What signals are you sending (or are perceived) from your virtual identity?

What signals are you sending (or are perceived) from your virtual identity?

Summary: 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.

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TOPICS: Security
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donath_1.jpgLast 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.

Topic: Security

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11 comments
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  • A Trail

    It seems any particapation on the Net adds to your Virtual Indentity.

    Neal Saferstein
    Neal Saferstein
    • Yeah I agree

      That's what Google is for. Ha!
      Xwindowsjunkie
    • jfksopsi

      ljudp';of dfjoir0eflkmjfooriur[em iwuoui
      karan21
  • Virtual Identity?

    Jeez Louise!
    Just when I thought it was safe to go hide myself on the Internet, somebody has to go create a whole new way to psycho-babbelize my non-identity. Now you can feel depressed and inadequate about not only your real life but your virtual life as well!
    Xwindowsjunkie
    • Your net identity is not a non-identity

      Your net identity(s) are almost always subsets of your true, complete identity. The net acts as a filter preventing more complete observance of your total behavior than could be gained by direct observation. If you are familiar with the Slef-Knowledge/Exposure:Feedback quadrant model, the public arena, the known to others, is only going to consist of what you tell them. Odds are this is going to be a really, really small portion of your identity; unless you have a volumous net presence going back over a long period of time, with lots of other people's observations of your behavior. If people learn of other identities you have, their knowledge of your total identity will obviously increase.
      Now something else to consider is that even when you choose an identity that is different than your 'normal' behavior, it's still your behavior; only in this case, it's expression of traits you normally supress. And supressed behavior does affect your expressed behaviors and is a part of your identity.
      Dr_Zinj
      • Johari's Window!

        Took me a while to remember the name of that model.
        Dr_Zinj
        • Close

          It's the Johari Window, not Johari's Window. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window.
          psomerset9
      • Good Grief Charley Brown!

        as would be said in Peanuts.

        There appears to be more people serious about this NON-subject.

        Yes and choosing crunchy over creamy peanut butter reveals what about somebody's net identity image?

        I hope my tax dollars aren't supporting this idiotic Freudian sounding drivel.
        Xwindowsjunkie
  • Fake Identities Get Fake Messages

    Some of my fake identities now have a life of their own, attracting their own targeted spam.
    richard.s
  • Your vs You're

    This is the second ZD Net article I've read today where the writer incorrectly used the word "your" where the word "you're" was the proper form. Speaking of signals, what sort of signal does that send when professional writers are ignorant with regard to their own craft?
    tom_smith9
    • Darned Spelling Checkers

      What kind of messages are the spelling checkers sending when they can't tell when you're supposed to use your vs you're? ;)

      Best bet is to avoid contractions at all cost!
      CWButler