April 15, 2011

Online is a state of mind

The latest Instapaper update includes a cool new feature:

Post to Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinboard, or Evernote using your linked accounts from Instapaper.

The use-case is simple enough: you’re reading a great article on Bill Murray and as you finish it, you heart it, and Instapaper will share this automatically (if you choose) with a twitter/facebook/etc.

Fast, simple, frictionless social sharing. Why does it make me so uncomfortable? 1

Pop psych tells us that we all wear masks, and nowhere is this truer than online. Problem is many believe the computer itself is a mask.

It isn’t.

On the analog world, hundreds of years of social interaction has taught (most of) us not to wear a pink leotard while french kissing a tennis racket with the curtains open. However, most users assume that those same curtains protect their online persona.

No matter how many times I explain Private Browsing to non-technical neighbors, there’s always a number of, ahem, exotic websites on their history when a new round of tech support happens.

Ask anyone around you if they are aware that it’s likely all their Google searches are stored on their accounts. You will encounter a wide-eyed stare followed by an uncomfortable laugh.

Modern digital coolness is not so much about being online, it’s more about reflecting online our analog existence: check-ins, photos with geolocations, group coupons, etc. are only really interesting if we go outside our doors — and the farther, the better.

In practice, the current push model allows for easy filtering of what I see as the digitization of our life:

  • Hanging out with friends on a pier with balloons? Share status and location.
  • Watching a sunset while reading poetry? Share pic and poem quote.
  • Looking for a rash cream at local pharmacy? Errr, never mind.

Yet, as life offline becomes more tied-in to our online accounts, we get closer to a seamless-sync push model. And before you think all this is scary or bad, look at the exciting part:

You go to a store and grab a wine bottle, scan it and see if your friends on XYsocialnetwork have bought it before, see a review and instantly get notified that if you and 5 more friends purchase it, you get a 50% discount. Through XYsocialnetwork, you know that Marie, Joe, Carol and Roger are in the city and without plans, send them a quick message and suddenly you have an impromptu wine-fest with friends.

Cool right? At least I think so. Thing is, for this to happen, information needs to be shared, and on a bunch of levels. And just like the initial uproar over the Facebook News Feed, outrage will likely give way to embrace when the perceived benefits trump the fears for most users.

How will this all play out? If I had to predict now, I’d say that soon it will be hard to separate your online personality with your analog one. Roberto Mateu — and not @rmateu or ticotek1981 — loves Battlestar Galactica, Pizza and French Maid costumes2.

You’ll use your Facebook account to pay for things when out at night, get into a party with a twitter invite and find a cab with a Groupon discount.

For the vast majority of people, online anonymity will be something as strange as youngsters who wear hoodies not to appear on CCTV cameras.

The big question for me is: will most people choose not wear a hoodie online? (nothing to hide, convenience, bla bla bla), or will using one be an impossibility for all but tech hackers?.

I like to believe we are close to the inflection point of normal users understanding that online privacy is neither a birthright nor a feature of the internet. If deemed important by the public, it needs to be defended and implemented.

We are still a long way off though, it’s not like our online activity is affecting our analog surroundings … Oh, wait.

  1. I absolutely love Instapaper, and this feature is opt-in, and configurable. So please don’t see it as a criticism to the App, it’s just what got me thinking about this subject. ↩︎

  2. Wait, doesn’t everyone? ↩︎

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