"Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life"
O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference
March 28, 2007
[This is a rough crib of the actual talk.]
Citation: boyd, danah. 2007. "Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life." O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, San Diego, CA. March 28.
Good morning! Thank you for waking up at this ungodly hour to join me. As you know, the theme of Etech this year is 'magic' and i intend to take this up during my talk entitled "Incantations for Muggles." For those who are unfamiliar with Harry Potter, shame on you - Harry Potter is read by more people than BoingBoing and Digg combined.
The term "muggle" comes from the magical world of Harry Potter - it refers to those who are not wizards. While wizards have magic in their blood, muggles are unable to perform magic and, in most cases, are unaware of the magic being performed around them. While Harry Potter is written from the perspective of the wizards, only the most wretched characters are pureblood fanatics. For example, some of the followers of the Man Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned seek out muggles and kill them for pleasure. Meanwhile, in muggle land, only the fools and idiots detest the wizards and all that they represent; this is best represented by the Dursleys. The most beloved characters have much more empathy for one another, seeking to understand the differences and find common ground.
The title of my talk today is intentionally unclear. Who are the wizards and who are the muggles? From a techno-elite perspective, it's easy to strut our feathers, celebrate our wizardry, and mock those who don't understand what it is that we do. We can descend into the darkest spaces of the elite, but do we really want to be that hedonistic and eeeee-vil? In the Harry Potter series, our beloved hero is just a child, trying to understand the powers that he has been given without asking so that he may do well by the world, not just the land of wizards. What powers do we have? What is our responsibility in acquiring this much magic?
This title can also be turned on its head. Perhaps we are not the wizards, but the muggles. As we Twitter our way to friendship, scoring ourselves based on the numbers of 'friends' we can convince to subscribe to our existence, perhaps we lose track of what friendship and connection mean. We are so enamored by the technology that we think that is the magic upon which all life subsists. What if we build mirages instead of magic? The humanist in me believes that it is the invisible strands of love and compassion flowing through the ether that make up wizardry. Perhaps the magic is not in the technology, but in the practices that emerge from the seedlings we put out into the world? Perhaps our technologies are nothing more than pitiful efforts to replicate the magic that we do not fully understand.
Is the production of technology an incantation for the masses, a spell that will help them reach a higher ground, or perhaps be under our control? Or, does the incantation occur when everyday people perform their rituals through the platforms that we lay down? What do we assume when we think about magic in the context of Etech? Who are the magicians and are they really in control? What are the spells we cast on one another, the spells that technologists cast on society, and what are the spells that practices cast back on us?
In speaking with you today, i want to encourage you to step back, beyond the celebration of technology as magic, and look at it through a new lens. Isn't there something magical about how fast the Internet went from a defense project to a key part of social infrastructure? Isn't there something magical about how grandparents are blogging and activists are remixing popular TV shows to make social commentary? It is my belief that if we stare solely at the technology, we lose track of the true magic that exists around us.
The goal of my talk today is to get at what everyday people are doing with technology and how technology has become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. We often live in a fantasy of "If you build it, they will come." This techno-centric framing can be helpful to innovation - it allows us to engage our imagination, to go beyond our wildest dreams. But if we look at what technologies are adopted and how, we start to see that they fit into a set of pre-existing practices. They are adopted and adapted by people whose needs or desires they meet. Who are these people? How do we know what matters to them?
If you want to understand the magic behind a Penn & Teller show, you don't stare at the act and compare it to all other acts. You understand the physics possible behind the act. If you want to understand the success of a social technology, you can't stare at the technology. You need to understand the social practices that make it flourish. Technologies succeed when they support what people already do, what they want to do, and what they're required to do. Technologies become ubiquitous when people stop thinking them as a technology and simply use them as a regular part of everyday life.
Today, i'm going to offer three different ways of looking at the dynamics around social media. I'm going to talk about people, technology, and practices. The academics in the room may want to take a moment to pack their bags because i can promise you that my sweeping generalizations will make anyone trained in nuance twitch incessantly. I am intentionally using broad strokes because the goal is to get beyond your world, beyond the techno-centric world that many of us tend to design from.
