Niche is a better word for it

With the term “ecosystem” being bandied about so much, I started thinking ecologically last year. A two part particle on my new Ecological Theory of Identity is being published in SC Magazine Australia.

Here’s a little extract of the next installment:

If we think ecologically, we can better explain the surprising power of context in identity management. It is ironic that the Laws of Identity emphasise the importance of context, and yet federated identity programs repeatedly underestimate how strongly IDs resist changing context.

The tight fit that evolves between each given identity and the setting in which it is intended to be used is best described as an ecological niche. As with real life ecology, characteristics that bestow fitness in one niche can work against the organism — or digital identity — in another.

Identity “silos” are much derided but we can see now they are a natural consequence of how all business rules are matched to particular contexts. The environmental conditions that shaped the particular identities issued by banks, credit card companies, employers, governments and professional bodies are not fundamentally changed by the Internet. As such, we should expect that when these identities transition from real world to digital, their properties — especially their “interoperability” and liability arrangements — cannot readily adapt.

So, taking a mature digital identity (like a university student ID) out of its natural niche and hoping it will interoperate in another context (like banking) is a lot like taking a salt water fish and dropping it into a fresh water tank.

On the other hand, the ecological frame neatly explains why the purely virtual identities like blogger names, OSN handles and gaming avatars are so highly interoperable: it’s because their environmental niches are not so specific. Thinking about how quickly and widely social identities like Facebook Connect have spread, in a very real sense we can describe them as weeds!

My longer article on a new ecological theory of digital identity is available here.