The accidental online society

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Anil Dash’s blog post last week on The Facebook Reckoning includes this terrific summary of what’s at stake for us in inventing our new, social media-ted society:

But what if I weren’t my own boss? What if my family couldn’t accept parts of my identity? What if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know how to engage with all of the choices about public sharing that Facebook forces me to understand? What if it were important to my own personal identity that public representations of me be colored purple instead of blue, as on Facebook? It’s easy to say all of our choices and all the aspects of our identity can be shared if we don’t face any serious social or personal consequences for doing so. But most of us are not that fortunate.

Dash wrote specifically about how the personal experiences and quirks of the Facebook team have affected the Facebook platform, effectively making decisions about privacy for millions of people who (for the reasons above) may not be comfortable or even engaged with the decisions Facebook is making.

But the implications of Dash’s argument extend far beyond Facebook, and far beyond the question of privacy. The groundwork for the next era in our culture — an era in which our work, lives and relationships will exist online as much as off — are being set without the conscious engagement of most of our current society’s members. They’re being set by whomever happens to build the next hot Internet platform, informed by whatever particular social milieu or psychological issues made those people who they are.

It may be fine for the market to pick the winners and losers of the next round of IPOs: for us to vote with our (virtual) feet in choosing whose particular worldview or neuroses will be part of our daily Internet use, and thus to decide which platforms and communities will thrive. But a “vote with your feet” policy is not a great basis for shaping a new set of cultural norms, particularly when so few people feel empowered to make conscious decisions about how to spend their time online, let alone see themselves as shaping a new online society.

2 Comments on this site

  1. Keith Grennan

    It seems like with any new disruptive technology, society is imprinted and affected by the idiosyncrasies and assumptions of the authors of the technology. It is interesting to watch the interplay of Facebook and its users, and government regulators. With a web application the rules of interaction can be rewritten almost instantly, so the technology is constantly shifting in response to that interplay. Contrast that to some other technology, say the compact disc, which is basically the same now as the day the first one was made. The ability for a technology like Facebook to change so quickly is a greater risk and greater reward in a sense, since its users can have an impact in how Facebook works, but may also subject to changes that may happen quickly, without notice and without consultation.

  2. Andrew McCann

    Interesting article–perhaps the solution is to develop a dynamic platform that has the ability to evolve based on how each particular user interacts with it. I understand that the root problem here is that these platforms are structured by software engineers without the conscious engagement of most of society. However I would expect that soon enough, these platforms will be designed to take on a life of their own, adapting to each member’s unique characteristics–which will be defined by analyzing behavior across multiple platforms. Companies who are not capable of doing this will likely lose out to those who enable laymen users to author their own platform without any active effort. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic but it just seems like these platforms are still relatively young.


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