There is great value in segmenting populations and it's not just so you can market the hell out of them as separate "demographics." Anthropologists are trained to make the familiar strange. One of the ways that they do this is by looking at the world from different perspectives. Segmenting populations along various axes is one way to alter your perspective. Rather than simply seeing people as the amorphous user, you should ask yourself how people differ based on different aspects of who they are.
One way of looking at people is through the lens of life stages. What matters to people changes over their lifetime. A lot of this has to do with what roles they play, what responsibilities they have, and what culture tells them is important.
Life stages are not simply biological - they are socially constructed, legally enforced, and architecturally bounded. Life stages are generalizations - they do not apply to everyone, but at the same time, they are constructed as "normative" by society. This is why Hollywood can make movies called "The 40-year-old Virgin" and everyone laughs. Because life stages are primarily socially constructed, they are bounded by culture. While a female's body is capable of being pregnant at age 13, someone of that age is not supposed to be going through that lifestage in American society; this is not the case elsewhere.
For the sake of simplicity and because i spend too much time thinking and reading about American society, i'm going to stick to talking about life stages that dominate American narratives. Much of what i say may apply to other cultures, but my focus will be US-centric.
It should be noted that American lifestages are heavily influenced by the age segmentation that exists and has existed for the last century. Starting with compulsory high school education, we made numerous moves to keep younger populations away from older ones. Other structural and normative forces make is uncommon for friendships to cross age barriers and even familial relations are heavily age segmented today. This solidified stratification makes lifestage values more salient in the US than in many other parts of the world.
As a final caveat, what i'm about to discuss is not scientific. It is based on my observations and the norms that we put forward in contemporary society through social commentary, Hollywood, mass media, and the perpetuation of values through socialization. In some cases, what matters is what people imagine that lifestage to be about, even if they themselves don't actually live in those terms.
With these limitations in mind, let's go stereotyping. I want to address four key life stages that i think are relevant to folks interested in social media:
1) Identity formation and role-seeking (aka youth)
2) Integration and coupling (aka 20somethings)
3) Societal contribution (aka "adults")
4) Reflection and storytelling (aka retirees)
As children, our identity is defined by the people around us. One marker of adolescence is that we begin trying to make sense of who we are in relation to the people around us. We take cues from various people and institutions; we begin recognizing social values and priorities and we try to position ourselves within that framework. The idea that we "try on identities" is a bit misleading, but the image is valuable. As we take in conflicting cues, we try to reflect aspects of it back to the people around us through our actions, attitude, and dress. This begins a cycle that Erving Goffman calls impression management. We perform to others and adjust our behavior based on how they react. In doing so, we seek to align our image of ourselves with the reaction that others provide.
Identity formation is not an individual process; it is deeply situated inside the broader social milieu. As such, status negotiation is a critical component of it. Social categorization - or the separation of people into smaller communities - begins in the middle school years (notably marked by categories like "freaks" and "geeks"). Young people jockey for status in this system as a part of identity formation.
Today's youth jockey for status in an artificially constructed sub-society. Part of the problem is that youth's role is very unclear during this period. In contemporary American society, youth are stuck in a liminal position for a very long time. They're supposed to be "students," a temporary role that has little agency or social value. This period is simultaneously valued as a period of immense freedom to learn and dismissed as proof of immaturity. A century ago, this period was much shorter than it is now and status jockeying was not age segregated. By the age of 14, most American youth were beginning to be productive laborers; today, we extend the liminal stage until well into the 20s and age segregate at every step.
Integration and coupling.
As youth enter adulthood, they seek meaningful labor and companionship. Traditionally, we talk about meaningful labor in terms of a "career" instead of simply a "job" but that's becoming increasingly amorphous as careers become increasingly out-of-reach for many youth, particularly lower socio-economic status (SES) youth. In theory, a career helps cement one's identity by providing a socially-respected role. Lately, what we've been seeing is often discussed as a "quarter life crisis" as youth realize that plethora of well-paid, valued, enjoyable jobs is a myth.
While this group is trying to position themselves in the labor force, they are also seeking a partner. Courtship begins much earlier, but this is the nesting stage where coupling up becomes a central focus for many.
