Identifier, identity, persona and Mask

Who or what is ‘I’? How do others recognise that ‘I’? How does that ‘I’ express itself? – with what voice does that ‘I’ speak? And how do others recognise that voice?

Yeah, I know, sounds like philosophy and stuff – woefully abstract, deep and pointless. Yawn.

But those ‘pointless’ questions are the core – the heart – of a lot of really important everyday concerns for enterprise-architecture: privacy, security, sales and marketing, just to name a few. The core of ‘enterprise’ itself. Abstract, yes; yet also just about as pragmatic as it gets. Hmm…

Where this got started was a post by Brian Hopkins, on his Forrester blog:

The post itself is a quick summary of some key themes happening in the IT side of enterprise-architecture at the moment: the fading of ‘Big IT’, a new focus on data, the convergence of social, mobile and local, and the ongoing hype around cloud. Fair enough: interesting to IT-oriented folks, certainly. The comments, though, focussed in on questions about identity in that space – and that’s where things got really interesting…

In essence, we ended up with those questions above. There’s a lot in those comments on Brian’s post, and I won’t repeat it all here: go look at it in the original, it’s well worth the read, especially the notes by Stephen Wilson on on digital-identity. What I’d like to pick up on briefly here are four of those themes:

  • identity is simple, complicated, complex, ambiguous, unknowable – all at the same time
  • identifier and identity are not the same
  • identity and persona are not the same
  • identity is filtered through many layers of persona

Identity is complex – that’s the shorthand version, anyway. It’s fluid, it stays the same: we can recognise friends after thirty years’ absence, we barely recognise our own face in the mirror each morning. For me, it changes with the clothes I wear, both in my own sense of identity, and how others seem to see and interact with me. I am my car, my house, my phone, my ideas, my memories: I think I possess them, but they also possess me.

Identity is like a hologram: blurry, muddled, indistinct – until the light shines on it in just the right way. For a brief instant, identity is certain, crystal-clear – and then vanishes again. Until the light shines on it from another direction, showing a different facet, a different face – yet of what is still the same hologram of identity.

Identity is multi-faceted, bewildering, chaotic. There’s one sense I have of ‘I’ when I’m at home, another in the office, another when I’m on stage at a conference, yet another with friends or colleagues in the cafe, and different again when chatting online, or chatting with the ‘checkout chick’ at the market or the mall. On the surface, and from the ‘the inside’, those can be very different people: so which one is me? Which one is real? Which is the myth? And when two or more of those myths collide – meeting work-colleagues at home, for example – there’s a kind of ‘mythquake‘, where for a brief panicked moment nothing seems real at all. Is everything just an act, a mask? Is there anything real behind all of those masks? And yet there is a single unitary ‘I’ in there somewhere, the one voice behind all of those different voices – otherwise we couldn’t recognise it as ‘I’. To quote the Cluetrain Manifesto:

…These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Yet Cluetrain is also about another kind of identity-clash: the distinction between individual and collective, the identity of ‘I’ versus the identity of ‘We’. When I’m part of ‘We’, where is ‘I’? Which one is real? Which one is the mask, the myth?

Confusing, to say the least. And if that’s at the core of so much of enterprise-architecture, it’s no wonder that that’s complex too. Too complex: hence no surprise that so many people try to make it out to be simpler than it is – and that’s where things get messy…

Identifier and identity are not the same – an identifier is not identity, it’s a proxy for identity, for when we don’t have other means to recognise identity. An identifier is just information – and information about something is not the same as the thing itself. It seems this should be obvious, yet evidently it isn’t –  especially to many of those who work on Digital Identity and suchlike, designing IT-systems that seemingly assume they are the same.

We talk about ‘identity-theft’, yet in most cases – perhaps all? – it’s theft of identifier, not identity. An identifier links not to identity, but to a persona associated with that identity – the identity as a role, a set of rights, responsibilities, authorities, tasks. In a possession-based culture, an identifier provides ‘rights’ of access to resources, ‘the right to know’, the right to use: if the identifier is hijacked, those ‘rights’ are hijacked too. That’s what all the worry is about: loss of access to resources, loss of control, loss of concealment for key information. That matters, obviously. But it’s identifier-theft, not identity-theft: the distinction is important.

Going the other way, identity is not identifier. I may put on a company-uniform to identify myself to others as a member of the company; my business-card carries both my own name (a personal identifier) and the company-name (a collective identifier); but that doesn’t mean that I am the company, or that the company ‘is’ me. I use the company-identifier as a persona, and others may recognise me via that persona: yet it isn’t who I am. That distinction is important, too.

[A side-note here: in terms of asset-dimensions, relational-assets link to identity, whereas aspirational-assets mostly to the persona – concrete versus abstract. For more on this, see the post ‘Relational-assets are not ‘possessions’ ‘.]

Identity and persona are not the same – a persona is an overlay of identity, in exactly the same sense that my clothes are an overlay on myself. A persona is literally ‘that through which I sound’ – a filter, a mask. Online, we have many different personas – not just as represented by distinct avatars and the like, but every online account is in a sense a persona, a ‘that through which I sound’ to or with the respective application.

And the same the other way: the application presents a different persona – a different interface – for us depending on whether we’ve logged in or not, and in some cases (such as the Amazon website) may even adapt itself over time to match the changing history of the relationship. Note the ‘identity-confusion’ that can occur when we present a mismatched persona – such as entering the wrong username / password combination, or using the same avatar in different social contexts.

