Who does Google think you are?

September 16th, 2009 by james

One of the themes we’ve been discussing here is the idea that prestige and attention are the main currencies of academia. So it only makes sense that you want your online presence to be an accessible and positive reflection of your work and, at the very least, you want to be distinguishable from all of the other John Smiths in the world.

MIT has recently put together a tool called Personas which attempts to figure out this question of online identity. I say attempts because to be honest, it’s a bit hit and miss. The design looks pretty good but the results seem to change each time you run it, you can’t review the underlying data and it doesn’t even have a roll-over to quantify each chunk of your profile (e.g. percent of total, source documents etc).

Personas profile
[click for bigger]

It’s a noble effort though and it got me thinking that there are two sides to the question of online identity.

  • User perspective: It’s a pain having a different user name and password for every website so initiatives like OpenID and Shibboleth should make things easier by providing common log-on standards. Similarly (Attention Profile Markup Language) is an emerging technology for customizing content based on your interests and habits. Both technologies are valuable for improving your online experience.
  • Search perspective: The second issue is being able to search for someone and know that the results pertain to a specific person. The user perspective technologies discussed above can help in this regard, as they establish a common link between all of your online activities. And although I’ve misplaced the link somewhere, I’ve heard of some researchers using generic online data to reverse-engineer a unique identify (e.g. a Joe from California on Facebook here, a Joe who works at UCLA in biology there, etc.).

Clearly there are a lot of privacy issues involved as marketers (and governments) would love to have this sort of detailed record of who went where doing what. But let’s come back to the question of academic online identity. For a user perspective, I think we’re getting there. I can’t speak for everyone obviously but at Imperial, my single sign-on gives access to my publications database, the online journals, administrative data and many other facilities both on the local network and the wider web.

From a search perspective, there’s a way to go before we can amalgamate our various online activities into a consistent verifiable public identity. Yet the academic environment is the perfect place to start building and testing these identity systems. There’s a wealth of metadata available in journals (citations, institutions etc) and one could establish fairly well-defined problem boundaries for example by using the .edu, .ac.uk or journal publisher domains. Google Scholar probably already does this to some extent but when searching for an author, it doesn’t suggest different unique authors. Instead I would love to have one portal, accessed by a single identity which is verified by some official higher education authority, that could crawl the web and aggregate publications, blogs, newspaper articles, conference appearances, etc and combine this with social meta-data from citations or other sources (e.g. LinkedIn). Users could create public profiles and the private data could be useful for determining discipline rankings and influence (e.g. the IDEAS ranking of economists) and so on.

There’s a lot going on in this area and I’ve probably only skimmed the surface. But I wanted to raise the issue and see if anyone had any thoughts about how online identity issues for academics could be handled. At the very least, have a play with the Personas thingy and see if you, like me, are 5% illegal.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you !

Leave a Reply