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How Plasticity of Identity doesn’t hold up

danah boyd seems to be stirring up discussion again…

Teens are not dreaming of portability (like so many adults i meet). They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles. (Part of this could be that they have a lot more time on their hands.) The idea of taking MySpace material to Facebook when they transition is completely foreign. They’re going to a new site, they want to start over.

While this feeling of ephemerality is not universal amongst teens, it’s far more prevalent than you’d ever see in adult culture and it has some significant implications for design:

  • Focusing on “lock-in” will fail with these teens – they don’t care if they lose track of something they put hours into building.
  • Teens are not looking for universal anything; that’s far too much of a burden if losing track of things is the norm.
  • Paying for an account can help truly engaged teens remember their accounts (i haven’t found any teen who permanently lost their MMO login) but it can also be a strong deterrent for those accustomed to starting over.
  • The numbers that people cite concerning accounts created are astoundingly inaccurate and are worthless for talking about usage or unique participants. (added tx to a comment by Rich)

Which led me to the Slashdot article entitled “Social Networks Fatigue Coming?“. The discussion tried very hard to be about standards and consolidation and the coming possibilities for “profile migration” between services. All of this is a rehash of the same old discussions about email federation that happened 20 years ago. Same as the ongoing 10+ years of graphical IM use that has yet to consolidate/decentralize around a standard (Jabber/XMPP playing the leading role of spoiler/hero at this point).

If these social networks are going to settle on some standard set of portable profile data, it will be so watered down that there’s very little incentive for any established player to play along. If this is going to happen, it has to happen from the ground up. But that’s not even the point of this post.

The Slashdot discussion also turned to the projected identity of users who have multiple accounts, abandoned accounts and one-time accounts that were created simply for access to a single group of people. These users do not plan on maintaining the accounts they create. They are predominantly younger, and less concerned with what they did/said yesterday mattering tomorrow.

circletimessquare wrote:

plasticity of identity, the throw away indentity [sic]. it makes sense for teenagers and their psychological development as they grapple with exactly who they are: try on one identity, throw it away, start over. it also means that the generation that grows up with the web from birth will be very used to the idea of identities being disposable, for themselves, and in how others act towards them as well

this opens up new weaknesses in social interaction, and new strengths. in a world where identity theft is a growing menace, why would that matter when your identity is made of mercury anyways? at the same time, how can anyone be trusted in a world where the idea of a solid identity is built on a foundation of sand?

i see weird confluences of unseen consequences coming out of the new plasticity of identity due to how the web works in the generation currently in their teens, making its way into their very psychology. in ways us ancient fossils in our 20s and 30s won’t even understand

“bah, kids these days”

And ScrewMaster replied:

I dunno. “Plasticity of identity” is all well and good until you go try and apply for a mortgage, or manage a career. Plastic people tend to get their attitudes readjusted real fast, when society eventually expects them to go through their stock of alternate personas and pick one.

Besides, young people have always put on different faces, different attitudes, experimenting to see what kind of reaction they provoke. This social-networking fad is nothing more than an extension of the normal social exploration that we all go through. Yes, it may have unexpected effects but there’s a reason why you mostly see young people playing with their profiles like this. It’s because we eventually figure out that, underneath it all, we’re just who we started out to be anyway. At that point most of us drop the pretense. It takes too much effort to maintain.

I think ScrewMaster has said it most clearly – it’s about societal expectations. This shuffling and searching will come to an end for the vast majority of young people using these tools today as soon as they figure out who they are. Outside of the talk (Fred) (danah) about whether these tools will look quaint and silly themselves in a few years – will these young people care what happens to all the footprints they’re leaving behind? Will they hope the sites just go away/offline? Will they actively delete their rotting personal information – information, while no longer true, isn’t exactly false either… ?

Or will they simply pick a public face, run with it – and hope for the best?

Will any of this matter when the hiring managers themselves did the same thing just a few years prior?

I think in large part this is the most obvious answer for the most people…

It takes too much effort to maintain.

Our identities will collapse on themselves, digital and physical, and plasticity as strategy, while available, will be rarely used by the majority of people who conduct any online activity (read: everyone).

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