Something remarkable is happening to human identity

Social media is having a profound effect on how we view ourselves and others, and is starting to impact upon private and public life in some remarkable ways.

So, ‘selfie’ is the OED’s word of the year.  Most media commentators have taken a light-hearted or sneery line in reporting this latest trend in online narcissism, although Justin Bieber doesn’t think there are nearly enough selfies out there.

However, this unremarkable six-letter word does, in its own way, hint at something far more remarkable and interesting: the concept of human identity – your identity; the very essence of what it means to be you – is changing, and at an astounding rate.

In short, in the near future, your online and offline identities will, to all intents and purposes, become indistinguishable from each other.  Not ‘equally important’; not ‘overlapping’; but indistinguishable.  Indistinguishable to the rest of the world, indistinguishable to your friends and family, and psychologically indistinguishable even to yourself.

Perhaps most strikingly, a huge effort is currently underway, by many companies and government agencies, to quantify and commercialise the data that defines your identity.  This silent ‘big data’ gold rush will have a profound effect on our lives.  Here’s why: 

1. Technology is changing the way we form our concept of ‘self’

The original ‘selfie’

Most people reading this will presumably remember the days before Facebook and Twitter existed.  Some of us remember the days when instant-photograms were called Polaroids, your first browser was called Ceefax, and ‘smartphone’ meant you could dial by pushing buttons instead of turning a dial.  (To any young readers who have stumbled upon this article – yes, dinosaurs also roamed the earth).

Even if you are in your late teens or early twenties, you will still probably reminisce about the days when social media was just about chatting to friends on Bebo or checking out bands on MySpace.  Basically, you will have a perception of social media as a set of tools that you employ to connect with friends or find interesting stuff.  You will be aware that what you put out there affects how other people view you, but it does not directly affect how you view yourself.

This is relevant because as humans we form our core concept of ‘self’ during our early developmental years.  To date, we humans have all forged our concept of ‘self’ very much in the material world, either before social media existed or when it was a nascent set of technologies that we used for specific ends.

For the next generation of social media users – those in their pre-teens today – their frame of reference about what constitutes ‘self’ is very different.  They are growing up in a world where they are managing complex layers of online and offline identities from a very young age.  They do not make the psychological distinction between the two in the way other generations do.  Their online self and their offline self are not two distinct concepts: they are both an integral and inseparable part of their perception of what it means to be them.

Just reflect on that for a second.  Children being born today will be engaging with others from a very young age – when their personality and identity is being forged – using social media.  True digital natives, if you will. This will inevitably have an enormous effect on their sense of self and how they fit into the rest of the world.

This has not gone unnoticed by the UK government’s chief scientist, who thinks this trend may have a negative effect on social cohesion.  He points to the heavy use of social media to organise ‘flash mobs’ during the London riots.

2. The way we view others (and others view us) is changing

When do your online and offline identities become indistinguishable, even to yourself?

It’s not uncommon to hear celebrities complain that the tabloid media and general public have a habit of conflating the ‘real person’ with the ‘celebrity’ version of that person, or a character they have played.  Of course, some modern celebrities have embraced this to the point where the ‘real’ and ‘celebrity’ versions of their identity have become virtually indistinguishable even in their own minds.

In a similar way, to the next generation, the way they perceive each other is based on a conflated and complex view of each other’s online and offline personas.  They do not readily distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ friends, and they interact with each other using an ever-shifting and multi-layered array of apps and devices.

We oldies might, for example, carefully curate our Instagram or Pinterest account, or indeed our online dating profile, to project exactly the sort of image we want to the world (“I’m quirky!” / “I’m sophisticated!”).  To the next generation, the best app to use is the one that everyone else is using right now; how you use it changes according to your needs that very minute.  In the ‘great unbundling’, there is not much loyalty to a particular app or service; individual online profiles are just strands of your identity.

Snapchat might be the app du jour, but the way people use it is already evolving fast; next month it will be something else, and Generation A (for App) is incredibly savvy and inventive in how they switch and navigate between apps and devices.  Look, for example, at this fascinating study on differences between how the different generations ‘second screen’ during share-worthy events such as Miley’s twerktastic VMA appearance.

When social media becomes such a natural and embedded part of your identity, it changes how you communicate and interact with people at even the most fundamental level.  Even activities as irrevocably human as dating and sex are shifting rapidly as a result of apps such as Tinder.  The line between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ dating (not to mention ‘casual’ and ‘serious’ relationships) is becoming genuinely blurred, and remarkably, may be a significant factor in the eye-opening statistic that people are having much less sex than even just a few years ago.

3. Online identities are becoming complex and deeply layered

We are all leaving footprints in the social media sand

Social media users accrue many different versions of their identity online, all of which are leaving a footprint – a moment in time that is a snapshot of both the maturity of the medium and of what mattered in your life at that time.  Some of those footprints are long buried, some of them are fresh and relevant.  The girls who were vilified on social media for turning up in fancy dress as the Twin Towers are probably wondering if the rest of their lives are now ruined because of one (extremely badly-judged) footprint in the social media sand.

One thing is for certain: as the technologies mature, and the different social media sites and apps become increasingly interconnected, the links between all these footprints in the sand are growing.  Look at how many websites and apps now allow you to login using your Facebook or Twitter login, and think of all the data and links that are being collected about your online behaviour every time you do so.  The footprints you are leaving online are becoming clearly distinguishable trails, if you have the means and the determination to step back and connect the dots between them.

