Social Tools, Internet, and Future Culture

I wrote previously that I went to Futuresonic 2009. There will be another Futuresonic related announcement here in the next day or two; also Futuresonic now arrives rebranded as Future Everything, and they have a nice event attached to the reborn festival.

The text below has appeared previously elsewhere (orig. published on May 27, 2009). After all the pleasant events of the last week and looking at the number of bloggers who follow this blog now (and the subjects of their blogs) I thought useful to transfer the post here and see where we all stand re: blogs and how the Internet has influenced our culture, values, etc.

The talk is 45 mins long, which is why the text below is really a skimmed version of what you will hear if you listen to the audio. It is hardly a commentary, so whoever wants to get the ball rolling and say where they agree or disagree, and especially how they experience the changing impact the web has had on them, please be my guest. As I am in the process of paying visits to all friendly blogs, Twitter accounts, and blog introductions, here is a post by Lethe Bashar, Is the Internet Killing Culture?

Stowe Boyd, the leading authority on social applications and their impact on society, media and business and a self-confessed “presentist”, was speaking about how social tools have been shaping our culture at Futuresonic 2009. Boyd coined the term “social tools” back in 1999. He spelt out the idea in the last newsletter he sent out before he turned to blogging. Considering the number of articles that hailed 2009 as the year of Social Media, it is interesting to see how long it has taken the world to wake up to the call of the social web. This also confirms that Social Media is by no means new.

Social tools were defined by Boyd as “a new category of software intended to augment social systems; the social tools are intended to shape culture”. The distinction was drawn between the culture-shaping tools and the social tools that were improving communication. The web resembles the global village where everything is pushed together, and in this context the most important thing about the web is not the latent data, or servers, etc., but how people interact with each other, talk to each other, and how they are being changed by these conversations and connections. The web is the prime artefact of our civilisation, and for this reason social tools and their impact on people as individuals are near and dear to Stowe Boyd’s heart. Web stands out because it’s not primarily physical. The impact is also uncertain: it will emerge at a later stage, as we are shaped by the culture that we build. Right not, however, the cost of investment in making of this culture – let alone the value of culture itself – remains largely unexamined.
A couple of points are of the biggest interest, as far as the impact of social tools on our personal and business communications is concerned. Social tools are social insofar as they are primarily designed to support social relations, and as such their estimation is based on connectiveness rather than efficiency. The prime example here is a simple Instant Messanger (IM) that can serve as the indicator of presence or availability of a person we are trying to connect with. If people are connected on Skype or MSN, then they are likely to check the status of their correspondent before they make a phone call or write an email. This doesn’t stop here, as people may be seeking help or advice, and hence they are likely to ask a question via the IM, the hassle of using an email client is reduced. Through this, Boyd stresses, occurs a shift in work ethics and workplace behaviour. One of the traits is manifested in people’s willingness to trade off some personal productivity for connectedness – a kind of new social cohesion.
The above results in unintended consequences of shifting from one mode of communication to another, from email through IM to Twitter; or, to use the same Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote uttered by Boyd in his Futuresonic talk, from secret life through private life to public life. Arguably, we have already seen this with blogging, or generally with sharing information about ourselves online. Yet however instantaneous blogging may be, it is not as real-time as posting short messages via Twitter or FriendFeed. As a result, our understanding and response to the notion of privacy is constantly challenged, and continuously evolves. What comes to mind is the phrase I came across on someone’s blog a while ago: the person said they were sharing the public side of their private life. I found this expression fascinating, and what the rise of Twitter demonstrates is that this public side of our private lives may in fact be bigger than we think – or would like to think.

Twitter has currently got the kind of monopoly similar to what AOL had had with its IM product. Microblogging appears to be the future of communications not only due to its convenience and proliferation, but also due to how it helps to further change the tempo and efficiency of communications. The opennes is the key, and Boyd illustrated the importance of this on the example of JP Rangaswami‘s experiment at Dresdner Bank when he forced the usage of an open email on his colleagues. The impact was that his employees were very interested in what responses he sent to people. Graded by privacy and protection levels, emails are very private; chats and IMs are usually guarded by a chat owners who decide whether or not to block or restrict a user’s access. Twitter is the most egalitarian, which we recently saw in the influx of celebrities to the platform: it is possible to be in the same space as Stephen Fry, although it still doesn’t mean that he will automatically follow you back.
And some straight-forward points from the talk:

Edglings are people who spend large amounts of their time being connected to other people. This is a new way of defect from mass identity, and increasingly – the use of a new social identity shaped by the use of social tools, to connect with others. “I” is the sum of my connections.
“Democratisation of media” only means that it’s now cheap to go online, connect, publish, interact – but it’s not democratic. It’s more like a return to a pre-industrial social scale. The Internet is egalitarian in the sense that anyone can relate/speak to anyone – but it doesn’t support equality or levelling. Inequality still strongly manifests itself through a user’s reputation or authority.

The rise of the edglings is directly responsible for the collapse of traditional media. The media doesn’t paint the correct picture, when reflecting on this fact, instead presenting the situation in such way as if the media tastes have somehow dramatically changed. But in truth there is a power shift occurring. People begin to decide to themselves to whom and how they relate, and where they outsource the information that is interesting or important to them. This will only accelerate, since the process is now irreversible.

Social equals “me” first – for some people this sounded selfish. But it’s not selfish to realise that a person is the centre of their own universe. The shift occurs from mass information to friend information. We’re thus moving into a new kind of tribalism. People’s understanding of the world will shift to a more granulated identity, and mass identification will become less important.

“Web is amazingly conservative” – shall this serve as the best illumination of the fact that it’s all about people, and that if we want to bring about any change, then we will have to start with ourselves, instead of investing hopes into an idea, institute, or tool?

The world will be becoming more partial, and manifestantly subjective, to the point when we choose who to work with. Neotribalism is going to step in place a traditional, “industrial” family, although this is likely to be the change that will take the longest to arrive. Even the current web media is still not particularly social, although the social television possibly has the biggest potential. The most troublesome area is the environment.

What people are trying to do on the web isn’t really about people they’re interacting with, and it’s not the things that are being discussed – it’s about self-discovery. And on the religious level, we may move towards the new mysticism.

The core issue is that we’re moving towards a re-identification of ourselves.

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