Posts Tagged ‘identity’

What’s In A Name? The Internet vs. The Real World

In the real world we own our name. I’ve got a birth certificate somewhere which confirms who I am and, short of changing it by deed poll, this name will remain with me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. Although there’s quite a few Gary Gales out there on the Internet, this one is inextricably me and no-one can take that away from me.

But in the online world we don’t so much as own our names, we … lease them. I’ve “owned” the domain name continuously since April 2001 but it’s not ownership as we understand it in the real world. If I don’t renew my domain every so often it’ll lapse and someone else, should they wish to, can take it over. This is an arrangement I can live with as it’s the way the Internet domain name system works, like it or hate it. I will, at least, get some warning to renew my claim on (temporary) ownership of the domain as there’s a financial arrangement at play. I pay some money and, domain grabs notwithstanding, I keep the domain for the duration of the period I’ve paid for.

Recent Conference Badges

But in social media, where most services are “free“, it’s by no means as clear cut. I’ve been @vicchi on Twitter since March 2007 and, for those people who know me on social media, Gary Gale and @vicchi are inextricably linked. But as Twitter giveth, so can Twitter taketh away.

A recent post on Paul Clarke’s blog highlighted this. The ever ingenious Tom Armitage used to have a Twitter account for @towerbridge, which was run by a Twitter ‘bot which tweeted the times at which this London landmark opened and closed the bridge over the River Thames. Twitter recently decided to take this account away, with warning but with no dialogue, and give it “official” status to the exhibition which runs inside the bridge structure, which may or may not be owned by The City of London, which actually owns the bridge. Twitter, as part of their terms of service says this …

Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation

… which makes sense. But they then go on to say …

When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.

When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.

A search of the UK Trade Mark database yields many matches for Tower Bridge. For an electronics company in the US, a software company in the US, a tobacco company in the UK, a clothing company in the UK and a leather good company in the UK. But the bridge itself? That’s trademarked as Tower Bridge Events, Tower Bridge The Venue and Tower Bridge Exhibition.

To my mind, Tom’s Twitter bot isn’t using a trademark nor is tweeting the opening and closing times of the bridge likely to mislead through unauthorised use of a trademark. But that’s just my opinion.


It does make me think about how much or how little control we have over our social media identity though. I’ve been Vicchi for as long as I can remember (or at least 15 years); the name is a contraction of a nickname I was given when I returned to the UK from Italy and started out as Gazzavicchi. The precise origins are lost in the mists of time but I can recall it was coined one drunken evening as it “sounds vaguely like an Italian version of Gary“, which is often how the best nicknames originate. This coincided with the explosion of the Internet and the Web and I needed a unique identity to register on the many and varied services which sprung up. Vicchi seemed to fit the bill and it’s been Vicchi ever since. Thankfully, it’s not (currently) a UK trademark although there do seem to be a couple of companies in Asia using the name. So far, they’ve not come calling asking for the name. I hope they never do but if this does happen, how much right over the name do I have, even though it’s fairly evident that I’m not trying to pass myself off as them nor to cause potential confusion?

But then again, the same could be said of Tom’s Tower Bridge bot as well.

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Reclaim and Own Your Short URLs

There are many reasons to like the use of URL shorteners such as and These free services take a long URL such as this post – – and compresses them down to a much more manageable shorterned version – or

They increase link sharing; the vast majority of social networking sites use 140 characters as the maximum size for an update, using the full version of a URL you’re sharing reduces the amount of space for you to put your own thoughts into the update. Just compare the full URL at 65 characters against at 21 characters.

They can track and yield click and referrer information; the information that provides is so useful, showing live clicks, geographic and referrer information amongst others.

another awesome site down graphic

But almost a year ago, Delicious founder and ex-Yahoo! Joshua Schachter made some pretty compelling arguments against short URLs:

The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system. A regular hyperlink implicates a browser, its DNS resolver, the publisher’s DNS server, and the publisher’s website. With a shortening service, you’re adding something that acts like a third DNS resolver.

But the biggest burden falls on the clicker, the person who follows the links. The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party.

Or to put it another way, you no longer own your links or the data clicks that those links yield. If the service dies, your links break, pure and simple, and that does happen, as the demise of the original and services show.

Get used to it... is currently unavailable

But there is a way to take all the benefit that short URLs offer and keep ownership of your links and all the data that clicks on those links will give you and that’s to run your own URL shortening service, which is precisely what I’ve done with which is running the YOURLS code behind the scenes. This gives me all the benefits and metrics that other URL shorteners provide but with the added and crucial benefit that I now own the links and the data they generate, in this case via the short URL.

The URL shortener at goes live

Photo credit: playerx and revrev on Flickr
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Footprints (Of the Digital Variety)

One of the things I write about a lot on this blog are the areas of location and online, or digital, identity and how these two areas overlap and sometimes conflict.

