Facebook’s identity lock-in

“You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal.” -Bob Dylan

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a knack for making statements that are at once sweeping and silly, but he outdoes himself with this one:

You have one identity … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

This is, at the obvious level, a clever and cynical ploy to recast the debate about Facebook’s ongoing efforts to chip away at its members’ privacy safeguards. Facebook, Zuckerberg implies, isn’t compromising your privacy by selling personal data to corporations; it is making you a better person. By forcing you, through its imposition of what it calls “radical transparency,” to have “one identity,” it is also imposing integrity on you. We should all be grateful that we have Zuck to act as our personal character trainer, I guess.

Zuckerberg’s self-servingly cavalier attitude toward other people’s privacy has provoked a firestorm of criticism over the last couple of weeks. Whether or not a critical mass of Facebook members actually care enough about online privacy to force Facebook to fundamentally shift its policies remains to be seen. Up to now, as I’ve pointed out in the past, Facebook’s strategy for turning identity into a commodity has consisted of taking two steps forward and then, when confronted with public resistance, apologizing profusely before taking one step back. I suspect that’s what will happen again – and again, and again.

But that’s not the subject of this post. Zuckerberg’s “one identity” proclamation reminded me of something I heard Jaron Lanier say in a recent lecture. He was talking about the way that Facebook, and other social networking sites, serves as a permanent public record of our lives. That’s great in a lot of ways – it gives us new ways to express ourselves, socialize, cement and maintain friendships. But there’s a dark side, too. Lanier pointed to the example of Bob Dylan. After growing up, as Robert Zimmerman, in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan shucked off his youthful identity, like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, and turned himself into the mysterious young troubador Bob Dylan in New York City. It was a great act of self-reinvention, a necessary first step in a career of enormous artistic achievement. Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the kid Zimmerman becoming the artist Dylan without that clean break from the past, without, as Zuckerberg would see it, the exercise of a profound lack of “integrity.”

Imagine, Lanier said, a young Zimmerman trying to turn himself into Dylan today. Forget it. He would be trailing his online identity – his “one identity” – all the way from Hibbing to Manhattan. “There’s that goofy Zimmerman kid from Minnesota,” would be the recurring word on the street in Greenwich Village. The caterpillar Zimmerman, locked into his early identity by myriad indelible photos, messages, profiles, friends, and “likes” plastered across the Web, would remain the caterpillar Zimmerman. Forever.

More insidious than Facebook’s data lock-in is its identity lock-in. The invisibility that Dylan describes at the end of “Like a Rolling Stone,” where you’re free of your secrets, of your past life, is a necessary precondition for personal reinvention. As Robert Zimmerman traveled from Hibbing to New York, he first became invisible – and then he became Bob Dylan. In the future, such acts of transformation may well become impossible. Facebook saddles the young with what Zuckerberg calls “one identity.” You can never escape your past. The frontier of invisibility is replaced by the cage of transparency.

27 thoughts on “Facebook’s identity lock-in

  1. Ivo Quartiroli

    One of the appeals of Facebook is that it gives a way to integrate the various online subpersonalities. As well, Facebook acts as a collector of our object-relationships, giving a feeling of a rounded, connected personality, supported by everybody we know.

    The problem is, since teenagers (and even younger kids) spend much time on social media, part of the process of personality construction takes place inside Facebook itself. Thus our attachments and object relationships, the building blocks of out personality are being shaped by Facebook which, not metaforically, can reshape and manipulate our personality in many ways.

  2. Jason Treit

    Isn’t “Like a Rolling Stone” about a once-affluent person who sheds their first skin, wanders far away, and finds no second skin to inhabit? Of course, they got what they asked for, but this irreversible binary move to abandon all of one’s expressed belongings (which is at best a partial telling of the Zimmerman-Dylan transformation) isn’t depicted through the eyes of this “complete unknown” as an empowering, transgressive force: it’s another cage.

    Anyway, a debate over song meanings could spoil this thread in a hurry, so I’ll knock on a second door. Disposable reputations, clean breaks, purged records, and new names are not god-given effects of mobility: these liberties are girded by the same majoritarian entitlements Zuckerberg has caught hell for acting out of late, and they can be profoundly damaging liberties to grant without pause, no less in light of how many identifying marks, from generic to intimate, are inseparable from the body.

