Wednesday, September 28, 2005, 12:10 PM

Identity or Persona?

I recently posted to the idworkshop list some thoughts on the terms Identity vs Persona. But I've just noticed a strong bias expressed by two bloggers whose opinions I respect: Timothy Grayson and Dave Kearns.

Both have been very clear in their statement that each person has exactly one identity in the following articles:
o Piling on: "The importance of [the word] identity"
o Piling on 2: "The Importance of Identity" Online and off
o Crying in the wilderness, again.

They both prefer the classical (philosophical) definition of identity -- identity is the thing that is you. So, by definition, one person can only have one identity. (BTW, Tim, I don't think your identity goes away when you die -- but perhaps that's not what you meant.) The other "identities" that people are talking about are actually personas.

While I agree with both Tim and Dave in their desires to be precise in discussions, I do think the train has left the station on how the word identity is understood. By popular usage, folks such as Phil Winley and Esther Dyson (as pointed out by Tim and Dave) use the term identity imprecisely to mean persona. Frankly, I think the term identity is so overused in both technical and pop culture that it has been rendered not-very-useful for technical discussions -- it might actually be a source of confusion. I would suggest, when we need more exact terms, we should use words with less cultural burden -- like persona; and, we need to find a word/phrase to refer to these unique things that are people (and objects) -- perhaps entity.

PS. I'm still swamped with work, so my postings will be haphazard, at best.

Date: Fri, 23 Sep 2005 14:36:59 -0700
From: "P.T. Ong" <>
Subject: Re: persona/identity

Strangely enough, I was just doing a systems design / object decomposition exercise last week, and decided to ditch "digital identity" and use "digital persona" instead; specifically because the phrase avoids the broader meanings of "identity" ... like "sense of self", "roots".

I think it's easier to understand "my persona for Acme Bank" than "my identity for Acme Bank". The term "persona" is less personal, so the user is more able to disassociate himself from the "persona" -- as it should be...

Getting more philosophical, I might never really know your true identity, but I can always use personas to point to the entity that is you.

Also, the discussion on anonymity gets easier. People can get confused when we talk about "anonymous identities" as the phrase is, superficially, a contradiction in terms -- "identity" might imply the lack of anonymity because it is tied closely with "sense of self". (

In the real world, words have associated meaning, connotations, emotional baggage, etc.; and it's confusing to the rest of the world (and to us too) when we technical folks try to use them in ways that conflict (or is in dissonance) with their commonplace uses.


PS. I do realize that marketing-wise, it's too late to move from the use of "identity".

At 08:39 AM 9/23/2005, Dave Kearns wrote:
>From: "Luke Razzell" <>
>> My dramatherapist girlfriend, Charla, pointed out to
>> me that "persona" is from the Greek for "mask":
>That's where the usage came from. The "persona" in a Greek play
>represented the "role" that the actor was playing. Which, in today's
>usage (as opposed to, say, the arcane world of 1999) really confuses
>the issues of identity, persona and role.
>In fact, what we're calling "digital identity" used to be referred
>to as "digital persona"
>( (And I
>still have the outline of a book I wanted to write with that title.
>Until a biometrics company came along and took the name.)
>At the time, the few people involved in "digital identity"
>deliberately chose the term "digital persona" so as not to confuse
>people with the "I" word. From the discussion we've had here, it
>does seem that the confusion still rages. So I can heartily agree
>with Luke when he says:
>> In this way, deprecating "digital identity" in favour of the
>> synonymous "persona" helps to disambiguate the discussion:
>> we are left with comparisons of "personas" and "identities"
>> rather than the supremely confusing "digital identities" and

Update (Oct 1, 2005):
I forgot to cross-reference Luke Razzell's post on Persona and identity (

Update (Oct 8, 2005):
Here are a few more follow-on posts on the topic:
o Timothy Grayson, The living language of identity
o Phil Windley, On the Word 'Identity'
o Johannes Ernst, Phil Windley puts his finger on why defining "Digital Identity" is hard

Friday, September 02, 2005, 12:49 PM

Stupid Users?!

Valerie Steeves has just posted an article about he observations at the World Summit on the Information Society meeting on cybersecurity. She expressed concern about how a certain European delegate said, "It’s the stupid users. If we could just get them to use the technology properly, then we wouldn’t have a problem."

I've been reading Tom Peter's recent book(let) on Design. When talking about technology (and every tool we use was at some point "technology"), we tend to blame the user when problems come up. In reality, most of these problems are becuase the technology was not designed for the parameters of human capability.

For example, as I like to say, there is an impedence mismatch between digital security requirements and human brains. Specifically, human brains are not configured to remember and precisely reproduce many sequences of complex symbols -- so we should not be surprised when we discover that passwords (managed by humans) are one of the weakest links in computer security.

Valerie went on to talk about how people use the need for security as a way to justify compromising privacy of end-users. I agree. It is all too tempting to "solve" problems using brute force.