Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection

Through a Prim Lens: Social Media Outlook 2012

Virtual worlds prototype the future. Or one possible future in any case. And while social media pundits breathlessly anticipate our, um, social media-ish world, those of us who have thought about technology because we’ve spent time in digital landscapes like Second Life there are alternatives to the connected future we’re all supposed to rush headlong towards.

AdAge has a post by Freddie Laker in which he puts on his futurist hat to predict the future of social media. It’s hardly earth-shattering stuff – it’s sort of like predicting it will be sunny this summer to say that “our interactions with search engines will be different”. Um, thanks for the prognostication.

Regardless, his post is emblematic of the macro trends among the digerati about what happens next. And I beg to differ.

Which is also why I beg to differ with intimations that Second Life needs to be more like social media (it already IS social media, and a better social media than most that are out there, but that’s a different post).

Among Laker’s claims:

- We will come to accept that we have no privacy. No, sorry – his claim is that privacy expectations will have to change, that we’ll need to get used to sharing and having what we shared distributed and parsed.
- Our social networks will be portable. Gee, roll out the marching band – I’ll be able to take my friends anywhere. And this is an improvement? I can do that already in the physical world.
- GPS-based mapping features will become standard, and we’ll be tweeting our locations and FourSquaring ourselves as we eat hamburgers at Sloppy Sam’s.
- Everyone will be rating everything everywhere. The crowd is wise. We’ll be arguing over whether a restaurant serves authentic Italian food or not, and in the meantime will be compelled to tweet through our meal while the food gets cold.
- Social media will not be separate from digital media. Everything will be social.

Well, you can see how vapid the predictions are. And I suppose his target audience is brands and he’s probably an SEO specialist or something and so he’s sort of doing a beginner’s guide to the future (or his services).

But virtual worlds paint a slightly different picture of how this turns out. Because as exciting as it can seem to have our social networks tagged to our geolocation so that we can easily connect with a friend for coffee (as opposed to, oh, say, phoning them and asking “where you at”), there are other ways that this turns out, and our experiences in virtual worlds give some hint of the outcome.

Location Awareness is Situational
As Fast Company points out, services like FourSquare have about as much chance of ubiquitous success as being elected mayor of New York City:

The bigger hurdle — for all geolocation apps — is that even in these carefree, Facebook- and Twitter-addled times, telling people where you are right this minute might be a bridge too far for many. (See, a collection of out-of-the-house check-ins.) Indeed, a good analogue here is the age-old dream of the video phone. Because talking on the phone is so popular, chatting with video seemed to be a natural extension. But video turned out to be an intrusion in most situations. Even with the prevalence of Web cams, you’d prefer that the guy on the other end not see you; nobody places a Skype video call or hosts a video conference without making arrangements first.

Checking in has the same problem. It can be fun, useful, even indispensable, but only in certain contexts. Which doesn’t mean millions of people won’t start posting their locations on a map when Facebook or Twitter join the geolocation game. They probably will. But will the next social empire be built on check-ins? You’re more likely to be elected the real mayor of New York.

The top post on this blog is one on mapping avatar locations in Second Life. Now, whether people read that post because they want a way to track down their errant lover’s avatar or whether they’re worried about protecting their own location, I’m not sure. But what virtual worlds have shown us is that the impulse to map location is tempered – you might allow a friend to know where you are on the Grid, but you’re equally concerned about protecting the privacy of your experience.

And I believe once the initial flush of augmented reality hook-ups wanes, virtual worlds have shown us that the more likely outcome is that we’ll want to shield ourselves from the hive, or at least be selective about which hive we let track our location.

Loss of Privacy is Not a De Facto Outcome
Talk to me in a few years when the news reports start coming out that Wal*Mart has been buying up databases of people with cancer so that they can display banner ads to them on pharmacy services.

Talk to me in a few years when a parenting magazine or the New York Times comes out with an article showing how your 12-year old’s surfing patterns have been aggregated by DoubleClick and connected to their profile on Habbo Hotel or wherever.

Second Life has shown us that it’s possible to have a digital culture in which privacy and anonymity is the starting point, and “reality” is what you move towards. The idea that we need to start with transparency and loss of privacy is not a de facto answer to how we can achieve a sustainable online culture. In fact, I’d propose that much of this impulse is, simply, dead wrong and is motivated more by brands and corporations than individuals.

Which leads me to my next point…

False Data is the Next Major Trend
You can NOT tell me that the people on Facebook are all “real”. It takes about 10 minutes to find profiles that are clearly fake, with photos culled from stock libraries and fake wall posts written in the ‘voice of’ some fictional character.

In fact, as the shift towards transparency and the force march towards “all our data all the time” continues the response will be – well, MORE fake data.

Already, school kids are posting fake stuff on Facebook so that they’ll look good to a future employer, while they run a “real” profile under a fake name.

The result of transparency isn’t that we’ll share all our data all the time, it’s that we’ll share both real and fake data under different aliases so that no one can quite figure out which one of our online personas is real.

Second Life has shown that you can create a vibrant and trusting culture, one that’s polite and helpful and has norms for behavior BECAUSE you start from the premise that anonymity is the rule, and trust happens one-to-one.

Posting “real data” doesn’t lead to trust, because there’s very little “real data” that we haven’t self-curated or edited, falsified or hidden under different personas.

The Walled Gardens Will Grow
As we struggle to find spaces in which our ‘true expression’ online can be shared, there will be an increase in walled gardens.

Facebook is mostly a walled garden. Apple masters the concept of the walled garden. And Second Life is one.

Walled gardens allow us to enter “well lit rooms” – places where we understand the rules and can modify our behavior accordingly.

In the future, as we’ve seen in Second Life, the rule sets will be important to us and we’ll find refuge in digital spaces where we’re assured that those rules aren’t likely to change, the data will only be parsed in ways that we know about, and we don’t risk being subsumed in that “wider Web” that the Lab is so hot on these days.

Walled Gardens are the future, because the wider Web has no street signs, no rules at the entrance, and our data is too easily shared and sold, leading to both the false data and our sense that we have lost control of our online experiences.

Your Network is a Platform
I’m happy that you have 1,000 friends on Facebook and 3,000 followers on Twitter. But adding a friend doesn’t mean gaining one.

Social media is not about friendships, social media is the creation of distribution platforms for content. I don’t have a network of friends, I don’t have a social network, I have a broadcasting platform for content.

This isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be confused with sociality. We have each become a broadcaster through ‘social media’ while friendships form because we share expression.

The avatar is a form of expression, and in Second Life we see that “friending” can actually embed meaning, because it is attached to individual expression.

And Content is King
And that’s the crux of it all – because social media is the Emperor with no clothes, so long as there is no content to drive it.

Conversation is fine, but even conversation needs content.

Social media gives us each a distribution platform, but FourSquaring the fact that I’m at the dentist is hardly compelling content. What drives social media are the endless rewteets of youTube videos and blog posts, news articles and bon mots.

And so while, um, prognosticators like Laker can claim that in the future we won’t need the term social media because ALL digital media will be social, if that’s the case then we’ll have a donut with a giant hole in the middle.

Second Life has proven the value of content (and context). Without content, we’re just a bunch of noob avatars standing around in an empty sim.


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