Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Subscribe and Follow - Towards Complex Identity

Very interesting post from JP ("Confused of Calcutta") about what he calls the customer perspective. I want to call it something else, not for the sake of disagreeing with JP, but in the hope of adding another layer.

But first, let me pull out some of JP's requests.

  • The ability to subscribe to a particular combination of topic and author ("JP only when talking about cricket") Or more advanced combinations ("JP except when talking about cricket").
  • The ability to control the granularity of information. ("I don't want to know every song JP is listening to, but it would be nice to have an occasional dip, plus the adhoc ability to drill down into his complete listening history.") Note: this is related to the cybernetic understanding of amplification and attenuation - see for example Cyril on Business Intelligence.

Let me also add some telecom requests from Martin Geddes.

  • The ability to speak to my wife if and only if she is not putting the baby to sleep.
  • The ability to speak to an operator who speaks Spanish.

The way I interpret all these requests is the construction of a new kind of complex identity. The person I want to subscribe to or follow, the person I want to speak to, is a constructed person with such-and-such characteristics. I don't want to make any assumptions about Martin's wife, whom I've never met, but my general idea is that a woman-when-putting-baby-to-sleep is not the same person as woman-when-talking-to-her-husband, just as man-interrupted-in-meeting is not the same person as man-sitting-in-hotel-room-talking-to-wife. Similarly, I could be interested in the person identified as "JP-talking-seriously-about-social-networking" but not in the person identified as "JP-talking-humorously-about-cricket".

What I'm doing here is replacing a simple common-sense notion of personal identity (Martin is always Martin, JP is always JP) with a much more fluid, almost postmodern notion of identity. Why might this more complex notion of identity be useful? Because it is infinitely extensible - I can construct abstract identities, and then construct information feeds that relate to these identities.

For example, my son was writing an essay on the Scottish play. Suppose he could get the following links via Facebook.
  • The ability to follow anyone who is currently writing an essay on the Scottish play.
  • The ability to follow the reading choices of anyone who is currently writing an essay on the Scottish play.
  • The ability to compare notes with anyone in my town, other than in my own school, who is writing an essay on the Scottish play.
Now, it is perfectly possible to formulate these requests without invoking a complex notion of identity. But I happen to think that complex identity provides an elegant way of conceptualizing a very broad range of requirements.

So where JP talks about the customer perspective, I propose to talk about the identity perspective. Comments?

And here's a sad footnote. Having found a really good set of posts by Cyril on Business Intelligence, I wanted to subscribe to his blog. But the most recent post on his blog was from his son, reporting Cyril's death in a freak accident. This kind of closure is unusual - people often die and leave identities scattered about the Internet. One ex-colleague of mine died last year: her profile remains frozen on Linked-In, as if she were still available to be contacted: but what does one do?

If I'm subscribed to someone's blog, or following someone on Twitter, and the posts/tweets suddenly stop, this could mean that the person is dead, but it could also mean that something else has happened in his/her life, or that s/he has decided to stop using this channel, or maybe they've just forgotten their password and can't get back into that account. (I know a few people who have created a second identity on Linked-In, because they can't access the first one any more.) So there is a sense in which the person I was following no longer exists, and has gone onto better things, or a better channel. The medium, as I think someone once said, is the message.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Complex Identity is an interesting concept. Reading your entry made me think of Ben Shneiderman's information visualisation mantra...."Overview First, zoom and filter, details on demand".
A similar perspective on identity might be a good starting point.

There are significant barriers to actually doing it though; Entity aggregation, disambiguation, security (Anonymity and anonymizing metadata, privacy, forensics, traffic patterns etc) name a few

The philosophical elements of personhood and identity at any given moment are much debated and may yet provide insite, guess it's time to put on my reading glasses.......