Persona and Privacy

Is there a useful distinction to be drawn between features that enable the user to manage multiple persona and features that assure the user’s privacy? I’m reasonably certain the answer is yes.

Part of what makes these two problems, persona and privacy, appear to be identical is nature of the net where everything revealed runs the risk of being very widely broadcast. Part of it is the way disk drives strive to never forget. The context raises the stakes and that feeds into to exaggerated thinking.

One example that would tend to suggest the answer is no is group membership. As a member of a group you take on the persona appropriate to that group. For example you might join a garden photography group. The persona you would present there would be public. There is nothing particularly private about that persona. The tools for such a site would want to labor more toward helping you manage that persona and less toward keeping it private. For example it would be odd for that site to demand that you sign off prior to anybody viewing your contributions.

Possibly the right way to think about this is that privacy is just one element of the tool suite people need for managing their persona. In that framing privacy needs to negotiate with other features in the design space. As a site designer your goal is to craft a vibrate site with large numbers of users engaged in a high volume of exchange.

It is hard to have exchange in a high privacy system. A large site has to capture a strong network effect via exchange. But a large site also wants to create a complex relationship with the user. A complex relationship with the user – i.e. they want the user to park a well chuck of their persona at the site.

This line of reasoning came out of wondering why sites don’t support multiple persona for their users. Why for example doesn’t flickr or yahoo allow me to casually manage N persona? When I bring up the question people often fall into a discussion of privacy. Which is fine, but wasn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking more that a user at flicker, say, might want to serve different audiences with his different persona. His I love to find curious wild flowers nature photographer persona presented entirely distinct from his famous geeks at conferences paparazzi persona.

If he makes a living at both persona then keeping them separate is not unlike the way a firm keeps it’s public presentation of brands separate.

But it’s not really about privacy; it’s about what tools serve the maintenance of the distinct persona. The privacy question is just a sort of worse case aspect of that and in many cases the worse case isn’t really that big a deal.

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