If all aligns well, the next stage is about attaining status in the labor force and reproducing. More than any other stage, the collective image of this stage and the reality of it are completely different. The dominant image is a slight modification of a post-war Hollywood dream that was constructed for social stability (even though it never really existed then either). Father and mother with two children, a dog, and two cars in a mortgaged house with a lawn in suburbia. Father has a prosperous white-collar job and is working up the ranks in the company. (Today's image allows for both parents to work white collar jobs and to somewhat split child rearing responsibilities, but the white picket fence is still assumed.) Well-behaved kids are good students and involved in numerous activities; they will go to college. Church on weekends, family dinners every night, summer family vacations. Donna Reed meets Father Knows Best.
As i fly around the country interviewing teens, i am constantly in awe of just how ubiquitous this dream is. Unfortunately, the reality includes a lot more divorce, struggle to make ends meet, alcoholism, and familial battles (in addition to the reality that not everyone is white, heterosexual, Christian, and middle-upper class). Still, this is the dream that many are working towards, the ever desired carrot at the end of the stick.
While the reality pales in comparison to the image, this is the stage when many people make deeply meaningful contributions to society, both as laborers and as child bearers.
Reflection and storytelling
In theory, people retire and their children grow up. The baby boomers are not so good at retirement (or giving up power) and numerous movies comment on children's failure to launch (probably due to their parents' refusal to turn over the reigns). Still, as people age, they move into a stage of reflection and storytelling. Ideally, older people are proud of what they did in their lifetime and they tell stories to anyone who will listen. They share with their children and grandchildren and they find utter joy in watching the newer generation grow up. They talk about their children and grandchildren to friends with proud voices, sharing the joys of their stories.
One reason for breaking things down into life stages is that we can then consider what people prioritize at different stages in their lives. The important thing to consider here is that not everyone values the same things. Many of you value technology for technology sake; this value is not shared by your broader peer group.
To take generalizations to the next level, let's talk about some of the most salient priorities in people's lives. Of course, you can't fully untangle these items because they are dependent on one another. For example, people can value money to consume or to gain status; relationship-seekers can value attention as a mechanism to get sex, etc. But still, here are some common values that pervade American society:
Based on my own observations, i'm going to attempt to order what i see are the Top 5 most significant values per life stage. (This is completely unscientific and we can debate this after the talk if you wish.)
|Life Stage #1||Life Stage #2||Life Stage #3||Life Stage #4|
|* Friends||* Sex||* Labor||* Family|
|* Attention||* Friends||* Family||* Health|
|* Play/Leisure||* Money||* Money||* Religion|
|* Sex||* Play/Leisure||* Power||* Hobbies|
|* Consumption||* Labor||* Property||* Friends|
I would like to point out that while we talk an awful lot about education and politics, they really aren't a top priority for any particular group at any life stage. Those in Life Stage #3 and #4 believe that education should be a priority for those in Life Stage #1, but Life Stage #1 doesn't prioritize it in the same way. Religion and societal expectation prompts a lot of folks in this country to vote, but to say that any group really prioritizes politics or civic engagement would be a fantasy. Historically, those in Life Stage #4 used to prioritize it more than anyone else, but this seems to be declining too (ah, boomers). Still, i included it as a priority since many think it should be one we achieve.
These life stages provide one way of thinking about people and their practices, what they value and what matters to them. There are many different kinds of lenses through which you can look at people and their practices, but my point in this exercise is to highlight how people have values and that these values affect the ways in which they engage with technology. Social media is not just broadly about sociality - it's about which groups doing what kind of sociality. It's about realizing that people segment themselves and that they don't actually engage with all people across all spaces and all time. They engage based on what matters to them, depending on where they are and where they are going.
How would you design for these different groups? Unfortunately, for the most part, they're considered one big lump of "generic user." Many of the technologies that they're using are the same, but how they're using them differs.
You can see this through "social network sites" and "blogging tools." Youth go to MySpace and Facebook primarily to hang out with friends. 20somethings go to get laid. Both groups use the sites to keep up with what's going on in their social world - where the parties are, what gossip is key, etc. White collar workers go to LinkedIn for career purposes. Unfortunately, there's no really good social network site there to meet the needs of the older contingent. (This should make the VC ears perk up - when are we going to start designing for the retirees? And why do i have a funny feeling that this isn't going to happen until the Baby Boomers start bitching?)
