The Future of Identity 2025

When history looks back at Edward Snowden, the whistleblower’s revelations about government spying may well mark the last gasp of the honeymoon period for the Internet and society. But today’s debates around personal privacy and online security often miss the true disruption that is taking place at the core of this story. As we venture further into the highly-networked world, we are discovering that privacy is not so much a right as it is a currency, and that the very nature of our identities – how we define them, and how they are defined for us – is being completely rewritten.
What we call “mainstream media” used to consist of the few dozen newspapers, radio stations and television channels that were widely available to the public. When you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you and your neighbors had access to the same stable of recognized journalists and news anchors, who told stories that were authoritative and largely consistent – if not terribly diverse.

In just a few short years, the Internet has, of course, completely upended the established business models of the media industry, fracturing mainstream culture into billions of blog posts, tweets, and youtube videos that criss-cross the globe every second. To many, the cacophony of so many voices speaking at once sounds like chaos. Or perhaps it sounds like the decline of journalistic institutions, and the celebration of fickle attention spans. But it’s also the sound of cultural containers bursting open, and the flood of every unheard perspective – from women gamers to Egyptian dissidents – that didn’t have a voice in the established channels of the 20th century.

For everyone born after 1985, this is mainstream culture, and the channels have only begun to burst.

One of the first places we’ll see this new culture take shape is in gender expression. With 1.4 billion active users, today’s Facebook has the largest collection of identity information in the history of the world. In 2014, after many requests from their users, Facebook updated their individual profiles to include more options for gender than the simple binary of male and female. But they didn’t just add three or four new gender options. Unlike the US Census, which is conducted every ten years at a cost of $13 billion dollars, Facebook wasn’t concerned with the length of the form, or the amount of time it would take to collect and share the data. Without these constraints, the number of gender options it made sense to offer jumped from two to 51. The next year, realizing that even this number was arbitrary, they opened the form up entirely, allowing users to enter whatever felt honest to them.

This matters well beyond Facebook itself. Over 25% of the highest-traffic websites on the Internet use Facebook Connect to to share and verify users’ identities without re-entering their information. This means that a change in personal information on Facebook is automatically reflected in every other service that connects to it. As we come to rely more on similarly networked services in our personal and professional lives, people are going to expect these fuller expressions of identity to follow them wherever they go – not just online, but at home, school and in the workplace.

In December of 2014, the University of Iowa became the first college to add a “transgender” option to their college application, and over two hundred American universities have already updated their housing policies to reflect the preferences of their trans and genderqueer students. Forward-looking retailers like Brooklyn’s Marimacho have begun targeting classically masculine clothing to both conventionally-gendered (or “cisgender”) women and women with transmasculine bodies. In the next ten years, we will see many more bureaucratic entities, HR policies, and marketing campaigns evolve towards these more inclusive and fluid definitions.

Gender is a deeply emotional marker of identity, but it is far from the only attribute of our identities being cracked open in this way. Our educational achievements and work histories will undergo similar transformations as the decade unfolds.

Despite more colleges offering online courses each year, and continued industry excitement around online education, recent federal data suggests that formal online enrollments have actually plateaued in the U.S. over the last few years. The University of Phoenix, once considered a higher learning juggernaut, has seen its student population decline by two thirds since 2010.

Why has online education stalled out? Perhaps the answer lies in what people are hoping to accomplish with their educational achievements, both personally and — especially — professionally.

In contrast to the online education market, online microwork is growing faster every year, and is expected to become a $5 billion industry by 2020. For microwork platforms like Gigwalk and Elance-Odesk, formal degrees offer little value to workers or employers. Instead, these services rely on provable and targeted skills – such as expertise at web development or Photoshop – and often provide platform-specific testing and certification tailored to the needs of their communities. When added to the reputation scores workers acquire as they complete projects, these two metrics pose a compelling alternative to the four-year degrees offered by traditional learning institutions, including online schools like the University of Phoenix.

Over the next decade, we’ll see more of our identity broken out into these kinds of micro-attributes, that will be measured, traded, and leveraged by the many networked services we interact with on a daily basis. They will become our most valued assets, a series of personal currencies that will largely determine the quality of our employment, our access to social capital, and our influence in the world.

To build identity attributes that better reflect our unique character and capabilities, we will come to rely more on the software platforms and algorithms that define us — sometimes without our knowledge — by monitoring and analyzing the minutiae of our daily activities. Of course, this kind of personal tracking already pervades the modern web, analyzing our browsing history to determine what kinds of ads to show us, and extrapolating from past behavior to anticipate what TV shows or Amazon deliveries we might consume next.

At the heart of these algorithmic identities is the “graph”, a fundamentally different kind of data structure from the databases and spreadsheets we’ve traditionally used to organize large amounts of information. Whereas databases reduce information to a set of categories, such as name, address, and eye color, the graph learns about the world in the same way the human brain does, by forming semantic connections between many billions of individual nodes.

The result is a mass of data that can only be interpreted by the algorithms that collected it. Google’s Knowledge Graph already contains many billions of facts, ranging from historical biographies to health diagnostics to cocktail recipes – all of which were acquired by algorithms without human input. Facebook’s Social Graph operates in the same way, observing our interactions with friends and colleagues to determine who we’re close to, how we socialize, and how much influence we carry.

As sensors and networked software dominate more of our lives, these identity graphs will understand many aspects of our lives better than we do, including our behavior, our interests, and our social connections. They will reveal things about us that even we ourselves don’t know—how healthy our social networks are or how our micro-work habits could be improved to increase our income. Our relationship with these graph IDs – who owns them, and how they’re used – will grow into an entirely new markets of identity services.

We may find ourselves enlisting the help of algorithmic self-branding services to negotiate on our behalf, and to suggest activities for the sole purpose of influencing these identity metrics – buying healthier food, consuming or avoiding different kinds of entertainment, or even just attending the right parties.

At best, our expanded near-future identities will liberate us from the constrained expressions of gender, capability and social influence that defined the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, empowering us to pursue meaningful work and relationships at every stage of our lives. At worst, these same micro-attributes and graph IDs will become our shackles, tainting our personal and professional lives with past mistakes that refuse to be forgotten.

As we negotiate the terms of our networked identities over the next decade, we’ll find that the social contracts of the future will be both highly social and increasingly contractual.