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Narrative identity in action

10 Jul 2013


Recently Liesbet and I submitted a paper considering how narrative identity might become a part of identity management systems. Innovations in identity management have typically precluded self-expression, favouring instead the apparent reliability of the body as a means of identification and authentication. In the newly industrialised world of the late 18th century, the mass movement of people necessitated secure documentation; in the world of voiceprints and gait recognition, telling stories about who we are sounds archaic, if not outright comical.

Yet the human desire to narrate the self, we argued, is irrepressible. There are several notable examples of its resurgence at precisely the points where it is most ā€“ and most arbitrarily ā€“ smothered. We are pretty well convinced of the need to re-establish some space for self-expression if (future) systems of identity management are to be readily accepted and properly utilised, and the moves to add personal questions to some identity practices (identifying yourself to your bank by telling it the name of your school, for instance) suggests that the need to some extent is being recognised.

This week I experienced the verification powers of narrative identity for myself: having missed out on tickets for the first Ashes Test, Iā€™d been scouting the market for unwanted tickets being sold on. Once you eliminate the sellers who are hoping to make gigantic sums of money, the pickings are fairly slim, which doesnā€™t help that nagging sense of desperation. But there was something stopping me from contacting strangers via Gumtree, though they had tickets that I felt were fairly reasonably priced and I could see their mobile numbers via the site. There was something just as unconvincing about the few eBay sellers around.

So I put a clarion call out on Twitter, and started scrolling through the tweets of anybody who mentioned Ashes tickets. I found a few people offering tickets, and sent out eager messages.

When I had a message back from someone saying that yes, they still had the tickets and I could have them, my thrill was slightly tempered by anxiety: did this person really have tickets? How would I know? How could I arrange to buy them without making myself vulnerable?

The answer was in the little stories that they told about themselves every day: my fellow Twitterer had posted almost 5000 tweets, including various photos, and as I scanned through them I learned enough about this person to convince me that the offer was genuine. I sent a message back, if not entirely happy that this was all going to be okay, then at least happy enough to share my mobile number. A couple of phone calls later, and I have two tickets for England vs. Australia. Possibly even a new friend. All thanks to narrative identity!