Monday, April 14th, 2008

The web, community, privacy and optimism

The web, community, privacy and optimism
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A couple of weeks back I took part in a panel discussion on Web 2.0, which quickly moved into a debate on the implications of social media. It’s funny; I don’t look upon myself as a particularly optimistic person. Throughout the course of the evening, however, I realized that in fact I’m not just someone whose livelihood is connected to the web. I’m a believer.

Kate McCabe from Yahoo! and Heather Smith, an International Studies professor from UNBC were my fellow panelists, and they presented a series of compelling insights and topics for discussion. Both discussed this evolving space, how it relates to traditional notions of community, the potential presented for social change, and a number of other themes.

I found, however, that on a few points I was taking an alternate stance from my counterparts. and without intending to be so, perhaps seemed deliberately contrarian. I’ve spent the past weeks considering some of my arguments, and thought it might be nice to present them again, perhaps in a more eloquent fashion than in the original discussion.

Immigrants and natives

Throughout the evening, age seemed to surface repeatedly. The notion presented was one of some being “digital-natives”, and others being “digital-immigrants”. The former being indoctrinated in the world of the web from an early age, and the latter having less of an ability to naturally engage in this new paradigm. Needless to say, I felt somewhat flattered to be included in the first group, even if perhaps erroneously so.

As a child I remember older generations speaking of current music as having gone to sod. With age, I’ve seen this happen time and again. Although I couldn’t quite reconcile it at the time, I’m now convinced that it’s a protective measure that allows us to turn off learning that which is new. By “othering” these younger generations, we allow ourselves permission to disengage from new stimuli.

I see this as an unnecessary limitation that some impose upon themselves. The web doesn’t care if you’re young or old, hip or conservative, in or out; it’s simply a set of tools. You may choose to not utilize these tools, but they’re there for you regardless. Turn them on, employ them in your life, and see what clicks. There’s no age requirement, just an “open-mind” requirement.

The private and the public

The room was overcome by a strange silence and subsequently odd murmuring when I noted that as an employer, I check the Facebook profiles of those we consider hiring. Some clearly felt using that information was unethical, and I was a little surprised by this.

My rationalization for doing so is simple. When I hire someone, they become a part of our family. In large part, it’s like moving-in together. We’re going to share a space, work collaboratively, while sharing ideas and experiences. Isn’t it wise to learn as much as I can about a candidate prior to bringing them on board?

Now, I’d certainly never intrude on an employee’s personal life, and I don’t think I’ve ever even called a staff member after hours. That being said, a Facebook profile that’s accessible to all is largely public information. Perhaps that’s an uncomfortable notion for some, but the reality is relatively simple. If you don’t want it seen by others don’t post it online.

Personally, however, I’m not particularly concerned with the division of private and public persona. smashLAB is in large part an extension of my (and Eric Shelkie’s) being. I accept that clients and potential hires will check mine as well as they will read this blog and even “Google” me, to determine if I’m the kind of person that they want to befriend and work with.

I see this as a good thing. The “Eric” who my wife is married to is the same “Eric” who my clients see. There’s no posturing, no primping, no floating identity. Just one “Eric“. (Save for the fact that I fart somewhat more at home than in the movie theatre.)

Privacy may be dead; I’d argue that it largely doesn’t matter though.

The need for standards

Throughout the evening, many discussed the notion of quality and standards, with worry that in a user-generated space, both were susceptible. Now, I understand the desire for both of these things, but I also feel that the web (or more accurately, the community) will arrive at these organically.

First of all: quality. We’ve had this discussion for so long now, and I’m sometimes surprised by it. I see quality as a construct that’s subjective at best. Most would compare a Hollywood blockbuster as being of greater quality than a YouTube video, by citing production value as a measure. But why? If a user’s five minute long YouTube video sparks our collective interest and spurs discussion, doesn’t it have “quality”? Or, would Kevin Costner’s Waterworld have more quality given it’s elaborate sets and high budget?

Who sets the standard for quality? Who is deemed fit to measure and judge such nebulous constructs? In the old world, we would have seen governments assemble committees of diplomats and intellectuals to debate such points, in-turn creating frameworks and legislation which we’d all be forced to follow. (Thank God this is no longer the case.)

My conviction is that this new paradigm is healthier by embracing two ideas. The first is of pluralism. Why do we need to define quality? Can’t it be whatever the viewer determines it to be? Isn’t it more colourful and vibrant as a result of there being a larger number of perspectives and visions to contrast, than by having fewer, more polished ones?

Second is the belief in the wisdom of crowds. I believe in the community’s ability to measure and edit as a collective, with greater efficiency and more fairness than a smaller body. Consider Wikipedia, which even I would have argued to be an impossible dream a scant decade ago. Instead, the site is living proof that we build order and accountability as a community, and that the results are in-fact quite impressive.

I believe in people having a voice

Those looking to control the populace have most always looked to command and repress the people’s methods of communication. Just think of Hitler’s effort to rid Germany of any new forms of art or a little closer to home, McCarthyism.

The democratization of communication methods is what I hold as the most promising attribute of the web (particularly those attributes represented by Web 2.0). Have something to say? Do it in seconds and distribute it to the planet. Ideas are travelling like viruses, and as the infrastructure matures, we’ll see this occur even more readily.

And this gets really exciting, when you see what people like Peter Gabriel are doing with programs like Witness. In it, videos of human rights abuses are recorded and distributed, allowing people to document and understand atrocities as they happen. Silence is our enemy in these situations, and implementing technology as such allows us to put a lens on injustice that previously would have gone unnoticed. Are all of the mechanisms in place to end such injustice? Hardly; nevertheless, I believe such programs represent a first step with enormous promise.

Meanwhile we have people applying open-source principles to a litany of social problems, combining their desire to do good with those of their counterparts around the world. The inexpensive and readily available technologies allow for an ever greater number of potential solutions to address societal challenges.

If you think about it, how we mobilized prior to the web seems like the equivalent of walking in quicksand. In my mind this will grow exponentially, as we gain insight into how to use these new tools better.

Frickin’ optimists

Although some will likely argue me on this point, I believe that the web isn’t an entity with any inherent character of its own. To the contrary, I believe it to be a mirror. It’s cruel because sometimes we are so. It has horrible at times because some behave in such a fashion. It’s also brilliant and hopeful, as we are at our best.

I’m a believer in the web, because I believe in humanity and our potential to do great good.

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