I write about this stuff not only because I’m lucky enough to work in both of these areas but I also find them fascinating, compelling and nowhere is this more evident in how individuals and organisations views this arena.

Companies, if they’re foresighted enough, are making major plays in the location field, fuelled by the proliferation of location aware devices (cameras, phones, netbooks and the like) and by the convergence of these devices (I use an iPhone … is it a phone, a camera, a GPS unit, an internet terminal, a computer or some combination of them all?). There’s much value to a company in knowing your customer’s location and how it changes over time. Indeed it’s a truism that it’s much less about where you are now and much more about where you’ve been.

Individuals, if they’re informed enough, know about the plays the companies are making in the location field and  should know how to determine the value proposition that is offered when they give up their location.

There’s a lot of online coverage, some of it shrill and hysterical, some of it downright amusing and some of it in between these two extremes.

But despite the extensive online coverage of this area it’s still a truth that the printed word sometimes carries greater weight than the online equivalent. There’s still something very visceral and real about holding a book in your hand, flipping back and forth through the pages and taking in what message the book is trying to deliver.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a contributor to a book on identity, privacy, trust and the direction of the Web by Tony Fish. My Digital Footprint, explores where next for the net, for the associated business models, who owns your data and how value and wealth will be created. 

The book is about the digital data created from your interactions with electronic devices, such as mobile phones, web PCs and TVs. This data has significant value, when analysed and fed-back, to create services with colour, focus and relevancy for you as a user, as well as to brands, who want to own your whole digital life experience.

Digital footprint data is valuable and is the reason why the ownership of this data class is the Web’s next battleground. The two central ideas which underpin value in My Digital Footprint are: the real-time feedback loop and the role of the mobile device in enriching the value of the data. The ability to get data out of or off a mobile device lends itself to the unique advantage a mobile device has. The book explores how the mobile device once prevailed for the consumption of content and has evolved to enable the capturing of data on what and how we consume and with whom. 

Just like Marmite, some people like the idea of digital footprints and some do not, but, irrespective of personal preference, we all leave digital footprints behind us and they are about much more than just identity. Digital footprints are about where we have been, for how long, how often; with whom and the inter-relationships we formed in getting there. Digital footprints are memories and moments and not your personal identity, your passport, bank account or social security number.

Read this book, either for free online or grab a copy from Amazon and not because I contributed but because if you use the net today, you really need to know about how companies want your location information and about how you can make an informed decision about how to manage and control this.

Photo credit: Paraflyer on Flickr

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Posted via email from Gary’s Posterous

Online There’s More Than One of You

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article on this blog that highlighted the issues around managing our digital identity.

Managing our digital identity through those sources we know about is a challenge for a significant percentage of the online population

Then this morning, (ex Yahoo!) Cathy Ma posted a link to her recent blog post about the Personas project being run by Aaron Zinman at MIT. Personas tries to “show you how the internet sees you”. So I duly surfed over to and plugged in my full name and some time later a rather slick Flash animation gave me this supposed “characterization of the person”.

gary gale Persona

Anything but the most cursory of glances quickly showed that something was wrong. If this is how the internet sees me, where does sports, fashion and medicine come from? So I tried again, this time under my usual net nickname, vicchi. Some more chugging and analysing later and I had a second characterization of the online me.

vicchi Persona

It’s different but it’s still not right, sports are still there but now they’ve been joined by military, aggression and illegal. So I reran both characterizations and this time looked at what was going on and I went through the full spectrum from WTF to OMG.

3158864420_cca98b531a_oThe characterizer was looking at a selection of web references to Gary Gale and to vicchi, but it wasn’t just me, it was any reference that could be found, which means that my supposed characterization is a mashup of all the possible Gary Gale’s and vicchi’s.

Sadly, this relegates the Personas project to merely an intriguing but ultimately flawed experiment, because unless you have a really unique name, online there’s going to be more than one of you.

Harvesting Your Digital Dandruff, Crumbs and Footprints for Fun and Profit

“I’m just a face in the crowd,
Nothing to worry about,
Not even tryin’ to stand out,
And I have nothing to say,
It’s all been taken away,
I just behave and obey”

Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Getting Smaller

Ten years ago our online identity, if we had one at all, was a simple affair to manage, comprising of an email address and perhaps an avatar name or two. Fast forward to the close of the first decade of the 21st century and it’s an altogether more complex affair. You’ve probably got several email addresses, possibly some domain names and then there’s the plethora of social networking sites that you frequent, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, MySpace and so on. All of which define the online version of “you” in much the same way as your passport, driving licence and bank account defines the offline “you”.

