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NFTs: on identity and platforms
Identity and verification
NFTs are taking the digital world by storm, the meteoric rise has proven to be more than just an anomaly, with big brands and celebrities entering the scene. More importantly, NFTs are tickets to communities, membership tokens that open a world of utility and connection. Using the NFT as your profile picture is just one of the ways that collectors signal their status online, from Twitter, Instagram, and even Linkedin, digital identity has erupted through the use of NFTs.
However, although a collector may own the NFT on the blockchain, there has been no way of proving ownership, other than linking your Opensea page to your social media. Not everyone will necessarily do this, and therefore technically, anyone could pretend to have an NFT and use it as their profile picture, which in turn presents some issues.
There is an unspoken rule on NFT social media that if you don’t own the relevant NFT, then you shouldn’t use the image. Although there is no enforcement, you can often determine whether their profile picture is legitimate through a quick vetting of their profile and cross-checking OpenSea. Yet still, as of recently, there has been no real way of formalizing this apart from through word of mouth, where imposters are ridiculed, or excluded. This was until Twitter announced that they would be authenticating the ownership of an NFT whereby you can log on to Twitter, connect your wallet, and Twitter will verify that you are the owner of the NFTs and a checkmark appear next to your profile.
This video demonstrates how to connect your wallet to platforms such as MetaMask and Coinbase which will then allow you to choose an NFT as your profile picture. In addition to a collectibles tab that will display your portfolio of NFTs. This integration will prove to be significant for two main reasons.
(i) It will enhance the value of the NFT due to the verification.
(ii) It will bring extra layers of security, helping to prevent impersonations.
This announcement from Twitter demonstrates a major step towards including web 3 as well as displaying an understanding of our need for ownership, control, and identity. However, although they may be working in our best interest, the issue remains, Twitter is a centralized platform. So although they are catering to the needs of the community, they are still in complete control of our data, accounts, and our identity.
For example, if Twitter were to arbitrarily decide that they no longer wanted you to have an account, or perhaps you were mistakenly suspended, your account could be permanently lost. Clearly, this places the user in a vulnerable and powerless position where the centralized companies have the control, and not the users. Perhaps we need more ambitious visions, one school of thought being where identity is transportable and not locked down to a single entity or platform. But is this realistic?
The 10 principles of Self-Sovereign Identity
According to Christopher Allen, the path to self-sovereign identity is encompassed by 10 main principles.
Existence- Users must have an independent existence
Control- Users must control their identities
Access- Users must have access to their own data
Transparency- Systems and algorithms must be transparent.
Persistence- Identities must be long-lived
Portability- Information and services about identity must be transportable
Interoperability- Identities should be as widely usable as possible.
Consent- Users must agree to the use of their identity.
Minimalization- Disclosure of claims must be minimized.
Protection- The rights of users must be protected
Reflecting on this list, it would appear that the blockchain is the perfect solution, where there are no gatekeepers, and we have full control over our identity, just like in the real world. Despite there being the issue of greater responsibility and error, this is mitigated by the fact that you are in the control, not a third party controlling it on your behalf.
In web 2 we use a system whereby a third party stores a bunch of data about you on a server which is used to set up an identity. You can access it via passwords, biometrics such as fingerprints, or via a key/dongle. However, the fundamental identifying information is not stored by you, it is stored by the third parties and if there is a data breach, your identity is consequently compromised.
In web 3, there is another way of access which is through the use of digital signatures. Despite it appearing like a web 2 password manager through the plug-in extension, there are underlying differences. You have both a public key, and a private key that only you hold, and only the holder of the key can sign things. When you go to a website you will be sent a random string which you verify and sign, the web server can verify that you are you given that only you can sign it. Essentially, you can take back control of your data and identity.
Changing the Status Quo and the rise of the metaverse
So why have we not transferred over to new social media platforms, and why are we still so invested in the centralized platforms that don’t really give us full control? There are a number of possible answers:
(i) New platforms are not profitable enough, this may deter people from investing in new ones.
(ii) They are too similar to current social media platforms. There have to be significant, unique changes.
(iii) For the most part we don’t want to embrace the change, we prefer the convenience and the mainstream.
There are a number of newly built NFT social media platforms that are providing the opportunity to change the status quo, take for instance Tryshowtime, desoprotocol, and nifty’s, they are certainly a step in the right direction, but for many, they prefer to stick with what they know. New models have failed to gain traction given that the opportunities and connections on these centralized platforms have already been established over years, meaning that it would be difficult to transfer them over to an entirely new, decentralized platform.
To clarify, Twitter is not a bad social media platform, in fact, it has been a fundamental contributor to the growth of the NFT community, and thousands of individuals and projects have skyrocketed as a result of the platform use. There is the question that without it, could the NFT space have grown to where it has today? The upcoming Twitter verification will only serve to bolster the NFT community even further.
However, the distinction to be made is about safety, and the longevity of identity, not whether Twitter fosters community or not. Currently, Twitter does not offer the long-term protection of your identity, and this is something to seriously consider. So, the question remains, would things be better if there was a dedicated NFT platform that takes this issue into account?
The future of social media could lie in the metaverse where we have the freedom to build a society from the ground up. Imagine the exciting possibility where your identity is verified and you can travel seamlessly between different web 3 platforms. Here your NFTs are the key to this open loop, and free travel. Moreover, identity on the blockchain is perhaps more secure than anywhere else whereby there is no opportunity for details to be forged. This reinforces the idea that decentralized platforms could be the key to allowing identity to flourish.
We are just scratching the surface, changing habits and behaviors will be difficult, and without everyone, there won’t be systematic change. However, one thing is for sure, and that is that we are still very early.
Decentralization versus centralization
Despite the growing desire to move away from centralized platforms, the distinction between both spectrums is not so simple. For many, it is argued that centralization is in fact a working mechanism, and it provides security. However, this power imbalance suggests that we are not capable of acting as individuals and that we must be always be overseen by authority. Decentralization offers a bridge away from this, putting power into the individual’s hands, and it has the potential to solve a number of fundamental economic and social problems as a result of the open, and permissionless nature.
However, some aspects of centralization are considered necessary, there needs to be customer service, and some argue there has to be some regulation, otherwise, it would truly remain the wild west. According to Chang Jia, founder of Bytom and 8btc, they say “When people choose blockchain, they will still accept more decentralized methods. People always strive for the right balance between decentralization and efficiency according to the actual situation.” So the dichotomy is not so clear cut, there are pros, and fallbacks to both ends, and perhaps a middle ground is required for efficiency.
This article serves to provoke a discussion regarding the concept of digital identity, and what it could mean in a decentralized world. The notion of digital identity has rapidly evolved since the web has grown, and even today, what constitutes a self-sovereign identity is not so clear. As we spend more time online, in an increasingly shifting digital world, the need for control over our identity is important. Just like ownership of NFTs, proof, and guaranteed protection of your online identity will be key going forwards.