Welcome 2011 – Garbo was on to something: Trends in digital privacy

Happy 2011 to everyone! I’ve been woefully bad at posting blog entries these last few weeks – largely due to preparation for moving across the country – which doesn’t at all mean that I haven’t been noticing trends and connecting dots while taping yet another box.

2010 was a dizzying year on many fronts and I think people are weary on many levels. The economy has consistently stayed slow, wave after wave of corruption has been uncovered, the “war” in the Middle East drags on, and domestic rhetoric increasingly has overtones of a civil war. Panic and fear mongering in the media have added a huge amount of fuel to a fire which was already there, and a natural reaction to all of this is a desire to retrench, to return to comfort. This is about as far from the optimistic forward thinking 1960s as a society can get. People are tired.

One way I think this is being reflected is a trend towards Social Networking fatigue. People left and right seem to have reached their limit of “connecting” and the latest cool thing to be doing is actually cutting back on connections, and being more selective. We’ve taken to social networking with the wide eyed enthusiasm of a child, tasting, testing, and now want to reframe it to suit our own personal needs, which means only interacting with those with whom we share a real connection.

Facebook in particular suffers from being too “mass” and not enough personalization to meet those needs. There is – without extensive paying attention to tweaking – only one way to “connect”; your bff shares the same level of connection as the friend of a friend of a friend who reached out because of one comment you made.

You also kind of know something’s jumped the shark, to use what is no doubt an antiquated phrase, when McDonald’s has a grandmother talking about your Facebook comment and using the phrase “l-o-l-ing” in their radio spot. Junior is going to need a place to talk to their own friends, and Mom and Dad might want to enjoy an off color joke.

Along the same lines, the digital world is increasingly acting like an ancient Greek Hydra: as soon as you reset your FB privacy settings yet again to combat a new default they’ve implemented, another service or problem comes to light. Twitter, for example, on 10/10/2010 agreed with the US government to archive all tweets not deleted within 23 weeks; in other words, everything you’ve ever said – in a heated moment, in reaction, anything, will be permamently stored. For what purpose? Who knows. I can only guess it’s in reaction to some purported anti terrorist BS, where all data is stored so that at some future time if they need some out of context statement to point to it can be dug up.

It’s particularly scary since in social media very few comments are made as stand alones, so taken out of context are sort of like Rorschach tests; the meaning can be twisted to any way necessary.

As a result of all these reasons (and more), I think this is the year when we’ll see a splintering / fragmentation of social networking as a result. Smaller sites that are tailored to the needs of specific groups will spring up and people will use each to fill a different need.

I also think private (closed / high walled) groups will emerge. Along with the rise of “privacy services” – companies who monitor and manage your digital identity. Staying on top of monitoring and actively managing your online persona is extremely time consuming, pretty soon people will be outsourcing it – as they already do with identity protection services like LifeLock etc. If these type of services are not actively looking to move into this space, they should be.

All of this will also lead to the need for cross social networking sites apps; a “Trillian” type of application which will connect multiple social networking services – eliminating the value of each destination url (eg Facebook.com) since these will be a generic supplier of connectivity, while the interface will be the Trillian-type app.

This will also eliminate the barrier to exit for users of FB, which is currently the 800lb gorilla of the social networking sites in the US (not as much in other parts of the world, where Orkut and some others dominate). If it’s invisible to you, the user, which social networking site your friends are using, then loyalty to one or the other won’t be necessary. It will also completely dilute the value of FB. Personally if I were Mark Zuckerberg – man of the year regardless – I’d sell off many, many shares before this inevitability happens.

So, with a nod to Greta, I predict 2011 will be the year of “I vant to be left alone!”

Disruptive cataclysms? The impact of rapidly changing technology

Speed Racer didn't mind a fast pace

Technology – and the “rapid changes” everyone is talking about – is being hailed as a disruptive force. Most recently Mark Zuckerberg used the term to describe the future business landscape, and how Facebook (or rather, erm, “social networking”) was at the forefront of the next generation of businesses.

