In response to my recent post on Ephemeral Relationships
, Emil Sotirov tweeted
that this was an example of “fluid multi-pseudonymity as the norm.” I love that phrase because it succinctly describes something I’ve been trying to explain for years.
Emil was riffing on this article in Aeon You are a network
that says “Selves are not only ‘networked’, that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks.” I’ve never been a fan of philosophical introspections in digital identity discussions. I just don’t think they often lead to useful insights. Rather, I like what Joe Andrieu calls functional identity
: Identity is how we recognize, remember, and ultimately respond to specific people and things. But this realization, that we are multiple selves, changing over time—even in the course of a day—is powerful. And as Emil points out, our real-life ephemeral relationships are an example of this fluid multi-pseudonymity.
The architectures of traditional, administrative identity systems
do not reflect the fluid multi-pseudonymity of real life and consequently are mismatched to how people actually live. I frequently see calls for someone
, usually a government, to solve the online identity problem by issuing everyone a permanent “identity.” I put that in quotes because I hate when we use the word “identity” in that way—as if everyone has just one and once we link every body (literally) to some government issued identifier and a small number of attributes all our problems will disappear.
These calls don’t often come from within the identity community. Identity professionals understand how hard this problem is and that there’s no single identity for anyone. But even identity professionals use the word “identity” when they mean “account.” I frequently make an ass of myself my pointing that out. I get invited to fewer meetings that way. The point is this: there is no “identity.” And we don’t build identity systems to manage identities (whatever those are), but, rather, relationships.
All of us, in real life and online, have multiple relationships
. Many of those are pseudonymous. Many are ephemeral. But even a relationship that starts pseudonymous and ephemeral can develop into something permanent and better defined over time. Any relationship we have, even those with online services, changes over time. In short, our relationships are fluid and each is different.
Self-sovereign identity excites me because, for the first time, we have a model for online identity that can flexibly support fluid multi-pseudonymity. Decentralized identifiers and verifiable credentials form an identity metasystem capable of being the foundation for any kind of relationship: ephemeral, pseudonymous, ad hoc, permanent, personal, commercial, legal, or anything else. For details on how this all works, see my Frontiers article on the identity metasystem
An identity metasystem that matches the fluid multi-pseudonymity inherent in how people actually live is vital for personal autonomy and ultimately human rights. Computers are coming to intermediate every aspect of our lives. Our autonomy and freedom as humans depend on how we architect this digital world. Unless we put digital systems under the control of the individuals they serve without intervening administrative authorities and make them as flexible as our real-lives demand, the internet will undermine the quality of life it is meant to bolster. The identity metasystem is the foundation for doing that.