So too in the offline world. Almost everything is or can be used as a persona: clothes, props, language, body-stance, the way we may drive differently in a rental-car compared to a car we consider ‘ours’. And it’s not just one-way, from us outward: we feel different in different clothes, in different cars, in different climates. There’s an interaction between people and place, and the place has choices too – certainly in a metaphoric sense, perhaps in a literal sense as well.

Identity is filtered through many layers of persona. Persona is ‘that through which I sound’ – a Mask. Each of us has layer upon layer of Masks, some of them seemingly our choice, others less conscious, and yet others sort-of imposed by culture, by context, by the impacts of advertising and the like. It’s complicated… complex…

[One of the best sources to get a sense of of all of this is in impro-theatre: for example, see Keith Johnstone’s classic ‘Impro: improvisation and the theatre‘ – particularly the later section on Masks.]

In enterprise-architecture, one of the more useful concerns is provide conditions under which the distinctions between identity and persona become more visible – are ‘surfaced’, to use the psychology-jargon. When people become aware of those distinctions, they also become aware that they can choose the extent to which they identify themselves with a persona – and can let it go and choose an alternative that is a better fit to a changing context. Often we might intentionally set up some kind of ‘ritual’ to mark the boundary: for example, donning a safety-helmet on a building site also triggers a more safety-aware persona.

There’s a lot more to explore here, of course 🙂 – anyone interested in taking it further?

6 Comments on “Identifier, identity, persona and Mask

  1. Philosophy and psychology have much to offer on this subject.
    Personnally I am convinced technology doesn’t shape anything in the psycological sense. If you are being led by the number of followers, you are being led. I don’t agree I’m being defined by those who follow me.
    I don’t accept life as a huge mediacenter. I create my own life.

  2. @Frans van der Reep – thanks for this.

    (Unfortunately I haven’t been a party to a Twitter-conversation on this that I know you’ve had on this between you and Stuart, and perhaps others as well, hence apologies if I misunderstand the context?)

    “Philosophy and psychology have much to offer on this subject.”

    Agreed, obviously. I’m trying to avoid philosophy as such, though, because it annoys so many pragmatics-oriented people; psychology is more acceptable to them, but often not much more. So I’ve tried to frame this almost solely in terms of pragmatics, and of direct experience at the point of action, which has been my main focus in my earlier posts such as on SCAN and decision-making.

    “Personnally I am convinced technology doesn’t shape anything in the psycological sense.”

    On that one point I’d have to disagree strongly with you – though again, strictly from pragmatics and direct observation, nothing more than that. For example, consider how user-interfaces and user-experience design strongly influence not only what people do but also how they feel, in terms of real-time decisions and actions. Consider how much the actual decision at ‘point of sale’ is guided (driven?) by what is essentially emotional-psychology – and those emotions are highly mediated by the technology and medium. (For example, the very strong focus on ‘feel‘ in Apple’s products.)

    “If you are being led by the number of followers, you are being led. I don’t agree I’m being defined by those who follow me.”

    In essence I’d agree, with some minor reservations around “you are being led”. Yet that particular aspect of social-media is not something I was describing above, so I don’t quite see the connection?

    “I don’t accept life as a huge mediacenter.”

    Marshall McLuhan (‘The Medium is the Message‘) and most marketing folks might disagree with you on that… 🙂

    “I create my own life.”

    Yes, of course: for each of us, ‘I’ creates our own life through choices, decisions and actions. But which ‘I’? What is ‘I’? All I’m saying above is that the answer to that question is perhaps not as simple as it looks… 🙂

  3. @Tom, @Frans, I think we’re actually all 100% agreed that one’s core identity cannot change (leaving aside psychological abnormalities). In that sense I would agree with Frans’s “doesn’t shape anything in the psycological sense”.
    I think we’re also all agreed that we, as individuals, are all capable of learning and growing – absorbing new influences, which may make a difference in the expression of our identities. I would argue that the extent to which we are capable of and open to such change is a property of our core identity. Some people are more open to change than others. This is, if I understood correctly, the essential message in Frans’s blog, which started all this. I’m not posting the link, because it’s in Dutch and I have no time to translate it right now.
    In our Twitter exchange, Frans wrote “Lots of identities are masquerades seeking security”. I think what we’re talking about here are assumed personae involving the use of masks, which help to protect us against uncomfortable realities. In saying this, I’m going out on a limb, because it assumes that a) I understood Frans correctly and b) I understood Tom’s explanation of masks correctly. At any rate, it was at this point in our discussion that I thought it would be useful to point Frans at this blog post.
    Lastly, for now, the topics I’ve touched on are for me the core topics. I feel, if we don’t understand those correctly, any discussion on whether and to what extent technology affects out identity, will be undermined by misunderstandings.

  4. thx Stuart! We are here in the heart of philosphy, psychiatry and communications. Of course, this starts in our days, let’s skip the greek ancient philosophy, with McLuhans “the medium is the message”. I personally divide 4 basis survival strategies reslting in personae as I understand Stuart well.
    – making one bigger and smaller ( dominance, submission)
    – smoke greens
    – armoring oneselves,
    all serving as security strategies if one doesn’t feel intrinsically secure.
    Security strategies are being defined in the early years, say before year 5. Pschology defins them as frans. schemes and in coginitive pschychology we talk about cognitions referrin to these type of belief systems.

    There lots of books on this subject, e.g. the scripts in transactional analysis or Leary’s rose.

    One further remark ,it is important to underatdn that our belief systmesn don[t arise from what we see. It is the ohter way around. we see what we believe. Therefore: we see with our brains and what we can’t see we can’t be.

    My personal belief is that our (holy) core identy is independent of our experience and just there. We have receives our lives t find it back.

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