Joshua March, chief executive of Conversocial, wonders just how radical Mark Zuckerberg’s final vision for the internet is likely to be.
When Facebook first introduced its news feed, people were outraged. The broadcasting of changes to your profile – adding photos, updating your status – to your friends and fellow university students was considered by many to be a massive breach of personal privacy. It was one thing to put up information about yourself online, but quite another to have updates monitored and shared automatically.
But, after a while, most people shut up and got on with it. There was no exodus from the platform. In fact, the vast majority of Facebook’s users loved the news feed: they could have closer bonds with a wider group of people than ever before. The feed allows you to keep in touch with your “weak ties” – the friends and associates who you speak to less regularly- much more efficiently than through one-on-one communication.
The feed has since become a default feature for any vaguely social application, from intimate photo sharing apps like Path to business applications like Salesforce Chatter and Yammer.
The growth of Facebook, and the importance of identity on social platforms, has led to the emergence of the ‘Facebook profile’, a profile subtly distinct from someone’s offline personality. People choose which photos to tag and which music and films to say they like. We put forward the persona we want to show off, not necessarily the “real” one.
Sometimes this was because people were warned of the risks to their job prospects if they failed to keep on top of their privacy settings (and the photos they were tagged in). Future employers could check up on your profile at any time.
But, as Facebook opened to the wider world, and teens (and tweens) became involved, some distinct generational differences started to emerge. Younger people tend to share more. They are much more open about what they discuss in public.
And every year, all of us – even older generations – are opening up and being more relaxed about how much we share online. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, predicts that the amount of sharing we do will double every year – a rule coined ‘Zuckerberg’s Law’.
Facebook created a huge leap in the potential for sharing this year with the launch of automatic sharing and the “ticker” feed at their F8 developer conference in September. For the first time, actions you take within applications – listening to a song, watching a movie, reading an article – can be shared, automatically, in real time. At that point, the Facebook identity slid silently from being a projected persona to being, in certain cases, a much better reflection of the real you.
As with the launch of the newsfeed, a lot of noise was made about privacy, partly because early implementations were rough around the edges. In Spotify, for example, once automatic sharing was turned on, it was very hard to turn it off. But Spotify soon fixed that, and then… people rather liked it.
It is useful to discover new music from your friends’ listening patterns, and to be able to listen to it yourself and interact with them, and it, in real time. Music is a big part of our personalities and we generally like to share it. It helps define who we are to the people around us. We have largely stopped complaining now about Spotify integration, and the music and media applications that have implemented auto-sharing have seen dramatic growth in users.
Our online personas are shifting from what we say about ourselves to what we actually do.
And the same is happening for businesses: earlier this year, Greenpeace launched a campaign against Nestlé for working with suppliers connected to deforestation. The campaign had instant consequences. People began to ask Nestlé about their involvement on their Facebook page, and wrote protest comments there. Some changed their personal profile picture to the ‘killer’ logo created by Greenpeace.
In a misjudged response, Nestlé attempted to deal with the situation by deleting negative comments, or comments by anyone with a ‘killer’ logo profile picture. Rather than burying the crisis, Nestlé only added fuel to the fire. Angry fans became more active and continued to spread Greenpeace’s campaign messages, creating a huge PR disaster for Nestlé. The company has since agreed to Greenpeace’s demands, and changed its social media policy.
Dozens of similar examples exist. The complaints of just a few individual customers can now explode into huge backlashes that spread way beyond social media platforms.
If you have a few hundred followers on twitter, and a dozen re-tweet you to their few hundred, then a dozen each retweet them, your message can reach thousands. If it is powerful enough to go a few more down the chain, a single message can, in theory, reach millions of people in minutes.
And it is not just the big disasters that companies worry about. Social media is quickly becoming the first place we learn about new products. It makes sense – people trust their friends, and Facebook makes it easy to share that cool new app you have found, or to say how poor that new iPad ripoff is.
In a recent poll of its users, Facebook found that 44 per cent were discovering new products on the website. A third of people, when seeing a recommendation for a product from a friend, went straight to that product’s Facebook page. There they could see the questions and complaints of other customers, and how the company was responding.
For the first time, a company’s customer service is being shown to the world. Ignoring customers now has real consequences on the bottom line.
This is forcing companies to be “honest”. They can no longer hide. A brand was nurtured and maintained through the dark arts of marketing and spin. Now, a brand is defined by what a company does and what their customers are saying about them online. Advertising and public relations executives might squirm, but most people agree that forcing companies to be open and honest is a good thing.
But it is harder to draw the line for individuals. How far will Zuckerberg’s Law go? Right now, people are auto-sharing what they’re listening to, what they’re reading, even where they are. (Facebook and Twitter posts include your location automatically by default.) More and more is being shared in the background, without you necessarily giving explicit consent.
The Economist recently reported that scientists have created software that can understand what you are thinking about from your brain activity. They can even piece together the images you are dreaming or seeing.
As this technology develops and becomes cheaper, is it inconceivable to imagine a future where our thoughts are shared automatically? Instead of privacy settings for your photos, you would need different settings for different kinds of thoughts. Think about where to go out tonight and your friends could see that – and think along with you – in real time. Think about politics and your conclusions could be released publicly into a hive mind of discussion.
It is mindboggling to think about what this future would look like. Such radical honesty could overturn social norms and completely upheave the way in which society functions and individuals communicate.
Greater openness and intimacy between people could bring huge benefits. But this would entail stripping privacy to the bone. Zuckerberg says he is on a mission to make the world “more open and connected”. Is making privacy and dishonesty obsolete concepts his real endgame?