Decentralized identity and decentralized social networks

I’d like to tell you a story about Bob. Bob is a fairly ordinary, upstanding citizen. Bob also has a lot of hobbies.

Bob is a good father, so one of his hobbies is to coach his son’s little-league team. Bob is careful to enforce a certain set of rules during the games and at the after-game pizza parties. If one of the kids uses a curse word or bullies another kid, Bob is expected to intervene and apply the appropriate discipline.

Bob is also a Christian. When he’s in church on Sundays, there’s another set of rules, both implicit and explicit, that Bob is expected to abide by. For instance, it’s okay for Bob to confide in other churchgoers about his momentary lapses of faith, or about his struggles to understand certain Bible passages. But if Bob started quoting Richard Dawkins or loudly preaching atheism, he’d probably create a very awkward scene, and may even get kicked out of church.

Bob also happens to be a vegetarian, and he attends a monthly vegetarian meetup. Within this group, there’s an entirely different set of rules and norms at play. Bob is careful not to talk too much about his favorite recipes involving cheese, eggs, or honey, because he knows that there’s a sizable minority of vegans in the group who may be offended. It would also be completely unacceptable to talk about a juicy steak dinner, even though this topic of conversation may be perfectly acceptable within the church or the little-league team.

Bob also has a set of old college buddies that he occasionally meets up with at the local bar. Here, once again, an entirely different set of norms apply. Raunchy jokes and curse words are not only allowed – they’re encouraged. Open debate about religion is tolerated. Bob may even be able to let his vegetarian guard down and talk about a delicious steak dinner he ate in a moment of weakness.

One Bob out of many

Bob intuitively understands these different norms and contexts, and he effortlessly glides from one to the other. It’s as if there’s a switch in his brain that activates as soon as he walks through the church doors or into the bar.

Furthermore, nobody accuses Bob of being dishonest or duplicitous for acting this way. In fact, everything described above is such a fundamental, everyday part of the human experience that it’s downright boring.

Now Bob goes online. Suddenly, every social network is telling him that he should have exactly one identity, speak in one voice, and abide by one set of rules. Mark Zuckerberg says, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” OKCupid says, “We want you […] to go by who you are, and not be hidden beneath another layer of mystique.” Eric Schmidt says, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Bob is apparently expected to use his real name, and use one account, and present a single public face for every possible context and social situation.

Intuitively, Bob knows this is bullshit. We all know it’s bullshit. But in the online world, we’ve just learned to put up with it.

Identity on social networks

Now let’s step away from Bob for a moment and talk about how the rest of us deal with this problem.

One of the common coping mechanisms is to fracture ourselves into different silos. We use Slack to talk to our coworkers, Discord to chat with our gamer buddies, LinkedIn for professional talk, Twitter for talking about the news, Facebook for talking with our family, and so on. Folks who follow this strategy may use a completely different voice in each platform and may not even reveal their real names.

With decentralized social networks, though, the situation gets more interesting. On platforms like Mastodon, Pleroma, GNU Social, postActiv, and others, you sign up for a particular “instance” representing a self-contained community. This community may have its own rules, its own culture, and even its own emojis and theme color.

However, each instance isn’t walled off from the outside world. Instead, it has tendrils that can reach into any other community it may be connected to. It’s less like the isolated silos of Facebook, Twitter, and Slack, and more like a cluster of small towns with some well-traveled roads between them.

Some folks look at Mastodon as a mere replacement for Twitter. Maybe for them it’s Twitter for lefties, or Twitter for anime artists, or Twitter for a nationalist agenda. It’s really none of these things, though, and I think importantly it has the potential to address one of the biggest problems with online identity: context collapse.

Context collapse

“Context collapse” was first coined by danah boyd, and a good description of it can be found in a blog post by Michael Wesch.

The basic idea is this: when human beings converse in person, we use a wide variety of unwritten rules to govern the acceptable boundaries of the conversation. We pick up on subtle nonverbal cues such as someone’s posture, their hand gestures, and their degree of eye contact to choose the right “register” for the conversation. We might even switch between different dialects of the same language, depending on who we’re talking to (linguists call this “code-switching”).

