Web 2.0 Blues: The Politics of Access

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you may not have heard about the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week. As I’m the Mistress of All That Is Mobile around here, I spent my time at Web 2.0 in sessions about Mobile 2.0. On the last day of last week’s Web 2.0 Expo, Marc Davis, Yahoo Deep Thinker (his title is actually “Social Media Guru”), gave one of the most interesting talks, titled “Understanding Mobile: From Web 2.0 to World 2.0.” Marc spoke about how your mobile device “mediates between the web and the world.” Quoting a prediction that soon your mobile device will replace both your keys and your wallet, Davis further predicted that your device will track how you move through space, time, and social situations. Pictures taken with your device will not only have date and time stamps, but also other contextual information such as the GPS coordinates of your location when you took the picture. This type of  contextual information increases the possibilities for machine intelligence by a significant percentage. 

To describe the kind of context-based data your device will be collecting, Davis urged attendees to imagine that they had, of an evening, gone out drinking with buddies, gotten really drunk, and then woken up—face in the gutter—in a foreign country, with no idea how they’d arrived there. In the Web 2.0 world, your device would be able to provide you with context in such a situation: your LBS would tell you location, the clock would tell you the time, and, after getting your bearings, looking up your credit card account might even begin to help you piece together the rest of the evening that you don’t remember, including charges from the last bar you were at, and maybe your airline and flight time. Cool, fine. But now that you know where you are and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you did last night, who else knows? Now’s the time that the TGIFriday’s in Hong Kong texts you with a two-for-one deal on Bloody Marys.

It seems that our fears about the compelling nature of the Internet creating a generation of worm-pale, agoraphobic, socially-stunted hermits have given way to fears of a generation of 1440 minute-a-day consumers. “Where are you paying your attention?” Davis asked. This is not only what advertisers want to know, but what other speakers in a different session insisted developers need to know, to create applications that advertisers will want to sponsor. And according to Davis, Web 2.0 devices will collect it for them. So now that “they” know where you’re “paying your attention,” you’re liable to have someone in your face selling you something at every turn. Unlikely, you say? No one would send you unwanted messages? Well, we haven’t been able to stop spam, have we? I know I spent about 25 minutes this morning deleting it.

However, for the purposes of this blog, I’m not really that worried about advertisers and their spam. I’m worried about what I’m calling the “politics of access.” How much of a choice will we have about what information is recorded and who sees it? Will we be able to turn off some of these data-collecting functions? Hopefully.

Davis also mentioned the recent attempts to aggregate our social networking profiles (MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Really? Do I really want to be contaminating my Facebook high school contacts with my professional LinkedIn contacts? I don’t know about you, but I freaked out when I received a MySpace friend request from my mother. My MySpace page is for friends my age. Cool as she is, my mother doesn’t really need to see, or know, what kinds of things I’m sharing with people my age.

What’s really at issue here is the boundary collapse between our private selves and our professional selves. How much access do we want to allow people in our professional lives to our personal and vice versa? Are we really looking forward to this “social mobile ecosystem”? If college kids can be denied jobs because of what’s on their Facebook pages, can a prospective Microsoft employee get fired for working on a Ubuntu release in his spare time? What if you’re in a death metal band and your boss thinks this is amoral? In reverse, what if some mentally unstable former romantic interest finds your MySpace page and, because you’ve got it hooked up with your LinkedIn, starts harassing people in your deparment? 

I suppose it’s natural that in such a self-obsessed culture, where many willingly broadcast all kinds of personal information into the ether, we’re going to have to get used to people knowing (or expecting to know) where you are and even perhaps what you are doing, 24-7. And while the melding of private time and work time theoretically leads to a more holistic, less compartmentalized life (re: a good thing), my hunch is that it will probably only go one way. Areas that were once “private” territory will continue to be exposed as public–this accessibility is leading to the colonization of our private selves. Our “private lives” as we knew them, will cease to exist. Nothing will “stay in Vegas.”  

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