Identity Federation Is Nice, Until You Get Borged

P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at
By P. J. Connolly  |  Posted 2011-06-10 Email Print this article Print

Today, I'm going back to the subject of personal identity, thanks to an author-described "self-indulgent comment" in today's Register, which, except for a few details, could have be written by me. Here's my story:

Back in the day, there was a service called CompuServe, whose octal-based user addresses were rooted in the Digital PDP systems that hosted its operations. Having a bit of seniority on CompuServe, when it introduced "real" usernames I was able to snag "pjc"; I hung onto that handle at,, and finally,, until a few years ago when I gave it up in an economy drive. In the meantime, I'd moved most of my online activity to an e-mail account hosted on The Well; I never quite figured out what either of these said about my computer skills, and The Oatmeal's informative guide doesn't help.


Are we no longer to be defined by our e-mail address, but instead by whoever Facebook allows us to be?

So for almost 15 years, I've split my mail between three or four categories of address: webmail accounts such as Netscape (now AOL), Yahoo, and now, Gmail; ISP-tied accounts; employer-provided accounts; and of course, my account on The Well. If I think about it, I have at least a dozen e-mail addresses that can in some way be considered active; but 99 percent of my personal e-mail traffic goes through either The Well, or through an ISP-based account. My work-related e-mail is much simpler, as it winds up in one of two silos: an Exchange server run by the company, and a mail account at Google.

Identity federation may fix this, but the question I have is "who's going to define my identity." For example, Facebook is quickly assuming the default role of identity provider. But one of my beefs with Mister Zuckerberg's Neighborhood is that it won't let me use my real, legal name. Currently, I'm registered under a nickname, because my real, legal name has too many spaces, or too many periods, or not enough letters, depending on what variant I try to use. So he doesn't get my clicks.

I'm not sure there's an easy answer to this that doesn't involve shaping my identity around Facebook, which is utterly unacceptable. I think I would rather never again hear from another person from my past, than let any vendor dictate my identity to the degree that Facebook can, and does. |

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