I've been to three conferences recently and at each of them there were problems with the name badges. In the first, an oversight meant that there was none; at the second, the print was so small no-one could read them; at the third they were so discreet they seemed to say: 'This is an insiders' conference. If you don't know who someone is, you're not important enough to be bothering them.' At all these occasions, I couldn't easily find the people I wanted to meet. When I was networking, I wasn't sure who the people I was talking to were. My questions weren't sharp and I didn't learn as much as I could. Perhaps I even gave a stupid impression.
OK, so people in real life don't walk around with badges. But at a conference, as in much of online life, the idea is to meet and do business with people you don't already know. You may know what kind of people you want to meet, but you can't recognise them without help.
I believe than within a few years everyone is going to need an online label, a certificate of identity. The world seems to work better when people know each other's identities. Not only can you track someone down, you can offer them a better service - everything from special deals to frequent-buyer discounts. Labels force people make judgments based on other people's reputations, and people behave better out of concern for their own. Now this may worry people, but all we really have to do is overcome two main issues: first, who will assign and guarantee these labels; and second, what does the label really mean?
On the former, there is a natural instinct to think that it is the Government's job. But a government that can monitor all a person's activities online or offline has too much power and is likely to abuse it. Stratton Sclavos, CEO of VeriSign, an issuer of digital ID certificates, says labels have to be issued by a third party and have guarantees set in them by dividing them according to their use. 'Any ID is a way of gaining access to a community. It's not a one-size-fits-all. A driver's licence, a library card, an airline club-card - they all have specific uses.'
So to the second problem: what do the labels really mean - what are their credentials? In the commercial world a number of legitimate parties already give label credentials - such as those that tell us individuals are capable of paying dollars 50, or are qualified Java programmers. The problem could be that online credentials simply encourage people to filter e-mails and dispose of those carrying labels they know. But certification of identities and of credentials will be widespread, and that's good - as long as the people asking for them are individuals making decisions for themselves, rather than governments making decisions for everyone.
So, what can we conclude? Let me go back to my conferences. No-one forces me to look at badges, but normally we want to. At most gatherings the organisers ask people to wear their badges, but some people don't. They probably miss some useful interactions, but at the end of the day they are not bothered by people they've never met. In the end then, choice should be up to individuals, not the organiser or the Government. Choice to those who have the badge, and those asking the question: 'Who am I talking to?'