Note: This arc originally contained nine posts. They’re all gathered here into this one post
Online Privacy, Part 1
As promised in Nothing New Under the Sun (Privacy), I’m going to start an arc on online privacy. I’m going to be posting about the history of privacy, privacy in commerce, and what privacy means to the individual.
Just so you’ll know up front, what I’ll be posting here is from my next book, Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation…
Anyone familiar with the state of the ecommerce at the time of this writing knows that privacy and identity are the topics du jour [[(they were when this arc was originally written in Nov 2006 and they are again. Perhaps this should be a Nothing New Under the Sun post?)]]. People tend to think of privacy and identity as the polar opposites on some scale and they’re not (at least in a social commerce setting). You can have complete personal privacy yet have a very public identity and you can have zero personal privacy yet be someone completely unknown to others, just a face in the crowd. The reason for this is that “privacy” isn’t what most people think it is. Most people think Privacy and Identity as polar extremes with Anonymity the slider from one extreme to the other. That’s shown in the following figure.
Privacy, as recognized at the start of the 21st century, is a relatively new historical phenomenon.
The social commerce scale which has existed as long as humans walked the earth actually has Anonymity and Identity as polar extremes and the slider is Privacy. To be either known or unknown depends on how much of yourself you’re willing to share and with whom you’re willing to share it. This is shown in the following figure.
People browse your website, or they pick up your brochure at a kiosk or in a store, or they walk past your booth at a tradeshow — all of these people have at least one thing in common; They all want to be left alone until they’re ready to not be left alone. In other words, they want to remain anonymous in a social commerce setting, and specifically, they want to remain anonymous until they no longer want to remain anonymous. Anonymity occurs when someone decides they want to be unknown.
Online Privacy, Part 2
To be unknown means to not have any community, no social connections, and ultimately, to have no identity. Identities are formed within a social context, and to be anonymous means to present an identity which is unknown…within the current social context. Only amnesiacs are unknown to themselves. Individuals wishing to remain anonymous and therefore unknown to others are doing so for a reason and within their current social context. For example, on the first day of teaching a new class, I’ll often be the third or fourth person entering the room, smiling and nodding as I enter the room and take a seat in the back, as if I were a student. This gives me a chance to engage the students as their peer, to learn their goals and motivations, and to plan and adjust the course accordingly.
So anonymity allows an individual to create a new social context in which they can define or assign a role to themselves which is independent of other roles other social contexts have assigned to them. It allows them to reveal only the information they wish to reveal in the current social setting. In other words, it allows them to keep certain things private and make other things public.
Now let’s bring this back to people browsing a website, picking up a brochure, walking through a showroom or strolling a convention floor. Here anonymity morphs into “I see you, you see me, and you’ll forget me as soon as I turn away.”
Online Privacy, Part 3
Anonymity joined with privacy is relatively new in human history, having only been around since the advent of mass transportation. Prior to trains and boats and passenger planes, people never got very far from their village. If they did, they carried papers on them or some sign which clearly indicated their business and why they were about. The sign might have been a Cross, a leper’s bell, a monk’s robe, a king’s banner or a robber’s mask. All of these things and more were signs which clearly and quickly gave others the necessary information, “this is why I’m here.” The cold war era movie question, “Your papers, please?” didn’t happen because of the Cold War and wasn’t limited to communist countries. It was standard practice for people traveling in their own country — including the USA — up until the early 20th century.
Online Privacy, Part 4
Think about it and you’ll understand why the lack of privacy and anonymity was not only the norm, it was required. Prior to recent times literacy wasn’t the norm, and literacy plays a key role in the need for well defined and recognized social roles. Person A wasn’t likely to engage in commerce with Person B unless A knew B personally, hence knew they could trust and were trusted. Likewise for Person B. Remember “I trust you”, “You Can Trust Me” and so on? The faster these questions were answered the longer people lived, and living in small social circles where identity was defined such things as
- everyone around you knowing who you were,
- who you were related to, what you did,
- your shoe size,
- whether you limped,
- how you dressed and
- if your wife liked the way you kissed (yep, this is for you Martin Guerre fans)
cut through many of those questions quickly, cleanly and easily. The cohesiveness of the society you lived in answered those questions for you, and when you were setting up shop on your own the blessing or curse of that social network dictated your success or lack thereof.
Online Privacy, Part 5
Two hundred years ago people didn’t carry identification with them (if anyone can tell me the real difference between “Your papers, please?” and being asked to show a photo-id when you use a credit card or cash a check, I’d love to hear it) and there was no national citizenship registry until the turn of the 18th century. At this point in time, European countries began enforcing the concept of “One person, one name”. Prior to that any given person could have several of what we now call “aliases” and nobody cared because most of the aliases were nicknames given to an individual by people in that individual’s social circle (“Morgan the Goat”, “Johnnie One-Eye”, “Velmuth the Butcher”) or by society assigning a role to the individual (“Typhoid Mary”, George “Longhair” Custer, “Atilla the Chiropodist”).
Up until mass transportation and the industrial age, people worked from their homes. They lived above their smithy, next to their fields, on their farm, beside their grainery, with their animals, … Anonymity and privacy didn’t exist and where it did, it was a cause for suspicion and distrust; if someone had something to hide, it was for a reason, and the xenophobic natures which benefited us when we descended from the trees still served us well during these times.
