Identity as a Lens to Understand the Web

Identity and the Web
Last week I had the pleasure of teaching a four-hour program on advanced digital marketing and communications to master students at the Bologna Business School, my Alma Mater Studiorum. The lens I used to engage in our dialogue about the key elements to consider for a strategic approach to digital was that of identity and the web.

Identity drives our behavior — both directly and indirectly. It is the sense-making capacity in organizational culture where it uses information as the medium and relationships as the pathway.

Margaret Wheatley said:

“The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.

These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent – attributes found only in living systems.”

Thus identity, information, and relationships are the three primary domains to master in organizations. The organizations themselves are undergoing changes in how work is structured and reflecting emergent forms of collaboration — from collectives to partnerships between startups and companies.

In a technology context, we need to be able to manage identity as part of a system. A couple of years ago, Ev Williams said:

“I've found useful for thinking about all this. We reckoned there there are five different things people mean in different contexts when talking about identity and the Internet. (There are probably more, but these are key.) Each of these are offered as features of different services. Sometimes they are combined, sometimes they're not. And sometimes companies outsource these features to other services. With these pieces in mind, you can look at different companies, services, and protocols and realize which pieces of the identity puzzle they offer (or perhaps should).” 

When we take a social science angle, identity becomes a person's own idea of who they are and what their place in the world is. This is becoming more important for marketers because we make decisions based upon how we think about ourselves.

In a decision-making situation we ask three questions:

  1. who am I?
  2. what kind of situation is this?
  3. what would someone like me do in this situation?

This is universal, a human trait, not just a trait of people in the U.S., or people of a certain age group.

In their November report#, Trendwatching collects examples of a more fluid take on social identity and calls it post-demographic consumerism:

People – of all ages and in all markets – are constructing their own identities more freely than ever. As a result, consumption patterns are no longer defined by ‘traditional’ demographic segments such as age, gender, location, income, family status and more.

Think about how our purchasing decisions and business relationships flow naturally from who we are. I suggest that our identity is made up of several things:

  • heritage — where we were born, where we live, our age, educational background, etc.
  • environment — transient external factors such as the economy
  • needs — they include both what we truly need and what we think we need and actually just want
  • interactions — we also define ourselves in relationship to others

Add to our desire to express who we are freely, our ability to access information seemingly anywhere and any time, and you have a new kind of permission on the social mobility scale.

The concept of identity is shifting, and is partly driven by culture and partly the force driving new culture.



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