Online personas: Is technology redefining human identity for good?

Manti Te'o during 2010 game against USC.Considering it’s just the singular and plural forms of the same word, the difference in definition of ‘identity’ and ‘identities’ is a particularly interesting one to think about. Ask someone how they would define their identity, and that’s quite a deep, thought-provoking question that requires a considered answer.

Yet ask them about what ‘identities’ they adopt for varying situations and the response is a lot more trivial; people happily alternate between different ‘identities’; even priding themselves in how they do so.

The issue of identity has been brought to the fore this week with the release of a Government report, as part of its influential Foresight series. Designed to produce insight to assist in policy formation, it investigates how human identity will be shaped in the next ten years; and the way in which the report predicts the role the web and ‘big data’ will play raises some fascinating thoughts with regard to what human identity actually means, particularly in the digital/social world we live in.

Identity is something that, traditionally, has been deeply entrenched in us. However, as technology and networking grows, there has been a seismic shift with people altering their digital appearances from platform to platform with increasing ease, just as they might their physical appearance in reality.

Look at the way in which we traverse social media; we can present one image/tone of voice on Twitter for the world to see, and an entirely different facade on Facebook which may be restricted to a smaller, more personal audience. Just as users do not have to provide their full names on social networking sites; how many of us have provided a fake e-mail address in order to gain access to websites and online offers? In fact, how many of us own multiple personal e-mail accounts?

While this can be a useful exercise now, with hyper-connectivity increasing, the fluidity of identity in the digital age is inherently dangerous. It may allow consumers to manage their relationships with brands, or act as a form of escapism, but there is serious potential for exploitation on a variety of levels.

Take a look at the unsettling case of college athlete Manti Te’o in the press over in the United States. Last week an incredible story emerged of how American Footballer Te’o was hoaxed into believing he had an online relationship with a girl (a girl that has apparently died months earlier – a story that also was reported heavily across national media at the time). Ultimately it was all revealed to be a cruel hoax, but the extent to which Te’o was implicated was practically unprecedented. It continues to dominate headlines and, along with the 2010 documentary ‘Catfish’, highlights the extent of the disconcertingly dark aspects of identity in the online space.

While the development of hyper-connectivity should be viewed as a positive step, brands must be aware of how volatile the definition of identity really is, and recognise the importance of managing such large volumes of information wisely. This proliferation of digital connectivity means that the possibility that online identity being distorted or even fraudulently cloned has considerably increased.

With users sharing more information about themselves across a variety of online platforms, brands are using available data to gain insight into consumer behaviour, but the marked increase of this social plurality challenges existing marketing practices. For example, traditional marketing segmentation may gather insight on a consumer’s retail purchases, but how useful is the information if it’s a partial identity?

The challenge now for brands is to use insight to traverse these multiple partial identities in order to discover the real consumers at the heart of them. Brands have to be smarter and truthful in the way they engage with consumers in order to encourage customers to be more truthful in return.

The report concludes that identity is far from finished in terms of its evolution. As hyper connectivity brings us closer and the boundaries of offline and online blur to the point of no distinction, the next few years will be crucial in either bringing positive change to consumers or potential social exclusion for those that shun a consistent presence across on- and offline channels. The digital arena looks set to continue growing at a rapid pace, and more comprehensive data-gathering will make it harder for people to create these carefully crafted facades. It begs the question; before long, will it be even possible to escape your own true identity?

Chris Sykes is the CEO of Volume.