What is an acquaintance, and what is identity?

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Thu, 23 Apr 1998 11:36:48 -0700

In a regular email day I get 100-200 personal emails plus another
100-200 emails from mailing lists. Not a complaint, just a fact.

The personal emails generally fall into one of several categories:
1. People I know, who want something from me.
2. People I know, who I want something from, who are responding to me.
3. People I don't know, who want something from me.
4. People I don't know, who I want something from, who are responding to me.
5. People who write me out of the blue because of my Web pages,
usenet posts, or mailing list posts, either to extol my virtues, or
to flame me, or sometimes both.

My question is, how easy is it for #5 to fake #1? I have a lot of
personal information on my home page -- enough for a stranger to spoof
being an "acquaintance" or a "second cousin" -- and I regularly get some
email from someone claiming to be a relative or acquaintance who I
honestly cannot recall if I actually know.

Heck, anyone who reads the Adam FAQ


knows that there are many people running around this world with the same
name as me


and also many people running around this world claiming to be me. Truth
is, identity is not something that should be so easily spoofable. I
like Rohit's "munchkins" one-line pitch: a munchkin is born into the
world with nothing but a unique identity. Everything else can be
bootstrapped from there, so long as that identity is nonspoofable,
nontransferrable -- not even introspectable directly. It is only
through communication with other neighbor munchkins -- is it through
events or through messages?, see the next paragraph -- that such
bootstrapping can be accomplished.

On 4/19/98 -- the longest day of my short life, thanks to the
international dateline and a liquored up Rohit who refused us the luxury
of sleep -- I think we finally unmasked The Truth with regard to the
difference between events and messages and when you would want to choose
one mechanism over the other for communication. The distinction is
subtle but (IMNSHO) important. I'm working on a post about it -- which
I guess will form the crux of my events survey. More on that later; too
bad I cannot put a forward pointer here or go back to here in the future
and explicitly put in a link. (Dammit, as with Larry Wall, you talk to
Ted Nelson three times and you catch his disease... :)

But back to unspoofable identities and the nature of interconnectedness
of human (and/or munchkin) relationships. Barry Wellman is a PhD in
sociology and in charge of the international network for social
networking analysis. A very warm, astute man who I've never met. He
defines acquaintance as "someone you would recognize, were you to meet
in a chance encounter." Geez, well for me at this point that's gotta
border on 4500 people... not to mention Internet acquaintances who I've
never met but would be willing to strike it up were we to meet by
chance. Even the guy below, even if he wasn't a second cousin, sure I'd
talk with him were we ever to meet.

Anyway, that's not my point. My point is that this concept of social
networking influenced John Guare's play "Six Degrees of Separation",
which in turn influenced


something which (independently) eight people have alluded to when
talking with me in the past 24 hours. What's that Dr. Strangelove /
Klingon line about once is accident, twice is coincidence, three
times is shame on you, four times is shame on me, and eight times is
"you killed my father, prepare to die"?

Back to the point -- and I *do* have one: Dr. Wellman believes after
extensive research that

| "The average person has 1500 acquaintances, with wealthier and older
| types tending to exceed that level. Any two people on the planet can
| be linked by five or fewer intermediaries."

Since I'm neither Rich (though I might be working for one this summer)
nor Classic (Rohit says I still have 19 months in me before I am
officially "Old" with a capital O), how am I to account for the fact
that I know 4500 people AND that I can spoof knowing a heckuva lot more
people than that? (Social engineering is sooooo evil, I just love it.)

(I reached the number 4500 by taking the number of people in my email
aliases file -- 1500 -- and conservatively multiplying it by three.
Note also that "acquaintance" is a one-way relation; someone can be
acquainted with me and I have no idea who they are...)

Is this to say for every me on the planet there are two hermits who only
talk to themselves? Is this the same thing as the statistic that the
average American reads only one book a year, so through his and my
voracious reading habits, Rohit and I deny 600 Americans the right to
their one book for this year?

Speaking of books, I'm preparing another Amazon order


this time of Hakon and Bert's book, even though I know a second edition
is coming, because that's going to make the first edition a rare
collectors' item, right?


Oh shoot, Amazon is changing the way they require URLs to be typed in.
I'll have to tell y'all about that in a followup post. My mind is mushy
ever since I have to decide what to do with my summer (is it almost May
already?!). Elwood, you're right, Microsoft Research is a dream, and
they've made me an offer to live in Redmond for the summer. But the
only way I'm going to live without my wife -- my life -- is if MSR lets
me work on what I was going to work on anyway. Event notification
services, from client-side DOM events and constraint-based modeling to
Internet-scale events over HTTP. Essentially, my life has become so
event-driven, I want to know deeply and profoundly events on every level
of the chain.

Such as the event that served as my wakeup call this morning that led to
this post in the first place... do read this and see what I mean about
acquaintance relationships being so inherently spoofable... I myself
have done this from time to time to get my foot in the door with someone
I want to know...

> From kacrylics@united.net Thu Apr 23 06:13:24 1998
> Subject: 2nd cousin (kevin wright) surprise
> To: adam@cs.caltech.edu
> Adam, I'm sure this e-mail will come as a surprise. I do not remember
> the last time I saw you. Yesterday was my daughter's birthday(Erica
> 17th) and my mom joined us for dinner. She was talking about how well
> you were doing and all the exciting things you have going on. I looked
> you up on the net and was very impressed with you resume and page. My
> son( Chris Shiflett) is a computer science student at Tennessee Tech.
> I'm not sure if you guys remember each other but you may want to check
> him out on this web page. I believe his address is
> users.multipro.com/shiflett/ It's great to hear you are getting
> married. I'm sure your family is excited. Tell your family I said hello
> and maybe sometime in the not to distant future we will see each other.
> Take Care,
> Kevin
> www.kacrylics.com
> kevinw@united.net

On rereading this I think this person genuinely believes that he and I
know each other. And who am I to say my memory is so good that I can
say with no doubt that we don't?


Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding,
the cretins cloning and feeding, and I don't even own a TV.
-- Harvey Danger, "Flagpole Sitta"