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June 21, 2006

Online and Exposed - *Updated June 29*

How flickr, myspace, and the web is changing the nature of "knowing"

I had a curious but ever more regular interaction with an incoming graduate student at the Institute of Design recently. She contacted me because I had offered to discuss and answer questions with her regarding the school, Chicago, among other things. In her very first email to me, she wrote this, "I got caught up in your website and flickr site... my visit was a blast and this sneeky internet spying is fun too!"

If you're reading this now, you've probably checked out the rest of creativeslant. You may have even clicked through some of my flickr site since it's linked from here in the "about" section. Everything I've written or photographed is sincere, honest, and fully representative of who I am and what I think. Considering it was designed for this purpose, I should have been completely happy to learn she not only took the time to view my site but even liked it.

So why at the moment I first read that statement did I feel nothing but dread at the prospect that she knew so much about me?

That we are in a period of cultural transition with regards to self-documentation, promotion, and ultimately privacy, goes without saying. At no time in the history of the world could people so rapidly document their lives and share it with the rest of the world. Digital hardware and networked software is making it point-and-click easy to create a reflection of one's own life. The rise of these tools was both a result of and a powerful engine for reality TV born in a NYC loft with the first season of MTV's "The Real World". It would seem everyone is ready for their 15 minutes of fame. But what are the consequences? Well, this is a complex question for many reasons but three issues in particular are worth considering: generational gaps, the value of networking, and unintended consequences.

Needless to say those of generation "C" (content) or "I" (internet, interactive) or "Z" as they are more often known, are quite comfortable not only documenting themselves online but are driven to do so by their peers. These youths, sporting iPods, with a camera phone at the ready, are (b)logging into myspace and documenting the stream of their lives at such a rapid rate that the site has become more popular than Google. Yes, you read that correctly, myspace far outstrips the mighty Google in pageviews per month. How is this possible considering nearly everyone uses Google but a far fewer number use myspace?

I would argue that the answer lies in the fact that myspace is inherently about networking and networking is more key than ever to having power within social groups. This is true for knowledge workers, colleagues, friends, and even more so for tweens and teens. Who you are connected to is, at some level, a reflection of who you are and vehicles like myspace are an almost perfect representation of peer groups. Those cliques that were constrained to local towns when I was a teenager are now blown out for all to see worldwide. At some level, the value of networks (invisible but more importantly visible) have made these high school cliques commonplace from friendster to flickr but we're all a lot older now. Sure, people are a lot nicer about how they treat each other (at least on flickr, the one site I know best) but, ultimately, it all comes down to who do you want to be associated with... who you want to receive content from? The explosion of myspace has just made obvious the gap between X and C: those of gen C have little to no problem extending out while it seems earlier generations are a bit more conservative. (Or, perhaps the tools built for our networking, LinkedIn for example, just aren't cutting it.)

So there's a generational gap and the value of networks are ever more important. But what are the unintended consequences of these networks made both visual and public? Well, there are both positive and negative repercussions. The great thing I get to experience on an almost daily basis is this tremendous sense of unity with friends I rarely get to see because of geographical distance. Like never before, I am able to experience their lives in a stream of pictures and they, in turn, can experience mine. Sharing in this way is a wonderful thing and not to be underestimated. These new networks also make reconnecting with lost friends or meeting new ones far more fluid. If I see that I am connected to a person that nearly every other person in my peer group is, it makes me wonder who that person is. I just might pay a bit more attention to their contributions and reach out when it makes sense. More than one friend has been made by me in this way and I am happier for it. Clearly, these are positive reinforcing platforms that unify the world and its people.

Potential negative issues run the gamut from the absurdly obvious predation on myspace to a far more subtle change in the way we all must conduct ourselves on a daily basis. As has been often reported, myspace can be a very dangerous place. Many studies have shown that sexual predators run rampant on the site. This is a scary thought so we must be more vigilant and responsible than ever in supporting our children and friends. More worrisome, frankly, is the fact that some will attack the platform for their own lack of parenting skill as was reported here on Wired: Girl, 14, sues MySpace.com alleging assault. In this case, a mother and her 14 year old daughter, who was sexually assaulted, are suing myspace to the tune of $30 million, claiming that the site fails to protect minors from sexual predators. Regardless of the facts of the case, a judgement against myspace would be sure to negatively impact these new networks' ability to grow fluidly and innovate.

A less obvious social issue has come to light. Perhaps it's best illustrated in through an example. I regularly view my contacts photos to keep up with the daily happenings in their lives. I happen to have come across a photo of a bottle of champagne on a friend's photo stream which had the words, "To 5 Years". I was the first person to view the photo and posted a comment something to the effect of, "Congratulations! What are we celebrating?" Instead of posting a response directly on the page, this friend emailed me. She told me that she had gone through cancer treatments and it had been 5 years since last having tested positive for for cancer. For those of you who don't know, this is a big milestone in cancer patients' lives as it is a sign a patient has about as much to fear from cancer as an average person. It's sort of an almost permanent remission. I mention this story not to talk about cancer but instead about the effect this type of interaction has as this technology rolls out to every member of society. She had opened a very private part of her life to a huge group of people she wasn't necessarily ready to have the conversation with. She ended up changing the photo (and future ones) to be shown to friends and family only. I got to know her better as a result of the interaction but how do we control "knowing" in this day and age?

Extrapolating forward, how does this play out for the 60+ million myspace users who are posting pieces of their lives at this point they and society finds acceptable but in twenty years may not? Google's caching of every bit of data is a great boon to us when we need it, but what are the consequences of our lives being fully documented? How do we move past our mistakes and have them not haunt us because some future employer, friend, or mate has access to the entire history of our lives? For the time being, the only answer seems to not make mistakes and to be very, VERY careful about how and what one posts. Imagine yourself as a brand or product and realize that what is said about you and how you perform (what you do in your life) is being captured constantly. There's a saying that I can't remember exactly but it is essentially, "Only say what you would be comfortable telling your mother or 12 peers (i.e., in a courtroom)." We may have gotten to the point where this is the rule of every interaction in your life.

More broadly, it would seem that how people react and adapt to the current and emerging media savvy world of will determine winners and losers in a future economy based on (personal) brands, knowledge, information, and the networks in which we find ourselves. The "networking" of the past is being laid bare for most or all to see. Your actions are being kept in a stream out of your direct control and which size is impossible to accurately comprehend. We have more "friends" than ever to support us but, unfortunately, far fewer real confidants.

Interestingly enough, over the week following the post, a research study from my alma mater, the University of Chicago, was published that directly supported a few of my main points. Read about it at Americans Lose Touch, Report Fewer Close Friends.

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