As we think about identity in the online world, we come to realize that the “I” that the identity is meant to correspond with, is multiple. Not in the sense of schizophrenia, or multiple personalities, but in the sense that there are many facets that make up and individual. When we buy a bottle of single-malt scotch, we want to only show the facet that says “over 21.” But there is a sense in which we are many different people. We have one persona at work, another at home. One mask online, and another with our children. We have one identity with our parents, and another when we tell a joke.
We have a work email address and a personal email address. Sometimes we have more than one Open ID. We have one persona on Facebook, and a different one on LinkedIn. We are one way on Twitter, and a different way altogether on our blog.
The poet Pablo Neruda wrote:
Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.
We prefer that people be a single identity. We call people with more than one identity, two-faced. We think of grifters, tricksters and shape-shifters.
Another thread of the conversation from the Bible, Luke 8:30:
And he asked him, What is thy name?
And he answered, saying,
Our name is Legion: for we are many.
Legion is a man possessed by many demons. Demons that are cast out to leave the individual soul. Identity and soul are closely identified. Can we have many identities and a single soul? Is that the true center of a human being, the thing that is singular about a person? Should that individual thing be represented by a single online identity? The Dean of Grace Cathedral, Alan Jones, often comments on the fact that in our modern age, we see the idea of the soul extensively discussed in our secular literature. We live in an age where many can only believe in the soul, but nothing more.
We are many, and as we externalize our many selves into online identity, we’ll find things to be a lot less precise, and more crowded than we expected. While at some level we yearn for clarity, ambiguity is at the heart of our ability to maintain our privacy and anonymity. Will our many selves be built into the identity infrastructure that is peering over the event horizon?