Repio Blog

Individual Identity and Reputation

August 18, 2014 - Neil Cox

There are two major aspects of identity: individual identity and social identity. Individual identity is about defining which particular individual, out of the billions of people roaming the globe today and in the past, one is concerned with. Social identity is about understanding what type of person someone is - what are their beliefs and affiliations, of what social categories are they a member. This week, we will be looking at individual identity.

Individual identity can be seen as a system of cues and signals. The markers of identity - name, face, fingerprint, email address, DNA, etc. - have various degrees of reliability and with various costs, both of productions and assessment. It is more costly to authenticate my identity with a blood sample than a signature, though also potentially more reliable. In an environment with a high rate of identity theft and deception, I may be willing to pay extra costs to ensure that only I can be authenticated as being me. We provide cues to our identity all the time, leaving fingerprints around, typing with a recognizable pattern, allowing our faces to be seen. If I am trying not to be identified or take on a false identity, there are different costs such deception might incur, depending on the environment.

Individual identity is at the core of reputation, of social sanctions, control and motivation. It is essential for the functioning of conventional signaling, for reputation costs and other community sanctions on dishonest signalers are needed to maintain the reliability of these signals.

A good reputation is very valuable: it can mean increased status, better work, more dates... A bad reputation, on the other hand, is a serious liability: a person with a poor reputation will have trouble finding others willing to risk further interactions.

Without identity, there can be no reputation. In order for the history of one's actions and of others' assessments of those actions to become "reputation", a few things are necessary. We must be able to identify the person, we must be able to communicate, and we must have some form of memory.

In the online world, identity, communication and memory cannot be taken for granted. Whether you can know who are the others in a space, whether you can communicate with them, whether the history of their actions or of other's reactions to them persists and is accessible - in a mediated environment these are all matters of design. The creators of the environment can choose to incorporate them into the interface, to allow (or require) users to provide such information. Many do not. There are numerous forums in which anonymous contributors write; there a places where communication among participants is difficult or discouraged. In such circumstances, reputation cannot be a socially motivating force.

In the online world identity, the ability to connect an action to a particular person or a sequence of actions to the same being, is especially problematic. The crux of individual identity is the body, which is absent online. One way of establishing identity in the mediated world is to connect the online persona to a physical being. Sometimes this is straightforward: if I sign my writings with my real name, my email address and work place, I've provided clear ties to my physical world self, connecting the online persona to the real world self. Yet sometimes it is less straightforward: what if 10 people are collectively creating a single virtual persona? Another way is to use history and reputation to establish an online pseudonymous identity sufficiently robust and valuable to have at least some of function of an embodied identity, in that harm to the pseudonymous persona is significantly costly. If I spend a lot of time and effort establishing an online persona, that persona can have a functioning reputation; however, its value is still much lower than that of the embodied self: I am likely to be much more willing to discard even a long running persona than I am to risk bodily imprisonment or harm.

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