One of the best presentations I saw at Reboot was Leisa Reichelt’s “Ambient Intimacy”. She was talking about something I’ve been wondering about for a while - that as a result of blogs, Flickr and the rest of the social software tools it’s possible to know someone else far better than they know you. In one way, that’s the same as the relationship between a member of the public and a celebrity, but the point of ambient intimacy is that it’s now also possible to be the relationship between “normal” people.
It’s not just about basic stats, either - ASL and so on. If you add together all the social tools that it’s possible to use, you can end up knowing so much more - my Flickr stream showing where I’ve been, for example. And delicious is a very effective way of finding out what I’m interested in now, and what’s interested me in the past.
Up to now, I’ve not really considered how much this all adds up to - I’m not in the habit of posting my credit card numbers on the net in the clear, but then I wouldn’t call myself a privacy paranoic either (ID cards and online medical records aside, but that’s another debate). Now Leisa’s got me wondering about the effect that my online habits have on others. And in a naked bid for fame and fortune, I’m going to call it ambient openness, in the hope that that’s a phrase that catches on ;-)
What I’ve started to think of as ambient openness is about two things - it’s about second-hand ambient intimacy, or the degree to which my social information reflects onto others; and triangulation - how it’s possible to build up a picture of a person by peicing together snippets of information from other people.
There are a few scenarios which I think are worth considering. Kids, for example. I don’t subscribe to the semi-paranoic “there’s a paedophile round every corner” theory - my kids are at far more risk crossing the road than from the bogeyman at the end of the DSL line. And I also worry about the corrosive effect this fear is having in the long-term - after all, society needs a basic level of trust between individuals to function at all, so what happens if we erode this in future generations by teaching them that every stranger is to be feared? So I don’t think that posting pictures of my kids on Flickr is putting them at risk. But that’s just my view - how would I have felt about my parents doing the same thing to me - we can all look back and laugh at our baby pictures now, but it was different as a stroppy teenager. What rights do my kids have to stop me exposing details of their lives through my interactions and social tools?
Then there’s huge interest in how social networks can be used in the workplace. Which is all well and good, but most of us have a certain “social distance” in a work situation - professional and home personas to put it another way. Generally we’re not completely open in the workplace, either because it’s not appropriate or because it’s just not comfortable - while you might be “out and proud” personally, that might not be the same professionally. Which is before you get into questions about whether it’s actually legal to ask the sort of questions that form the basis of social profiles.
There seems to be a generational effect at work, too - I’m not keen on the phrase “Facebook generation”, but it’s useful shorthand to categorise a group that seem perfectly at home with the idea of exposing themselves online. Fill out a full Facebook profile and you’ve got a pretty fair handle on most dimensions of an individual’s life, from their relationships to what they’ve been doing. Do we actually think about this as we blog, Twitter and update this information, or do we just view it as a stream of inconsequential single instances of trivia? Have we got the time or the inclination to think about how this would look on an aggregated basis if we were to run for office in ten years’ time, for example? Or are we just going to redefine what’s regarded as scandalous? If John Brown had Facebooked his way through his career, there wouldn’t been a closet for him to be outed from.
And it’s not just information that I provide myself that can be used to build up a picture of my life. I’m beginning to think of this as “triangulation”. As a quick experiment, I googled a couple of people I met at Reboot, and within a few minutes through various sources I had a pretty fair picture of their lives. Not simply from their digital footprints, but from others’ as well - just because I don’t blog or Twitter about doing something doesn’t mean that no-one else will. I could claim that I spent the last night of Reboot sitting in my hotel room digesting the thinking from the day - but when there are timestamped and geotagged pictures of me sitting in a restaurant on Flickr streams, that’s not a claim that will stand up for very long. It’s very, very easy to build up a vicarious picture of someone else’s life.
Where’s this going to lead? I’m not sure I know. I’ll predict that this whole area will hit the mainstream media at some point, and it’ll get blown up out of all proportion, and there’ll be knee-jerk reactions and calls for legislation or this whole Interwebnet thing to be closed down or regulated out of existence. But then I also predict that we’ll just get on with it. I’m sure similar angst was experienced when the printing press was invented, and the telegraph, and the postal system, and SMS and so on, and the world doesn’t seem to have ended just yet. But there’ll be one or two surprises along the way.