Chris Poole, the founder of 4Chan, About.me and Canvas, gave an interesting talk at Web 2.0 back in October about how one dimensional the existing ways in which services enable us to represent our identity are.
The portrait of identity online, he says, is often painted in black and white – who we are online is assumed to be a mirror of who we are offline, and anonymity is seen as something dark and chaotic. We all have multiple identities and there are many lenses through which people view us, yet Facebook (for example) has driven an over-simplifying, consolidating, one-size-fits-all, 'fast-food' approach to identity.
His argument is not about being disingenuous about who we really are, more about the limitations of being able to represent identity with sufficient nuance within different contexts ("It's not who you share with, it's who you share as"). Our options to do this, says Poole are eroding and this is happening to the extent that we're about to sacrifice something that is hugely valuable.
Thinking about this reminded me of the Alter Ego project by Robbie Cooper, which featured a whole series of photographs of virtual world gamers set alongside their online avatars. The project brings to life how some use their avatars to experiment with new identities, and others create ones that are extensions of their real selves, but most avatars have at least an echo of the person that created them, if not in their physical appearance then often by reflecting aspects of their creator's personality.
I am perhaps a little less pessimistic about this than Chris. The possibilities for self-expression online have never been wider, and online identity is still a relatively distributed construct. But with the ever increasing ubiquity and embedded nature of online services like Facebook, the launch of new features like timeline which are designed to lock our identity in, and with identity being such a key part of the context layer of the vertical stack, it's a really interesting question to ask.