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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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Evan Meagher says:

    I'm with you entirely. The power of mass collaboration continues to prove itself capable of producing pillars of knowledge and usefulness like Wikipedia, contrary to the pessimism of skeptics like Andrew Keen. If you look past the spam on digg and the comments on YouTube, there are plenty of gems like Witness and the social network constructed to help family and friends locate hurricane victims in the aftermath of Katrina.

    The web is finally becoming the social environment it was originally meant to be.

  2. Scott Lowe says:

    Your points on privacy are very valid. I agree that you have every right to look at employee's Facebooks and other online information.

    What I wonder is what would you find that would affect your hiring?

    Since these online communities have different levels of privacy, would you request that an prospective employee or current employee add you as a friend? This to me seems like it would be like inviting yourself over to their house versus being invited since they indeed wanted the information held within to be privateish.

    I do appreciate your stance on an openness to the web and a community-accountability and levels of quality being based on the individual work/observer rather than some sort of organization. (Although that is good as a reference, you wouldn't expect to see Water World in HD Surround Sound on youtube and you wouldn't expect to see a low res spoof on a music video for $10 and popcorn. I guess that has something to do with channels. Anyway...)

    ... My main concern (as a prospective future employee in training) is what could there be in a Facebook profile that could alarm a prospective employer? (Lets pretend that the prospective employer is consitered to be a rather progressive open-minded guy and not afraid of employing someone that is gay/homophobic, jew/nazi, person-of-strange-fashion/suit, or would personality traits such as these actually be what is being searched for?)

    Great article btw!

  3. Hi Scott,

    I'm not sure that I'd be looking for anything in particular. Mostly, I'd just want to get a feel for what this person is about. Interviews are often rather awkward settings, and sometimes it's interesting to see how a person presents oneself in other forums, be they blogs, networks, forums, et cetera.

    At work, we're all connected by Facebook and some other networks, but it's certainly not compulsory. We're all friends here, and we have individually chosen to connect in this fashion.

    Your last point is one I really don't have a clear answer to. I'd certainly be alarmed if I read something racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise hurtful in someone's profile. I don't really feel that how others choose to live is much of my business; that being said, I'd prefer to work with those who are generally good people.



  4. Naomi Niles says:

    Eric, I really enjoy reading your posts. They are always insightful and I think this one is particularly so.

    I agree with your stance on looking at Facebook profiles. It really is public information. I would never post anything online that I was worried about clients seeing, not that there is anything to worry about there. And I totally agree with what you say about knowing the people who you are going to work with on a more personal level.

    When my husband and I started our business, we were really worried about how much information we should share about ourselves. We didn't want to post pictures or any personal information at all. After a few years, we realized that we were feeling like robots. Relationships were just not rewarding like we wanted them to be with other people online. It was all ridiculous. What were we hiding from?

    We finally decided to start sharing more, both on our website and other places like facebook. We also let clients in more on what we are doing outside of work and we like to hear how things are going in their lives too.

    In the end, it's the same for us as you say. Our business is greatly an extension of ourselves. We put a lot of passion into it and there isn't really one without the other. We figure that if people have an issue with us for some reason, that's fine because it probably wouldn't be a rewarding relationship anyway.

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  6. Gels Saby says:

    Hi Eric,
    These are great reflections, which I find interesting compared to the academic environment I'm working from. Privacy, of course, is a very different issue with us (best illustrated in the ruckus that was the FaceBook Ryerson case) and as the designer for an application being catered to this demographic it's a huge consideration when we start integrating any kind of social feature.

    However even in the 'public' sphere, I would argue that despite privacy being non-existent (or at least low priority), it's still a concern - best supporting example that comes to mind is FaceBook's Beacon program, which eventually received enough criticism from the community for Zuckerberg to apologize. But then, this is also proof of the community/organic development creating standards.

    Probably most interesting *is* the optimism of social application development, but then, how do you deal with a global community that has all sorts of cultural differences? Where is the line drawn between censorship and anarchy?

    Your comments inspired me to write further on the subject, particularly with respect to our own development but it covers some interesting examples outside of academia. Please feel free to participate with us as well!

    Cheers :)

  7. Ike says:

    Count me among the skeptics of the Wisdom of Crowds. I'm generally an optimist when it comes to human nature, but the WoC is *not* a check on tyranny. It guarantees it, because it wraps majority decisions in a cloak of moral certainty.

    There are many things that we've been collectively wrong about in human history. I believe that individuals -- working in their own self-interests -- provide a check and a balance on tyranny. Put them in a group where they can sublimate their own individual ability to reason, and you give them an excuse to be lazy, and not think for themselves.

    Wikipedia may be working fine for now, but let's be frank: the internet (and by that I mean the BUSY internet) is populated with early-adopters. This group is hardly representative of the world as a whole, and by virtue of being more open to networking they are more inclined to a Wiki-style model of behavior. These people are achievers, and they will think for themselves.

    Do you think that when the number of Wikipedians multiplies by ten that we'll see the same dynamic? Do you believe that a Wisdom of Crowds model will always have the benefit of a Crowd of over-achieving engagers?

    Or do you fear the possibility that a few in the crowd will seed opinions in a sinister direction, and push the masses into a nasty agenda? If you think about it, we already HAVE Wisdom of Crowds modeling in our government -- every administration and every individual politician being ruled by the almighty survey and poll.

    The crowd is quite often WRONG, and WoC only works with certain types of questions. The only problem is that when your very definitions of "correct" and "incorrect" come to a popular vote, there is no fallback position.

    As you say, Eric -- the web is a mirror. There's nothing magical about the Wisdom of Crowds. It will fail us in cyberspace, because it has failed us in meatspace.

    That's my pair of pennies...

  8. Eric,
    Fabulous post, as always.
    My only comment is around privacy. It's true that in some respects privacy is dead. But there is a huge difference in someone sharing information about themselves in a public forum and in a person or company using that person's private information about them without their consent or knowledge (identify theft, health data, etc.).
    I'm all for transparency where there is a benefit (like getting a better sense of the person you're going to be working with or being marketed to in a more relevant manner because I've opted in to share certain information). But I believe that organizations that are privy to customer information should be fully committed to protecting their customers' privacy.

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  10. Steven Clark says:

    Interesting discussion. I see your point about it being a mirror, too.

    It brings to mind Clay Shirky's Harvard talk about his new book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

    To quote him "A society that has an Internet is a different kind of society than a society that doesn’t, just as a society that had a printing press was a different kind of a society than a society that didn’t." Clay Shirky.

    I think you're on the same page.

  11. mel says:

    Great post Eric!
    I applaud you for doing hiring to a culture - it's so important for everyone involved. If that requires a look on Facebook, then so be it. Funny enough, just *yesterday* I spoke to an old manager on mine who was telling me that he was working on a engine to look up information on existing employees for work on projects! I thought it was a great way to use social networks and I no doubt, believe we'll see more of this kind of use from employers in the future...

  12. James says:

    Having been on the internet since the days of BBS' and GEnie, I've seen a lot come & go. One thing that is proven true over, and over, and over again.

    The Wisdom of Crowd is about as reliable as George "Dubnuts" Bush with a blank check... well, OK, sorry to get political. Those who think the Wisdom of the Crowd works need look no further than

    And maybe it's because I have been around for so long and seen human nature at work on the Web that I don't trust ANY PERSON or COMPANY. EVER! Especially when they have a privacy policy posted. That simply tells me that they have bothered to post it because it provides them with the legal loopholes to abuse the information.

    In any case, great article Eric!

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