You can still just about get away with not having a Facebook account to get by in the modern world (just), but pretty soon your choice of social network will become largely irrelevant.  With technologies such as OAuth becoming ubiquitous, the concept of a single online identity is rapidly coming into sharp focus, regardless of which app or network you are active on today.

As ever, Google is making a disruptive impact in this regard.  Despite an initial lukewarm take-up by users, their Google+ network is having a disproportionate impact because of the way your Google+ connectedness improves search rankings and enables easy use of popular Google add-on features.   Your Google+ identity is, in short, becoming a measure of your relevance.

Generation A takes this in its stride.  They are quite used to managing multiple online personas.  They are naturally attuned to using the networks and apps that they need to use to stay relevant in their crossover online-offline world.

4. Today’s digital water-babies are tomorrow’s politicians and employers

If your mind boggles at how the next generation is adapting to social

media, and how profoundly it is affecting their perception of ‘self’ and ‘other’, consider this: in 5 years or less, they will be entering the job market.  In 10 years or less, they will start to become the hiring managers.  Not long after that, they will be the politicians, policy-writers, civil servants, academics and law-makers.

As the denizens of Generation A move into positions of influence over the next few years, social policies, laws and accepted norms on how citizens interact with each other, with companies and institutions, and the state, will shift in profound ways.

This is already starting to happen in some eye-opening ways.

5. Your identity is already being quantified and commercialised, and it’s hardly even started yet

You may think this is all very interesting for leather-elbowed sociology professors and psychologists – an exercise in Old Fartism – but doesn’t really affect you.  You’d be wrong.

One very significant side-effect of the changing nature of identity is that huge efforts are being made by commercial organisations and government agencies to measure, quantify and commercialise it.  The enormous volumes of data that are being generated by you and about you every minute of every day are being stored, organised and analysed by organisations that can make enormous sums of money or gain competitive advantage through insight into your lifestyle, your preferences and your personality.

The process of quantifying your creditworthiness, for example, has been standardised by the credit reference bureaux over recent years, to the point where your risk of not being able to pay back a loan has been distilled down to a numerical credit score.  However, innovators such as Wonga and Lenddo are now also using insight into your social media activity to assess your creditworthiness (automatically, and in real time).  See this intriguing article on the subject (and this and this).

Credit decision technology is changing fast

So in the past, how good you were for a loan was decided subjectively by a bank manager; more recently, this has been standardised in the developed world using the somewhat blunt instrument of a credit score based mainly on your past financial performance; today, innovative companies are using richer data about you (gleaned from many sources, including your online social media activity), to make lending decisions; tomorrow, we will see this systematised and turned into a real-time data service.  Companies such as Kreditech are already starting to commercialise services such as these.

The trails you are leaving online will therefore start to play an enormous part in your ability to access financial services, in ways that are very difficult to predict.  Will your number of LinkedIn connections affect your ability to get a loan?  How about the types of things you are posting about on Facebook?  Or perhaps the types of things your friends are posting about on Facebook?  How about the number of hours of game time you have racked up on World of Warcraft?

Social media reputation checking is also already being carried out informally by many employers wishing to get a sense of what a prospective employee is like as a person.  Online data services are now starting to emerge that systematise this process.  How long before we see a data bureau service emerge that provides potential employers with a ‘personality score’?  How about a service that makes a numerical assessment of your intelligence, or your trustworthiness, or your reliability, based on an aggregation of all of your online behaviours?

It is easy to see how this kind of service could quickly become of great interest to all manner of organisations: employers, educational establishments, financial service providers, insurers, health service providers, the police, landlords, and of course marketing executives and advertisers.

Law enforcers are already using your social media activity for crime prevention. How long before it is systematised?

Is it too far-fetched to think that a school admission board may do online social media scoring to assess your parenting skills before awarding your child a place?  Or that law enforcement bodies may undertake proactive online scoring to identify potential ne’er-do-wells.  The intelligence services are almost certainly already well advanced in the science of quantifying radicalisation risk based on social media activity.

Some commentators have already raised an alarm at how quickly the pace of ‘big data’ quantification and centralisation of personal information is picking up.  There have been calls to urgently introduce legal frameworks or codes of practice along the lines of Glass-Steagall or the Data Protection Act.  However, do not kid yourself that legal safeguards will have any meaningful impact on this trend.  In most cases, users have merrily signed away unfettered access to every piece of intimate data about them, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to get it back in.

And this is not just about intrusive companies and public officials wishing to poke their noses into our business.  We are now seeing apps and services growing in prominence where your social media ‘ranking’ can work as a positive advantage.  In the digital industries job market, for example, social media adroitness undoubtedly puts you ahead of your rivals.  In services as diverse as online dating or credit applications, social media connectedness really can work to the savvy user’s advantage, and users will welcome such ‘intrusions’ into their data if it finds them a better class of totty or a better finance deal.

Knack is using games to assess your personality traits and aptitutes, or ‘knacks’

Perhaps most intriguingly, a company called Knack is using game performance to assess where users’ hidden talents lie.  The headline story, perhaps a little far-fetched at the moment, is that you could secure a high-paying job by playing a game that reveals that you have in-demand reasoning or analytical skills.  They also believe their technology could be more widely applied across the gaming market.

This kind of metrication of your personality traits is a very real trend.  Both the technology and the sheer volume and quality of data feeding this trend are evolving in perfect harmony and at a remarkable rate.  As the science of quantifying your personality matures and Generation A takes the reins of public life, the effect it will have on our identity – how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive others, and how we interact with our fellow citizens – will be truly profound.

Your offline and online identities will become indistinguishable, both to yourself and everyone else.  Your identity and your personality traits will have been quantified, packaged and sold before you know it.

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