Your Individuality and the Social Web

The Social Web is shaping up to be the dominant paradigm shift of this generation. The Social Web can be thought of as an online self-expression, sharing, and discovery fabric, upon which content is created by you and me; curated and rated by you and me; and consumed by you and me. This fabric not only links people. It has also evolved into an inherent component of our online experiences. Through sites such as Facebook, we are now immediately pointed to products, games and news sites that – based on our social profile – are most likely to resonate. With the Facebook social graph moving to the Web at large, this dynamic personalization of content and advertising follows us no matter where we go.

Our love affair with social networks was the initial instantiation of this major paradigm shift. Vincenzo Cosenza’s “world map of social networks” (http://ajaychopra.posterous.com/58817768) shows their spread and impact.

Facebook’s biggest contribution to the social Web is that it altered how we think of online identity. Instead of pretending to be someone else (such as in Second Life), users began posting and sharing tidbits of their own life experiences, as well as their personal tastes, thoughts and beliefs. And it turned out that people’s real-life experiences and ideas were more interesting than their pretend lives – at least to their friends and families (and to businesses and advertisers!).

Because of a direct link between our identity and our interactions on the Web, commercially viable businesses can be built that take into account our social profile. Thus, nuances of our individual profiles precede us online, no matter where we go; and our online experiences are becoming progressively hyper-personalized based on our growing social interactions online.

The impact of this phenomenon is confounding. In some ways, it is beautiful – we are creating and sharing openly and freely, connecting in ways that have never before been possible. However, there are at least a couple of issues related to individuality that must be addressed for the Social Web to become a truly sustainable paradigm shift.

  • The first question relates to privacy.
  • And the second one relates to hyper-personalization.

We are going through a cultural change in how we think of privacy. The “Facebook generation” has grown up being comfortable sharing and expressing thoughts and ideas to friends and strangers. Its comfort level in putting up details of its private lives on the open Web would have been unimaginable a decade ago. But this doesn’t mean that this generation is not as concerned about privacy as older generations. It just means that it sees more value in social interactions than in tightly safeguarding its privacy. In a way, people are implicitly entrusting their profiles to online publishers who, in turn, are providing valuable social interactions.

This is why I believe that publishers have to play a critical role in the social Web’s privacy protection discussion. Publishers are the custodians of the end-user profiles and data; and it’s through the implementation of transparent privacy policies that we can be assured that this personal data doesn’t wander away to every commercial interest that may desire it. The industry needs to take a proactive stand in self-regulating proper privacy safeguards so that the privacy issue does not become an impediment to the growth of the social Web. Fortunately, a variety of publisher side tools has recently emerged to help publishers take control of their audience data. Companies such as Red Aril and Krux Digital, can alert publishers of “data leakage” and provide a mechanism to implement business processes to control and analyze the information based on privacy policies and end-user opt-ins.

The issue of hyper-personalization is more complex.

As hyper-personalization becomes the norm, and we are only presented with information we’re bound to be attracted to, there may be little reason to look further than what’s being presented. With more and more of our information being sourced online, we may, in fact, be presented with a view of the world that comfortably fits our “profile.” This is a bit of a self-propagating cycle: as we interact more with hyper-personalized information, that interaction factors into our personal profile refinement, thereby possibly further limiting the information presented to us. However, the algorithms being used to tailor our Internet experience simply cannot encapsulate our true individuality and therefore may eliminate the possibility of discovering things beyond what our online profile determines.

This is legitimately concerning. But this is also something that could be self-correcting. Fortunately, we all have interactions beyond the Internet in a variety of forms. If people begin to feel that certain sites are presenting an overly tailored viewpoint based on personalization, they will look for alternative sites that resonate better with their true individuality. Ultimately, we may even see a scoring system that rates sites on how they manage personalization. Content aggregators may even let users choose a personalization level so that there is a balance between what your profile determines you care about and the excitement of discovering totally new things that you may start to care about.

Privacy and hyper-personalization are the first of many issues related to individuality that will need to be addressed pro-actively as the social Web evolves; but I do believe that, given the rapid growth of the social Web fabric, there are sufficient incentives in place that these and other issues will be resolved.  My bet is on the long-term viability of the social Web.