All of this happens automatically and intuitively, and it’s a valuable tool for avoiding ambiguities and misunderstandings. There are entire subfields of linguistics that study how humans communicate this way, such as pragmatics and sociolinguistics.

Online, we have none of this context. Staring into the webcam or into the textbox on a social media site, we are simultaneously addressing everyone and no one, for now and for all time. Factor in character limits, upload limits, and just the limits of human attention, and this is a ripe environment for misunderstandings. Sarcasm, facetiousness, irony, playful ribbing between friends – all of it can be lost on your audience if they don’t have the proper context to guide them.

Here are some of the symptoms of context collapse that you may have experienced:

  • jokes are misunderstood and taken at face value
  • in-jokes between friends are perceived as harassment by outsiders
  • you accidentally offend someone when no offense was intended
  • something you say is taken out of context and used for dogpiling
  • you feel like you have to censor yourself online
  • you agonize over every character and punctuation mark to avoid misinterpretation

All of these situations can be frustrating or even harmful to your mental health. Consider Justine Sacco’s poorly-received joke that cost her her job and brought her a lot of mental anguish.

Fracturing ourselves into siloed social networks, in its own ham-handed way, offers a solution to this problem. Instead of just hoping that our readers will pick up on the context, we rely on the context granted by the social network itself. Discord is for gamers, LinkedIn is for professionals, Slack is for coworkers, etc.

But on decentralized social networks, we may have a more elegant solution to this problem, and one that doesn’t require locking up our identities into various proprietary silos.

Solving context collapse on decentralized social media

The notion that you should use a single identity online is, I believe, a holdover from the centralized social media sites. Their goal is to get you to reveal as much information about yourself as possible (to sell it to advertisers), so of course they would discourage you from having multiple accounts or from concealing your real name. But that doesn’t mean decentralized social networks need to be the same.

Instead of treating your identity “on Mastodon” or “on the fediverse” as a single entity, what if you had multiple identities on multiple instances, and you treated them as distinct? What might that look like?

I figured this out myself over the past year or so, as I largely split my online identity on Mastodon into two accounts: @nolan@mastodon.social and @nolan@toot.cafe.

The tone of the two accounts is completely different. @nolan@mastodon.social makes silly jokes and mostly writes in all lowercase. @nolan@toot.cafe talks about software, programming, and his day job, and tends to use proper punctuation. (It’s more like the voice of this blog.)

The reason for this split is partly historical. @nolan@mastodon.social tends to speak only in jokes because it was my first Mastodon account, and when I signed up I didn’t reveal my full name or tie it back to my real-world identity. Instead, I just tried to have fun, making as many silly jokes as I could and seeing what landed and what didn’t. I’d say I did fairly well, since at one point I had the most-favorited Mastodon post of all time and got quoted twice in this article on Mastodon.

Screenshot of Mastodon post saying "mom: hey son I joined this new Mastodon thing me: oh shit mom, I coulda helped you find a server, which one did you choose? mom: well I liked the privacy policy on satanic.bikerladi.es but then communist.blaze.party had the shortest ping latency so"

When I set up my own instance, though, things started to get complicated. Now I had an admin account, @nolan@toot.cafe, and I needed to talk about serious admin stuff: when was the server going down for maintenance, what was our privacy policy, what was our moderation policy, etc. So for that account, I switched to my professional voice so that folks could understand that I wasn’t joking or being sarcastic.

But I still had @nolan@mastodon.social for the silly stuff. And the more I used it, the more I found that I liked the split. People who followed me on @nolan@mastodon.social didn’t necessarily care about Mastodon admin topics (memory usage, systemd, Ruby, etc.) – maybe they only followed me for the fun stuff. Likewise, people who followed me on @nolan@toot.cafe maybe just wanted to keep up-to-date on Mastodon admin and development (especially as I started contributing to the Mastodon codebase itself), and didn’t care for the jokes.

Keeping my identities separate thus served a few purposes:

  • I could have fun with people who didn’t know or care about tech topics (e.g. my wife, who loves my jokes but finds tech boring).
  • Nobody had to wonder when I was being sarcastic and when I was being serious.
  • People who followed me for tech stuff didn’t have to put up with my jokes if they didn’t like my sense of humor.
  • People who liked both my jokes and my tech talk could still follow me on both accounts.

