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D2.2: Set of use cases and scenarios

Introduction  Title:
 Illustrating the Identity Issues in Digital Social Environments


Identity issues of Digital Social Environments

Introducing the identity issues of Digital Social Environments

The increase of the social dimension on the Internet 

As the Internet is becoming more mature and is being adopted by a larger (and in particularly less technophile) portion of the population, its usage is becoming less centred on information, and more oriented towards the mediation of the social process. More concretely, people are increasingly using the Internet to engage in activities that include a strong social dimension such as: the participation in communities of interest (intervening in online forums and other virtual community spaces), the expression of their opinions, visions, and description of their lives etc. via personal journals that are made available to others (the “blogging phenomenon”  (Kumar et al. 2004)), the exchange of opinions and the building of reputation (examples include reputation systems’ mechanisms found in eBay), the participation in online games or virtual worlds in which the players intervene as avatars, or the use of matching systems (dating systems, social networks) which are used to help the establishment of relationships with other people and to exploit them. If the social dimension of the Internet is not new (emails and newsgroups have supported the social process for years), it is however changing in nature since it is now becoming accessible to the “non-geek” population, is more deeply supported (they are no longer seen only as “side products”, and for instance social network systems aim at explicitly supporting them), and is experiencing a major revival after the new evolution of the World Wide Web as a less information-centric and a more service-oriented system (see for instance (Fox et al., 2005) for some predictions about the evolution of the Internet).

The importance of Identity in Digital Social Environments (DSEs) 

In the context of these “socially enhanced” spaces, the online identities that people construct and develop represent critical elements:  The quality of these identities (representing the images of themselves that they project in these environments and therefore how they are perceived) has direct implications on the value obtained from these spaces and the quality of the interaction. Obviously, people do not interact the same way with people that they know and trust (even if they have never met them in real life) than with perfect strangers. These identities are complex, since they include both the explicit personal identities (real or faked) that are managed via digital identity management systems or declared by people by filing a user profile, as well as the implicit social identities that people develop through their behaviours (postings, conversations, actions) and that are often recorded and made persistent in digital systems. This later “social identity”, sometimes summarized as “you are who your network is”, possesses a particular significance in the digital worlds, since contrary to the off-line world, it is explicitly represented (people’s relationships are for instance captured in social network services software, behavioural traces are present in log files, etc.), and can therefore be exploited for instance in reputation systems to help in the forming (via social translucence mechanisms) of online reputations (one major component of social identity), and in some cases be mined and subject to profiling operations for automated utilizations.

Identity issues in DSEs 

Online identities in these social enhanced spaces are raising many identity issues (reliability of the information, pseudonymity, privacy, identity thief, etc.), and therefore represent a very useful playground/laboratory for the analysis of identity issues in general, and abstracted identity (informal identities that can be extracted from data) issues in particular. 

For instance, in many cases in these spaces it is difficult to check the validity of the information declared by a user, and therefore to trust the validity of the “displayed” identity (for instance people do not hesitate to change gender in online forums or online games). This is particularly true in the case of virtual worlds (gaming, virtual communities, virtual dating, etc) that people use for the purpose of changing for and experimenting temporarily with a more desirable life than the one they have in the real world (in other words, the value that people get from these worlds is exactly in the possibility to “pretend” to be someone else). For instance, a fantasy world will give an insignificant employee in the real world the opportunity to become a renowned knight (Steinkuehler, 2004), a blog will provide a professor the possibility to become a rock and cultural critic (Nardi et al., 2004), and a dating system will permit an introvert to overcome his/her shyness in an online world and to engage in some relationships with individuals of the opposite gender. 

On the other hand, and at the same time, people may not be fooled by other people’s “declared identity”, when they can observe the behaviours of these people in these environments: there is a limit to what individuals can pretend to be and they can be betrayed by their behaviour. For instance (Berman and Bruckman, 2001) have conducted some research on the different way in which men and woman behave online, or if people’s communication patterns can help to determine information about age, race, or national origin. In the famous musical comedy “My Fair Lady”, based on the play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw, Prof. Henry Higgins, a renowned linguist, demonstrates his ability to determine the social and geographical origin of people just by analysing the way they talk. If this story is imaginary, the idea of the stickiness of social attributes (the way in which people talk in this case) is not, both in sociology (with for instance the work of Pierre Bourdieu in social capital, (Bourdieu, 1980)), and in people’s beliefs. 

Another element, pseudonymity, is extensively used in virtual digital environments, even for conducting the more serious or critical activities. For instance online gamers (but also people participating in online forums) typically choose names that help them better to live a fantasy. eBay vendors and buyers (eBay is an electronic marketplace providing reputation mechanisms) conduct their businesses using pseudonyms, and activists hide their real identity to protect themselves from retaliation when creating and posting in a blog (personal online journal used to express opinions). 

In addition, the complexity and persistence of digital traces make it difficult for users to control sufficiently the disclosure of this information to third parties (for instance some people have been fired for posting information on their blog that they wrongly assumed to be a private space), and raise concerns related to privacy. Finally, spoofed/forged emails have been used in several cases to damage people’s reputation (using spoof email of hatred messages). 

Are DSEs identity issues really important? 

