Identity Shift -- What a New Book says About Us and the Future

Next Generation Communications Blog

Identity Shift -- What a New Book says About Us and the Future

By Peter Bernstein

With Facebook about to pass the 1 billion user mark, YouTube taking the #2 rank as a global search engine, Zynga having gone IPO and Twitter on the way, the total of mobile phone devices having blown past the number of wired ones, three things have become apparent:

  1. With progress toward a world that is always on and all ways connected (think of this as ubiquitous and continuous communications meets pervasive computing) a look back at just the past five years by anyone demonstrates how much ICT has already transformed the ways we work and live.
  2. To use a common phrase, “we ain’t seen nothing yet.”  The pace of change is accelerating.
  3. In the process the nature of who we are and how we interact with the world, especially our virtual personae will have profound implications.

All of this and more is captured in a fascinating new book, Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in the Networked-Community Age,  written by leading market research experts, Allison Cerra and Christina James, from Alcatel-Lucent.  The second in “The Shift” series of Web 2.0 analyses, this latest edition looks at consumer behavior across all the key stages of life and how they are influenced by communications technologies.

Findings from the 242 page book (available on are based on a year-long qualitative research effort that included interviews with more than 5,000 American consumers, as well as with more than 30 in-home visits across the United States. 

Co-author Cerra puts the findings in high-level context:  “As more of our lives are being lived on networks and the growing variety of devices that are connected to them, we are exposing more about who we are to others and companies serving us…Earning the coveted trust of consumers is the key to unlocking new value and creating service potential in today’s networked age. But whether or not you are part of the technology industry, the findings in this book will open your eyes to how people set their public and private boundaries and how they differ across defining moments of an individual’s life.”

Indeed, as the authors contend in an important finding, with the boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ lives breaking down, positive and negative implications are emerging for consumers and are driving the identity shift(s).

Methodology and findings

The primary research model utilized is known as Ethnography, a research practice with its roots in anthropology, where an emphasis is placed on close interaction with subjects as a means for understanding their lives and the social dynamics within it.  The authors developed a construct for identity that strives to capture our sense of self in a virtual world called the “3-P Model of Identity,” the elements of which are:

  • Presentation: The Mirror Image
  • Protection: Exposing the Blind Spots
  • Preference: The (Un)Conscious Filter of (In)Finite Choice

This construct is not just a view of virtual identity but also relates to how shifts in any of these domains have a profound effect on our physical selves. The book delves deeply into the intersections of the 3-P Model, how these piece parts of identity are interconnected, and how they influence trust which the authors define as “meeting at the crossroads of identity.”

 While spending some quality time with a great read is not a bad way to spend the holidays or start the New Year, some of the highlights are worth a mention.


  • 86% say they are very (35%) or somewhat (51%) comfortable sharing information when visiting a website or using an application they are familiar with.

 Social Networking

  • 7 in 10 have ignored friend requests to limit who sees their postings
  • 3 in 4 interact with people online whom they’ve never met

Online Commerce/Protection

  • 34% have shopped online while using a public WiFi hotspot
  • 38% have paid bills or checked their online bank account while using a public WiFi hotspot with 13% reporting that they do this frequently
  • 64% of the respondents say they have proceeded with what they were doing online despite a browser warning of a security threat
  • 66% of respondents have given their credit card information to a site they just discovered in order to make a purchase

Teenagers in the Networked World

  • 63% of young people in the study have “stretched the truth about themselves to improve their online appearance and 77% have looked themselves up online to see what others were saying or posting about them
  • More than half (58%) have posted updates, comments, or photos about themselves or their family that they later regretted sharing
  • 88% of the young people say they spend time updating their social networking page to project the right image of themselves


  • 43% of parents say it is difficult to protect their children from inappropriate content and offensive language online
  • 36% of parents say it is difficult to keep their kids safe from predators in the online activities they get involved in


  • More than half of empty nesters (61%) and retirees (51%) spend time updating their social networking page to project the right image of themselves
  • Almost 9 in 10 empty nesters (89%) and retirees (88%) visit the websites of their favorite brands to find out about the latest coupons and offers
  • About 2 in 3 empty nesters (69%) and retirees (61%) use recommendation engines based on their purchase history– such as Amazon – to help them find what they are looking for
  • 68% say they are very (18%) or somewhat (50%) comfortable sharing information online if it helps them find people or things that they’re interested in
  • 58% say they are very (15%) or somewhat (43%) comfortable sharing information about themselves if they get discounts or free services in exchange
  • 85% say they are very (40%) or somewhat (45%) comfortable sharing information if they have control over who sees it

It is all about TRUST

As the authors stated, there is good news and reason for skepticism about the impact of identity shifting and how it will play out.  At the end of the day, if people do not trust that their interactions online, including the interactions of their virtual agents, are not being executed according to their policies and rules in a manner they perceive to be satisfactory, a breakdown in trust could curtail not just interpersonal interactions but also commerce. 

Right now the study seems to indicate that while there are some discrepancies in the levels of trust based on stage of life, trust is relatively high.  This is true not just for conversations but also for doing transactions.  Whether even these levels are sustainable —as people employ context-based multiple personae (agents, avatars, alias, etc.) based on whether they are operating in personal or professional mode and the various sub-personae for each (friends, family, strangers, local and virtual merchants, banks and other third parties) —remains to be seen and is clearly an important area for continuing research. 

Looking at the shifting nature of identify through the prism of the 3-P Model of Identity,  it is clear that the blurring of the physical and virtual worlds and how people extract perceived value from the management of their multiple identities as they evolve really is all about trust.   However, trust is tricky.  It is subjective and not objective.  Once lost, it is hard to regain. 

In future postings we will look in-depth at what the authors think about their findings, and where they think their research is pointing.

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