Identities, personas or what?

What may people have several of?

Nicole Harris from JISC dislikes the phrase “multiple identities” but prefers the term “personas”. (And I was flattered to see my own blog appearing on her blogroll :-) ).

Googling for “identities personas” or “identity persona” I find other blog posts like this (though it’s from 2005) and this article. Maybe it’s time again to get serious about the matter of the terms to use – particularly as people were already struggling with it a few years ago.

Then there’s another distinction made by Scott Wilson among others: between identity and principal. (I referred to this before in a previous entry.) It seems to me somewhat pleasantly ironic that this discussion, grounded in the technical side of identity management, is a basis for separating an “identity” from the real embodied human being that may be associated with that identity among others.

I find myself in two minds. One of my minds likes the term “persona”, and would like to use it. But I can’t help feeling that just calling the things we’re talking about “personas” is a little weak: a bit like trying to reassure ourselves that we really know, don’t we, what people’s real identity is? And all this persona stuff, well isn’t it a bit like Second Life? “Who is that green lizard?”, or whatever the question might be. It is true that separating “identity” and “persona” would be one way of distinguishing those of us who are interested in personal identity (identity as in “crisis”) from those who are interested in identity management (identity as in “cards”). But maybe that is a little too easy, too neat. The relationship between the two ideas of identity may not be close, but it does exist: people often use different identifying information, in terms of different usernames and passwords for instance, to authenticate themselves in different roles or for different purposes.

This brings us back to the question, what is the essence of identity? It is certainly possible to see identity as being about a physical body, or ultimately DNA (except it isn’t ultimate: consider identical twins and clones). But would that get us anywhere? We could call that “genetic identity”. It is most certainly of interest when considering inheritance, paternity, evolution and related issues. Some of these issues are legal, and that’s not surprising, because genetic identity is provable and stable (except for identical twins etc.). But when considering the sense of self, and other psychological matters, it loses its grip.

What matters about people? In our culture, at least, people do not normally enter into voluntary relationships with others on the basis of their genetic identity. (In other societies, maybe kinship – close to DNA – is or was a more pervasive factor.) Rather, people want to associate with others on the basis of an understanding of “who they are” that is not closely related to genetic identity, but is more to do with their “character”: what they can do, what their intentions and values are. If we are going to have a useful concept of identity for our society and our social software, then it doesn’t make sense to base it on DNA.

However, non-genetic identity is much more fluid, if not slippery, and harder to define. Not surprisingly, I think that what we need in terms of identity is related to the personal information that can be represented in e-portfolios.

Enough for today.

6 thoughts on “Identities, personas or what?

  1. Hmm, if you have “personas” but not “multiple identities”, then that rather implies that there is a single, centrally-managed identity. Because in any IT-based discussion of identity, the term means one thing and one thing only – an identifier associated with some credentials. Now, some OpenID servers support multiple personas for a single OpenID – or, to be pedantic, they support multiple attribute sets than can be associated with the identity. However, you still have multiple accounts, some using OpenIDs, and some on a per-service basis, and some in federated schemes (e.g. a Yahoo! ID). So, no matter how much you play with the words, there is no escape from multiple identities.

    I know we’ve discussed in the past the extent to which an organisation may ethically deal with anything broader than an identity – when individual engage in a relationship with an organisation, we don’t really expect it to go prying into our financial information, our hobbies, and our previous jobs except to the degree we permit. That is, we don’t necessarily share our other identities with an organisation.

    I think in all these discussions its worth bearing in mind that a great many transactions we engage in that involve, currently, “identities”, do not in fact require that anyone is ever actually IDENTIFIED, even in the federated sense. That is, the identity has in fact no required relationship to a specific real human being at all – just the same “someone” who set up the account. Hence the various CAPTCHA tests, which only make sense if you are only bothered that it is *a* human creating an identity.

  2. Yes, I think that’s exactly the problem: personas imply stable underlying identities – the model is like real actors who play many roles in films or plays. But even for real actors, firstly they can create as many digital identities as they like, and secondly they as “actor” may be only one of their personal identities, in a psychological sense. For example, their religious identity may not be easy to reconcile with acting as a profession.

    There is, of course, no necessary connection between digital identity multiplicity and personal identity multiplicity: no necessary mapping; though a person could make such a mapping, and it would be obviously meaningful.

  3. Pingback: Simon Grant at JISC CETIS » More on the nomenclature of identity/personality

  4. Pingback: Simon Grant at JISC CETIS » Persona woe

  5. in class we have been discusssing the joharo window where we have different parts of our self, a self we know and everyone knows, a hidden self that only we know about ourself etc its related to self-awareness and feedback we gain from others

    the question was if we have different parts/personas that we share to certain others or within different roles in our life, can we be genuine at the same time

    what is our real self, if we are a boss, a mum ,a student a lover, a friend etc

  6. Helen, just thinking about this quickly, I’d say that if people have a “real” self it is not just one of our personalities, but it is the values that we come to live out across more and more of the different contexts of our different personalities. To achieve this, we need to reflect on the values we live out in the different contexts, and where the values conflict, we need to choose the value that we really believe in, and then adapt our personality in the context with the changed value to adapt to that value change.

    I guess we need some examples – you can provide some if you like!

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