Five Major Identity Schemes, and How to Decide

M. Jackson Wilkinson, Former Viget

Article Category: #Design & Content

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Almost any site that has user-generated content has an identity system in place. Choosing that identity system is one of the first decisions made by any product team, though most seem to punt on it and go with the standard option of allowing users to create a username or screen name of sorts. There are other options, though, and this choice can have a pretty substantial impact on not only the functionality of the site, but also on the character of the community that gathers there. Here are five primary options, with some examples of sites in the wild that use them, followed by a few ideas on how to choose.

The Default: Pseudonyms #

The vast majority of sites are based on a pseudonymous identity system, where users choose a name by which they'll be known on the site. For example, on most sites where I register, by pseudonym is 'whafro,' and has been for nearly twenty years now. It's not anonymous, per se, because actions are attributable to someone in particular, though their genuine identity may not be known.

Wide Open: Anonymous #

Far fewer sites provide an anonymous system, where there isn't any identity attributed to a user, real or fictional. Craigslist's anonymize option is probably the most noteworthy example of this type in the wild, and it's a double-edged sword for them. On one hand, people take advantage of the anonymity to use the service in ways they probably wouldn't otherwise, and it's led to a very healthy site. However, the site can come across as being sketchy, especially when it's used to commit a crime, and that likely keeps away many folks who may otherwise use the site.

Of course, the question of whether or not any user is ever truly anonymous is a different one. Often, these sites maintain logs of IP addresses or other information that could be used to identify a user in the event of criminal activity or something like that.

The Truth: Abstracted Names #

Yelp uses what I call an abstracted identity model. Users are generally represented using their first names with a last initial, like 'Jackson W.' This creates the feeling that you're interacting with real people, while still providing a healthy amount of distance between your actual identity. Especially for a site centered on local reviews like Yelp, this model can help establish authenticity while not scaring folks away.

Sure, there probably isn't more than one Jackson W. in Falls Church, Virginia, but it's at least abstracted away a step or two from being my complete identity. In fact, a quick Google search for those terms doesn't really yield much of value.

The Whole Truth: Real Names #

While it wasn't initially the case, Facebook now places a lot of emphasis on the use of real names throughout their service, making it a required part of their terms of use. For a while, this wasn't the case, and I had friends with names like "Mother Superior" and "Jaaaaaaaaybo," but they've all been kicked into line by now. Even people who change their names more than once may find their accounts locked -- so if you change your name when you get married, don't divorce ;)

This makes complete sense for a network where the emphasis is on interacting with people you actually know. Unlike many topical social networks, Facebook really doesn't have many great avenues for meeting people you don't know, and everything is tailored to help you find keep up with those you actually have met offline. Offline, people generally interact with each other using their real names, so Facebook tries to mimic this as much as possible.

Nothing But the Truth: Genuine Identities #

While Facebook emphasizes the use of real names, they aren't checking IDs or anything during the sign-up process to ensure that the name you've given them is genuinely your name. Yes, that means that you could sign up for an account as M. Jackson Wilkinson and pretend that you're me -- not that there's anything remotely interesting about doing so. Other services are beginning to experiment with taking the next step and actually verifying that the assumed identity is in fact genuine.

Twitter has started verifying accounts for well-known people -- think Shaq and Ashton Kutcher -- through their Twitter Verified program. For accounts that have a history of impersonation, Twitter staff gets in contact with the account holder and verifies that it does indeed represent the person it claims to. It then places a badge in a specific spot on the profile that advertise this verification so others can have confidence that it's a legit source. Now that news agencies are actually using Twitter as a real source for news, this has become increasingly important.

Amazon has a similar process for its members, using it most often in the context of reviews. When a reviewer's name appears alongside a Real Name badge, that verifies that the name given is the same name as on the user's credit card. In this case, it's used to give users confidence in the reviews posted by these members, showing that a real person is standing behind the opinion given, rather than an anonymous coward throwing tomatoes.

Choosing the Right Combination #

Of course, your product need not commit to only one of these systems. Slashdot allows for anonymous comments, posted as "Anonymous Coward" and rated down by default, while letting logged-in users post with their pseudonyms without the anonymous penalty. On SpeakerRate, one of our products here at Viget, we use pseudonyms by default, and allow users to validate their accounts against a LinkedIn profile, in which case we use their real names as defined by LinkedIn.

The key to choosing a system is balancing the needs for the contributor's privacy against the skepticism of the consumers. In Yelp's case, a pseudonymous identity system might lead some to think that many reviews of local restaurants are being posted by the restaurant staff itself. That might still be the case, but at least it's discouraged by the emphasis on abstracted real names. In Facebook's case, privacy in terms of identity isn't really necessary for people who are supposed to know each other anyway. For a forum dealing with sensitive topics like disgruntled workers, relationships, or medical issues, anonymity might be crucial to creating a safe haven for people to share their thoughts.

In the end, it's important not to gloss over the identity system. As easy as it is to create a typical signup and login process based on pseudonyms, it could be a major roadblock in the way of building a community that can grow organically. It's one of the first, and most important, elements of your product's user experience.

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