Identity

25Apr08

from aviatonweekAs the Web 2.0 conference winds down and all the parties, lobby-cons, meetups, mashups- i’ve started to realize how crazily connected everyone in the community, and San Francisco seems to be. Its amazing to see just how ridiculously intertwined everyone is, and how people seem to know each other.

Facebook seems to be one of the biggest ways people find those connections. Just checking out the “shared friends” feature, or taking a look at the “people you might know” box takes those random “you know xxxx? No way” moments, and forces them- where before, you had to accidentally find out from a friend. Twitter is even crazier- because of the constant updating, you can find out what someone’s up to at almost anytime- regardless if they’re a stranger or your best friend. It feels almost like overhearing a ton of conversations, happening all at once. Combine that with Flickr, and you can see their pictures, and now videos.

We’re almost at a point where we’re at persistent level of presence in both the real world (meatspace) and the virtual one (twitter/facebook/etc) and its getting really, really interesting. The concept of privacy has always fascinated me (I wrote my thesis at Berkeley on Technology and privacy). Its really interesting to see how peoples perception of privacy changes depending on the situation, their role, background etc. For instance, when we’re out at baseball game or bar, our idea of privacy is totally different than at home, or in the bathroom. These are physical location based concepts- so what does this mean in the virtual world?

A lot of what we do online we feel is somewhat private- like all the updates we put on facebook. If you’re using FB just for keeping up with friends, why worry about it affecting work? It definitely can. A year ago, I represented my company at a UC Berkeley employer conference with the goal being to find out how to better prepare students for the work world. In the discussions, the topic of the role facebook/myspace/etc came up, and how it affected employment. A quick poll of hands had 2/3 of the employers (ranging from banks to startups to tobacco manufacturers) said they routinely checked these social networks when a potential new hire was being considered. At least half of those polled said they had rescinded offer letters before as a result of what they saw. This is a classic example of our ideas on what’s private and what’s not being at odds with reality. And it gets even more complicated when more and more of these services become more popular.

On FB for instance, I have friends, exes, co-workers, customers and people i’ve met out and about. So what does it mean to have a “friend”? How much do you show, or can you show? I definitely don’t want want coworkers to see pics from and friends out at a club- sure, the limited profile option is one way to handle things, but there’s no guarantees that those pics won’t get out. And with Twitter, you can follow people that are complete strangers- and vice versa (i have a number of people following me that i have never met). With twitter, you can track a persons updates, thoughts, and communications with other twitters, giving you a better picture of what’s going on with them, and the larger community.

So where is this taking us? As these services all start integrating with each other, we’ve got a more and more complete picture of who we “are” online. But is this really “virtual” anymore? I think people are starting to view their actions online as just as “real” as in the real world- and if people are getting offer letters rescinded for their profile updates it probably validates that point. I’m worried this combined with the difficulty of controlling our identity and its expression online will instead of liberating us, put us into a limited box- where either we completely embrace and combine our online and offline personas, or completely reject the virtual. I’m curious, what do you think, where do you stand?

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