Blogging also splits along life stage lines. Youth are in it for friends and attention. 20somethings seem to be split: either for professional reasons or for friends/sex. Professionals are in it as part of their labor (or in conjunction with their family - aka mommy bloggers). And older folks are starting to use them for sharing with family, working through health issues, or connecting around hobbies. My favorite is Modern Millie.
Dating sites have also segmented with some targeting those seeking sex (Stage #1-2), those looking for a first marriage (Stage #2), and those seeking post-divorce relationships (Stage #3-4).
These days, email is primarily a tool for labor purposes. White collar professionals are often addicted to it; 20somethings see it as necessary for career seeking and both teens and retired folks are using it to talk with their family members invested in labor.
The mobile is a complete disaster. The economic model is set up entirely for those in Stage #3. Those in Stage #1 are using it primarily for socialization; those in Stage #2 are using it primarily for coordination. Both would benefit tremendously from social apps, but i'll save you from my rant about how carriers are destroying the world. Most in Stage #4 see the obsession with "small" to be hugely problematic and a complete disconnect for them. My mother regularly asks me when they will make a phone with big buttons for her arthritic hands and a huge screen that doesn't require her to find her bifocals. Once again, we ignore the older group even though they are some of the most engaged and loyal customers one can have.
Now that your mind is chewing on ways of thinking about people, i want to stop and ask you to shift foci to consider the role technology and tech companies play in the relationship between people and their practices. Should we build technology to promote what we believe should be people's priorities? Or should we build technology that supports the priorities that most people have? It's a funny conundrum and one that often has to do with the life stage of a company.
Techno-dreamers typically try to design to change the world. This is why we see so many systems built to promote education and civic engagement, environmentalism and world peace. Personally, i love the world changers and i hope that they can maintain their optimism and idealism despite all odds. I desperately want them to succeed. Without that dream, i would never leave my bed.
Problem is that technology is more often the property of a corporation, not the passion of an individual. Corporations have different incentives, often umbrella-ed under the mythical "shareholders." Shareholders want monetization and growth. Monetization requires that a particular group obsess over your technology, either to willingly dish out fees to use it or to be so active that they might click on ads. Growth demands that you can't really target a niche population - you need to go for the masses.
Personally, both priorities make me sad, but let's roll with these for a moment. To get to monetization, you have to have happy users. This is why Kathy Sierra's work is so deeply focused on "creating passionate users." Passionate users are happy users. Passionate users make companies money. For the most part, i think that this is a fair trade-off - happy users, profitable companies. It's not exactly world changing because often what makes users happiest and most passionate are when their priorities are met, not when the ideals of society are met. This is why porn is such a profitable business - people are really passionate about porn and they're willing to pay for it. This is also why the corporatization of news is depressing. The fact is that more people care about Britney's meltdown than what's happening in Iraq. We must ask ourselves when and where we should prioritize people's desires with societal goals. But in a capitalist society marked by Wall Street, often we have no option. Fox will always win.
Still, while this makes me sad, what makes me even sadder is the market pressure towards growth. Companies can be quite profitable with niche audiences, but public companies are required to GROW, not just maintain profitability.
Let me tangent with a story from another industry for a moment. Years ago, the American Association of University Women put out a report on how few female role models teen girls had in mass media. Two television shows were produced with this in mind - "My So-Called Life" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "My So-Called Life" was viewed as the stronger pilot of the two and so it was sold to ABC. Buffy was sold to the WB Network. Both hit their target audience - teen girls - with unprecedented precision. Problem is that this wasn't good enough for ABC because no other key demographic was watching the show. After one season, they canned "My So-Called Life" while WBN decided to roll with the niche group, thinking that a large percentage of just one demographic might be better than a mediocre percentage of many demographics. The result was a cult-classic that made WBN unbelievable amounts of money.