The key difference is that the online version of “you” is much more subtle, complex and diffuse. We leave scraps of our path through the internet behind us. At the Being Digital conference in London earlier this year, I tried to explain this with the clumsy phrase “digital dandruff”; in the soon to be published book, “My Digital Footprint”, Tony Fish far more elegiacally describes it as our digital footprint, which is “the digital ‘cookie crumbs‘ that we all leave when we use the some form of digital service, application, appliance, object or device, or in some cases as we pass through or by”.

Managing our digital identity through those sources we know about is a challenge for a significant percentage of the online population. But despite being a challenge, it’s one which is achieveable if you’re willing to put enough time and effort into it. But most of us don’t have the time or are unwilling to put in the effort, so our digital cookie crumbs and the varying online versions of “us” stay online, ready for someone with the time and effort to search for, find and put together with profit in mind.

Some people take an active role in managing their digital footprint and try to exploit it. Some people also try to exploit other people’s digital footprint. Let’s look at a concrete example of this.

Not Your Average Star Trek Reference Screen Grab

My site at pulls together a subset of my digital footprint into one place, drawing on my blog, my social bookmarks on Delicious, articles I’ve written, photos from Flickr and presentation decks from talks I’ve given. Inspired by an article written by the Yahoo! Developer Network’s Christian Heilman, uses PHP and YQL to dynamically pull in the latest version of all my content so my site is always up to date Screen Grab

Now compare and contrast this information with that available on, “the first search engine for finding people on the web”. It’s not as complete as my version, nor formatted as coherently but the key facets of my digital footprint are there. If I wanted to I could add to this digital portrait, supplying tags, biographic information, pictures, quotes and so on.

Spock has crawled the web for my data and it’s created a profile on me, without my permission and without my control. It encourages me to enrich the data held but then requires payment for me to access that information. Now would be a good time to point out that in April 2009, Spock was acquired by Intelius, a company that provides background checks and identity theft protection.

Those that Fail to Learn from History, are Doomed to Repeat It?

Can I stop Spock finding and presenting this information about me, without my request or, more importantly, without my control? Spock’s help page says the following:

“Before requesting removal, please make sure the original source of the information Spock found for you has been removed or made private (MySpace, blog, Friendster, etc). This will prevent you from being re-indexed on the site.”

This means that unless I contact every source that Spock crawls, and not all sources are identified on Spock’s site, and then have each source take down content on me or make them private, Spock will crawl these sources again and find my content and republish it. An evident parallel of this Web 2.0 behaviour is the Web 1.0 problem of large scale harvesting of email addresses for subsequent resale to commercial spammers.

My site speaks for me because I control the information and the way in which it’s presented; Spock’s version of me is out of my control and doesn’t speak for me.

What I do know is that neither the privacy advocates nor the aggressive marketers who want to know all about me – let alone the government that thinks my life should be an open book – can speak for me. I want to make my own decisions about what I disclose, knowing all the while that I cannot control what others say about me.

Esther Dyson

In “My Digital Footprint”, Tony Fish describes a Rainbow of Trust, which categorises people’s online activities as one of Untrusting and Stupid, Untrusting and Wise, Accepting Authority, One Way or My Way.

Untrusting and Stupid give up data without any thought as to the consequences; their online participation is passive and will click on anything, including banners and search ads.

Untrusting and Wise are the opposite of Untrusting and Stupid; they are extremely selective about the information they reveal, concerned about privacy and frequently hide their identify behind multiple digital personas.

Accepting Authority have their computer’s default home page still set, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, etc and are either happy with a portal approach to their online experience or are unwilling or unable to change it. Their digital experience has to work first time, be simple and work with one click.

One Way experiment with one one thing at a time, continuing until they’re happy with it and then move onto another online service.

My Way want it their way, un-tethered, un-filtered and unadulterated, trusting no one until they have mastered it and push the boundaries of what’s possible online.

The readers of this article will (hopefully) fall within a combination of Untrusting and Wise and MY Way, but the reality is that we are but a small percentage of the global population who have access to the Internet, which as of March 2009, numbered around 1,500,000,000.

Two Cultures; Those Who Understand Tech and The Rest of Us

Mentoring programs such as DigitAll go some way to help inform people about their usage of the internet, not only how to use it, but how to use it responsibly and knowledgeably. At this year’s OpenTech in July at the University of London Union, technology critic Bill Thompson lamented the Two Cultures problem; people who understand technology and everyone else. As illustration of this he highlighted how the UK education syllabus places more emphasis on “the ability to format text in Microsoft Word” than on understanding how to use the net and how to identity and protect your digital identity. Until your digital dandruff, crumbs and footprint becomes an integral part of our children’s education, we all have a responsibility to understand what is being done with our personal data and pass this onto our colleagues, our friends and our family.