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User identity and the ability to control its presentation is a core element of building a social web site. The ability to create and manage an identity in relation to the context of the site is the foundation upon which the rest – contributions, relationships, reputation – are built. It’s about people and who they portray themselves to be.

When thinking about your users and their identity be aware that the ability for the user to define their name is just step one in crafting their identity. As discussed in the Registration pattern, allowing the user to create a nickname rather than be saddled with some horrid identifier they got because the name space was full is one of the best design decisions you can make. Wouldn’t you rather be known as “jack of all design” rather than “jack089”.

There are several other items that make up an identity for the user. These include Profiles, Avatars, Reflectors and Attribution. Associated with these patterns are a user’s reputation and their connections.

When deciding what to pull together, know that you don’t need every piece and that you can start with some elements and add others as needed.

Here are some points to consider across all the patterns:

  • Let your users be expressive where it matters. Profiles on MySpace are extremely expressive and reflect its userbase, while profiles on LinkedIn are not customizable and reflect the professional nature of the interactions.

Customized MySpace profile

One of the author’s Linked in Profile

  • Give users control over how to present themselves. Users should own their actions and have reputation attached to their identity, but the option to go anonymous should be offered in some instances.
  • Let your users decide who sees what parts of themselves. Give enough control and permissioned access. Do my friends see my birthdate or does everyone? If it’s everyone, be prepared for a lot of fake data.

Privacy settings on Facebook for parts of the profile.

  • Be clear on reflecting back to the user what they see as an editor / owner versus how others see them. The dating sites have this idea down to a science, but on many other websites it isn’t clearly articulated who sees what.
  • Having a robust identity solutions won’t alleviate sock puppets (see Sock Puppet discussion) and alternate identities that people may create.

Read Randy Farmer's Triparite Identity Pattern for more thoughts about the relationship between authentication and a public and private identity.