Who are you?  Who are you online?  Are you the same to everyone?  Should you be?

There's been a lot of talk about Google Wave as a new communications paradigm.  I like Wave.  I also think it's retro, harkening back to Nelson and Engelbart's work in the 60s.  Evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as the quote goes.  But even Wave assumes you are a single 'you'.  They need to look at handling multiple personas.

Now, by example.  On Monday, I'm launching a new project, in collaboration with ScientificBlogging.  And I'll be continuing this twice/weekly space science column as well.  That's two identities to juggle just for this site alone.  Logistically, it's a pain having to log out just to log in for the other, remembering which I am, writing for both at the same time.

Don't get me started on multiple email addresses.  There's the personal one, the science and freelance writing one, and the game industry one.  Plus the legacy addresses from GMU, etc, that are handy when colleagues from the past try to reach me.  I thread them all into my primary account, but it's still an issue to track.

Then there are society memberships and online forums, and of course the same handle isn't available on all of them.  So I have to keep a list of "who am I?" for each site,

Oh, and I sign my science stuff 'Alex' because that's my given name, and it's what I publish science as.  If you look me up in ads.harvard.edu, "Alex Antunes" is all my publications.  But for hobby and game design (and in Wikipedia), I'm "Sandy", which is also the nickname my friends use.  Confused yet?

Efforts like the Liberty Alliance, I-SSO, and even 'everything via Google' boast that you can access everything via one account.  But this isn't what I'm asking for.  I'm asking for the ability to manage all of me, without consolidating all my identities into one handle.

Juggling identities has a utility value and a mental cost.  The utility is that identities provide context.  Someone who emails me via my gaming account is already placing themselves into a specific context, a context very different from the person messaging me via the climbing forum. Contexts reduce ambiguity in communication.   Multiple identities are therefore good.

The downside is the mental cost, the annoyance value of having to physically manage the logins for the various identities.  Rather than try and get everyone to adopt a single sign-on, instead we should learn to support multiple identities.

There's some work in MMOs (Massive Multiple Online games) for this-- they understand that you may want to play different characters at different times.  So one billable account may have several characters attached to it.  Custom UIs let you see things different for different avatars, and some even let you play multiple characters simultaneously.  It's a step in the right direction-- encouraging diversity rather than locking us into one static self.

Rather than creating a single identity and a single sign-in for all of one's Internet use, I think we need to go the other way.  We need to accept that identity is fluid, that multiple identities have usefulness, and that there is no single 'me' to map.


The Daytime Astronomer... and many other hats.

Tues&Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday