Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Social Network Systems and Identity:

From managing identity to managing fair use

Introduction: Online Identities and Social Consequences

As social networking systems (SNS’s) become ubiquitous, our engagement with these systems increasingly impacts significant aspects of our lives in unexpected ways. In 2007, an American banking intern was terminated after a photo posted to the social networking system revealed he missed work to attend a Halloween party (Owen, 2007). Public officials have been compelled to resign after expressing personal views on social networking platforms, in July of 2009 an aid to a city official in Manhattan resigned over posting controversial views to facebook (Chan, 2009). In October of 2009, MIT researchers created a program that analyzes public information about a Facebook user’s friends to accurately predict their sexual orientation. The shocking implication of this particular study is that a social network activity such as the friends one chooses, a fundamental and requisite form of engagement, could be used to effectively “out” a users sexual orientation against his will (Jernigan & Mistree, 2009).

Do privacy controls limit expression of identity?
SNS’s have been quick to identify emerging problems with managing our online identities and self-published content. Early interventions by engineers & designers focused on developing robust privacy controls to offer high-level management of access to personal information. Facebook, for example, now allows you to assign custom levels of privacy for individuals and groups of friends. Individuals can be assigned to custom groups like co-worker, family, or friend with each group having a pre-determined privacy setting.

Clearly, these identity management tools are valuable for those who use SNS’s. Over the last few years, a mini industry has risen to instruct users on sculpting their presentation and cultivating their identities to leverage social networking systems personal PR opportunities to maximize professional opportunities and hirability.

Beyond identity management for personal PR purposes, some have argued that sophisticated identity management affordances are necessary to authentically represent construction of identity. In 2005, Alice Marwick criticized the strictly representational model of early SNS’s as a “problem of authentiticity”. She writes, “Social networking sites overall presume that each user has a single ‘authentic’ identity that can be presented accurately.” Marwick views this singular construction of identity as a direct contradiction to the way in which we perform identity in everyday life; we present ourselves in various ways depending on the audience and context (Marwick, 2005).

Looking forward at emerging technology, it’s easy to imagine a rise in active identity management. A November 2009, Atlantic Monthly essay by Jamais Cascio imagines ubiquitous augmented reality systems that when coupled with advances in facial-recognition technology push self-published social information to unprecedented prominence. Personal beliefs, views, and values become visually inseparable from the face of each person you meet and become a fundamental component of the visual landscape. Cascio goes on to imagine a rising demand for “reality filters” that eliminate unwanted information and opposing viewpoints. The real problem with identity management, as Cascio sees it, is less about technology and more about our society’s inability to tolerate diverse viewpoints (Cascio, 2009).

Unequal power dynamics and leveling the identity field
One aspect of this problem space involves power dynamics. Individuals in positions of power can use self-published information on SNS’s against others. Because of this, users of SNS’s are pressured to manage, stifle, and censor authentic expression of identity in order to protect themselves from those who would exercise power informed by prejudice and intolerance to discriminate against and oppress them. Though there is a clear ethical value in designing SNS’s systems that allow marginalized peoples to protect themselves and their identity from these forces, designers also have an ethical obligation to develop this technology in such a way that maximizes opportunities for individuals to authentically express themselves and aims to transcend these oppressive structures. By simply transcribing real life self-limiting identity management techniques into social network technology we miss the opportunity to ethically reform these interactions and level power dynamics.

New expectations of personal identity management can create new set of pressures and demands on stakeholders. As we present many different optimized versions of ourselves to diverse and demanding audiences our understanding of who we are can become diminished and becomes more and more linked with how others want us to be. Presently, the burden is on the user to predict aspects of their identity that may be uncomfortable for others and manage, filter, and hide those aspects. By focusing on identity control and management, SNS’s risk perpetuating restrictive and oppressive limitations on authentic expression. Like Bill Clinton’s well known “don’t ask don’t tell” compromise, are designers of SNS’s contributing to a climate that encourages marginalized groups and populations to suppress themselves, while allowing people in positions of power to maintain intolerant and oppressive prejudices and judgments?

A June 2009 article by Caryn Brooks chronicles the benefits of coming out on facebook.
Coming out used to be an exhausting process. You had to come out again and again and again to all your friends at different times. Nowadays, even with social networking, gays still have to come out, but one of the key differences between our pre-profile selves and our new online presentations is that now (finally!) the burden is also on our friends to discover and digest our identities. For the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Facebook et al have finally leveled the identity field, and it's kinda nice.
SNS’s and other social technological innovations have tremendous opportunity to shape new trends in social engagement and contribute to new achievements in stakeholders ability to understand themselves and articulate their identity.

