendation as the year’s most pathbreaking site.

The awards took place just as the government wiretapping scandal was dominating the press. When the question of illegal eavesdropping came up, a common reaction among the gathered Weberati was to turn the issue into a nonissue. We heard, “All information is good information” and “Information wants to be free” and “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” At a pre-awards cocktail party one Web luminary spoke animatedly about Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, an architectural structure of spokes of a wheel built out from a hub, used as a metaphor for how the modern state disciplines its citizens. When the panopticon serves as a model for a prison, a guard stands at its center. Since each prisoner (citizen) knows that the guard might be looking at him or her at any moment, the question of whether the guard is actually looking–or if there is a guard at all–ceases to matter. The structure itself has created its disciplined citizen. By analogy, said my conversation partner at the cocktail hour, on the Internet someone might always be watching; it doesn’t matter if from time to time someone is. Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon had been a critical take on disciplinary society. Here it had become a justification for the U.S. government to spy on its citizens. All around me there were nods of assent.”

Publicity and openness need to be considered carefully by the state and we must not risk the cyber-evangelism which Morozov and others have been writing about overwhelm a more through debate as to what online identity means with respect to democratic decision making.  What does a digital citizen look like?

Digital Citizens

Citizenship is a formal legal construct that defines your relationship with the state.  Its based on where you were borne and where you live – its rooted in the physical world.  Citizenship brings with it rights and responsibilities and in our society is a gateway to your participation in the democratic and political life, its taught in schools and its celebrated in ceremonies where we confer it actively.  However, there is little narrative of citizenship and we in fact only act in an auditable way as citizens when we vote.

Our citizenship today is formed as part of a representative democratic system – our citizenship gives us the right to vote for our representatives and in doing so we cede much of our decision making power to them.  The intriguing question that comes with the social shift described by the network society – or at least by the techno-determinism of the cyber-evangelists – is whether technology offers us the the opportunity to return to a more direct form of democracy.  This is a different question to the issue of online and democratic identity and so not for this piece – but it is lurking in the background….

Consultation is not democracy

There is a temptation to say ‘why bother’ when thinking about democratic identity.  There have been a number of forays into widescale online consultations with a variety of identity management approaches from none at all to physical identification in order to participate in citizens panels online and these have been fed very happily into the decision making process in the way that consultation outcomes often are.    I wrote a much longer piece on this a while ago here but the point to stress is that there is nothing democratic about consultation unless the elected representatives choose to listen to them – and I would argue that this makes respondents who get included in this lucky rather than democratically participative.

I would argue that the absence of a robust identity management system relegates recent treasury consultation experiments into the crowd pleasing rather than crowd sourcing category – that and the lack of integration with the actual policy process.

If Citizenship is a legal construct then at some point you need to be able to legally identify yourself to participate.  We do this offline with voter registration and the electoral role – how will it work when we want to participate democratically online rather than just answer some questions on a consultation?

A sliding scale of identification

Identification is in fact a sliding scale from the weak turing test of the RECAPTCHA that proves that its a human being through to the bio metric data of iris recognition attached to my passport.  The scale goes like this:

  1. Are you a real person?
  2. Are you a real person who tells us that they live somewhere relevant?
  3. Are you a real person who can prove that you live somewhere relevant?
  4. Can you prove that you are a specific person who has rights of citizenship?

Peter Cruickshank has an excellent post on this here with respect to the ECI. One of his proposed solutions is a statistical sampling approach – i am not discussing that here as its not appropriate for the smaller samples we see for most democratic conversations.  As we open up democratic processes online we will need to decide where on this continuum we want identity to sit.  At present most organisations stop at (2) – self reported data – to support consultation but we will need to examine whether this is far enough when you are talking about formal democratic decisions.  Or put differently – should our identity management be less stringent for democracy than it is for managing our bank account?

Its perhaps not an immediate issue if you believe that Citizen participation in actual democratic processes will continue to be concerned with voting either in elections or even in referenda as the technology to support this has been tried and found to be more cumbersome in many respects when compared to the traditional methods.  It may be that this is going to be a non-issue until we have a more coherent response to online identity management and yes – ID cards.

However if we want more people to participate in the minutiae of actual decision making – ie if there is a real move towards more direct democracy through mechanisms such as Participatory Budgeting then we already know that this increased participation will need to be led digitally because the ease of use and the costs of transactions.  We will therefore at some point need the strengthen this process of identification to make it possible to be sure that someone is in fact who they say they are and have the legal right to influence a decision.  Without this we can never be certain that our decisions are representative – it may be more difficult but its important to get this right.

Do you always want the state to know who you are?

The fact is that we have already addressed this issue within some areas of government – government gateway manages the process of your online tax return very competently.  The question is whether it is appropriate to connect your transactional relationship with the state with your democratic relationship – or indeed if it is possible to consider these as being separate?

There are many many reasons why the identification of the individual to the state may inhibit your democratic interactions with that state – fear of intimidation, lack of self-efficacy or just a lack of trust in an unbiased outcome within your transactional interactions with government if you were to show a negative view.  There is also the need to make it possible for civil servants to voice views that may differ from their political leaders and the need to separate their personal from their professional lives in order to ensure that they are not disenfranchised.

