Monday, 13 December 2010


Our identity is, uniquely, something very close to us - it is what we are. It is something very precious - woe betide anyone stealing our identity. When we look at where our identity is a concern, we come up against a number of questions: about the role we are in - friend, work colleague, child, neighbour; about the place we are in - home, web surfing on the internet, logged in to a social networking site, sending an email, buying, selling. We are called differently depending on where we are - "son", "dad", "John", Elizabeth", "Beth"; different people call us by different names. Identity is key to how we relate to others.

So, how do we know who we are talking to, buying from, promising to visit, and so on. We use a number of clues or indicators to reach a conclusion about who it is we are communicating with. The context, the place, the presence of others are all factors which enable you to conclude who it is.

So you have a name - now what are you going to do? That depends on the relationship, in the broad sense, that you have with the other person. How was the relationship made? Were you introduced by someone else to this person? What was the reason for the introduction? Based on the trust that was established when the introduction was made, what are you prepared to do with the other person? As well as the initial introduction, you will have also formed views about the other person because of what you see they have done, how they have behaved, how they have treated you. I say "person", but of course, the "person" might be an organisation, a shop, a bank, a travel company, that is, a collection of people acting as one. Everything here that applies to a single person applies to an organisation. The reputation of the organisation is often described as its "brand"; the advertisements which give you a warm feeling that the organisation is looking after the world are there to build your trust in them so they can do more with you. We do not give up the tests, the questions you would ask of a person if they said they were doing what organisations claim to do.

When relating to other people or organisations on the internet, we miss a large amount of information which in face to face encounters is given by the surroundings, the presence of other people, the context in which we are placed. In face to face encounters, we use that information to give us a degree of confidence, greater or lesser, about the people we are with; for example, in a religious place of worship, we expect that people will behave with respect and honesty and truthfulness.

When we are deprived of the physical information, we need to use other clues and indicators such as the type of language used, the references made to others. Because the most important credential we have, our body – our face, the way we stand, the way we walk - is absent on the internet, we need to be on our guard against people masquerading as others, we need to test whether people conform to the way we would expect them to behave. When we need to make a commitment in a relationship on the internet, we need other credentials – digital credentials, numbers and secrets – established in another medium, through letters in the post.

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