Let's return to the tech industry. Facebook hit its target demographic with unprecedented precision. Over 85% of college students who could were on the site. It was seen as a critical rite of passage for high school students going on to college - they "matured" by getting their Facebook account. Last fall, they opened up to the world after opening to high school students and companies. Since then, i've seen Facebook rise in popularity amongst high school students (who deeply admire college students), fall in value in colleges (still used, but not universally adored), and be all but ignored by adults outside of those seeking the attention of college students and teens (aka marketers, politicians, parents, and recruiters). Was this a good strategy? Facebook believes so; i'm not so sure. I think that they diluted their brand just to grow grow grow.
When they launched to high schoolers, college students were outraged - they didn't want to be on a site with their younger siblings. In the Princetonian, a student wrote a passionate plea to Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook's founder), begging him to make it college-only. When it went public, students responded by passing around a digital t-shirt that said: "I Facebooked Your Mom (say no to Chi-Mos)." This shirt references the two populations that Facebook users don't want to face on the site: those who hold power over us (mom) and those who want to pray on us (child molesters - chi-mos). Expansion has its costs and one of those is angry users. Unhappy users make their voice known, but i won't bore you with another rant about Friendster.
This past Sunday, the Guardian ran an article with the headline: "Google's expansion is coming at a price: it's losing its popularity." While the market values growth, the cost is user passion. We're a long way off from Google going bust, but it really bothers me that we leverage user passion to get adoption but our greed forces us to push for growth at the cost of user happiness. Big tech talks a lot about "lock-in." What is lock-in? Lock-in is where you create reasons for users to be forced into sticking around when their passion fades. It's pretty damn manipulative and it says that the company's desire "to be evil" outweighs the user's needs. The reason is pretty simple: you have to lock them in so that when you grow and piss them off, they don't find a competing service that better meets their needs and makes them happier. (The other corporate tactic is to just simply not allow competition.)
The reason that i bring these corporate practices up is because they really affect how systems are designed, deployed, and allowed to evolve. If you want to think about people, you need to understand how technological and corporate decisions interface with people's lives and practices. Who are the real stakeholders? The users or the stockholders?
Startups typically are naive about people's practices but utterly passionate about technology. If they're lucky, their technology will reach the hands of a population for whom it will make complete sense. This population will morph their product to meet their needs. And if the startup is not stupid, it will support this morphing, learn from it, and seek to make more and more happy users.
Companies typically try to model out demographics and design for the market that they think is most monetizable. They go straight for mass adoption based on need, not love. Even more so than startups, they tend to blow through their early adopters so that they can get to the cash-cow as fast as possible. Warning: once you destroy the trust of your early adopters, you're on the greed path.
I can't help but wondering what would happen if startups were more aware of life stages, user priorities, and people's practices. Once you're a public company, you're too indebted to the market. In theory, startups created by passionate technologists (and not Masters of Bullshit Artistry) are more interested in the technology than the market. Would it be possible for a culture of profitable startups to emerge that focus on niche audiences by going after the practices and needs that they experience? I should point out here that what i'm proposing is different than creating yet-another social network site or yet-another video sharing site for a niche audience. I'm talking about starting with the social communities and thinking about their practices and needs and designing from there.
THE MAGIC OF PEOPLE
Stop. Hammer time. Let's switch focus again. We've talked about people and tech companies but when people engage with technology, amazing things happen. The magic isn't the technology... it's the stories and connections, the sharing and ideas. It's the way these technologies serve people's lives. More importantly, it's the way technologies serve the lives of *everyday people*, not just technologists.
It's the way that kids in Iraq connect with their families and friends back home through and share what's going on for everyone to see. It's the way that artists gather to buy and sell homemade treasures on Etsy without requiring storefronts. It's the way knitters find each other to meetup. It's the way Latino teens organize protests, like the one that is to take place on Cesar Chavez Day this week. It's the way that families share photo albums. It's the way that cancer patients connect to others to learn about their illness. People have always organized around passion, interest, family, curiosity, etc. Now they do so online. They can come together, facilitated by technology.
Mind you, before i get too celebratory, let us not forget that it's also the way that people share the worst parts of their life. What comes out is not always good for society.
