28 May 2013

Social Online Communities – You’re So Fake

Some people believe the value of any online community is with the people in it. What if they aren’t who they really are?

Back in 1995 when I started making web sites I was also a member and moderator of several online communities. My first thoughts then were, “How awesome is this! What a fantastic way to get to know people from around the world. Maybe this help bring peace, end wars, and improve relationships between different cultures.” It didn’t work out as I had hoped it would.

First, the Mask

In the beginning we didn’t use our real names. I had two “handles” I went by – one for work and one for play. As with everything new to us, we proceeded with caution with the new technology and doors it opened. It’s funny to think how we didn’t trust enough to share who we really were because now, in 2013, we have every reason to feel vulnerable online. Everywhere we go online is tracked.

Recently I registered for a forum using a handle rather than my real name. I want the freedom to be in areas of the Internet where my career doesn’t follow. It’s not going to help with Google however. It knows what computers I use, where I live, what I do, where I go and what sites I like. To really hide me, I’d have to move, sell everything, get a new identify and find a new career.

Hollywood and book authors know how we are when faced with something new for the first time. We don’t trust it. When aliens arrive to help us save the planet they nearly always have to hide their true identify first. It’s going to be very difficult for us to change the world when we’re afraid to show our true selves.

The Search for the Real You

After a recent talk for PubCon on social communities that I gave an audience member stood up and asked a very good question regarding Facebook. He, and others, like Facebook but don’t like how everybody they know, from family to friends to coworkers, can see it. The result is that they censor what they put there.

reading girlHe’s not alone. This is a common complaint about Facebook. It means that many people need their online mask because being who they are is a problem. Facebook has options. The most obvious is having separate accounts, one for the real you and one for the you who wants a censor. There are more account controls than ever offering options on who can see what on your Facebook page. You can create groups of “friends” and choose who can see what.

I don’t bother with that. My Facebook is open to my entire family, including my parents and kids, plus my clients, co-workers, local friends, and pretty much everybody I added as a “friend”. If I’m not accepted “as is”, they can “unfriend” me. I’d rather that than a fake relationship. During the last US political elections I “unfriended” people because they were rude and didn’t know how to converse online without being ugly about it. I can also keep a “friend” but hide their status’s when they post 30 of them a day on one topic. We’re judged by the company we keep and online this is even truer.

One of my favorite sites for knowledge sharing is TED. This talk on what’s happening in the digital space received a standing ovation. Eli Pariser: Beware OLnline “Filter Bubbles”

“As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”

Pariser eloquently put into words what I’ve been feeling for several years and that’s the realization that the Internet is not bringing us together by way of authentic information. Not only are we trapped, but we are trapping ourselves by creating fake versions of who we are. How do marketers know they are targeting an exact match based on data when the data itself isn’t pure?

Most of you know that our search engine results are unique to each of us and no two are alike. Every piece of content delivered to us is filtered by algorithms used to track our online history. This means that we no longer have access to ALL information. We don’t have an objective, unbiased view of the world.

The Future is Authenticity

The beauty of Pinterest before marketers took it over was its simple, unbiased, authentic sharing between mostly women. The identify of someone was of little concern, whereas the picture of something they loved was where the value was. Today, our “Pins” are part of our online persona and tracked. This means databases somewhere are looking for every possible bohemian fringe boot out there to show me. What if I want new sandals?

Did we progress from a time when we disguised our real names? No. We trust the Internet less and manipulate it more. We’re more likely to present a fluffy, blurred version of who we are because we know we’re being tracked and what we say is device-driven rather than face to face.

In another TED talk, Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone? The topic was online communication and our use of digital devices. She finds that our “devices changed who we are” and how we relate to ourselves and others. She says,

“People want to customize their lives.”

Not only can we interact online anonymously or by using made up names, but we present ourselves as we want to be. It’s a real shame we’re still afraid to be who we really are.