Archive for August, 2010

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Social Surfaces: Transparency, Camouflage, Strangeness

There’s a thought running round that says that social media is engendering a new age of transparency. When we use the word ‘transparency’ we speak of a material through which light passes with clarity. If conditions aren’t completely clear, we might call the material translucent, which would allow light to pass through it diffusely. And if we can’t see anything at all, we’ll call it opaque, a material with a surface that doesn’t allow even a speck of light through it.

If it is we who are ‘transparent,’ it’s as though our skin has turned to glass and the social, psychological and biological systems operating within us are available for public inspection. It’s thought that by virtue of their pure visibility these systems can be understood, influenced and predicted. Although for most of us, when we lift the hood of our car and inspect the engine it’s strictly a matter of form. We know whether the engine is running or not, but that’s about the limit for a non-specialist.

Much like “open” and “closed,” the word transparency is associated with the forces of good, while opacity is delegated to play for the evil team. We should like to know that a thing is transparent, that we could have a look at it if we chose to, even if we don’t understand it at the moment. Certainly there must an e-book somewhere that we could page through for an hour or so to get a handle on the fundamentals. On the other hand, if a thing is opaque, we’re left with a mystery without the possibility of a solution. After all, we don’t have x-ray vision. How else can we possibly get beneath the surface to find out what’s going on?

Ralph Ellison wrote about social invisibility in his book The Invisible Man. The narrator of the story is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype rather than as a real person. In a stereotype, a surface image is substituted for the whole entity. Although Ellison’s narrator acknowledges that sometimes invisibility has its advantages. Surface and depth each have their time and place.

Jeff Jonas, in a recent post called “Transparency as a Mask,” talks about the chilling effect of transparency. If we exist in a social media environment of pure visibility, a sort of panopticon of the Network, how will this change the incentives around our behavior? Jonas wonders whether we might see a mass migration toward the average, toward the center of the standard deviation chart, the normal part of the normal distribution. Here’s Jonas on the current realities of data correlation.

Unlike two decades ago, humans are now creating huge volumes of extraordinarily useful data as they self-annotate their relationships and yours, their photographs and yours, their thoughts and their thoughts about you … and more.

With more data, comes better understanding and prediction.  The convergence of data might reveal your “discreet? rendezvous or the fact you are no longer on speaking terms your best friend.  No longer secret is your visit to the porn store and the subsequent change in your home’s late night energy profile, another telling story about who you are … again out of the bag, and little you can do about it.  Pity … you thought that all of this information was secret.

Initially the Network provided a kind of equal footing for those four or five standard deviations off center, in a sense this is the basis of the long tail. The margins and the center all play in the same frictionless hypermedia environment. When these deviations become visible and are correlated with other private and public data, the compilation of these surface views create an actionable picture with multiple dimensions. Suddenly there’s a valuable information asymmetry produced with an affordable amount of compute time.

Only the mediocre are always at their best.
Jean Giraudoux

However, once we know someone is scanning and correlating the facets of our presence on the Network, what’s to stop us from signaling normal, creating a mask of transparency?

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

We may evolve, adapt to the new environment. The chameleon and many other creatures change their appearance to avoid detection. We may also become shape shifters, changing the colors of our digital skin to sculpt an impression for key databases.

In ecology, crypsis is the ability of an organism to avoid observation or detection by other organisms. A form of antipredator adaptation, methods range from camouflage, nocturnality, subterranean lifestyle, transparency, or mimicry

Of course, there’s a chance we won’t be fooling anyone. A false signal here or there will be filtered out and the picture will be assembled despite our best efforts at camouflage.

There’s another path through these woods. Historically, a much less travelled path. That’s the path of tolerance, of embracing and celebrating difference, and acknowledging our own strangeness. While it’s possible that a human can empathize with the strangeness of another human, the question we have to ask in this new era of digital transparency is: how can an algorithm be made to process strangeness without automatically equating it with error?

Electronic Yellow Sticky Routing Slips: Tweets As Pointers

After all this time, it’s still difficult to say what a tweet is. The generic form of the word has been expressed as microblogging, but this is the wrong metaphor. Blogging and RSS advocates see Twitter as a short-form quick publishing platform. What blogging tools made easy, Twitter, and other similar systems, make even easier. Given this definition, the 140 character limit on tweets seems to be an unnecessary constraint— microblogging could simply be expanded to miniblogging and a 500 character limit for individual posts. Blog posts can be any length, they are as small or large as they need to be.