    Living publicly across divided structures was also what led Janis Joplin to dope and drink herself to death. New transparency can’t take away a self-inventive claim from those who never had it. Which would be most people.

  3. Nick Carr

    There are (at least) two, very different ways to interpret the end of “Like a Rolling Stone”: either as documenting a final desolation or as heralding a moment of redemption. I was going to get into that but, as you point out, it would have sucked up the entire post, so I (over)simplified. Besides, I am, by nature, a sunny optimist.

    New transparency can’t take away a self-inventive claim from those who never had it. Which would be most people.

    Very true, but “most people” aren’t the people I’m talking about.


  4. Tom Lord

    Please, Mr. Carr, think more and push harder on this. You’ve got a live one here. This is starting to look like a really, really deep change in the discourse that governs the formation of the self. (Wait, did I say “starting”? Sorry.) Read some Foucault on the can when you get a chance but above all… keep going in that direction of analysis, if you would.

  5. Winewindfirelover

    The interesting thing to me is that Facebook actually has privacy controls and users are encouraged to use them, so is Zuckerberg actually doing his users’ a disservice and trying to lock them in? I’d think that something like DirtyPhoneBook which allows people to comment on others’ phone numbers with no privacy settings or censorship is much worse in that regard. Zuckerberg does have the tendency to put his foot in his mouth with dumb comments though, so I’ll be interested to see what else comes out from there the longer this privacy debacle goes on for Facebook.

  6. Katherine Warman Kern

    For a guy who will probably be remembered best for mastering the “bait and switch” it is pretty ironic that he equates integrity with “one identity”.

    He is rationalizing. Trying to make down sound like up. And he may actually believe it. That’s what can happen when a pilot gets disoriented at night and thinks down is up.

    Katherine Warman Kern


  7. John Schoettler

    Great post Nick!!!

    It reminds me of one of my favorite Ayn Rand quotes:

    “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”- Ayn Rand

  8. Barney Lerten

    Google “Jason Evers John Doe” in Google News.

    We’ve been dealing a lot with true/false identities of late about a guy who got in hot water here as an overzealous heavy-handed liquor-agency enforcer.

    Now even the State Dept. can’t figure out who he is (http://www.ktvz.com/news/23548434/detail.html) and is turning to the public.

    I guess it is possible to reinvent yourself in the Net era too. If you want to break a few laws along the way.

    Then there’s Jeff Jarvis’s new work in progress, “Public Parts,” where ever the contrarian he tries to point out the pluses of our “reduced privacy,” and how it was a mental arrangement that’s outlived it’s usefulness in large measure (or something like that).

  9. Barney Lerten

    I bought and enjoyed your last book, The Big Switch, Nick. No doubt will buy the new one. But why the contrarian curmudgeon “we’re all blind sheeple” quip?

    Why can’t both sides of the sentence conjoined by ‘but’ be true, worthy of celebrating and worrying about, and be part of the same physical or virtual entity? Why must the “but we’re all doomed by rewiring our brains” be a warning clarion call, rather than an “every tool is a weapon, every weapon is a tool” mixed message, as messy as life? Is there a middle ground, or does that make for boring, lousy, fuzzy books/articles?

    Bemoaning the lack of future Bob Dylans seems a bit of a stretch. They’ll find new ways to make their mark. There will always be ways to reinvent ourselves. Maybe there’ll be a burgeoning business in helping folks shed their online skins and create new ones.

  10. Nick Carr


    This post actually has nothing to do with the subject of The Shallows, which I think you’ll find is quite attuned to the messy multiplicity of life and of tools.


  11. Barney Lerten

    Thanks, Nick. I found that rough equilibrium by reading the Shirky/Pink dialogue after your piece in Wired, as they paint a fairly hopeful picture of time and energy redirected from passive TV to active engagement – or at least the potential for that. Ya gotta hope… the Net already has not lived up to many folks’ hopes for civic transformation, etc., but maybe they judged too soon. Maybe.

