Digital America: The Social Identity An essay on online social identities, and the services that propagate them. Tyler Romeo Advanced Placement Language and Composition Mrs. Johnson June 10th, 2010 Romeo 2 Digital America: The Social Identity At its lowest level, the Internet is a global system of interconnected computers, but recent innovations, technologies, companies, and services have transformed that system into not only a profitable playing field, but an open arena for individuals to establish their online identity. Already fifty-five percent of teenagers and twenty percent of adults have registered for at least one social networking site (Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis 20). The new front of social networking and information propagation is radically different from that of the real world, with users hiding behind the supposed anonymity of their browser to express their opinions and ideas in a much more open manner than would be seen in classical conversations (Yee and Bailenson 272). The only problem: deindividuation on the Internet creates a perfect scenario for serious privacy issues, as well as identity theft (Canon). With the net in its current state, these issues are largely unaddressed, especially with companies attempting to profit off of newer and bolder services and products. When a person starts their online experience, they are now risking their entire identity, both online and offline. It is this kind of risk that should be unnecessary in an age where artificial intelligence seems just around the corner. Internet technologies companies, as well as the people themselves, need to assess the situation, and fix the numerous issues with Digital America, before real people start to get hurt, if this has not happened already. Before delving into the separation of social identities, it is important to discern what differs between an online identity and an offline identity. The key word is deindividuation. When a person logs on, they no longer hide behind the consequences of person-to-person conversation. You feel much less responsible for something you say online than something you say in person (Yee and Bailenson 272). As the psychological distance between the speaker and the listener increases, the conversation topic becomes much less restricted, and most people tend to not watch what they say (Lilienfeld et. al 384; Festinger, Pepitone, and Newcomb 382-9). Something you may keep to yourself suddenly becomes small talk (Lea and Spears 283-301). It would not be unreasonable to say the recent increase in promiscuity has been caused by the Internet, because once people start taking advantage of the anonymity, the Protean effect jumps into place and the commonplace online conversation tend to slowly transition into real life (Yee and Bailenson 285). Sticking to the Internet, when you analyze the different parts and phases of an online identity, it becomes apparent that the looser mode of conversation is what leads to numerous privacy problems and identity crises. Looking into the psychological reasoning behind Romeo 3 online conversations is key to fixing the problems in the current state of the Internet. A social identity has many different parts and faces. Though each department of Internet- based information has its unique signature, an online paradigm can be classified through a few different categories: direct privacy, indirect privacy, formality, and purpose. This hierarchy of information can be used to separate almost any type of social network. Direct privacy determines who the message is directed to, that is, to whom the post was directed. An email can be directed at a few people, while a tweet on Twitter can be directed to the entire world. While direct privacy is extremely important, indirect privacy, though less recognized, is even more so. Indirect privacy separates who can see the post, and who cannot. There is no in between, you are either allowed or disallowed. So a post of your favorite social networking site may be directed at one person, making it directly private, but many other people still have the ability to view it. This becomes useful when a conversation is specifically directed at one person, but anybody else is allowed, and even welcomed, to join in and add their opinion, such as in an online forum. The next category, formality, is the separation between work and play. You would not use emoticons and contractions in an email to your boss as you would in a Facebook wall post to your friends. The combination of indirect privacy and formality creates the root of most privacy issues: put the wrong formality in the wrong privacy domain, and undesirable consequences are bound to follow. With the three base classifications, there is not much room to move around, so the purpose category is provided to allow for services specifically directed at one social network. For instance, LinkedIn is specifically directed at building social networks for an occupation. All of these constructs are vital to the current state of the Internet. Take email for example. Email is indirectly private to the extreme; there is no way to view an email unless you are a recipient. Facebook puts less restrictions on both direct and indirect privacy, and is much less formal. Twitter is public in almost every way, and LinkedIn is similar to Facebook, with the exception of a different formality and purpose. To put everything in perspective, your average browser session consists of a visit to ten different sites, and you have not even started surfing the net. Numerous services leads to confusion, and confusion to privacy issues. In the current state of the Internet, a social network can be compared to a plate of spaghetti: individual noodles, all mixed in and held together with some type of sauce and contained in a bowl that is your web browser. This structure is unacceptable if anybody hopes to get any use out of their online identity. Having to maintain so many sites can lead to information crossing, or putting the wrong Romeo 4 information in the wrong domain, especially with a whole generation of adults that are struggling to learn how to use a computer in the first place. The primary issues created by this confusion are privacy distribution inconsistencies and identity theft. Just recently, Google, the all-knowing cloud computing and Internet search technologies corporation, released a service called Google Buzz. The service brought social networking to email, and all hell ensued thereafter (Wauters). All the buzz about Buzz was centered around the fact that the product made your email contact list public, as in visible to the world unless you changed your settings. Email used to be the center of all social networking. People would have email addresses for private, formal, and spam communications. However, with the idea of one address, one identity becoming more popular, new websites such as Facebook and FriendFeed started to take a load off of email, and the popular method of communication became much more formal. When Google put the social networking back in the now formal service, people freaked out (Wauters). Google faced a federal lawsuit, and webloggers blew holes in the company. Popular blogger Louis Gray took Google's side, saying that all the fuss was just because of a minority that was holding on to the idea of a completely private online identity, which in this age is almost impossible (Gray). Unfortunately for Google, everybody else saw the move as unacceptable (Wauters). And what was the cause of the entire fiasco? All they did was put directly private information in an indirectly public domain. Google Buzz is not the only example of information crossing. The infamous “Reply to all” feature in email has been culprit to such issues (Jackson, Dawson, and Wilson 82). Stories spread of employees complaining about their job on Facebook, and then getting fired by their bosses who could see the status (Gentilviso). The issue affects anybody with an online identity, and consequences can be severe. Imagine tweeting about your vacation to Florida, only to find somebody robbed your house while you were gone, because they saw your tweet and knew you would not be in the house. All it takes it a button click to accidentally put the right information in the wrong place. And with the state of the Internet as it is now, making such a mistake is much easier, and much less noticeable. In addition to this, identity theft creates an even greater threat on such a complicated digital universe. When you approach somebody on the street, and they have seen you before, they can be pretty sure it's you. Occasions where people dress up to look like other people are rare. Furthermore, before the digital age, stealing somebody's social security number or any other information of the sort required actually getting the card or paper with the information on it. As Romeo 5 information goes electronic, it becomes increasingly easy to steal somebody's identity. Credit card numbers fly across the Internet for online transactions. Names and addresses move in blocks from one server to another. So much personal information crosses the web every day it is tantamount to throwing a rabid dog in a pile of meat. But identity theft is not only easier on the Internet, but more dangerous. Being able to pose as somebody else on a social networking site makes the victim responsible for any comments or actions the attacker makes while assuming the victim's identity (Berghel 20-1). And since the Internet deindividuates everybody, it becomes a lot easier to hold this fake in front of even one's most personal friends. And nobody wants to even contemplate the idea of another person walking in their shoes being able to do whatever they please and not be responsible. With these only a few of the problems with digital America, what can be done to solve these issues? The future of the Internet is molecules and clouds. Without alluding to some new nanotechnology or a futuristic device that literally puts information in the clouds, molecules and clouds refer to new paradigms in the organization of data that are on their way to taking the social networking world by force. The first of these, molecules, primarily exists to supersede the atomic age. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other various social networking sites organize your posts into atoms, that is, individual sets of information that are almost completely separate from one another. Tweets from Twitter or wall posts from Facebook are not electronically connected to each other in any way other than the author who wrote them (Scoble). This age has come around only recently, and it is the most logical and natural way to organize information. However, what if you wanted to connect those atoms in some way. With the current state of the Internet, it is almost impossible, if not really difficult. Say you were told to organize a photo album online, with five pictures on Facebook, three on Flickr, two on Twitter, and three on Google Buzz. How much time would you spend finding, downloading, and organizing all of these pictures? Furthermore, does the finished album go on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, or Buzz? This example shows how much energy and work is required to bond atoms together in the social networking world. The future and solution, however, lies in a world where connecting atoms is easy and encouraged, where a photo album requires only a few drag and drops (Scoble). Probably the most efficient way of establishing such a world would be through something similar to the Federation protocol in Google Wave. It would be a meta-API, a standardized electronic interface where the website would put in and take out atoms from however they are organized and adapt Romeo 6 them to a simple protocol. If at least a few popular social networking sites were to adopt such a program, social networking would change forever. But if information is organized in molecules, where is it stored? The other aspect of technology's future is already taking place: cloud computing. Cloud computing is the storage of all information for a particular service on one centrally-hosted server, as opposed to the individual client computers. The advantages of this are universal access of your data and better reliability. With your information safely stored