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Internet Identity: Speaking in the Third Person

It’s common to think of someone who refers to themselves in the third person as narcissistic. They’ve posited a third person outside of themselves, an entity who in some way is not fully identical with the one who is speaking. When we speak on a social network, we speak in the third person. We see our comment enter the stream not attributed to an “I”, but in the third person.

The name “narcissism” is derived from Greek mythologyNarcissus was a handsome Greek youth who had never seen his reflection, but because of a prediction by an Oracle, looked in a pool of water and saw his reflection for the first time. The nymph Echo–who had been punished by Hera for gossiping and cursed to forever have the last word–had seen Narcissus walking through the forest and wanted to talk to him, but, because of her curse, she wasn’t able to speak first. As Narcissus was walking along, he got thirsty and stopped to take a drink; it was then he saw his reflection for the first time, and, not knowing any better, started talking to it. Echo, who had been following him, then started repeating the last thing he said back. Not knowing about reflections, Narcissus thought his reflection was speaking to him. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away at the pool and changed into the flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

The problem of internet identity might easily be solved by having all people and systems use the third person. A Google identity would be referred to within Google in the third person, as though it came from outside of Google. Google’s authentication and authorization systems would be decentralized into an external hub, and Google would use them in the same way as a third party. Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, of course, would follow suit. In this environment a single internet identity process could be used across every web property. Everyone is a stranger, everyone is from somewhere else.

When we think of our electronic identity on the Network, we point over there and say, “that’s me.” But “I” can’t claim sole authorship of the “me” at which I gesture. If you were to gather up and value all the threads across all the transaction streams, you’d see that self-asserted identity doesn’t hold a lot of water. It’s what other people say about you when you’re out of the room that really matters.

What does it matter who is speaking, someone said, what does it matter who is speaking?
Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing

Speaking in the third person depersonalizes speech. Identity is no longer my identity, instead it’s the set of qualities that can be used to describe a third person. And if you think about the world of commercial transactions, a business doesn’t care about who you are, they care if the conditions for a successful transaction are present. Although they may care about collecting metadata that allows them to predict the probability that the conditions for a transaction might recur.

When avatars speak to each other, the conversation is in the third person. Even when the personal pronoun “I” is invoked, we see it from the outside. We view the conversation just as anyone might.

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