The implicated value

Identity as understanding ourselves
Leaders in Value Sensitive Design, such as Batya Friedman have researched and presented key ethical values that should be considered in this problem space. This value of identity is most directly implicated in this socio-technological problem space. Friedman’s value of identity refers to “people’s understanding of who they are over time”. (Friedman, 2007).

This definition of identity has been researched extensively across analogous sociotechnological problem spaces. The rise of virtual simulations like second life and semi-anonyms social games have been widely studied as systems that implicate identity and people’s understanding of who they are over time. These systems allow individuals new opportunities and freedoms to project multiple constructions and liberating simulations of their identity. Sherry Turkles has written extensively on the importance of viewing construction of identity not as a calculation, but more of a simulation, where the self is conceived as a “multiple, distributed system”. Turkle writes:
Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences there to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation. (Turkle, 1996)
Identity management in virtual “games” versus social network systems
Turkles and others who have studied how multiple projections and simulations of identity contribute to an enhanced understanding of the self over time were writing exclusively about social games and virtual simulations. These virtual simulations are still widely used and these new ideas of identity issues are still relevant. However, unlike games and virtual playgrounds where users explore and experiment with the construction of their identities, managing and controlling multiple identities in SNS’s may undermine users positive formation of identity. Key figures from user’s daily life, including authority figures such co-workers, teachers, supervisors, parents, and others are highly aware of their every thought and move and poised to judge and discriminate. So it may be that when stakeholders in SNS’s are encouraged to project and simulate their identities to conform to the expectations of people in position of power they are diminishing their ability to understand who they are. Another way of thinking about it, is that new privacy controls in SNSs may be designed in such a way that stakeholders are pressured to cede control of their understanding of who they are to oppressive figures.

Identity as a dynamic integrated process
Defining Identity as the understanding of who we are over time is an important ethical value in this problem space, but this definition is not enough. Stakeholders have ethical rights that extend beyond understanding their identity. For SNS’s we need an expansive view of identity includes utilizing technology to both understand who we are and to freely express this authentic identity to others and thereby integrate this authentic identity into everyday life.

For this reason it is useful to apply Abraham Maslow’s humanist concept of self-actualization. Maslow conceived of 5 stages of human needs with the peak need being self-actualization. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization”. (Maslow, 1943).

Vivian Cass presents an identity model that outlines six stages of gay and lesbian identity development. The stages include confusion, comparison, self-tolerance, self-acceptance, pride, and finally identity synthesis. Identity syntheis is achieved when the individual can “integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is an aspect of self.” (Cass, 1979)

So for this paper we define our value not only as people’s understanding of who they are. We also incorporate the dynamic interactions involved in expressing, understanding, constructing, and integrating our identity with and through others as formulated by applying the models developed by Maslow and Cass.

Key Stakeholders

Direct Stakeholders
All current users of SNS’s and anyone who self-publishes personal information about themselves via the web can benefit and derive value from an authentic and dynamic expression of identity and are therefore direct stakeholders in this problem space.

Of particular ethical interest are individuals of marginalized groups and populations or people with minority beliefs and values. These stakeholders have legitimate concerns that fully engaging in social network systems could make them vulnerable to judgments, inequity, and discrimination. While advanced privacy filters can be utilized to protect these individuals from judgment, there is a value in these individuals utilizing social networks as a tool to more effectively express themselves and more authentically integrate and communicate all aspects of their identity.

Indirect Stakeholders
1. Investigators - Security professionals, prosecutors, government agents, and other individuals who’s professional duties include identifying potential threats to national security or domestic criminal activity. These individuals create judgments and inferences on behaviors of groups and individuals on SNSs and have an interest in this information being widely available.

2. Informants - Individuals who’s professional activity include leveraging SNS’s to unethically and perhaps illegally discriminate against others. For example, consulting firms that research SNS’s and attempt to predict and identify characteristics of job candidates such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, pregnancy, psychological profiles, medical conditions and other characteristics that can be used to illegally discriminate against hiring them.

