Last year, while attending Harvard's Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference, MIT Media Labs principal investigator Judith Donath gave one of the best presentations I've ever seen. I wrote it up as Disclosure and avoiding the untruthful sparrow syndrome. Here again at the Identity Mashup Conference being put on by the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Judith was once again at the dais talking about the biology of signaling, When was the last time you looked at your virtual identity to see what your signalling? what it means to identity (not just of humans, but of animals as well), and to some extent, how it's turning up on the Internet.
Signaling, as Donath describes it, is not as much about the actual signals we may send to other people as it may be about the perceived signals. In fact, from what is plainly visible to the human eye, we as humans try to parse hidden messages and qualities. For example, in the most classic mating sense, Donath says that we derive "most of what we want to know about each other through these hidden qualities like will you be a good father to our potential children?" While we can't plainly see these qualities, we rely on signals or perceivable traits that may more or less be representative of the hidden qualities that are really of interest of us. Donath presented the same idea across a variety of scenarios, one of which really related to identity and trust. "[Right now] I could be trying to sound smarter than I really am, and your trying to figure out if I really know what I'm talking about" said Donath. "Most interactions can be reduced to competition... how do we know if someone is deceptive or not?"
One "basic" example that is taken much the same way each time it occurs is with the waste of resources. Wasteful costs, said Donath, is associated with reliability. In the human world, I took this to mean that people who seem to be able to spend rather lavishly on material things --- spending that may be viewed as wasteful by others --- may also be sending the signal that they can be depended on. Perhaps financially. But, sometimes, the signals that someone may be trying to send could get perceived the wrong way. For example, someone who wears real animal furs may be trying to signal wealth and taste. But a receiver of that signal may instead see someone who is cruel to animals. A point Donath made about such signals is that there's a cost associated with them, almost as if there's private, signaling economy taking place between beings that's totally subconscious. Some signals may have risks associated with them that could amount to costs that make the signal not worth sending.
Donath then jumped to discussing the apparent value of certain risky signals versus more reliable ones. With certain tribes, for example, you'd think that the most reliable food gatherers would be perceived as the best mates. But, for some reason, the women will gravitate towards the biggest risk takers instead. "An enormous amount of fame and status goes not the men who bring home most food, but rather the ones who go out on the lion hunts" said Donath. "Because half of [the men who go on these hunts] get eaten by the lions. People want to reward risk taking behavior." Donath drew a direct line from this, through Western signals tanning and smoking to MySpace.com where adolescents routinely parade their indulgence in drugs and sexuality (whether it happens or not). According to Donath, such displays may function as signals of risk taking and daring (along the same lines as going on the lion hunt. "Understanding that something is signalling is important to understanding why people behave in ways that are seemingly irrational" said Donath. "Irrational behavior makes sense when you see what its trying to indicate as a personal value."
So, when was the last time you stepped back and looked at your virtual identity to see what your signalling? Perhaps there's a whole business idea (or social technology) that delves into looking at various expressions of virtual persona and measuring the signals they emit. Sort of like a Geiger counter for virtual signaling. In some ways, existing reputation systems do this already.