on a secure central server, it will never be accidentally deleted, always be accessible with an Internet connection, and have better integration with other cloud computing services (Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis 100). While Facebook, Twitter, and other services do host all of your information on their sites, services such as email, word processing, and other basic tasks are still kept on the computer, though some attempts have been made to change this. As revealed by Google's Chrome Operating System, where the only interface on your entire computer is a web browser for accessing Google's services, cloud computing is the future. Eventually, you will boot up your computer in a few seconds, log in to your online account, and work completely off the Internet. The only reason you would even have offline storage at all is so you can continue being productive and social while offline, and have everything automatically update the instant you go back online. Cloud computing in social networking is almost a must, because it is exponentially easier to have complex communication in a simple, standardized location, rather than relying on multiple software interfaces, different hardware architectures, and other problems that are associated with non-cloud computing solutions. So indeed molecules and clouds are the future of technology, but though it may get social networking more organized and easier to use, thus avoiding possible privacy issues, it does not solve identity theft, and the overall online controversy of anonymity. Back in 1999, a software called the GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) was released. The program was a free and open-source alternative to PGP. They both are standards that establish a person's identity using cryptography. With only a few simply executable files, you can create a certificate for your identity. How the system works is that you would make your certificate, then go to your friends or other well-known people and have them “sign” your certificate after they checked your identity (Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis 186-7). This created a network of identity checks that would help establish an easy way to verify if you were really talking with the person you intended to talk to (Abdul-Rahman 1). A similar architecture, called X.509, also protects Romeo 7 identities, except instead of creating a social network of signatures, your certificate was signed by an authority, usually a company of some sort (Gutmann 2). For social networking purposes, GPG method is the better way to go, primarily due to the lack of a formal directory structure for certificates, possible insecurity of the certificate authority, and general unsuitability of the architecture for real world applications (Ellison and Schneider 1-3; Lewis 93; Gutmann 1). All a social networking site would have to do is allow the capability of importing GPG certificates, and then allowing your friends to verify your identity and sign the certificate. With this system, your friends can safely assume you are who you are, and not worry that somebody else signed up under your name and is parading under your identity (Lane 114). Furthermore, this would fit perfectly into the aforementioned molecular age, because social networking sites would just use their pre-defined “bonding” techniques to exchange and sync a user's GPG certificate across sites. Taking it a step further, if you get your certificate signed by somebody noteworthy, such as if a company had their own certificate and signed yours, then your identity would be secure enough to be used for things such as credit card transactions. In fact, if everybody used GPG, it is quite possible identity theft would not exist, especially since you need a hard-coded password to even use the certificate. Finally, and probably most importantly, it solves the problem of every website wanting to be your primary identity. Facebook, Twitter, and Google all supply you with an OpenID, hoping to be the central site from which you host your social network. Services need to realize that the Internet has no real central host (Canon). With GPG, your certificate, an encrypted file, is your identity. Nothing else. I'm sure websites would still fight over which profile is your primary profile, but with your entire social network based off of a simple file, not affiliated with any company or website, it greatly reduces the complexity of your social network. As each generation is becoming more and more digital, we look to our children to take on technology and make it more efficient for them. However, we have failed to fix vital flaws that have been introduced by this generation. The Internet puts naïve users at risk for identity theft and severe privacy issues. Even if an individual does not become a severe case, the disorganization of the social world will become a problem later down the line. Social networking companies must work together to create a collaborative protocol that they all can adhere to, so that information sharing and privacy separation will be easier. Companies involved in cloud computing should continue to do what they do. The future netbook stores all of its data online. And finally, people must turn to OpenID and GPG (or other similar services) to assure their Romeo 8 identity is as centralized as possible, and as protected as possible. The future of technology is bright, and there is much room for innovation. We just have to find the right way to implement it. Romeo 9 Works Cited Abdul-Rahman, Alfarez. "The PGP Trust Model." EDI-Forum (1997). Web. 10 June 2010. <http://www.cs.ucl.ac.uk/staff/F.AbdulRahman/docs/>. Abelson, Harold, Ken Ledeen, and Harry R. Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008. Google Books. Google. Web. 10 June 2010. <http://books.google.com/books?id=Y7DOltmSGjgC>. Berghel, Hal. "Identity Theft, Social Security Numbers, and the Web." Communications of the ACM 43.2 (2000): 17-21. Wake Forest University. Web. 10 June 2010. Canon, Scott. "Many Say Cyberspace Needs Rethinking, Repair." Kansas City Star 1 Feb. 2006. SIRS Researcher. 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