Online Privacy, Part 6
And now, once again, people are browsing your website, picking up your flyer at a kiosk, glancing at your brochure as the walk a showroom or convention floor. They have this belief that they are anonymous and want to remain so.
You want and need them to share information about themselves with you, your website, your salespeople.
Most people and especially website visitors believe they are anonymous and actually fall into the next identity level, which is Transitory Identity. Transitory Identity occurs when an individual can be reached through some non-permanent address or tag. A temporary IP is an example of this. The seller can repeatedly touch the individual during the complete lifetime of the encounter, not just the transaction. Imagine someone invisible joining you as you walk in the door and directing other workers to put things in front of and to the side of you as you walk through the store, with the goal of maneuvering you to the checkout aisle with a shopping cart full of useless goodies.
Most website visitors have Transitory Identity. There’s been lots of studies published in the past few years that indicate cookies are deleted, purged, expurgated, dunked in the coffee and milk you picked up at the corner store when you thought you were Anonymous and otherwise gotten rid of.
Online Privacy, Part 7 (Online Identity)
The next identity level is Persistent Identity. Persistent Identity occurs when the individual can be touched over several encounters. A snail-mailbox, a direct access phone number, a permanent IP or personal email account are examples of being able to touch individuals over time, not just during the transaction (anonymity) or during a single encounter (transitory). Persistent Identity is a one-way affair, and doesn’t offer the seller much more than transitory or anonymous identity save two things;
- Persistent Identity allows the seller to leave and/or place messages for the individual at the address. In other words, Persistent Identity is where mass-marketing ends and direct-marketing begins.
- Persistent Identity allows the seller to begin “branding” the individual according to that individual’s worth to the seller by differentiating this individual’s from that individual (at another address).
These two items come together in a single word, relationship, and for all things there is a cost. Sellers asked for something, now they must give something, and here is where it gets really interesting because you haven’t really asked for a mailbox, virtual or otherwise, a phone number or anything like that. When we seek to establish a relationship we are really asking for trust and how that trust is solicited influences the rest of the relationship. People who’ve read my iMediaConnection columns or attended NextStage seminars know I preach about what goes on in the consumer’s head a great deal, and trust is a key element in the equation of the visitor’s mind. You have to let the individual know you trust them before they’ll trust you, so the cost of Persistent Identity is relationship and the price tag is the individual’s trust.
Online Privacy, Part 8
Next comes Role-Specific Identity. Role-Specific Identity begins a two-way exchange between the individual and the seller because the seller has created a role for the individual and to enjoy the benefits of that role the individual needs to play by some rules set by the seller. Credit Cards brand individuals via role-specific identities.
For example, everybody knows what a Gold Card is, and that certain financial and other bona fides are required to get one, and most people know about what’s involved in the getting and keeping of Platinum Cards.
But how many know what’s involved in getting or keeping a Black AmEx? How about an ML-Signature?
For real credit cards, travel cards, club cards, etc., role-specific identity is the point. The seller controls the role the individual plays. Of course, the individual enjoys certain benefits by taking on the seller’s predefined role. You get automatic upgrades on flights, you get preferred treatment at hotels, you get better tables at restaurants and guaranteed reservations. Also, the seller knows more about you than you know about yourself, but you have decided that you want it that way because that’s part of the role you’ve been assigned. The only way to break out of the role is to be denied the benefits conferred by the role and most people don’t want to do that.
Online Privacy, Finale
The last identity of common commerce is Self-Expressive Identity. In common commerce, Self-Expressive Identity is the goal because it’s where the individual personalizes the seller’s brand as part of their own identity. Examples of self-expressive identity can be found among owners of BMWs, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and BlackBerry PDAs. In these and many other cases individuals become billboards for the products they’ve identified with. This kind of personal identification with a brand or product is called ego identification and occurs when the seller’s brand is integrated into the individual’s Identity to the point that it influences that individual’s Personality.
Self-Expressive identity isn’t something relegated only to product and service branding. It is the first stage of tribal identity and can be seen in those wearing school jackets, gang colors, body piercings and tattoos (literally where the individual brands their body so that they’ll be easily recognized by society as possessing a group affiliation).
Self-Expressive Identity is used in community building, as in the seller creating a community within which the individual gets to express their identity by being around people who think the way you think and do what you do and like what you like is one of the most identity affirming things anyone can do.
And Self-Expressive Identity leads us into a new identity specific to information exchange and ecommerce systems, Anonymous-Expressive Identity.
Anonymous-Expressive Identity occurs when the individual creates a role for themselves and the seller accepts it and uses it to communicate with the individual. This is true tribal identity in the information age because by understanding the anonymous-identity the individual presents, we know a great deal about them, their life, their hopes, dreams and aspirations, without invading their privacy at all. For example, you can tell a great deal about the owners of the following emailnyms (email pseudonyms) with a little thought and cultural understanding:
- a company in which the privately used, internal email addresses used by top management include “tex, reno, philly, kc, fresno”
- a company in which in the privately used, internal email addresses include “mightydan, brainchild and wondergirl”
And there you have it, the history and use of privacy from an explanation of Privacy, Identity and Anonymity to how identity occurs on the web to the this post on a form of identity which can only occur on the web.
Hopefully I’ll think of something else to write about over the weekend, and thanks.
Posted in 0611, Anthropology, Historical Posts, Identity, Marketing, Privacy, Psychology, Trust
Tagged From Nov '06, History, Stonewall