Own Your Identity

September 10, 2010

Identity is a word that seems to have many meanings. It’s your substance, your DNA, how people know you, your name, your email address, your job, the collection of all your thoughts and opinions. If asked “What is your identity?” or “Who are you?” I think almost everyone would begin to answer with “I am….” So identity is inherently personal. It will mean something slightly different to each individual.

Identity is not constant. It shifts, both over long periods of time and within a single day. Your identity at work is a variation of your identity at home with your parents, which is a variation of your identity when you’re alone with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Some parts of your identity will remain constant through a number of these variations, while others may exist in only one.

Identity is only meaningful because we are constantly coming into contact with other people, and we need to differentiate ourselves from them. If you were the only person on the earth, your identity wouldn’t matter at all. You would have no need to identify yourself or to distinguish yourself from others. So your identity at its very core only exists to assist us in social contact.

So it’s no wonder that so many of the things we associate with our identities are directly related to social communication: our names, our addresses, our phone numbers, our email addresses. These are the keys that allow others to unlock the wealth of information inside each of us. Therefore it is critically important that we ourselves maintain as much control over our identities as possible.

What happens when a government or corporation controls part of your identity? It can hold you hostage. This costs you money and prevents you from making choices that would improve your life. There are many examples of this hostage-holding in our everyday lives. Most times we don’t even realize it. We often don’t demand release from bondage, because we don’t know that we are being held.

So lets consider a few examples of pieces of your identity that you own and one piece you don’t.

First, your name. Before you could read and write, the only way to communicate with you was through speech. If your mother wanted to get your attention to tell you something, she would call you by name. Now it may not seem like it because your parents gave it to you, but you control your name. You can choose what names you respond to, and thereby can change your name at any time. You own that piece of your identity. Yes, the government requires you to have a name to put on government-issued documents, but you can change that as well.

Now consider your email address. It’s a part of your identity as much as any other since it allows others to contact you directly. You can choose and control your email address just as you can your name. And I don’t mean simply choosing between Yahoo! Mail and GMail. At very little cost to yourself you can buy your own domain name, like andrewmbenton.com, run an email server behind it and start accepting email at any address you want, like me@andrewmbenton.com. You own it.

On the other hand, think about your phone number. You probably got it from a telecom carrier. Until recently (in the US) you had to change your number if you moved to a new phone company. And since most phones (again in the US) are tied to a particular carrier, you often had to change your number if you wanted a better phone. Changing phone numbers is a major hassle, and the phone companies took advantage of that. The phone company owned your number, and held you hostage.

Porting of phone numbers is now possible, although many people aren’t aware of it and I don’t think the carriers are particularly excited about educating us. With porting, your phone number is now a part of your identity that you own.

Finally consider your Facebook account. This likely has become a major part of your identity sometime in the past five years. Other people can communicate with you using Facebook messages, and they can find out a lot about you just from browsing your profile and status updates. But you don’t own your Facebook account. Sure you have (almost total) control over what shows up in your profile. But who really owns the data? If Facebook decided tomorrow that you violated their terms of service and closed your account, could you do anything about it? Could you get any of your photos, or messages, or wall posts out? Can you even get those out now to back them up? The answer is no. You don’t own this (perhaps significant) piece of your identity.

So far Facebook hasn’t held us hostage in obvious ways. Ads are obvious, though not terribly onerous in exchange for the value Facebook provides. But Facebook has made ever more of our once private information public for it’s own gain. And we are generally helpless to prevent it, since we have come to rely on Facebook to provide so much of our identities.

Facebook may not go much farther than it has already, but then again it might. The point is that in relying on a single company to provide such a significant piece of our identities we leave ourselves vulnerable to that company’s interests and needs, which may not align perfectly with our own.

I closed my Facebook account because I want to own my identity. Take a close look at how much of your identity Facebook provides, and make sure you’re comfortable with a single company owning that much of it.

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