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Digital America: A Social Identity

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					                  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
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                                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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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                                            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,
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Berghel, Hal. "Identity Theft, Social Security Numbers, and the Web." Communications of the
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Canon, Scott. "Many Say Cyberspace Needs Rethinking, Repair." Kansas City Star 1 Feb.
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       283-301. SIRS Researcher. Web. 10 June 2010.
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