These spaces are also where teens videotape their gang fights and blast them online to make fun of the losers. Photo sharing sites are used by those engaged in self-harm to upload images of who can cut deeper. We all know what happens when top bloggers create spaces that welcome mean-spirited posts... there's nothing funny about death threats. Neo-nazis use social sites to go after people of color just like industry gossip rags use blogging tools to rate women in tech and stalk the girlfriends of famous industry players.
Of course, just as people use these spaces to hate, they use these spaces to mourn. On one MySpace page, i watch as a girl's father returns daily to leave messages for his deceased daughter. Friends and family use profiles and blogs as spaces for mourning and they speak to the dead through their profiles.
Just like soylent green, social media are people. Social media reflects all the good and all the bad. They enable and support it, giving us space to see society from a new lens. Technology has created a new frontier - a new space for people to come together based on what they need. This is not without complication.
TECHNOLOGY SHIFTS ARCHITECTURE
As we think about people, their practices, and the magic that they create using technology, we also have to think about how their lives have been radically altered by technology. Many of you have seen this slide before - it's a list of the properties that exist in mediated social publics that don't exist in meatspace publics. For those who haven't seen this, let me explain.
Mediated publics have four properties that are not present in unmediated publics:
- Invisible Audiences
Persistence. What you say sticks around. This is great for asynchronous communication but it also means that the snarky posts you wrote when you were 16 are still online... or at least mine are.
Searchability. My mother would've loved the ability to scream grep into the ether and magically turn up where i was at. She couldn't. I'm thankful. But today, if you hang out in networked publics, you're searchable.
Replicability. You can copy and paste a conversation from one space to the other but can you tell what is the copy and what is the original? What happens if you modify it slightly - can you still tell?
Did you ever wonder why it is that teens break up with each other over MySpace comments? Think about it... If you aren't going to be able to breakup in person (because you're never allowed to hang out in person except at school anyhow), you're going to breakup in a mediated environment. Phone, IM, MySpace, whatever. No one else is going to bear witness to your breakup and what you said might be taken out of context when your angered lover decides to spread gossip. If you break up with her on MySpace in front of all her friends, there won't be any "he said she said" games. So why not? It's going to be spread around anyhow. And this way, she will delete you as a friend, deleting the comments and all.
Invisible audiences. When i stand here speaking to you, i have a sense of my audience (minus that camera that's staring ominously at me. And you know that in this room you're supposed to pretend to be paying attention. And i know that when everyone is staring at their computer only that i'm losing you, but if you're staring at me and then down to the computer and back and forth that you might be taking notes or arguing loudly in the backchannel. I have learned to gauge the audience and i need this to speak appropriately. In mediated public spaces, there's no way to accurately gauge who is present or who will be present as the conversation spirals along.
This has dramatic consequences because it means that the underlying architecture of life has changed. Things spread far greater than we ever would've imagined. I feel really badly for the Star Wars Kid. When his peers put that video online to bully him, they succeeded. When a bunch of folks decided to add a light saber and sound effects and pass the video throughout the web, they put him in an intense emotional bind. He'll never live that down. He'll be in therapy for the rest of his life. The architecture of the Internet has changed his life forever.
This is quite different from the society that you and i were used to growing up. We were used to having walls. We assumed that the norms were set by the environment and that you behaved differently in synagogue than in the pub and that was AOK. Context was key but context depends on there being walls. Online, there are no walls. The walls have come crumbling down. You can cross through spaces with the click of a few keystrokes and it's impossible to know what speech will spread where. The moment a conversation spreads, it changes contexts. How do you train a generation to speak to all people across all space and all time? It wouldn't be socially appropriate to get up on your conference chairs and start dancing (but i dare you to) but we act like the world can have continuous norms and rules online. There's not one public - there are many publics.. and each comes with their norms. Yet, online, we don't have that privilege.
So how do we cope? Most people go with the ostrich solution. If you can't see it, it doesn't exist, right? If you don't see the strangers staring at your virtual existence, they don't exist, right? The other proposed solution is being a luddite - avoiding all technology. Either way, we're talking avoidance. But avoidance doesn't ever work.
