At the center of the Social Web and the shared activities that define it are the online personas of participants: More than with prior anonymous discussion boards or cloaked personas, it’s an actual identity that is of value in a business context, since it is generally the motivation of an individual to be noticed as such that drives social participation in the first place.
Though detailed personal information is (still) generally not available except to “trusted friends” or colleagues, the use of a real name or photo in one’s social profile is becoming common. Along with any optionally provided information, the result is a a basis for understanding who it is that is actually participating.
The profile is therefore the starting point of social interaction, because without it the interaction that would otherwise occur is purely transactional, between the participant and the online application or other unknown party.
The existence of a profile or equivalent is, in this sense, what differentiates social platforms and applications from (online) interactive applications. In an interactive application—consider a typical website—the interaction is between the application and the user: navigate to a help file, download a PDF, or place an item in a shopping cart.
In each of these, the primary activity occurs between a user and an application designed to facilitate a specific task. Identity—beyond basic security or commerce validation requirements—in this context is of relatively little importance.
Because the individual participant is steering the entire process, and because this is typically a task-oriented transaction, the identity of the participant matters little beyond the requirements of the task at hand. In a social context, by comparison, the interaction occurs between the participants as much or more than it does (overtly) between a specific participant and the application or platform.