When Words Do Not Mean What You Think They Mean

I love getting to wear a variety of ‘hats,’ even if it means relearning the English language over and over and over. As someone who occasionally reads a dictionary for fun (yes, I might be a bit strange), I love drilling into the history of words. Connotations! Denotations! Let’s throw in some annotations just for entertainment! And yet, as much as I love words, even I have to admit it’s exhausting to try and figure out what people mean when they use a word I thought I knew.

Let’s take the word “discovery.” According to good, ol’ Merriam-Webster, “discovery” is “the act or process of discovering“, “something discovered“, or “the usually pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts or documents by one or both parties to a legal action or proceeding”.

OK, great! But if you’re talking to people in scholarly publishing, “discovery” refers to “helping users find content.” If you’re talking to people in the identity federation community, then of course you’re talking about helping users find their identity providers. Though, hey, if you’re a network engineer, you’re almost certainly talking about finding services on the network. And if you start to break down silos and get the publishers talking to the federations who also need to talk to the network engineers… You have this word that does not mean what you think it means.

One of my clients, IDPro, is working on a Body of Knowledge to try and wrangle the identity and access management field into a common set of words. I’m incredibly proud of that project, and wondering if I’ll reach retirement age before we, as an industry who does this stuff for a living, will ever agree to just one definition for “digital identity.”

There’s a never-ending amount of work to try and normalize language. Standards organizations make valiant efforts towards this every day. (Have you seen the article on Atlas Obscura about standards? They describe my people.) And I love to participate in the standard development effort, because I love how words are used. But if you don’t have a diverse set of representatives in the room, you are just creating another definition.

There are ways that you can help me reach my lofty goal of having a common definition of “digital identity” before I retire. You can come be a part of the conversation. There are almost certainly areas where digital identity touches your world. That might not be your focus, but there’s almost certainly some aspect of identity management that touches your world. Educate yourself. Listen to podcasts (like Cocktails, Code, and Conversations with David Lee, or Definitely Identity with Tim Bouma) on the topic. Participate in an IAM user group, or even with IDPro directly. There is room for you, regardless of your main focus. And we need your input. If you still aren’t sure how to get involved, reach out to me! I am more than happy to help get you started.

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