But there are two levels of where “disruption” is happening: not only at the business level, but also at the consumer. I’m going to stick to consumers in this discussion, snce I’m constantly hearing about people adapting to the “rate of change”, or rather, the (perceived) difficulties this is bringing.

To the average person technology has brought neat things to their lives at a dizzying rate, such as the ability to chat 24 hours a day with “friends”, communicate instantly in a few different ways, and rendered getting lost obsolete.

It’s brought geographically disperse people with niche interests together (You knit clothes for your pet goat?? Me too!), brought us exotic food all year long, extended our lives, and for the most part – kept us healthy. The world has become infinitely smaller.  We can walk and talk and bank and read and chat and pat our heads while rubbing our tummies and drinking our coffee to go…

But it’s also (among other things) made us work around the clock (well, in the US anyway), and created whole new areas of interaction etiquete that is as of yet, still being defined. And don’t get me started on online dating.

I suppose to many people it does indeed feel like it is moving too rapidly (with the resulting frankensteinish stories on the news, today it’s “PASTOR SAYS FACEBOOK IS THE GATEWAY TO SIN!!! – crikey), but I keep returning to my core assertion, though, which is less flamboyantly sexy than many other who are predicting all sorts of new societies and seismic level cultural shifts as a result: technology only enables and enhances what we already do. So while I don’t subscribe to the dystopian future where our computer overlords rule us through our dependency on them, I also don’t believe that some huge shift in basic humanity is going to happen as a result.

I see one of two potential paths. Either:

  1. The impact of perceived rapid changes in culture will create a pendulum swing back to the uber conservative, as people retreat to comfort zones; I mean a serious Luddite movement, complete with agricultural faith-based communities and prairie dresses (god help, and excuse that pun). Rejection of modern life in full flower.      …or…
  2. People will embrace technological changes as they become an increasingly invisible driver of their every day experiences, not forcing any cataclysmic reaction whatsoever. And in a generation or so, the “fast pace” (ubiquitous, instant connectivity) will be all they’ve ever known – eliminating the desire to “return to a simpler life”

My guess is some will go one way, some others. There’s never one recipe for all personalities. Those who crave routine, tradition, and fear change will retreat. The others will continues to embrace the double edged benefits of our brave new world.

You can’t force people to accept new technology though, or the changes to their lives that will be associated with it, unless they want it. I’m a true believer in you can lead the horse to water, so to speak, but you can’t make it drink….if the technology that’s introduced is not adopted, it will fail,  regulating the “speed” of change naturally. It can’t be forced on the unwilling. People are flocking to smart phones because it speaks to a basic human need to communicate, and increasingly, instantly.

While I’m on a roll, though, I’m actually going to challenge the entire assumption: that change is happening “so rapidly”.

I think the major shifts have already emerged:

  • Social networks becoming the personal authorities (requiring brands to figure out how to communicate and relate, vs message “to”)
  • Ubiquitous/instant communication (which will require cross- and trans platform technologies / infrastructure)
  • Personalized information (requiring good data and effective predictive algorythms) on demand

Businesses are incrementally improving on all of these (it’s still in infancy), and figuring out how to seamlessly integrate all these things, how to gather, track and correlate data properly to best “serve” the customer (maximize profit), but I don’t believe there will be any great “leaps” above and beyond these; no major paradigm shifts that leave these concepts in the dust…and that’s because these are speaking to – at a DNA level – the most basic human needs: affiliation with a group <love>, and the powerful human ego.

So disruptive? For the business forced to figure out how to compete, and survive in an era of decreasing product life cycles, definitely.  

But to the consumer, who is ultimately holding the reigns, it only currently feels so because it’s still all so disjointed – and visible – and confusing. As it all starts to work better and becomes more invisible and seamless, not so much. So the future money will be earned by the companies that can help  make the experience as close to “breathing” as possible – ideally consumers won’t even notice it’s there,  they’ll just have the experience they want.

So that great human revolution won’t be necessary; we’ll all be too busy catering to our egos: chatting, opining,  connecting, and – *sigh* – blogging.