This process wasn’t without its hurdles, though. At one point I was using fairly similar avatars for each account:

Screenshot of two Mastodon avatars, one with a subtle coffee icon and one without

My original Mastodon account avatars. Could you tell the difference between the two?

Eventually, though, I got tired of people not picking up on the sarcasm in my joke account. So I switched to an avatar that could only be interpreted as something silly:

Picture of a Mastodon avatar that looks like Ogmo from the Jumper game but handrawn, a silly face with bug eyes

My new, unambiguously “zany” Mastodon avatar.

Taking this avatar seriously would be like arguing with the “We Rate Dogs” account on Twitter. The new avatar makes the intent of the account much clearer.

Am I being duplicitous? No, I link between the two accounts on my profile pages, so everyone can figure out that both accounts are me.

Is it hard to juggle two different accounts? No, I use separate browser tabs, and since toot.cafe has its own theme color, it’s easy for me to remember which site I’m on.

Screenshot of Mastodon toot saying "tfw I have to switch from my joke account to my serious account to boost a toot, to make it clear I am not boosting ironically"

Is it hard for others to know which Nolan to talk to? Well, sort of. When my wife wants to post something like “@nolan said to me today…” she tends to use my @nolan@mastodon.social account because she has more fun interacting with that account than with my serious one. But other than that, I haven’t really run into any problems with this system.

Previously, I was also running a French-language account at @nolan@mastodon.xyz, but I found this a bit hard to manage. I didn’t have a network of French-speaking friends I was regularly talking to, and most of the francophones on Mastodon can speak English anyway. Also, managing three social media accounts was just a bit too much of a time investment for me.

Instance policies and identity

Right now I have a simple two-account system, and my choice of instance for each account is fairly arbitrary. (Although toot.cafe is somewhat tech- and programming-themed, so talking about computery stuff there feels very natural.) However, you could imagine tailoring an account to its home instance, based on the instance’s theme or moderation policies.

Going back to the Bob example, let’s imagine that Bob sets up four instances:

  1. An instance for his son’s little-league team, which is closed off from most of the fediverse via whitelisting and has very strict moderation policies to ensure it stays kid-friendly. All of the parents have moderator accounts.
  2. An instance for his church group. The moderation policies reflect Christian values, and although you can talk openly about your faith, it’s advised to use Content Warnings for controversial topics.
  3. An instance for his vegetarian meetup. You’re encouraged to take pictures of your food, but pictures of meat dishes are strictly off-limits. Vegetarian (non-vegan) food photos are okay, but should be hidden behind a “sensitive” tag.
  4. A free-for-all instance for his drinking buddies. Anything goes, say whatever racy or off-color joke pops into your head, but be aware of the consequences – such as the fact that other instances might not want to federate with you. You might also want to use a pseudonym here instead of your real name.

Bob could create a separate account on all four instances, and he might speak in a very different voice on each of them. If he’s an admin or a moderator, he may even enforce very different policies, and he might choose different instances to block or silence. In fact, one of his instances may even block the other! Via whitelisting, the kid-friendly one certainly blocks the drinking-buddies instance.

Bob’s not doing anything wrong here. He’s not a hypocrite. He’s not being deceitful. He’s just taking exactly the same logic that we use in the real world, and applying it to the online world.

Conclusion

It’s unreasonable to expect people to speak in the same voice in every social setting offline, so it’s equally unreasonable to ask them to do it online.

In the world of centralized social networks, users have responded to “real name policies” and “please use one account” by fracturing themselves into different proprietary silos. On decentralized social networks, we can continue fracturing ourselves based on instances, but these disparate identities are allowed to comingle a bit, thanks to the magic of federation.

I don’t expect everyone to use the same techniques I use, such as having a joke account and a serious account. For some people, that’s just too much of an investment in social media, and it’s too hard to juggle more than one account. But I think it’s a partial solution to the problem of context collapse, and although it’s a bit of extra effort, it can pay dividends in the form of fewer misunderstandings, fewer ambiguities, and less confusion for your readers.