It is of course legitimate to question the importance of these identities that develop in digital social environments and in particular the abstracted one (the social identity): after all, these virtual worlds are not real, and the consequences can only be minor, and in no way similar in identity to the issues that occur in the real world (identity thief, money laundering, and credit card forgery)! This would be forgetting that these digital social environments are gaining an increasing importance in people’s lives. For instance (Stafford and Gonier, 2004) in a study of AOL users’ population report that socialisation is now recognised as a significant factor for using the Internet, and a Pew Internet & American Life Project report ((Rainie, 2005) indicates that end 2004, 7% of the 120 million U.S. adults who use the Internet say they have created a blog, and 27% of Internet users say they read blogs. We can also add that the ruining of an online reputation can be disastrous in real life (when it happens for an eBay vendor or for a politician) and that the frontier between these worlds and the real world is progressively burring (for instance a project such as I-Neighbour helps to strengthen local bonds and social interaction by vitalizing real local communities, blended learning combining the online and off-line learning is increasingly attracting attention about the future of learning, etc.). Besides, the support of more informal mechanisms in identity management systems, such as the one found in reputation systems like eBay, is making people’s activity more visible and accountable, and can in some cases provide more flexibility in managing certain identity and identification aspects than more formal ones which often rely only on one time authentication that can give a false feeling of security. 

Better understanding the DSEs, their variety, and their identity issues 

The objective of this paper is to contribute to the clarification of identity issues in digital social environments. Practically it consists in presenting and analysing, according to an “identity” perspective, the main categories of digital social environments, and in illustrating with cases or stories the identity issues that can be found in these environments. This paper does not pretend, however, to make an exhaustive inventory of all the possible issues, but rather to raise the awareness of the reader about the richness and the diversity of the identity concept in these environments. 


Defining DSEs

Internet as a mediator of social activity 

People, when using the Internet (in working, shopping, playing), are increasingly dealing with other humans rather than only information or machines. 

Indeed, as the Internet matures and is adopted by a larger portion of the population (of people who are not necessarily technophile and who are definitely more interested in the “human and social life”), its role as a tool for mediating human interaction is becoming more prominent. People are participating in the digital forums of communities of interests, are “chatting” with friends using Instant-messaging tools, or are having a new life playing in the massively multi-player online games. Interestingly, even the more traditional information perspective (Internet as a big information repository) is becoming extended with social aspects helping to better manage this information: For instance opinion and social translucence mechanisms (Erickson et al., 2002) are used in electronic marketplaces such as eBay to facilitate the evaluation of the quality and the relevance of product information, and coordination mechanisms are used for instance in Wikipedia to facilitate the collaborative construction of an online encyclopaedia. 

This usage of the Internet for supporting people’s communication is not new, and was actually relatively important before the advent of the Web, with systems such as email, chat systems (IRC), newsgroups and other forums. However, with the maturing of the Internet (with reliable high speed infrastructures - more than 50 percent of the total U.S. Internet population access the Internet via broadband (Hu, 2004) -), its democratisation (making it very affordable to all the classes of the population), and its ease of use (new tools like blogging do not require you to be a technical expert), we can observe a radical transformation of the demographics of the user population, and consequently of the usage: a significant portion of the population (in the most advanced country) is now integrating the Internet directly as part of their life (to get informed, to communicate with others, to shop, to learn), and in some cases (for instance with the case of massively multi-user online games) creating totally new life territories in which they can develop a life having a strong social dimension. 

What are digital social environments (DSE) 

In this paper, we define Digital Social Environments (DSE) as the category of Online Environments that provide some form of support to the social process. This definition therefore covers all the digital environments that we have mentioned in the previous chapter. This definition is rather broad, and includes a variety of systems ranging from very explicit and centralized community systems directly supporting people’s interactions (such as virtual community platforms or forums), to some more decentralized communication systems that are supporting a more peer-to-peer mode of interaction and that are directly controlled by their users (for instance email, Instant messaging systems, blogs). DSE also include environments that do not directly support people’s interactions themselves, but provide some services of intermediation. In a similar way these services can be centralized (for instance a system like eBay which provides some matching services between vendors and buyers, and implement a series of reputation mechanisms), or decentralized (such as in the case of online social networking systems like LinkedIn in which people manage individually their social network, or peer-to-peer networks that are used to directly exchange digital items). 






(Collectively controlled) 

Virtual community systems, Forums, Wiki, MMOG, CMS, etc. 

Marketplaces (reputation and recommender systems), … 


(Individually controlled) 

Blogs, Instant messaging, email, etc. 

Online social networking, peer-to-peer networks, etc.

Table : DSEs centralization / interaction

“” summarizes this categorization of DSEs according to their centralized or decentralized nature, and on their main role (support for the interaction or intermediation), although in reality the frontier is not always very strict, and that we see some movement of convergence and merging of these systems into more holistic ones (for instance Bill Gates in (Kanellos, 2005) suggests for the future the integration of everything – social networking, blogging, instance messaging, etc.- into a single system).



Introduction  fidis-wp2-del2.2.Cases_stories_and_Scenario_04.sxw  Illustrating the Identity Issues in Digital Social Environments
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