Crowd of One

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Book: John Clippinger. , A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity.



Review by Mike Neuenschwander at the Burton Group Identity blog, at

“an eloquently written, ambitious, and timely work relating social theory to digital identity. John masterfully draws on intellectual insights from a wide range of disciplines (including social science, political science, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and history) to weave a narrative that’s accessible to a general audience. The message is simple: highly evolved trust frameworks are wired into the biology of all living things; so why do we persist in reinventing primitive (aka authoritarian) strategies for cooperation? John argues that it’s mostly our collective lack of appreciation for natural trust mechanisms—even though we’re all familiar with them from everyday experience. Signals of health, wealth, and competence are extant in human society, but are usually exchanged subconsciously. John points to the Enlightenment as the era of emergent self-awareness that established many of our existing presumptions on the nature of identity. Now, with recent advancements in the fields of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, science is beginning to unravel the relation between self-awareness and social-awareness. John is among the writers constructing a new narrative on trust and cooperation based on this scientific evidence.” ( )


Howard Rheingold:

"In *A Crowd of One*, John Henry Clippinger shares the theories of evolutionary psychologists and sociologists who think they've found evidence that the unique human capacity to negotiate social contracts and keep track of other people's social behaviors is what enabled our primate ancestors to evolve from herds and packs to tribes and communities. As the human brain evolved, it developed the capacity for ever more sophisticated social interaction -- detecting the motives of others, tracking complex relationships in social networks, and remembering past favors and slights. These capabilities give groups powers that individuals can't summon on their own, and lead to new innovations in social organization, Clippinger says. With the onset of the digital communications age, he argues, we are once again evolving our neural capabilities.

Paradoxically, though, at the core of every group enterprise is the individual, and at the core of every in-dividual is identity. Clippinger, an advisor to the United States military and a senior fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, asserts that we human beings have new powers and opportunities to influence, and even attempt to design, our own identity. He marshals evidence from the social behaviors that are just now emerging on digital networks to argue that we can use what we know, how we know, and how we share what we know to productively shape "identity narratives."

These narratives are the internal models of how individuals think of themselves. They emerge from stories that circulate among social groups of any size and provide information and insight into the character of individual members. Modern economic theory, for example, is based on the identity narrative of the strictly rational and self-interested actor who makes all decisions according to a logical calculus of costs and benefits. Noting, for example, that classically rational, self-interested actors in financial markets would never send a check to a stranger without receiving the goods first (and vice versa), Clippinger cites eBay as a market that should not exist under the assumptions of modern economics, but that does, nevertheless, manage to facilitate transactions totaling billions of dollars.

EBay succeeded because its seller feedback mechanism solved the dilemma implicit in unsecured transactions among unknown parties. It made possible a new identity narrative of the "trust but verify" online trader because it provided a digital measure of reputation. Every time a trade occurs on eBay, the two parties can rate their experience. The reputations of both seller and buyer are expressed with a colored star and a "feedback score." Reputation, in this context, lubricates reciprocity, and reciprocity, say evolutionary psychologists, is how humans manage to mesh self-interest and the public good, identity and community.

Clippinger foresees a future in which we will increasingly use sophisticated digital trust mechanisms to enhance our ability to gain new knowledge of human nature. The most intriguing, and potentially useful, ideas presented in *A Crowd of One* are his suggestions for tools that could overcome barriers to technology-mediated collective action. These include sophisticated identity narratives, which, for example, would give individuals greater motivation to share information with one another; better reputation metrics, which would allow users to modulate levels of personal interaction (for example, I may not hesitate to send you a check based on your past transaction record, but that doesn't mean I want you to join my carpool); and long-tail markets, in which online social connectivity enables small producers of economic and cultural goods and services to find specialist niches or dedicated customers.

The emergence of new identity narratives, reputation metrics, and long-tail markets is already bringing disruptive challenges to business. Today the frontier is e-commerce. In the future, though, the challenges will face every type of business. Clippinger also sees the possibility of designing digital institutions to create other types of wealth -- for example, using online media to augment such solutions to economic and social problems as microlending and grassroots disaster response. But this will take time. Besides the technical challenges to building a simple, universal, secure identity verification system, there are the sociological challenges. Just as a critical mass of people needed to learn that they could use their credit cards online without too much risk, some means of identity verification must become popular enough for people to join carpools, buying clubs, and ad hoc disaster relief cooperatives with "strangers." (


David Bollier on the relationship between Identity and the Commons, as discussed by John Clippinger at

"In many respects, how we form our identities is a critical ingredient in how we form commons. A commons is not a venue for impersonal transactions, as the market is, but rather a site for actualizing ourselves while manging shared resources. A commons is a social system that integrates our personal needs and identities with a larger community of people. It is a social structure that honors that complex interdependence of individuals and a larger collective.

Drawing upon leading anthropologists, evolutionary scientists and linguists, Clippinger argues that language is an important tool by which we form ourselves into communities. Language enables us to build and leverage trust among members of a group. It is a “signaling system” for describing and enforcing social reputations, which in turn helps us construct social and political institutions. By having a group means of establishing a person’s reputation and identity, we can socially pressure people to live up to consensus standards and expectations. We can also identify “free riders” and cheaters, and punish or ostracize them. These capacities are all critical to forming functional commons." (