Our sense of identity is changing. We’ve seen it in more overt ways as group identity tensions in culture have come to the fore. But the change is deeper and more existential.
The twentieth century was all about ownership of property, that is how value and status was assigned. The twenty-first century will be about ownership of identity. Value and status will come from creating and curating identity in new contexts that exist in a technology-led world.
I have written Identity Century, a publicly available presentation, which sets out the logic for this. To summarise, we are now leaving behind an analogue-only identity as we take on a digital identity (or identities) in order to move into the world of e-commerce, digital payments and virtual currencies.
Many of us will have experience of synthetic identities. Some we create ourselves using generative AI tools but some are being created behind our backs when our real life identity is stolen and fused with an imaginary person, and then employed to scam unsuspecting users online.
If we are to avoid such fraud we’ll need to pay closer attention to the authentication and verification of our digital self. This is the transactional identity work that is taking place right now across the banking industries, and in governments around the world, and is referred to as digital identity management.
Meanwhile our emotional identity online is left unresolved. We are creating avatars of ourselves to connect with our friends, brands do so to express themselves to consumers, and celebrities create new digital personas to connect with fans. All of us develop pseudonymous versions of ourselves to enter online communities, to lurk or to debate, to blog and sometimes even to blow the whistle.
Moreover, AI will help us create agents who learn about us in a very personal way - our preferences, our tone of voice, our communities of interest, our perspectives on life. They will go out and about and make decisions for us based on this information. They will carry out tasks in our name and in many ways they will be an extension of our ‘self’. They will multiply and be present in more than one space at a time, and perhaps even in more than one time-horizon. A ‘multiplicity of me’ will become the norm.
We are already monetising those digital personas through subscriptions, offers, behind the scenes access or fractional ownership - selling tiny bits of ourselves to both companies and consumers who want to sponsor or partner and bask in the backlight of influencer fame. This will explode as the super apps of the future expand.
In summary, identity in the 21st century will render us multiple, machine readable and monetised. And while identity management does exist, there is a lack of identity leadership. Apart from some notable exceptions such as Grimes, Samsung and, to an extent, Coca-Cola.
So what does leadership in this ‘Identity Century’ look like?
1. Acknowledge that authenticity is over
As a standard by which we judge whether to trust someone, this no longer works. People are now creating multiple profiles of themselves and using them to express and perform identity in different contexts. People are embracing their many selves (even in an analogue sense) and mixing and remixing their identity for the situation in which they find themselves. So let’s stop telling young recruits to ‘be their authentic self at work’ and let’s allow them to profile themselves, and play roles for themselves, in a variety of ways. Accept that plurality is reality.
2. Shift mindsets from perfection to selection
We are in the era of alternatives. Technology is enabling us to be understood by what we buy, who we connect with, how we speak and where we go. Depending upon which technology platform we’re using and what information they have about us, they will understand us in a different way.
We should be replacing segmentation analysis, that looks at the target consumer as primarily a consumer of the brand, with a dynamic set of serving suggestions that continually try to co-create experiences, offer outfit advice, put together evening meals etc and work on the feedback to refine the suggestions until suggestions and selections become one and the same thing.
3. Replace consistency with creativity
While we labour under the notion of authenticity we’ll always be aiming for consistency. The very notion of authenticity keeps a person tethered to their past behaviour.
Approaching identity through the lens of 'profilicity' (a term Hans-George Moeller and Paul J. D'Ambrosio coined in their 2021 book You and Your Profile: Identity After Authority) rather than authenticity, takes us to more interesting places, where we seek out possibility rather than consistency. Many artists are finding this as they work with generative AI tools today. These tools are helping them not with pattern-making but with pattern-breaking and that’s what is going to be most important when it comes to human skill sets in the future.
Multiple identities, tailored interactions, ongoing monetisation and methods of verification are ushering in a transformative era of complex, contradictory and commercialised, value-driven identities online. Ask yourself (or your selves) are you ready to lead your brand or business through this?
Tracey Follows is the founder and CEO of futures consultancy, Futuremade, and author of The Future of You.