Why we’re bullish on the re-decentralization of identity on the Internet
TLDR: Platforms that want to best serve the needs of users will have to enable users to flexibly control their online identities.
The social media giants of today grew through network effects of real names being the identifier users use online. The problem with users using their real name though, is that it limits the palatability of sharing authentic information on these platforms.
It is inevitable that social media addresses this tension between the benefits of being able to reach others in a public environment, and connecting with people users actually want to connect with privately.
The next iteration of social media will allow users to present a more “authentic” version of themselves to communities that cater to the individual community’s needs, whether that requires users to be more public about a certain credential, or need them to be verified by age.
Although some bandaid solutions exist in the world today that give users control over their presentation, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the potential of “identity flexibility.”
Here’s the situation:
- With each iteration of the Internet, social media websites like Facebook experienced exponential growth after they were able to offer the feature of being able to find users by their real name. This contributed to the massive adoption of social media.
- Facebook primarily puts weight on your real photo, real name, real age. Connecting activity on social media with a public profile comes with major benefits including 1) ability to trust seller or buyer during transactions (e.g. FB marketplace, housing search groups) 2) ability to communicate with and update people you know/acquainted with in real life (e.g. friend, messenger, feed) and 3) filter out trolls and bad actors, bringing a degree of trust to even large online communities that are not acquainted in real-life.
- This feature though, the use of your real name, has proven to be limiting, even dangerous. Security breaches, online harassment, and the simple desire to not share things with random middle school classmates you are still FB friends with, are among the many reasons why younger generations are increasingly opting for platforms like Tiktok, Reddit and Discord, which use a simple username handle.
- Reddit and Discord allow users to interact in communities without any Know Your Customer (KYC) of their users. Anyone can make 10 accounts and be 10 different people. This allows users to be more comfortable sharing sensitive information and expressing a truer version of themselves, but limits the legitimacy of anyone you meet in a public environment, such as a new community on Discord. Trust of the people you are connected with is limited by this feature.
- Even though many young people have moved to other platforms for entertainment and knowledge, it is common to still use Facebook for Messenger, Events, Marketplace, etc. because of the benefits of carrying a public profile around the Internet with everyone new you meet. This is why many hate on Facebook, but still cannot leave easily!
- On the surface, it seems that the benefit from the use of public names is mutually exclusive to the benefits of anonymity. No social platform does both well: public identification of the user as well as the option to be anonymous. Users constantly have to choose between feeling too out in the open to feel comfortable to share anything, or too hidden to benefit from publicly verified human-to-human connection. Flexible control over identity will allow more marginalized identities to find a home on the web.
- Identity on the web should be just as flexible as the way humans behave in real life. In real life, our publicly presented identities change with respect to others in the room. Humans often present a certain side of their identity to “fit in”. Successful social media platforms of the future will inevitably emerge to fit this need. When speaking with a community based on professional connections, a person might want to present as just that — professional, but not goofy. In today’s platforms, there is no separation from content that a user produces that presents their goofy side, and separates that content from content from their professional side. This causes people to have to create multiple accounts, or just silence a part of themselves on one account. Even though Instagram offers features like Close Friends, users still have to choose between categorizing connections as Super Close or completely out of their community.
- There is also no easy way to configure your feed, and many people opt out of sharing updates on their Facebook altogether, often because they are wary of sharing updates to a mixed audience of family, friends, ex-friends, and potentially irrelevant “friends” accumulated throughout their lives.
So, how do we give users the benefit of both? Come talk to us to hear more about what we’re building at Quest. :)
❤ Miche, Sunwoo, and Quest Team