Social networking tools are currently the dominant “killer application” in the market (both mobile and desktop) and will very likely remain that way. But the issue is that it’s not about the “sociability” of those application. It’s all about how companies have driven a wedge between the privacy issues and the egocentric predisposition of individuals to let the world know about themselves. For decades we have successfully controlled how governments and companies have access to our most sensitive and private data, and made rather good progress in avoiding that things go too far. With social networking, privacy and security concerns were thrown out of the window. It’s the same drive that leads people to accept being publicly humiliated on TV shows in exchange for a few dollars — it’s the “hey Mom, I’m on TV!” moment. Social networking tools bring that ability to the everyday user, by reinforcing their need to be in the centre of a world of admirers. That’s why all these tools encourage us to share more and more, to expose ourselves to the utter limits. And the winners are the ones that can successfully exploit this need for having a starring role in a world-wide audience and turn profiling data into a huge business that sells ads — all legitimately done, thanks to cleverly worded terms of service that pretty much say, “Sign on the dotted line (or rather, click the checkbox) if we’re allowed to expose you publicly, screen all your data, and sell it to third-parties. If you dislike this policy, terminate your account.” Since all these services are opt-in, consumers have no choice but to accept them. But the point is that people want to share everything to the public. And they don’t mind the few nagging ads that they get here and there in return for being able to share. The problem is that things are going too far, when companies — not the users — are the ones who decide who is allowed to share their data and how it is shared. Forget freedom of expression — this is about being able to control your whole environment. If you just click that checkbox, you’re consenting the company to tell you how you shall express yourself and forfeit any rights to complain.
This could get to extreme limits. The intriguing TV series Lie to Me, on its last episode for season 3, presented a criminal case around a hypothetical start-up worth billions called SeekOut. SeekOut is the ultimate social networking tool for people desperate to get laid. You create a profile with your interests and associate it with your mobile phone, where an augmented reality application is installed. Now every time you point your phone’s camera to a person, the application contacts the central server, and places a floating tag on top of that person’s image. Click on it, and you see their name, their partnership status, their sexual preferences, their address, and all the kinds of other typical things you’d find on a profile. No more dilemmas for the socially inapt! Just point your mobile phone to a prospective partner, and SeekOut will tell you if he or she is a match for you — no need to embarass yourself any more. The application is very realistically shown on the episode.
Of course we don’t have that kind of application yet. But we’re not many years far from it. While face-scanning software is not good enough (or not fast enough), geolocation using GPS is getting better and better. It might not allow a mobile phone to pinpoint exactly one particular individual in a crowd (like the Lie to Me director shows with SeekOut) but things like FourSquare and similar approaches are “almost there”. You can definitely create a matchmaking service these days where, using GPS, you can track down your “perfect match” within a few metres. Combine GPS positioning with the current state-of-the-art face recognition algorithms (which are not that bad; see how good Picasa is in identifying faces, given enough training) — possibly running on the server and not on the mobile phone for extra processing power — and you could achieve a relatively realistic clone of SeekOut. It’s just a question of time. Possibly the research team for Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are at this very moment deep down in their caves making a lot of experiments; this more a question of someone having an idea — which we now have — and assembling the required technology (which we also have), and put everything together.
SeekOut, in the series, is not really the focus, but the personality of the sociopath (clearly modelled after Zuckerberg; even the name is oddly familiar — “Zach Morstein” — and by no means randomly chosen!). Lie to Me is not the kind of series that wants us to reflect on society, but pure entertainment exploring almost-there technology. But it certainly gave a lot of geeks (and possibly venture capitalists looking for the next cool idea to invest in) a lot of thought. I’m sure that something similar to SeekOut will be released in 2012; it’s too much of a good idea for nobody to take it seriously.
And when that happens, it means that all social networking sites will have something similar. Each will tie the Ultimate Stalking Application with their profiles and cross-relate data. They will see what you see, know where you are, understand what kind of partners you like. And as more and more people use those tools, and more data gets gathered, the fight will be ultimately about who controls all your environment — not only online, but in the physical world as well. “Opting out” will mean social exclusion and ostracism; if you’re not on SeekOut, how will people know you’re actually honest? That’s the trouble with all sorts of totalitarism: when you exchange freedom for security, you’re relinquishing all control to some corporation which will dictate what you should do, how you should behave and act, and, ultimately, how you shall think.
Now there is only an antidote to that, but it’s unlikely that it will be applied soon. The idea is to abandon the concept of one-company-controls-all and enter a federated environment. Diaspora is an example of what might be a future federated environment (I wish I could talk a little more about Diaspora, but it’s uncannily hard to get an account that actually works while they’re on alpha testing… I’m trying to install my own copy of Diaspora elsewhere. It’s a challenge, though 🙂 ). They propose an open protocol that allows independent social networking servers to talk to each other. Since each has their own users, and allows them to set their own policy, it means that people can sign up with whatever server they wish — or run their own — and freely exchange just the information they want with other users. Think email, but on a social networking environment: you pick your provider, you select your mailbox, you set your policies, but communicate to other networks of users in the way you wish. My guess is that if Diaspora (or any similar open, federated protocol for social networking communication) becomes successful, the first thing that developers will do is to interface it with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Google Plus — so you can keep your own data safely and privately on your own server, but freely exchange only what you wish with other users who are still stuck with proprietary, totalitarian companies.