Mark Zuckerberg Facebook SXSWi 2008 Keynote
Image by deneyterrio via Flickr

Another post about Facebook? Yes, I’m afraid so, but this one has a slightly different slant to it. Instead of talking about privacy, let’s talk about identity.

Facebook’s increasingly cynical founder, Mark Zuckerberg, made a statement in 2009 that reveals itself not as a reflection of fact but, in Nicholas Carr’s words, “a clever and cynical ploy to recast the debate about Facebook’s ongoing efforts to chip away at its members’ privacy safeguards”:

You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

I’m sure there are plenty of people — Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Bono (Paul Hewson), that woman who works near you who uses her maiden name professionally and her married name socially — who have a lot of integrity but also have, in effect, two identities. Children of divorced couples sometimes bounce between preferring or wearing maternal or paternal last names depending on which side of the family they’re with. Authors use pen names. Songwriters have aliases depending on genre.

People can have more than one identity.

Zuckerberg hopes we only have one, but, as Jeff Jarvis writes on the Buzz Machine, he must confuse “a” public with “the” public — and this leads to mistaking sharing with publishing.

They are not the same thing.

If you’re on Facebook, think of all the myriad “you”s that are there — your high school persona, your college persona, your business personae, your family persona, and others. But they are, in aggregate, not you. Rather, they are “the small societies we create on Facebook,” as Jarvis puts it.

Facebook is also confusing “identity” with “identification” in the sense of affiliation. We identify with certain people for certain reasons, and know certain things about them because of these affiliations. But the mirror-ball of identity shouldn’t be captured, frozen, and published through an algorithmic compilation of affiliations.

We’ve discussed here before Jaron Lanier’s insights about the extended childhoods the force-fit of social media is creating for our kids, who never lose touch with each other and might have something closer to a single identity. This has a conservative societal force.

Or, as Danah Boyd says in her excellent rant on the topic, “it’s about monkeys vs. robots.”

And I’m saying that in my identity as a blogger. It’s not my only one.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "Monkeys vs. Robots: The Mysteries of Identity in the Age of Facebook"

A related issue that’s somewhat of an obsession (or at least a preoccupation) for me at the moment is _identifiers_ — and it confirms your point, Kent. I won’t get into all the ramifications involved with the identities of works, manifestations, etc.; in the context of your post, let’s just think about _people_. Virtually every effort to come up with _one master ID_ for a person falls short. There’s OpenID. There’s the new ORCID (the identifier for researchers that is to some degree the successor to what was once going to be CrossRef’s Contributor ID). There’s the Library of Congress Name Authority File. There are the multiple ID systems used by players in the scholarly ecosystem — ResearcherID, Author ID, and all the others — not to mention all the proprietary ones in proprietary systems. There’s the ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier, which looks like a good candidate to become a “master” number (and for many purposes it may be able to serve as such), but which actually is for identifying a _public persona_: per the ISNI web site (, “ISNIs are assigned to the Public Identities of Parties that participate in the creation, production, management or distribution of cultural goods in the digital environment. Those Parties can be natural persons (a human being like a book author), legal entities (like a Record Label) or even fictional characters (like Peter Pan).” They are also for “public identites” like Bob Dylan or Bono (or Mark Twain). I became really immersed in all this when I did a study of author name disambiguation for a client. The only logical conclusion — and one in support of your post, Kent — is that there is no way around the fact that there will be a whole host of identifiers for people; the issue will never be “conflating” them down to “the one true identity,” but MANAGING all these identifiers, and understanding the identities (and personas and roles) that they apply to.

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