  12. Courtney

    Ivo said, “The problem is, since teenagers (and even younger kids) spend much time on social media, part of the process of personality construction takes place inside Facebook itself.” Yes, this is completely true. In fact, for many teenagers and young people, identity formation is driven in large part by what identity they portray online. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Let’s take a picture…so we can post it on Facebook!” as if the event does not take place unless or until it is documented–AND shared with the public. Similarly, people distrust aspects of one’s identity that are not reflected online. Relationships, for example, are often not deemed “real” until they are verified by an official “in a relationship with…” on Facebook. I’ve heard people accused of not genuinely being in a relationship because it wasn’t listed on Facebook, as if it doesn’t really exist until it is stamped in hypertext. When we start looking online for the real aspects of one’s identity, we have found ourselves in a new era, indeed.

    I totally agree with Carr, too: “More insidious than Facebook’s data lock-in is its identity lock-in.” Growing up digital completely changes what it means to be an adolescent, because never before have the stage lights been brighter. Publishing one’s life online through the seminal years of growing up is an issue not only because it robs people of the freedom in adolescence to experiment with different identities, groups of friends, and ways of expressing themselves without the purview of the public, but also because it requires such deliberate manipulation, i.e. the selecting out and emphasizing of parts of the identity that are “worth” being shared. These aspects are not always the most valuable parts of identity to cultivate — and to be sure, they are emphasized at the expense of other, more contemplative, less contrived aspects of the self.

    My worry is that the pressure to be constantly “updating” robs people of any stable sense of identity at all. The constant invocation on Facebook, “What are you doing NOW?” creates a fractured, impulsive narrative, one in which one’s present self is just a jumble of quickly formed and published thoughts and one’s past is thousands of disjointed status updates and fleeting “thumbs up’s”. In this paradigm, there is no time for real genuine immersion in any fully formed identity — one becomes a string of events, photos, and statuses, which cannot be assembled into a meaningful whole. The focus, furthermore, is always on the outward value of the inner identity. For a young person, one’s identity is only as valuable as the extent to which it translates into something that can be posted online.

    One wonders what happens when the online identity becomes as important if not more so than the real one — and I say this genuinely, as a young person who encounters this phenomena more and more. Facebook has created what I would call the perpetual “10 year high school reunion effect” in which people are constantly putting forth the parts of their identities that are most appealing (their witty comments, their attractive photos) whilst hiding the parts that are not. And eventually, who won’t want to identify more with their well-manicured, manipulated online identity than the flawed and less-controlled real life one?

  13. Kyle Mcguffin

    Nick I’m new to your blog. I very much appreciate your thought provoking entry. As you stated what we do online stays online. Every thing online is traceable and can be used against you/us in the court of law.

    We must not let this stop us from reaching our goals and dreams. Facebook/Zuckerburg has crossed the line but the community will correct this just like before. Its all about balance. None of us have control of this universe but we all have control over our own actions. Zuckerburg has created an amazing empire that will only flourish by listening to his community. No dictatorship will be allowed.

    We must focus on things in our control and stay the course with our goals and dreams. The rest will take care of itself.

    Make it a great day!

    Kyle McGuffin

  14. Bertil_hatt

    Your generation was intelligent enough to realize that one could be a drug addict and still make sense, lead a generation and sing its woes; you knew who was an addict, but it didn’t matter: what mattered was the lyrics, and the guitar playing.

    Why don’t you trust my generation to say “OK, you were a upset teenager, blowing off steam at Burning man and you don’t want me to see those photos, although they are a Google Search away—but now you are a leading scholar on identity formation, and I respect, quote and discuss with you on that level.”?

    We never dated without a Google search first, and have been positively disappointed every time; we all had, at the beginning of every interview, that quick remark about “what they most likely saw online”; we all talked intelligently to our parents about how to use Social Media, including the “and that’s my personal account, where I talk about things you don’t want to read” moment.

    I’m not saying we are perfect —far from it— and there are hopefully popular ways around Zuck’s “One-true-full-name-and-public-list-of-friends” rule, but we might have been putting more trust into that “integrity” than you might think.

