A question of identity

The human race is slipping towards the intangible. Consider the evolution of commerce.

  • Step 1: bartering. “That’s a nice pig, want to swap for this pile of grain?” A system so fundamental that we still see children use it even almost before they even learn the concept of ‘value’.

  • Step 2. precious metals. Shiny things that have value derived purely from their aesthetic appeal.

  • Step 3: coinage and paper money. Non-precious metals pretending to be precious. In essence these are now promissory items, made valuable by a universal acceptance of remuneration.

  • Step 4: virtual balances and transactions. A fairly logical step – if coins merely represent value, why bother with coins at all? Hence credit cards, cheques, direct debits etc.

  • Step 5: e-commerce. You don’t even see the goods. In some cases there’s not even anything to see! You buy your virtual goods with virtual money at a virtual shop.

As it is with commerce, so it is in other arenas too. Telephones, instant messaging, SMS etc are all taking us away from the tradition of face-to-face interaction. Today’s youth in particular have little problem slipping in and out of many personas, both online and offline. What’s notable, however, is that as we move in and out of these virtual personas, identity is still as important as ever. In the real world we establish this by the way we dress, the things we say, friends with whom we associate. In the virtual world we adopt other approaches.

Since this identity is still so important, it’s understandable that business wants to be part of it too. It’s the essence of segmentation and the Holy Grail for marketers - after all, almost all lifestyle preferences just distil down to different product choices (Armani, not Top Man... National Trust, not Club 18-30).

An excellent article on the excellent OK/Cancel webcomic/blog/whatever discusses the two flavours of metadata that businesses want to squeeze out of consumers:

  • Identifying data: post code, age, income – the facts and figures.

  • Identity data: tastes, interests, values – the things that make us the person we are.

It's this second point that holds all the juicy stuff – our motivations, our needs, what makes us tick – and we think we keep it a big secret. I’m afraid to say we’re lying to ourselves.

I look at my Friendster profile and see a full rundown of my favourite music, a description of my interests, lots of information the marketers would love. I look at my Final Fantasy XI character and consider how much time I’ve invested in her – buying the best equipment, adding witty search comments, earning a reputation as someone who’s helpful and polite.

Why do I do this? Because these are amongst my virtual identities and I want to put my personal stamp on them. If anything, I do this even more so virtually than offline. In a commercial environment, I still feel like a customer reference number rather than a person with an identity. In Final Fantasy and Friendster I am a person, however virtual – and, you know what? I want everyone to know! I expect the first company to afford me a genuine identity will command my loyalty for a long, long time.

Yes, we’ve become abstract beings, but look closely – you’ll see that this only makes us reinforce our identity more vigorously!


This overlaps with another interesting point: attitudes to real-life law and authority in a virtual world. Downloading music from P2P networks is of course the classic example. It seems to me that most of the research into this is biased towards one camp or the other, but it is widely accepted that illegal P2P downloads substantially outstrip ‘legitimate’ sales.

By evaporating into our virtual selves, do we feel that ‘physical’ laws no longer apply? Maybe so. Maybe these laws are simply not appropriate or are very out-dated. Yesterday’s MGM v Grokster ruling has reinforced that ‘real-world’ law is very much in force, but the size of the backlash has been remarkable. Maybe it just goes to show that individuals are in the driving seat of this new virtual world and resent the strong-arm tactics of big business, struggling to apply real-world tactics and business models to a very different environment.

Cennydd Bowles