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World's latest endangered species: our private lives

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Book review After a year spent watching people use the internet, and questioning more than 5,000 of them, two Alcatel Lucent staff have distilled into a modest-sized book their conclusions on how we balance online privacy with web identities.

Identity Shift, written by Allison Cerra and Christine James, paints a picture of America's netizens - who they think they are and how they go about sharing that identity - but then gets sidetracked while trying to understand brand identities and, finally, the security issues surrounding identity.

Those sidetracks mean there isn't space within the sub-200-page book to discuss the philosophical questions about identity. In fact philosophy is notably absent from the list of disciplines from which the authors claim to draw. Instead the book concerns itself with psychological questions about why people feel the need to control their identity online, and how they go about doing it.

One's online identity is increasingly important. We're told, with the aid of copious footnotes, 17 per cent of stateside couples who tied the knot in the last three years met on a dating site, so how one appears on a computer screen can have an overwhelming impact on one's life.

And there is a feeling that control is slipping away - ten per cent of the 5,000 people surveyed for the study admitted having Google Alerts set up to warn them when information was posted about themselves. Even allowing for a connected demographic, that's a staggering figure.

Almost a third admitted actively seeking out faked social networking accounts set up using their details or images, though how many have ever found such a thing isn't reported. Certainly the anecdotal evidence is compelling: during the interviews and observations preceding the survey (involving 30 households) the researchers met several girls who'd found their photographs adorning profile pages of unknown people all over the world, which has got to be pretty freaky.

How children are developing in this world is a prime topic for the book, which draws comparisons to the early days of teenagers being allowed to drive cars - given the freedom to go places, and do things, outside the parental control.

It also points out that Facebook has become an easily measurable gauge of popularity, and notes how youngsters with lots of Facebook friends gain the confidence to become the centre of attention they appear to be while those lacking cyber relationships often end up withdrawing from physical contacts in response.

Who do you trust - and do you love them enough to open your wallet?

Even the data on how users perceive brand identities is interesting, if diverting. For example: 62 per cent of the survey said they'd pay a premium to buy a product from a brand they trust, as opposed to 11 per cent who'd pay extra to buy from a brand they love. This isn't new, cellular operators have long known that they are trusted despite being barely liked and certainly not loved, but it's interesting to see figures to prove it.

The book also takes a long look at why people trust those brands or trust the internet at all. The conclusion being that in many cases trust emerges from their inability to do anything about it. Netizens can't prevent identity theft, so they just ignore it and deal with the consequences until they are provided with simple tools to manage security (such as switching on Wi-Fi encryption) - but then they won't bother using them and certainly don't let this worry them either.

But all this stuff about brands and security demonstrates the biggest failing of the book. There are lengthy discussions on the problems caused by, for example, friends posting content inappropriate to one's work on one's Facebook wall, but the focus is on how that makes everyone feel rather than on why the problem exists in the first place.

In the real world one has a handful of identities, presenting that which seems most appropriate in the context, but social networks insist that one has only one account and therefore only one identity, and thus conflicts arise. Google, in particular, seems unable to grasp this basic premise, insisting that one's YouTube, GMail and Google+ identities should share a common root even if they are used for entirely different things.

Facebook and LinkedIn do provide a duopoly that many people have found convenient for separating their personal and professional identities respectively. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Googleplex don't have private lives worth separating, but the researchers compiling Identity Shift don't bring up the issue of how users could present multiple personas online, perhaps because users aren't really doing that yet.

Identity Shift, published by Wiley, takes on the question of how people are presenting themselves in cyberspace, but then gets sidetracked considering how brands should present themselves and how worried internet users are about the security of their identity.

The book covers how users slot their sense of identity into the existing technology, without asking how the technology could better deal with users' sense of identity. ®

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