The rules of privacy are fundamentally changing. For the first time, an entire generation is forced to deal and, for the most part, they are dealing. It's not pretty and there are plenty of hiccups, but they're doing a lot better than us old folk. Unfortunately, many of the above 25 are upset with the things that they're doing to learn how to navigate this world with no walls.
Personally, i think that we need to look to them to see what they're doing and try learning from it. They're growing up with this shifting architecture. You grew up with Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame; they're growing up with being famous amongst 15. They're collecting friends as a way of demarcating audience in a world without meaningful signals about who's watching. If you're not in their list of friends or aren't like the people in their list of friends, you are not the intended audience.
As we continue to build new technologies, we continue to alter the architecture and i suspect we're just at the beginning of seeing what strange things come out if it. Take for example Twitter. Twitter is the most fascinating example of complete cognitive overload. OMG. Twitter on the phone is like Tweet Tweet Overload. Thank goodness they have cute fuzzy kittens for when it all breaks down - i have to wonder if the kitty is really just apologizing for eating the tweet tweet creature. But on a serious note - are we really building meaningful social relations through this service? Sure, we're able to keep tabs on our close friends, but what does it mean that the entire tech industry is rattling on about their every snack break and coding hiccup? Just because you have those details about Scoble's life does not mean that you're friends. Hell, i know far far far too much about Angelina Jolie but i can guarantee you that she won't be there for me when i have an emotional crisis. She doesn't know that i exist even though her life is on display for my consumption. Will your Twitter friends be there for you? Are they even there for you on the site? I mean, it's not really a space where you can talk about personal, negative things. And this makes sense to a certain degree. If i'm going to sit on my computer getting a flood of Tweets, i want happy positive news. The last thing i want is to be invaded with an attack of emo. The value of Twitter has to do with baseline co-presence, but how much of that can we take? Gossip is juicy and our brains want to pay attention to every little detail, but if our tech fills our lives with gossip, can we handle the influx?
We saw this with Facebook and i wrote an essay on precisely this topic called "Privacy Trainwreck." What are the costs of the entire campus knowing who broke up with who? Just because you can find out that your officemate joined a Facebook group dedicated to people in threesomes does not mean that you want this broadcast to you when you're sitting next to him when you don't think of him in that way. Somehow, technology has taken TMI (Too Much Information) to an artform.
This is only going to get more complex as we go mobile, if we ever manage to go mobile. Someday, it will happen, carriers or not. Then we will have location data and how will we deal with that? We already have adhoc applications like Dodgeball to let us stalk our friends, but what happens when it's built into everything? What happens when you can tap into the physical experience of every person you've ever received a business card from? How are we going to handle the social boundaries then?
These issues are fundamentally questions of architecture. As Lessig argues, code is architecture. And the code that we're creating now is changing the architecture on and offline. What happens when we get to muck with the bio-code too? Are we going to keep playing ostrich or try to understand and work with what people are doing?
TECHNOLOGY'S UNEXPECTED SPELL
The spells of technology are complicating the magic of people. Architecture is getting altered. While people adapt the technologies to meet their needs, their lives have to adapt to the ways in which the technology alters reality. It's a confusing time and technology is playing a huge role in the confusion.
How do we negotiate these spells? What happens when the spells we create have accidental consequences? Harry Potter's accidental spells often had humorous outcomes, but in real life, the consequences of accidental spells can be much greater. We think it's all positive, but don't forget the Star Wars kid or the kid who got kicked out of college because of his Facebook or even the man who lost his job because of his Usenet posts. Not all outcomes of ubiquitous technology have positive outcomes. Let us not forget the pain that one of our keynote speakers felt this week. Are we ok with that? Are we ok with the pain that people feel because of our technology? Do we even think about the possible negative outcomes that might happen when we create space for freedom of expression?
As we sit here and think about the spells that we're casting, let's not forget that some spells are made accidentally and some magic has unintended consequences. Technology is soaking into the woodwork of society. But we, as technologists, have a responsibility to keep people in mind at all times. Their practices inform us but our unintended consequences affect them. It is ubiquitous, but ubiquitous is not always positive. As you build technologies that allow the magic of everyday people to manifest, i ask you to consider the good, the bad, and the ugly.