In both of the above cases, it’s important to note that the interests of these indirect stakeholders is in opposition to the interests of the direct stakeholders. For this reason it is of high ethical value to allow the direct stakeholders to establish expectations and guidelines over the use of such information and for lawmakers to make sure the activity of the indirect stakeholders in fair and in line with universal human rights, core constitutional protections, and all relevant civic laws.

3. Intolerants - Individuals who engage in SNSs and are intolerant, uncomfortable, and threatened by thoughts, ideas, and activities that are not consistent with their beliefs. These individuals have a stake in privacy controls that pressure individuals with marginalized views and behavior to censor themselves and at the same time have a stake in being able to freely express their own views that are backed by historical institutions of oppression.

4. Designers - Programmers and employees of SNSs who have an interest in protecting the corporations from privacy concerns and other perceived limitations by users. This individuals also have an interest in conceptualizing social identity in terms of profit and commoditizing social information over a concept of liberating ethical rights of their constituents.

Implications for Design

From broadcast to eavesdrop – reconsidering models of information sharing
Another aspect of this problem space is that many use inappropriate models to apply norms and expectations. For SNS’s the metaphor of broadcasting their views or identity may not be entirely appropriate. This is the same metaphor we use for radio, television, and newspapers. Comparing a user updating their profile on a SNS to the dedicated actions of a large media conglomerate or corporation may place unfair and inappropriate limitations on how people should express their identity. Instead, we could think of users contributions of personal information as a creative act of producing and contributing social intelligence to the SNS system. Likewise, it may be useful to extend the metaphor to the experience of receiving updates about others via a social network. Instead of the view that we are being bombarded with unwanted and uncomfortable information, we could take accountability for constructing and integrating information and judgments about others. It may be more accurate to say we are collecting, digesting, and synthesizing information about others in our selected network. The concept of eavesdropping versus broadcasting changes key assumptions that are involved in the actionable legal aspects of this information including terminating, prosecuting, or discriminating against others based on this information. These new metaphors, arguably more representative of the true functionalities and interactions of SNS’s, allow for new possibilities in imagining a shifting of the burden of increasingly complex management and filtering of authentic identity from the individual, to an issue of context and expectations, lawmaking, human rights, and fair use of this potentially valuable information. How can HCI professionals and academics shape the perception of SNSs with respect to these models in a way that is equitable and promotes the ethical value of identity?

From managing identity to managing fair use
In an analogous problem space, the photo sharing site Flickr address users interests in protecting the ownership of their self-published pictures and goes further by empowering users to transgress traditional views of access, use, and ownership by granting specific permissions for reuse, remixing, and derivative works. By utilizing the creative commons licensing standard, Flickr encourages its users to explore new ways to derive value from sharing (in addition to selling) their work. Similarly SNS’s could imagine new ways for users to articulate expectations of privacy and permissions on the rights and reuse of their information.

Currently in SNS’s users can communicate to a particular individual and this information is available to all with that contextual information. Expressing a political view to my mother that others hear is very different than me expressing a political view to the world. This contextual information shapes how others view this information and ultimately, whether or not I can get fired for it. Intelligent processing systems can be used to make the contextual information and expectations for use just as prominent as the information itself. There is potential for creative and transformative ideas from HCI professionals and academics. It is ethically important and consistent with free flow of information that these systems depend on to prioritize developments in these technologies over technologies that block, filter, and hide. Personal information about others identity and beliefs only becomes unwanted “spam” when we are overwhelmed and don’t have adequate processing tools. With the right tools, this information can increase our tolerance and understanding of each other and contribute to shaping a fair, ethical, and humanistic social landscape.

Works Sited

Brooks, Caryn (June 02, 2009). “How to Come Out on Facebook” Time Magazine

Chan, Sewell. Aide Resigns Over Facebook Posts on Harvard Arrest. July 28, 2009 in The New York Times

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. “Value Sensitive Design and information systems.” In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Jernigan, Carter and Mistree, Behram. Gaydar: Facebook friendships expose sexual orientation in First Monday, Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet. Volume 14, Number 10 - 5 October 2009.

Marwick, A. (2005). “I’m More Than Just a Friendster Profile: Identity, Authenticity, and Power in Social Networking Services.” Association for Internet Researchers, Chicago, IL.

A. H. Maslow A Theory of Human Motivation(1943) Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Thomas, Owen. Bank intern busted by Facebook in Valleywag. October 2007. Link:

Turkle, S. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. (1996)

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