What has changed on the Internet since ’96? (Part I: what has not)

21 10 2008

A week ago, while talking with my friend Carl Boehlke –via MSN of course- we found ourselves discussing about the changes we have seen and lived on our competence arena since 1996, year by which both of us were entangled with Internet, and he suggested me to share part of the discussion on my blog. I will divide the discussion in three parts: what has not changed, what has changed and what I think lies ahead of us.

What has not changed?

Identity on the Internet is still fragmented, either by the established model or by user decision. Different products and utilities can be used by the same person posing different parts of her self: the ones that are more meaningful for the product, the product audience or for the utility goal.

Tough there have been some efforts to amalgamate users online identity; nowadays, as in 1996, almost every web portal requires new users to register and specify different aspects of their selves; which would be used, arguably, to provide the best experience possible while using the product. This might be caused by the interest on providing users with the best experience possible (e.g. it helps to make available personalized content and features, moderate the product community, etc.) as much as by the sheer interest of captivating an audience (e.g. for future monetization efforts).

Let us not forget that online identity fragmentation is not only an effect of disparate registration processes, but it is also a consequence of the way people present themselves online and the manner they use each product, even when different products might share common spaces. For example, assuming Facebook and MySpace provided a shared registration; users might still make different use of the products: load diverse groups of friends, indicate different presentation texts, show different kinds of photographs/videos, etc.

Why? Because each individual goes thru a personal analysis by which she decides what aspects of her character she would like to expose to the product audience, based on the product personality (e.g. is it hipster, geeky, formal, etc), and what kind of people she wants to allow into her parlor, based on her privacy level and the risk associated with exposing certain aspects of her persona to strangers and related people alike.

Further Reading
Social Classes and Social Networking (Jason Falls)
Popego
OpenSocial
OpenId

Whereas it augments information availability and building relationships around it, in a manner that is not available using other technologies, it also amplifies the opportunities in which individuals can engage in antisocial behavior. Anonymity and unverified identity credentials are part of the Internet DNA, therefore there are a galore of chances for individuals, that otherwise might be scared of by offline measures, to perform pranksters against fellow internauts or even fall into more questionable activities (e.g. use online tools to prepare for an offline crime such as a fraud, assault or even worse activities) protecting themselves behind an identity cloak and an unexplored legal territory.

Why it is that it seems easier to perform such deeds online? In my opinion it is because with the internet you have access to more granularity and specification around an individual than you will have offline. For example, and pardon my crudeness, on a dating site you will not only be able  know a lot about someone’s character, appearance and interests but also you will have the opportunity discern what kind of people she might be attracted to, hence being a Preti dish for social predators.

Does this means I preferred this kind of sites, or others, to disappear? Definitely not, what I am fighting for is companies –and hopefully governments- to commit and acknowledge these pre existent conditions and develop content, tools, and functionalities to help their users protect against the minority loathing to fall unto the dark side.

It is not a mere question of whether this kind of developments will boost product usage or sales, it is an ethical pledge other industries have incorporated into their DNA around “environment” pre existent malevolent conditions (for example automotive industry and safety measures for passengers, television and parental controls, etc.)

Further reading
The Lucifer Effect (Dr. Zimbardo)

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