Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Online identity, privacy, and personas


Let's leave aside the government spying for the duration of this article.

Privacy is not a simple matter. Around the notion of privacy and identity revolve a few other notions.

  • name / legal identity
  • identity
  • pseudonym
  • persona

Your name is the set of words (first name, last name) by which the administration refers to you in legal documents. As I understand, the USA is quite open to people changing their name every now and then. It must be hell for people to find long lost relatives but giving people the freedom to be called whatever they want to be called: that sounds good.

Your identity is the real you inside your brain. It is your psychology, your likes and dislikes, your passions.

Your pseudonyms, with an "s" because you're likely to use several of them on the internet, are like names. You'll probably use a different one on each internet website. Or maybe you'll reuse each pseudonym on websites related to similar activities. In my case, I use a certain pseudonym for computer-news websites and I use a different one for video games.

Last but not least, personas are to identity what pseudonyms are to name. As you use different pseudonyms on the web for different services, you might even assume different online identities with distinct personalities. These online identities are called "personas". You may assume a persona of a different gender than what you are in real life. You may "play nice" on certain websites and behave like a jerk on others. But personas may also simply reflect the fact that when we live in communities, we display a different side of our personality depending on whom we are facing. If you've ever been a student and that you've been drinking alcohol with your friends, you know that the side of you that you show to your friends is not the same as the side of you that you'll show to your grandparents.

The point

There's a couple of reasons why I wanted to talk about privacy and persona.

The first one is: this blog! Aside from the need to express myself, the urge to communicate the ideas boiling in my mind, I also had the distinct idea that having a blog would be useful to show a side of me to people like potential future employers. When your work is part programming and part mobile telecoms engineering, my feeling is that you should exist on the internet. Upon receiving a CV, prospective employers will google your name. It is criminal of them to do so, since this constitutes an intrusion within the private sphere for the purpose of a professional evaluation, but they do google your name and no police forces are checking that they refrain themselves from doing so.

But here's where it gets frustrating! Expressing myself on a blog is about sharing part of my identity. But if I don't censor myself, the recruiters will find the less politically-correct side of me. Just an example: in real life, I cuss and I feel that cussing is absolutely appropriate to express adequately my feelings. On my blog, I don't cuss, partly because I want to show a different side of me than the one I share with my closest friends. One thing I can do, but which I likely won't because of the time it takes for writing articles and keeping a blog alive, is creating a new blog under a new persona concentrating the parts of my identity that I don't unveil here. It could include cussing and topics like sex, partisan politics, disparaging whatever groups or topics I dislike in no unclear terms... This "solution" has even more drawbacks since writing under a different pen name would deprive the real me of the credit derived from the new blog. So a frustration exists.

The second reason to discuss this subject is a suggestion from Google's CEO Eric Schmidt. Because of all the mistakes made by children on the internet who reveal embarrassing parts of their lives on social networks or blogs without realizing the consequences, Schmidt suggested that future laws could naturally emerge to grant people a new name upon reaching adulthood. This would separate a person's new identity from the embarrassing past. Similarly, for people who keep doing foolish things on the internet into their adulthood, a name change every 6 or 7 years could be a legitimate tactic to "start fresh" with a blank slate.

I feel like the ideal solution doesn't exist. Or rather, the ideal solution might exist technically (some sort of self-hosted social network) but I don't believe this kind of solution will be favored by the public.


We got to discuss about online privacy in more refined and precise terms than we often see. Hopefully, you can now discuss such subjects with the ability to distinguish between identity, pseudonym, name, and persona.

I shared some of my frustrations.

Maybe it can inspire you to also think about your own perception of online privacy and identity.

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