The fact remains that we are after all just one person – whatever web based sophistry we employ to extend this and perhaps we should therefore consider other solutions to these democratic barriers rather than an artificial construct of democracy.

How many people are we anyway?

Ultimately I do not see any alternative to connecting these identities together into one – the freedom that the social web has to date given us to experiment with different personas will, if we start to move more of the business of government online need to be reconciled at some point because the openness and transparency of the online world will not allow for anything else.  It will be possible but extremely cumbersome to keep up multiple coherent identities and my prediction is that people just will not bother.  The shifting norms of online behaviours will slide towards a single identity because we are after all just one person.

Aren’t we?

Or do we in fact want to present different personas in different contexts?  Isn’t the reality of the self-reflexive creation of identity the fact that we undergo a constant evolution of self and the risk with the digital element of this is that we hold on to past versions of ourselves beyond the point at which they are relevant to your identity today?  Life transitions such as a new school or a new job, or a new country or even a new relationship used to let us jettison past behaviours and start afresh – now we carry this narrative baggage with us in a digital world.

In the context of democratic debate this really means that we will need to adjust to the idea that people change – and that this is a legitimate behaviour even with politicians.  However we also need to adjust to the fact that we hold multiple personas as we deal differently with different elements of our lives and to force us to have just one public face may not actually best reflect the reality of how we live.

Think about Facebook and the way it forces you to bring everything together – I am not sure this reflects how I want to present myself and though I see the drift in this direction I can’t help but feel that what I really want is the ability to have just one identity but to be able to present it in different ways in different contexts.

Accountability does not need to be transparent

I was very struck by a comment from Jimmy Leach about digital diplomacy – he said the foreign office are not unnecessarily secretive but they are professionally discrete – I thought this was a really important distinction.  It is possible to have accountability without making your identity transparent – you can be discrete about who you really are.  Screen names are common place online and serve a valuable function in allowing people to participate in instances where they actively seek to conceal who they are in ‘real life’ – have a look at Michelle Ide Smith‘s research findings for more on this.  As long as we have some processes that validates these screen names against a legal real world identity then all forms of identification could be accommodated within this model and individuals would have the freedom to participate without the risks of connecting all elements of their online and offline identities together in an externally transparent way.

Is this discretion or obfuscation?

There is an inherent tension here for me – the scenario I propose above is a reaction to the fact that at the moment social norms in the political sphere do not accommodate a modern view of identity where the individual naturally and rightly changes their mind over the course of time and where the public does not have have trust in the political system (quite apart from issues of trust in the governments ability to run the technology which is quite another issue).

Ultimately this is for me another area, like online civic architecture, where I believe that government needs to start actively thinking and shaping the technological outcome – we need an active debate about citizenship that digs into our identity as citizens and starts to draw out how closely we want to associate this with the other kinds of self that we find online.  The big philosophical question here (which you will be pleased to know I’m not addressing) is whether multiple online identities is exactly what is needed in order to make the ongoing self-reflexive project of identity ‘work’ in a digital world and whether it is counter productive to try and reconcile our digital selves back into an analogue state.  In the meantime we need a practical solution.

So – what are we going to do about it?

While it will be interesting to sit about and ponder what might happen that’s a more old school way of doing things – I prefer to react in a more agile way and to move start to move towards an objective in stages from now on.

So what’s the objective?

We need to be able to identify people online to the extent that we are confident that they are citizens and able to participate in decision making.

In doing this we don’t want to add to the confusion of identities and the self-reflexive sense of self and so will need to allow for the use of screen names rather than insisting on real names.  We are enabling people to create a democratic identity for each of their citizenships where they are building a composite picture of their democratic engagement with a democratic body such as a council that can be used both by the citizen, their fellow citizens and by the state.  And there is some detail:

  • Beyond this we also need to be realistic in the way that people already choose to identify themselves and interact with systems such as Facebook, Twitter and Google where people choose to make this their democratic persona.
  • The key question in all of this is therefore – how do you prove you are a citizen?  At a national level our proof of citizenship is our passport, at a local level we are really looking at the rather weaker test of the electoral role.  So – to do this thoroughly we would need:
  • An ID management system that authenticates against the electoral role and perhaps passport records
  • Within this a way of managing multiple personas so that you can have different screen names within different contexts (though I would assume only one with each democratic body you are interacting with)
  • The ability to authenticate social media content against this ID so that you can either attribute for example Facebook content to your democratic ID or vice versa

In real terms this is an issue that will continue to be fudged for some time – at least until there is real pressure on the online decision making process and we are forced to examine exactly how representative some of the feedback is.  In which case item (1) more than likely becomes the ability to store answers to democratic ‘gateway’ questions such as your postcode so that you can infer residency.  The rest of this is fairly simple to achieve.

Conclusion

The existence of a digital footprint effects our identity by making our actions, and views, public and audit able.  It gives us the opportunity to create multiple identities online which are democratically rootless unless we start to reconcile them back to the legal fact of citizenship.

We have to move past the point where we are grateful for any participation in the conversation with the state and start to ask what happens when we really have mass participation because we risk achieving this.  If we don’t have a way to ensure that these responses are representative then we are undermining the democratic processes that we are trying to promote.

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