What’s in a name? The transience of digital identity

What’s in a name? The transience of digital identity

What was your first piece of online identity? An Xbox Live handle, if you’re young perhaps? An ICQ handle, if you’re older? I’d argue the most common answer would be an email address.

A couple of weeks back,I headed into the Radio 4 studios to explain why EE is shutting down the Freeserve, Orange and Wanadoo email services — and why it can.

It may amaze the more tech-savvy, but these services continue to play an important role for some, in their business and home lives. It doesn’t have to be their primary email address that’s at stake. Because these addresses were often their first email account, they are the ones that many people used to set up everything else. For those who hadn’t started with Hotmail or Yahoo, or made the jump to Gmail, these are the recovery addresses for their Facebook, Skype and other accounts.

These people are probably in the minority. My guess is that the vast bulk of the storage underpinning the ageing Orange email systems is full of spam and unwanted newsletters. Of course, because EE owns the domain names — everything after the @ symbol and before the ‘co’ or ‘com’out— and the servers on which the service operates, it is well within its rights to do this. You might argue that more notice would have been welcome, but this is the reality of fast moving technology: things have to die eventually.

What interests me is what this means for our digital identity.

What’s in a name?

I am Tom Cheesewright. But I am also @bookofthefuture and linkedin.com/in/tomcheesewright/. These are more than mere addresses, just like a home is more than a house. But like a house, for many of us at least, we don’t really own these addresses. They are leased to us by a large and distant organisation over which we, at least individually, have very little influence. At any time these identities could disappear, or change radically — as Facebook’s interface has so often done.

What happens then to our digital identity? The unique facets of ourselves that we present on these different channels. The relationships we have built up conducted only in these venues? Already there are many casualties of the fast pace of change — Friendster, MySpace, FriendsReunited. What happens when Facebook dies?

Own your identity

There are pieces of digital identity that are uniquely and perpetually mine: my domain names. I own bookofthefuture.co.uk, tomcheesewright.com and futurism-tools.com. I control what content sits there, what email addresses are issued and any sub-domains. And yet these properties that we can own and control are increasingly superseded in importance by properties over which we have no control. Can this last?

Let’s be clear, Facebook will die, as ultimately will Twitter, and Snapchat and every other network, only to be replaced by something else. Facebook is demonstrating greater longevity than I expected and has maintained a surprising hold on the younger demographics, reversing an earlier trend that had seen its popularity decline in developed markets like the UK, US and Australia. Maybe it is going to have a Microsoft lifespan rather than a MySpace lifespan, but nonetheless it will one day be overtaken by a new network.

The chances are that what will replace it will be another private network. Or perhaps more likely, a collection of them: around a third of US Facebook users also use Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn according to the Pew Research Centre. Maybe it doesn’t die, it just loses primacy.

But in an ideal world, what would replace it would be distributed network of peers. A new email with addresses that we can own and control, but through which we can interact in the ways that have now become familiar through social networks — messaging, posts, rich media — and the ways that are fast becoming part of that experience — live videos and augmented reality.

A digital identity that is perhaps a little less transient.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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