10 responses to this post.

  1. I did this on gmail.com from the start. I also have my own personal name domain and my company’s domain, for use in different circumstances, obviously. From the start twitter and facebook have been irritating for exactly this singular identity reason. Great article! I really liked the refs to context collapse and code-switching.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jeff Tian on January 3, 2018 at 12:50 AM

    How about u/I just use one acoount but group the followers? If not too much like super-star.

    Reply

  3. Posted by a fan on January 6, 2018 at 8:33 PM

    You said that you aren’t being disingenuous because you can easily find all of your accounts when starting from any individual one. You also said that a major problem with having a single identity is that people from the wrong ‘groups’ will see your posts that are intended for different groups and react badly to them.

    I’m not clear about how the problem is being solved. You are basically saying that by using different account names, even if not anonymous, you are signalling that you want your posts to be read in a certain way?

    It doesn’t free you to speak more freely though – you still get all your signals being visible to everybody. Ie, you still can’t ever post something too offensive to your work / church / family anywhere because everything is still connected and visible (speaking of the non-anonymous case here).

    Reply

    • It’s true I link the two accounts, but I figure people who follow a silly joke account are unlikely to click through and try to learn everything about that person. It’s kind of like how someone at the bar might recognize Bob as the same guy from the church, but they’re probably not going to go out of their way to “out” him. And it still doesn’t inhibit Bob from talking loudly and bluntly at the bar when he’s a bit tipsy. :)

      And yeah, I could extend the metaphor a bit further and talk about purely anonymous accounts. Lots of people maintain those for exactly the reasons you describe.

      Reply

  4. Posted by kevinflo on February 23, 2018 at 11:33 AM

    The nature of communication via bits is just different though since IRL communication has (at least an illusion of being) ephemeral and scoped to whoever is present. I don’t feel like I have one arbitrarily imposed identity per closed social network, but instead one naturally occurring “online” identity across all of the internet. It’s like a natural defense mechanism. I think that’s why “stories” a la snapchat/instagram boomed. The illusion of ephemerality allows people to viscerally feel like they can express another authentic identity like what you’re describing. I don’t see decentralized identity unlocking that nearly as much as ephemerality… unless it’s under pseudonyms maybe? But then you’d have to reconstruct each of their social graphs independently from scratch which is extra tricky

    Reply

  5. It’s interesting to contrast this with the approach taken by Dreamwidth, where users set up friend groups (“access filters”) in order to restrict who can see which posts, and then also tag their posts (which I think might allow filtering on the receiving side). Users also have different user icons/avatars which are used to signal different moods, topics, or personas.

    Something to be learned there for Mastodon. Unfortunately, Mastodon doesn’t have a first-class concept of “conversation”, so even if you could scope a toot’s audience to some subset of users, the replies to it would be visible (and broadcast) to some unintended other subset. That’s why you have to have totally separate accounts (and even then, you still have this incoherency.)

    I don’t know enough about the relevant history, but I suppose this behavior is imported from Twitter, and that Twitter didn’t think about implementing first-class conversations until it was too late.

    Reply

  6. […] context collapse. Nolan Lawson explains the need for multi-faceted identity in the first half of this post on decentralized social […]

    Reply

  7. […] context collapse. Nolan Lawson explains the need for multi-faceted identity in the first half of this post on decentralized social […]

    Reply

  8. Posted by Michelle on April 11, 2018 at 12:42 PM

    This is one of my long-term frustrations with Facebook: their demand to have professional, family, acquaintances, etc. all linked to one account. I use Twitter primarily for professional development & connections, and I LOVE when someone has one account for professional tweets and a separate account for their political/religious/side-hustle/sports/pets/etc. posts. That way, I know exactly what content I’m following, and I can benefit from what I want without getting annoyed by the personal or professional (whichever the case may be) extras. As you’ve clearly stated, this is how we usually are in “not-online” life. My interactions with co-workers are different than with my husband’s co-workers which are different than with family and with close friends.

    Your examples and argument that separate accounts are not in-genuine is a breath of fresh air. I found your post because I just learned about Mastodon and am super curious about decentralized networks. I look forward to reading more!

    Reply

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