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Brief background

Social networking services represent a phenomenon that is at the core of the main battle of the Internet actors of today.  We find them everywhere, from general purpose systems supporting communities at large (e.g. FaceBook, MySpace), to social networking systems used to network in the “corporate” world (e.g. LinkedIn), and even as the new dating systems that are being adopted by the younger generation (that have always lived with computers) as well as the older generation (people that have adopted the Internet later in life). Every big actor tries to incorporate this dimension as representing the Eldorado of a digital territory in which business models to be successful are still open or in which established positions can be challenged. On the throne of the leaders of the social networking kingdom, MySpace has been replaced by Facebook in a matter of months. Now people are observing some stagnating of Facebook, and are looking for the service and approach that will be the new king, Beboo representing a new raising star, and exclusive services (selecting their members) are promising.
Given this accelerated evolution, one can wonder how far this phenomenon will go, for instance in 15 years from now. If we imagine the ‘Facebook’ and ‘LinkedIn’ of today to be the dinosaurs of tomorrow, what will be the next “beast” that will emerge from this frantic evolution? The digital space will also not have remained still. We are now already moving from the Web 2.0 (the social web) that was about connecting people, to the Web 3.0 (the semantic web) that is about connecting knowledge, while the Web 4.0 (the Ubiquitous web) that is about “connecting intelligences” is already on the horizon.
Although it is nearly impossible to predict the future of 15 years from now (for instance 15 years ago the web had not even been invented), we can imagine that the social dimension will still continue to be very present, even if increasingly mediated by digital tools: Man is a “social animal” that is not ready to give-up interacting with others, even if this interaction will evolve and will take other forms than the ones that we know of today. We can also expect that society will continue to evolve towards more flexibility, thanks to the technology for removing the geographical barriers. As a consequence, people will most probably live more of their time online than they are today, for working, learning, shopping, or entertaining or “mating”. Or rather people will “be even more connected” since the new “communication devices” will blur the frontier between the “physical world” and the “digital world”.
This evolution may also not necessary be synonymous with the atomisation of the society since we can very well imagine that new tools and approaches can also help to enforce some of the existing social structures that exist in society such as family, or various communities. In some cases these tools may indeed be used to reinforce social segregation.
The two scenarios presented below will provide a glimpse of the role of identity in two digital social contexts: work (social networking for business) and personal life (online dating systems).


Scenario I: Business social at an alumni cocktail party
Scenario II: Dating


Online identity has often been considered as the “poor relation” of the identities family, in particular when compared to the more prestigious ID Card identity which is particularly well regarded by governments and other serious bodies. This online identity appeared not to be taken very seriously in the past, firstly because its context of operation was the Internet (a domain not considered as very significant a few years ago), and secondly because this identity corresponded mainly to the image that people projected via their personal web page (a page in which people decide to put anything they like, and which can take “some liberties” with reality). Finally, this online identity is not really controlled, and seems to be emerging from nowhere, contrary to more traditional identities that are supervised by a trusted and central authority.
This situation has radically evolved in the last few years, thanks to the recognition of the Internet as a matter of major importance in people’s lives, and to the advent of the social web centred on people interaction, and for which identity represents a critical element. The emergence of new services (blogs, social networking, recommendation systems, etc.) that have flourished as part of the social web (also termed Web 2.0) has also radically transformed our vision of this online identity. In the social web, identity is more complex and subtle, and corresponds to the aggregation of a variety of elements that include the description that people have explicitly given of themselves, but also a variety of other elements such as the traces of their actions that define what they really are (for instance when people post an opinion on a blog) as well as the different inputs (validation, feedbacks, etc.) that are provided by all the people with whom the person has had interaction. In particular, this identity includes as an important part the reputation of the person (a very important facet of the online identity) that is mainly defined by the perception of others. In this context, the social networking services that have flourished represent the quintessence of this new identity vision: the main function of these systems is to allow people to build an online identity that is defined in relation to their interaction with others, in order to facilitate a process of matchmaking.
The scenarios presented in this chapter have shown how the online identities are constructed and how reliable they are (even though there is no central authority controlling its validity, but the social process and mechanisms of emergence), and how they may be exploited in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes.
This Online Social Identity has not yet been explicitly investigated in detail in the FIDIS project. However, some of the work that has been conducted helps to better understand its nature. The work conducted in WP2 (Identity of Identity) includes a part that considers the less formal and tangible vision of identity. For instance D2.1: ‘Inventory of Topics and Clusters’ provided a broad definition of the concept of identity going much beyond the one found in traditional Identity management systems: identity is formed from a variety of facets, some of them being tacit. The scenarios work (D2.2: ‘Set of Use Cases and Scenarios’ and D2.6: ‘Identity in a Networked World - Use Cases and Scenarios’) also covers situations of online identities. D2.13: ‘Virtual Persons and Identities’, as well as all the work conducted in WP17 (Abstract persons) go even further in this direction. Finally WP7 (Profiling) includes a number of elements which cover some of the aspects of the Online and Social Identity, such as for instance the concept of reputation in the book D7.5: ‘Profiling the European Citizen’, or the work on profiling that allows revealing of the intangible dimension of Identity such as in D7.2: ‘Descriptive Analysis and Inventory of Profiling Practices’.