Is tech forcing us to abandon the idea of multiple identities?

As Google integrates identity more deeply with its search engine, is our space to have multiple versions of our own identity being eroded by technology?

The more established social networks become in our lives, the more the problem of differing identities comes to the fore. There’s a basic tension here: social networks want us to be a single, definable person, while our own inclination means that we have multiple versions of ourselves for different parts of our life.┬áPeople construct identities based on context. You’re a slightly different person in terms of body language, word choice and tone when you’re in a bar with friends, looking after your children or in a meeting at work. This is a natural, human thing – responding to context and making appropriate human choices.

The social services of the web want to enforce a single identity on us – possibly for reasons around the engineering mindset and the desire to lock things down to a single definition. Facebook has fought to maintain its real names policy in German courts. Google+ long had a policy against pseudonyms against long-established practice on the internet.

The argument that you can just not use these services if their rules don’t work for you holds to a certain point – but breaks down when, for example, Facebook becomes the central organising tool for your circle of friends. Anything that is social can, by definition, be determined for you by those you want to be social with. In particular, Google is making moves to integrate an author’s reputation with their work’s search ranking. Now, for anyone involved in web publishing, having an identity on Google+ is vital for anything they publish on the internet – and it’s all going to be looked at in aggregate by the search engine.

If you write about serious business matters for your day job, and politics, religion, sexuality or other contentious matters in your free time, those two elements are going to come together through Google – with repetitional issues for you and your employer. Could “a clean Google profile” become the new “clean driving license” in job applications?

The problem comes when your personal life involves things which, while legal, are likely to shape people’s views of us. In the offline worlds, we’ve been able to keep these parts of our lives pretty separate. The ease with which information is transmitted, linked and aggregated online means that the walls between the different parts of our identity get harder to maintain every year.

What’s going to happen? One of two things. One direction would be for our tools to adapt to the way we actually operate, and start supporting multiple facets of identity based on who were are in particular contexts. One could make an argument that Google+’s circles already allow that. You can show the parts of yourself that you don’t want publicly exposed only to certain circles. That requires a degree of micromanagement that many won’t enjoy, though. Our tools need to respond to context as much as our brains do – and without much conscious intervention from us.

The other possibility is that we’ll see society actively shift. The difficult of creating these segregated identities within a networked society will force us to become more tolerant of diverse identities and interests within a person. Google might not forget our youthful follies, but society can become more forgiving of them, and understand them as learning experiences. For this to work, we’d need to see a generation who grow up with social networks and who remain happy to share their personal lives in a fluid way. However, who are more adept at creating multiple identities than teenagers? One persona for their friends, another for Mum and Dad. It’s an inherent component of creating their own identity as adults.

If I had to put money on this, I’d go with the former idea. But either way, we’re in for a difficult few decades as the internet continues to erode our old certainties around identity.