Identity, Reputation and Unfairness

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Serendipitous (as is so often the way) that the day after reading John’s piece about time-lagged value on social networks, prompted by the news that Friendster is deleting backdated profile data so that it might change the direction and type of services it offers (and lord knows it needs to do something), I happen across this cautionary tale from Danah Boyd about the disappearance of her Tumblr account.

I agree with John that much data which relies short-term relevance and context on social networks loses value as time passes. But there is of-course, plenty of other types of data (like blog posts for example) that holistically accumulate value and would be problematic (to say the least) to suddenly lose. What happened to Danah raises some interesting issues around online identity, reputation and trademark that whilst not especially new, have never gone away and are taking on an ever greater significance as people build or just accumulate their presence on the social web over time.

You can read the details of Danah’s issue here, but essentially the story is that Tumblr customer service had acted on a trademark request from a tech consulting company called Zephoria, who seemingly established themselves under that name long after Danah had started using the handle for her blog, twitter and Tumblr accounts, and released the account to them. So in short measure, she found that her Tumblr content had disappeared and Zephoria the company had started posting there. To their credit Tumblr reacted quickly to the post, apologised, and her account has since been reinstated. But the story points again at unresolved and unanswered questions that will not go away.

As Danah says in her (excellent) follow up post, battles over online identity have raged since the 90s, arising whenever a limited domain space (there can only be one neilperkin on twitter for example) butts up against a desire to use a unique identifier and the temptation for a heavy handed application of trademark, but have been taken to a whole new level and scale through the social web. The real problem in this space is that identifiers build significant currency over time – twitter handles, blog names (including personal reputations associated with particular monikers) all become important identifiers that get referenced, linked together as part of a wider online identity, and linked to (with SEO friendly anchor text). So they become ever more important over time as identity currency accumulates.

Yet as Danah says, like most things law related, “trademark law is complicated and gnarly, impenetrable for the average person who often lacks the financial resources – or incentives – to go out of their way to protect their image with such a formalized method”. So your left with a potential situation where someone might have accumulated significant worth and identity capital (for want of a better phrase) over a long period of time, only to see it completely wiped out by a corporate interest.

Perhaps, you might say, that’s just the way of the world. But I think it’s grossly unfair. Company accounts, individual accounts, accounts for individuals within companies, the blurry lines of online identity, who has precedence, whether trademark trumps early-adopter or the other way round. It’s a mess. Traditional practice puts advantage in the hands of those with the resource to navigate the complexities of trademark and identity law. But I, for one, would like to re-weight the balance more in favour of individuals, particularly in situations when they are clearly not trying to confuse, or compete, or domain squat. It really is time the law caught up.

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