The thorny problem of identity in digital data

The objectives of digital tracking are to identify users so marketers and content providers can know who users are, what their interests are, and how they relate to goods/services and content being promoted or provided. Although it is becoming easier to determine what individuals use digital devices, the ability to establish their identities still remains challenging because people have multiple, not just single, identities.

Identity has traditionally been defined by the individual’s relationship to institutions (families, tribes, nations, nation-states, and religions). Even within this conceptualization, individuals had multiple identities: mother, member, citizen, believer. Modernity and the development of global communications and social networks, however, have expanded our conceptualization of identity and give us even more identities, some of which loosen identity bonds previously held and some of which compete with each other.

The notion of identity is related to the concepts of distinctness and sameness. Identity is established when individuals perceive themselves as distinct from others and sharing sameness with others. In the past this led to identity being manifest as statements such as “I am German”, “I am Italian-American” or “I am a Buddhist”. The institutions representing these types of identities traditionally sought to promote them through social practices and policies designed to heighten identity, interaction with those sharing relatedness, and cognitive separation from others. Factors such as proximity, language, and daily social practices helped solidify these identities.

Although other identities have long existed, changes in communications have made make it much easier to assert, develop, and maintain political and cultural identities and communities based on affiliations with groups with unique characteristics that are smaller or involve more focused institutions. “I am Catalonian,” “I am Gay,” “I am a Social Democrat,” or “I am vegan” are reflections of these types of political and cultural identities. Professional identities such as “I am a scholar”, “I am a police officer”, or “I am a physician,” and shared activity identities such as “I am a sailor”, “I am a gamer”, or “I am a guitar player” all have identity and community elements that are meaningful in the lives of individuals. Websites, social media, and specialized communications now focus on solidifying these identities and communities.

Increasing global telephony, Internet, and social media capabilities have amplified business and social transactions worldwide, as has facile travel for business and personal purposes. This has facilitated frequent interaction with persons at great distances and made those interactions as easy as those with individuals in closer proximity.  This is creating new and greater senses of community and identity among persons who do not have regular physical connections.

Individuals thus embody many coexisting identities, but some can conflict and force individual choices between their importance and dismissal of their contradictions.  Such contradictions are seen in identities such as Gay Republicans, off-road vehicle users who value nature, and foodies who don’t care how their ingredients are produced.

Making sense of identity data gathered through online and mobile tracking thus requires a degree of sophistication not yet present in data collection or available to those making decisions with that data.  To get beyond gross categorization such as individuals interested in air travel, people with children, music lovers, or those seeking information about Indonesia will require finding ways to better capture and understand multiple identities and the ability to determine which are most salient to each individuals’ lives and behaviors. Overcoming that complexity still remains elusive, but will need to be found if digital data is to be used more effectively. Doing so, however, will raise even more questions about personal privacy and what information people want public about themselves and their identities.

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