Identity

Identity and identification is a function of power; the essence of any inclusive group is based on the exclusion of “the Other” group. I believe that some communities are created to include others and have nothing to do with excluding a specific population. As my friends and I say when the topic comes up (e.g., men complaining that all women colleges are sexist for excluding them): “It’s not about you. It’s all about us.” Hall challenges this, claiming that characteristically powerful groups (e.g., wealthy, heterosexual, male, etc.) were allowed (or obligated?) to define other groups. If this is the case, that groups of power are inclusive by excluding “the Other”, what does the “sexist all women’s college” claim mean? Technically, it is a matter of a historically disadvantaged group (as defined by a historically advantaged group) creating something for their benefit and then standing by the inclusion standards.

Hall also claims that identity is a fluid construction that depends entirely on the presence of other groups and situational context. Outside of things like ancestry, which is a pretty rigid attribute, your identity is a reflection of the situation. For example, I consider myself a creative person and in most scenarios this is true, until I am in a room with professional artists, writers, or designers. Then I am an admirer of creativity.

In an ongoing discussion about privacy, identity, and anonymity, it’s hard to distinguish the end of one concept and the beginning of another. Though, if there is one thing I continuously come back to it is the importance of context in every situation. According to Palen, privacy in new technologies should be assessed with respect to three major boundaries: Disclosure, Identity, and Temporality. What does it mean for someone to function as an individual and a representative of a larger institution or social group? How do past actions frame one’s future privacy? Even if we are able to answer these questions, there are unintentional seems that can lead to inferences and the reveal of private information. Palen uses the example of a calendar-sharing system showing HR conference bookings over an extended period of time. One can easily infer that they are planning a round of layoffs in those conference rooms.

I think this happens very frequently. On social media accounts, you can usually see a list of a user’s followed and following accounts. I have unconsciously made inferences about people (e.g., where they live, their political alliances, etc.) based on the other social media accounts they follow. It would not be hard to imagine a scenario where this could unintentionally expose highly personal information. According to Palen, the best way to manage this would be to understand the ways in which people are using certain information to address the seams. Is this a never-ending process? Is there a way to properly mask information to limit the possible inferences while maintaining an online presence? Or does maintaining an online presence mean that inferences (and privacy) will always be murky?

I rounded out my readings with Bylund, who found in a research of a professional social setting, that people don’t care all that much when their information is publicly displayed. They may even celebrate the information and feel offended when their information isn’t shared publicly. Though, I do recognize that in the Bylund study, the personal information was shared in a social, professional setting. The things you’re comfortable sharing with colleagues is likely different from the things you would feel comfortable sharing with family, friends, or strangers.

Basically, technologists are making conservative estimates about users’ opinions on privacy in some situations. In other situations, technology leaves room for inferences and exposure of private information. “So, what’s the middle ground? How can the pieces of identify be applied in a meaningful way?” The answer, of course: It depends.

References

Bylund, M., Höök, K., and Pommeranz, A. Pieces of identity. Proceedings of the 5th Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction: building bridges, (2008), 427–430.

Hall, S. Who needs ‘identity’? In Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage, London, 1996, 1–17.

Palen, L. and Dourish, P. Unpacking “privacy” for a networked world. CHI ’03: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM Request Permissions (2003), 129.