Years ago, when I was a student, I had a poster (don’t all students have posters?) called The Real and the Unreal, created by Julius Friedman for the Martha White Gallery in Louisville. It shows a single artificial apple in a rectilinear array of polished red apples. At the time, it captured my own sense of teenage, misfit ennui, and it has since reminded me of the increasingly blurred boundaries among the loci of our intellectual and social lives in physical and the information spaces.
Do you IM, email or SMS friends daily, yet see them perhaps once or twice a year? Do you have friends and professional colleagues you’ve never physically met? Do you spend hours each day on teleconferences and videoconferences? Is your smart phone your only mandatory piece of clothing?
Are you a member of Facebook and LinkedIn? Do you Twitter and tweet? Do you have a Second Life or are you still working on making your first life work? (No, that’s not a religious question.) Have you worn a SenseCam? (More on that in a future post.)
My wife has a series of digital photos of me, lost in thought with my smart phone (Treo, Blackberry …) at many of the world’s great wonders. As an example, here’s a photo of me outside the Pantheon in Rome. I’m not a cultural Neanderthal; at least I don’t think so -- the Pantheon is an amazing architectural treasure. More to the point, I’m a huge fan of the arts, architecture and culture, and I love visiting art galleries and cultural artifacts around the world. Still, the electronic world attracts ...
The ethos and ecosystem of electronic social networks are evolving rapidly. Here, I define social network more broadly than any single software system, but rather how groups of individuals form electronically mediated and coupled social, business and cultural interchanges. For the past several weeks, I’ve been diligently exploring several tools for social interaction, each with different communities and complementary strengths and weaknesses.
I joined Facebook (I’m RENCIDan), and I have been interacting with its rapidly growing community of users and applications. Like all communication tools, Facebook has let me reconnect with some old friends (Hi, Marc!) and raised some ongoing issues regarding privacy and decorum. I’ve found that some friends don’t want to advertise their identities for fear of unwanted contacts or spam. I can’t really blame them, given how much junk fills my electronic contact points each day.
I’ve found Facebook more lively and interesting than LinkedIn, though the latter is probably more useful for business contacts. LinkedIn is more Joe Friday style “just the facts, ma’am.” In contrast, Facebook creates a sense of community with status updates, photos, imports of other social networking information (e.g., this blog is imported there, as are my Twitter updates). SecondLife is great for focused interactions, but I can’t multitask easily with it.
Looking forward, I envision an integrated social network that spans multiple modalities and devices, with contextual awareness. It is a ubiquitous and invisible infosphere that can, in the best case, enrich human experience. If you want a visual analog, think of Peanuts Pigpen and the cloud of dust.
All of this sense of ferment reminds my time in Waterfall Glen, the Argonne National Laboratory text-based MUD. In the 1990s, I would hang out with my buddies Rick Stevens, Charlie Catlett and Rob Pennington (NCSA). Much like Twitter, we often posted brief snippets of information about our lives and activities, dropping in whenever the opportunity afforded. To me, the most interesting aspects were cultural, how we developed a sense of affinity and shared state of mind. We also used Waterfall Glen as a back channel communication mechanism on telecons or in project site visits. I see my business colleagues use IM that way now.
I really think we are seeing something interesting happen socially and culturally, with a new generation adopting different communication mechanisms and ethos. That’s the great thing about technology; we can watch multiple social transformations happen in a single decade.
Off Topic: Tibet
By the time you read this, I will be in Lhasa, Tibet for vacation and then in Urumchi, China to speak at GCC2007. I expect my electronic web of communication to remain active throughout, even in the “place of the gods.” Perhaps I’ll find Shambhala, or get that old Three Dog Night song out of my head – I’ve caught a meme I can’t seem to shake. At least it has displaced Coulton's Code Monkey from my head.