“All my plays are full length, some are just longer than others.”
– Samuel Beckett

But Twitter didn’t start with blogging or blogging tools as its central metaphor, it began with the message streams that flow through dispatching systems. The tweet isn’t a small blog post, it’s a message in a communications and logistics system. There’s a tendency to say that the tweet is a “micro” something— a very small version of some normally larger thing. But tweets are full sized, complete and lack nothing. Their size allows them to flourish in multiple communications environments, particularly the SMS system and the form factor of the mobile network device (iPhone).

The best metaphor I’ve found for a tweet is the yellow sticky. The optimal post-it note is 3 inches square and canary yellow in color. It’s not a small version of something else, its size is perfect for its purpose. There are no limitations on what can be written on a yellow sticky, but its size places constraints on the form of communication. Generally, one expects a single thought per yellow sticky. And much like Twitter, explaining what a yellow sticky is to someone who’s never used one is a difficult task. Initial market tests for the post-it note showed mixed reactions. However after extensive sampling, 90% of consumers who tried the product wanted to buy it. Like the tweet, the post-it note doesn’t have a specific purpose. Arthur Fry, one of the inventors of the post-it note, wanted a bookmark with a light adhesive to keep his place in his hymnal during church choir. The rapid acceptance of the yellow sticky, in part, had to do with not defining what it should be used for. It’s hard to imagine someone saying that you’re not using a post-it note correctly, although people say that about Twitter all the time.

One thing people use yellow stickies for is as a transmittal. I find a magazine article that I like and I pass it on to you with a short message on a yellow sticky that marks the page. I might send this package to you through the mail, use inter-office mail at work, or I might just leave it on your desk. More formal routing slips might request specific actions be taken on the attached item. Fax cover sheets are another example of this kind of communication. And Twitter is often used in a similar way. The hyperlink is the adhesive that binds the message to article I’d like to pass on to you. With Twitter, and other directed social graph services, the you I pass things on to includes followers, potentially followers of followers and users who track keywords contained in my message. At any given time, the who of the you will describe a different group. The message is passed on without obligation, the listeners may simply let it pass through, or they may take up the citation and peruse its contents.

Just as the special low-tack adhesive on the back of a yellow sticky allows you to attach it to anything without leaving marks or residue, the hyperlink allows the user of Twitter to easily point at something. Hey, look at this! Rather than a long explanation or justification, it’s just my finger pointing at something of interest. That’s interesting to me. It’s the way we talk to each other when the words aren’t the most important part of the communication.

This model of passing along items of interest is fundamentally different from web syndication. Syndication extends the distribution of published content to additional authorized contexts. Some may argue that the mostly defunct form of the ‘link blog‘, or an aggregation of link blogs, offers exactly the same value. The difference is that the tweet, as electronic routing slip, exists in a real-time social media communications system. It operates like the messages in a dispatching system. There’s an item at 3rd and Webster about cute kittens, here’s the hyperlink for interested parties. Syndication implies that I think what I’ve published is valuable, I’ve extended my distribution area and you should have a look at it. With a tweeted electronic routing slip, the value is assigned by the reader who decides to pass something along and the readers who choose to take it up within a real-time (instant) messaging system. Value is external to the thing being evaluated.

As we start to look at new applications like Flipboard, an app that collects routing slips from your social network and lays them out into a magazine format, it’s important to understand the basic unit from which the experience is built. We’re used to a newspaper filled with a combination of syndicated wire stories and proprietary ones. We know about magazines where all the stories are proprietary. A few of us are familiar with web syndication aggregators that allow us to pull in, organize and read feeds from thousands of publication sources. Building an electronic publication from sets of real-time routing slips is a fundamentally different editorial process than we’ve seen before. Of course, it could be that you don’t find the stories that your friends pass on to be very interesting. In the end, this method of  assembling a real-time publication will be judged based on the value it provides. A magazine with a thousand stories isn’t really very useful, just as a Google search result with a million answers doesn’t help you find something. Can you imagine a real-time magazine that captures the ten stories that are worth reading right now? Can you imagine a time when such a thing didn’t exist?

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