    We lived in a world were anything we did was “a forward-this click away from our friends to reveal it all” so we learned to know our relatives facet, and ignore them when necessary.

    That gay math teacher? Well, he was sometimes funny, and lame but a fair teacher all-in-all — but not the constant “can you imagine the gay-wad?!” that a Victorian society would have made him into if “don’t ask-don’t tell” wasn’t enough to quiet the rumors.

  15. twitter.com/canablach

    “You can never escape your past” and i can live with it.

    “(Facebook) will never have you escape from your past”. They will have you to feel the difference.

  16. Miran Pavic

    It’s easy to fall into the romanticized notion of, “oh, the things we used to be able to do, and can’t anymore”, especially when it comes to Dylan’s mysterious and intiguing transformations. They are, and have always been, quite aluring.

    Yet, it’s worth remembering that same arguments regarding lack of privacy and absurd amounts of transparency were thrown around when newspapers first became mass-popular in 1830s and 1840s. Then, when they started using illustrations and caricature in the 1880s and 1890s. And finally, again when they started playing with photography.

    The ever-increasing amounts of transparency make such transformations harder to do – and, by extent, much more impressive. Dylan’s in 1961 was surely harder to achieve than if he had tried it in 1861.

    Likewise, I’m certain con-artists and artists alike are able to re-invent themselves today. Just takes a bit more effort.

  17. Keith Sholl


    I chanced across your blog and this post serendipitously. Whilst viewing an Apple video – think different – about crazy aka genius personalities I thought surely they haven’t included Zuckerberg which of course they hadn’t because as soon as the image moved I realised it was Bob Dylan.

    This got my thoughts going as to whether anyone else might have had the same albeit brief thought and I also wondered whether Dylan may indeed have anything to say about Facebook. To find out I googled Dylan on Zuckerberg and your blog appeared top and low and behold below that appears a link to a page that somebody appears to have created a Facebook “Mark Zuckerberg looks like Bob Dylan” http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2209022499

    On further investigation I realised that Mark Zuckerberg has other aspects in common with Bob Dylan including (as mentioned in your post) a birth surname beginning with “Z”, which in itself is not that common. Also, in looking at the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs, there are quite a few that contain the word secrets but the one that appears most apt in the circumstances appears to be “Tell Me”. The chances are that Bob Dylan would not have needed to write this song had Facebook been available and as popular and indeed as indiscreet in 1983 as it has come to be in 2010.

    Any way, my thanks to messrs Jobs, Dylan and Zuckerberg and the person that tweeted the original link to the Apple video on Twitter for leading me to your excellent blog. I have been reading through some of your earlier posts and clearly have a lot of catching up to do.


    PS are you on Twitter – there is a nicholasgcarr but doesn’t seem to be active?

  18. Gary Hewitt

    Dick Hardt’s (famously awesome) presentation on identity puts the lie to “the one identity” idea.

    Any speech that has the phrase “You don’t know Dick” and that phrase means something, has got to be good: http://identity20.com/media/OSCON2005/

    There’s no reason FB can’t do what it’s already effectively doing and host (one of) people’s identities, but claims of exclusivity are well annoying.

  19. MrPrivacy

    Kyle posted “Every thing online is traceable and can be used against you/us in the court of law.”

    I disagree. As owner of ThreadThat.com, a new private communication site, I can guarantee you that anything discussed via our site will remain absolutely private between you and anyone you choose to share with. Every post or file you share is encrypted end-to-end. There are several security options (passkeys, multi-factor authentication, automatic logout, etc,) you can take advantage of to strengthen your account security. The site is undergoing major changes this weekend. Come join us and stick around for the transformation.

  20. Blog SEO - Vince

    Thanks for this GREAT post, Nick ! You just explain the reasons why I won’t ever be on Facebook. I truely apreciate !

  21. Charles Barthold

    If Zuckerberg wanted real credibility he’d open up his Facebook profile for all of us to see. That way we could see first hand what integrity looks like.

  22. John Schoettler

    Today at lunch I heard Zuckerburg being interviewed by CNBC on the topic of privacy, and he really comes off as sounding rather dumb. I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but he certainly lacks the ability to vocally communicate a message properly.

Comments are closed.