MAS 961  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2006

03.09 Individual identity and reputation

There are two major aspects of identity: individual identity and social identity. Indiviudal identity is about defining which particular individual, out of the billions of people roaming the globe today and in the past, one is concerned with. Social identity is about understanding what type of person someone is - what are their beliefs and affiliations, of what social categories are they a member. This week, we will be looking at individual identity.

Indiviidual identity can be seen as a system of cues and signals. The markers of identity - name, face, fingerprint, email address, DNA, etc. - have various degrees of reliability and with various costs, both of productions and assessment. It is more costly to authenticate my identity with a blood sample than a signature, though also potentially more reliable. In an environment with a high rate of identity theft and deception, I may be willing to pay extra costs to ensure that only I can be authenticated as being me. We provide cues to our identity all the time, leaving fingerprints around, typing with a recognizable pattern, allowing our faces to be see. If I am trying not to be identified or to take on a false identity, there are diferent costs such deception might incur, depending on the environment.

Individual identity is at the core of reputation, of social sanctions, control and motivation. It is essential for the functioning of conventional signaling, for reputation costs and other community sanctions on dishonest signalers are needed to maintain the reliability of these signals.

A good reputation is very valuable: it can mean increased status, better work, more dates... A bad reputation, on the other hand, is a serious liability: a person with a poor reputation will have trouble finding others willing to risk further interactions.

Without identity, there can be no reputation. In order for the history of one's actions and of others' assessments of those actions to become "reputation", a few things are necessary. We must be able to identify the person, we must be able to communicate, and we must have some form of memory.

In the online world, identity, communication and memory cannot be taken for granted. Whether you can know who are the others in a space, whether you can communicate with them, whether the history orf their actions or of other's reactions to them persists and is accessible - in a mediated envionment these are all matters of design. The creators of the environment can choose to incorporate them into the interface, to allow (or require) users to provide such information. Many do not. There are numerous forums in which anonymous contributors write; there a places where communication among participants is difficult or discouraged. In such circumstances, reputation cannot be a socially motivating force.

In the online world identity, the ability to connect an action to a particular person or a sequence of actions to the same being, is especially problematic. The crux of individual identity is the body, which is absent online. One way of establishing identity in the mediated world is to connect the online persona to a physical being. Sometimes this is straightforward: if I sign my writings with my real name, my email address and work place, I've provided clear ties to my physical world self, connecting the online persona to the real wold self.Yet sometimes it is less straightforward: what if 10 people are colectively creating a single virtual persona? Another way is to use history and reputation to establish an online pseudonymous identity sufficiently robust and valuable to have at least some of function of an embodied identity, in that harm to the pseudonymous persona is significantly costly. If Ispend a lot of time and effort establishing an online persona, that persona can have a functioning reputation; however, its value is still much lower than that of the embodied self: I am likely to be much more willing to discard even a long running persona than I am to risk bodily imprisonment or harm.

Anonymity, pseudonymity and known identity exist on a continuum of verifiable connection to a single physical self. Anonymity means that there is no connection to a physical self and little persistence in time. Pseudonymity means that there is no connection to a physical self but there is persistence in time. A pseudonym can have a reputation.

This week we will look at individual identity - what are the cues of identity, how is identity establishd online. And we will look at reputation systems as they are currently implemented - what works, what does not. Finally, we will start thinking about alternatives to these systems - star



Dale, James, David B. Lank, and Hudson Kern Reeve   Signaling Individual Identity versus Quality: A Model and Case Studies with Ruffs, Queleas, and House Finches. .2001. The American Naturalist 158, no. 1: 75-86.
Kling, Rob, Ya-Ching Lee, Al Teich, and Mark S. Frankel.    Assessing Anonymous Communication on the Internet: Policy Deliberations. 1999. The Information Society 15, no. 2: 79 - 90.
(optional) Friedman, E. J. and P. Resnick.

  The Social Cost of Cheap Pseudonyms. 2001. Journal of Economics & Management Strategy 10, no. 2: 173-199.
various papers on ebay and reputation systems:

Paul Resnick, Richard Zeckhauser, Eric Friedman, Ko Kuwabara

Reputation systems

D Houser, J Wooders

Reputation in Auctions: Theory and Evidence from eBay
P Resnick, R Zeckhauser
Trust Among Strangers in Internet Transactions: Empirical Analysis of eBay’s Reputation System
Nicholas Emler. Gossiping (2001) In W. P. Robinson & H. Giles (Eds.), The New Handbook of Language and Social Psychology(pp. 317–338).


  1. Read the papers. Dale et al is the biological signaling approach to individual identity. Keep this model in mind as you look at identity in the human world. Does their analysis hold true in the realm of human identity signaling? Kling et al outline some key issues about anonymity and privacy while Friedman and Resnick look at the problems of pseudonymous behavior. I've listed several papers on ebay and reputation: they are somewhat redundant so read one or two. Finally, Emler's paper is an introduction to gossip as a medium for reputation management and social control.

2. Answer the following questions:

  • As mentioned above, one of the problematic cases of online identity is when a seemingly single identity is the work of numerous creators. What are the implications of such a situation? When is this a problem? When is it beneficial? Can you find an example?
  • Markers of identity include one's name, face, social security number, drivers's license (and other identity documentation), fingerprint, DNA (and other biometric measures). Take 3 such markers and analyze how they function as identity cues. Are they unintentional cues or signals?  How costly are they to produce, assess, produce deceptively?  How reliable are they?
  • Read some of the papers on ebay and reputation and Emler's gossip paper. What are the costs and benefits of participating in an ebay like reputation system - both for the raters and ratees? How does this explain the typically high ratings found on ebay?  What is different about gossip? Contrast the costs and benefits to the participants in a gossiping community.

3. Describe a situation where anonymity or pseudonymity are important (i.e. it is important not to be idenitified with one's physical self) and one where it is important that identity be established and verified. Use real examples that you can document - many can be found as current news stories. Why is it important? Where is the competition - who wishes to be or not to be identified? Show how the context can be redesigned (whether through technology, legal means, social mores, etc.) to make the desired level of identification feasible.

Please link your essays by midday on Tuesday.