Agent Smith Effect

(For those of you, who haven’t seen the “Matrix” movies, Agent Smith was one of the protagonists of Neo. His special ability, after a mutation, was that he could create as many copies of himself as he liked. Also, you really need to watch the Matrix movies…I promise they’ll blow your mind.)

Bill Thompson, the regular columnist at BBC had an interesting piece about how young people use identities in social media.

…young people who forget their MySpace logins are just as likely to make a new account as fret over their lost friends or painstakingly constructed homepage decorations.

Recent work by US-based social media researcher Danah Boyd, one of the more astute observers of network behaviour, indicates that it is a more general attitude.

Her observations of young net users have led her to believe that “many teens are content (if not happy) to start over with most of their accounts in most places”, and she has noted that for young people an online profile is “not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but something to use to talk to friends in the moment”.

Now this is very different from what I do. I have had the same myYahoo account for 7 years and have only made minor tweaks to the layout over that period. I hate losing access to an account that I created, as I think I am losing a part of myself by abandoning an account. As such, I try and get the same login name and password for all my accounts, to ensure that I can remember and maintain access to them.

…but perhaps teenagers, experimenting with their identity in relationships, clothing styles and all other aspects of life are simply extending this playfulness to the virtual realm.

Not all young users are casual about their online identity, of course, and Boyd is at pains to point out that many young people invest heavily in aspects of their online activities. However, the willingness to abandon a profile as a work-in-progress and start over is definitely something I’ve observed in my children and their friends.

This approach to online identity has a number of implications for anyone trying to understand the way the internet is growing, and also carries an important lesson for those trying to build services or make money out of them.

One positive aspect is that it will make it harder to pin online activity onto a real person, since accounts that are created and quickly discarded will contain fewer identifying details.

More importantly, this casualness clearly renders any statistics about the number of signed-up users effectively meaningless, and this could be a big problem for the sites themselves as companies vie for investment and point to sign-ups as an indicator of popularity and future success.

Commentator Clay Shirky has been waging a campaign against the sloppy journalism of those who quote Linden Labs figures for Second Life “residents”. He points out that many happily accept the headline figure of two million users without considering that only 36,000 of those are paid-for accounts while a high but indeterminate proportion of the remainder are inactive, set up for free by people who tried out the service and then moved on.

It is the same with MySpace, Bebo or any of the other social sites, of course, and shows how poor we are at measuring what really goes on online.

Websites, having struggled for years to adapt to the idea of the pageview instead of the server request as the key measure of site activity, are now building interactive pages that occupy user attention and time but don’t generate hits or page views – and they don’t know how to measure this usage. Now it seems that the millions of signups on MySpace, Bebo and the other social network sites could be the same set of forgetful teenagers coming back again.

And again.

This is an interesting observation and adds another argument to the need for better metrics to measure the value of online interactions. We have provided some ideas on the topic here, here and here. Danah Boyd, a PhD student at UC Berkely, explains this phenomenon as follows:

Adults often worry about the amount of time that youth spend online, arguing that the digital does not replace the physical. Most teens would agree. It is not the technology that encourages youth to spend time online – it’s the lack of mobility and access to youth space where they can hang out uninterrupted.

Teens have increasingly less access to public space. Classic 1950s hang out locations like the roller rink and burger joint are disappearing while malls and 7/11s are banning teens unaccompanied by parents. Hanging out around the neighborhood or in the woods has been deemed unsafe for fear of predators, drug dealers and abductors. Teens who go home after school while their parents are still working are expected to stay home and teens are mostly allowed to only gather at friends’ homes when their parents are present.

Additionally, structured activities in controlled spaces are on the rise. After school activities, sports, and jobs are typical across all socio-economic classes and many teens are in controlled spaces from dawn till dusk. They are running ragged without any time to simply chill amongst friends.

By going virtual, digital technologies allow youth to (re)create private and public youth space while physically in controlled spaces. IM serves as a private space while MySpace provide a public component. Online, youth can build the environments that support youth socialization.

So multiple throw away identities is another manifestation of teenagers experimenting with new looks etc. Another question that comes to mind …Is the phenomenon of throwaway identities only limited to teenagers? One place to look for answer is the blogosphere. On serious blogs, commenters can leave comments under any name they like. Now I have always used my own name while leaving a comment. But does anybody have stats on how many people use fake or context sensitive names (like using a name ILOVEAPPLE while leaving a comment positive to Apple) ? My guess is that the use of fake identities is a lot less prevalent in serious blogosphere compared to other teenage oriented social media.

I would imagine that as these teenagers mature and settle on an identity, they are comfortable with, they will focus on building their reputation around that identity. Now, a lack of a mechanism by which users in blogosphere and other social media can build a reputation around their identities, might be contributing to proliferation of these throwaway identities. May be, all we are lacking are incentives to participants in online social media, to maintain the same identity. What do you think?

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