FREEDOM, TECHNOLOGY AND CHOICE

Freedom – I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. Last weekend, Remembrance Sunday in the UK, was a timely and sobering reminder that millions have sacrificed their lives to protect freedom for us and still do. But what are these freedoms that need to be so preciously protected? It seems to me that freedom is inextricably linked to choice. Our freedom is proved when we make the choices we do.

FREEDOM & TECHNOLOGY?

We live today in a world empowered by technology which as well as offering us many new choices also limits our choices in ways that are harder to discover but no less important to discuss. As a result of our hyper-connected and hyper-transparent world we are simultaneously both liberated and shackled. We are liberated to share more freely, interact more diversely and access new and instant knowledge. These benefits however come with downsides, more of our time and attention is demanded leaving us more tired, more overwrought, more stressed than ever before. The choice to switch off from work is made harder by constant availability and speed; connections between people become looser and less meaningful as time spent together is replaced with more frequent, less direct contact; commercial communication and advertising bombards us at every turn cementing the consumer values of our society rather than citizenship. Beneath these more obvious negative impacts are also more sinister and more opaque influences on our freedoms. We now live in a world where almost everything we do and see is a consequence of our past behavior and decisions. This limits access to information, to services and removes the freedom that is to choose to change. See my review of the Filter Bubble – a great book exploring this.

FREEDOM REDUCED THROUGH FILTERING

For example no longer do I see the same output from a Google search that you do. The Google algorithm uses everything it knows about me to give me the results it thinks I want to see and will click on. A computer is blindly making choices for me, filtering and changing my view of what is available in the world. If I am right-leaning in my political views I will see more positive results for David Cameron, if I am left-leaning then more negative. It makes it harder to determine the truth and make informed decision. Computers filter based on our digital footprints in the name of convenience, which of course we appreciate all the more so, because we are so overwhelmed. Extrapolate and you can imagine a world where the choice to access many products and services or be influenced or challenged with diverse viewpoints is largely reduced as it is filtered away either because they are unprofitable or just simply annoying. The available inputs that go into this customization of the world around us are gathering pace everyday. Almost every step of our lives is now recorded in some way. Our identities are virtual and our actions recorded. CCTV on the street, in shops and on public transport watch us. The internet records our every click and view, our email services record who we communicate with and what we say. Our mobile phones record where we are and what we are doing. And these bit of data are becoming more connected and aggregated with each other everyday. The industries that make money from all this surveillance progress three stock defenses: firstly that all this tracking is “blind” as to who we actually are, secondly it is more convenient and lastly that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. These defenses are facile and disingenuous. Whether the identity is a number or address or even an anonymous click stream it takes very little effort to match it to a real individual and this is an increasingly important aspect of the industries that seek to exploit, aggregate and integrate information to make money. It only takes a few variations in the information, such as browser, screen resolution, location, and operating system to identity a specific computer or person and these are available to every website that exists. Convenience is also not a good enough reason to remove freedom to choose – life is diverse and whilst undoubtedly atomizing is still collective and community based. Our well-being and the social good is promoted by creating diverse interactions, information and experience. How much more sustainable would our banking model have been had it maintained contact with ordinary people and it’s social purpose rather than becoming myopic and mono-dimensional. The concept that this level of surveillance is not a problem unless you have something to hide is also dangerous and divisive. It appeals to our sense of right and wrong, or perhaps more accurately, it appeals to the self-righteous. We would do well to remember that centralized intrusion and collection of intelligence on what an individual’s views were and what this could mean about their intentions was crucial for the Nazis in 1930s Germany, the Stasi in communist Russia and the fear and obsession of McCarthyism in 1950s America.

THE RISKS OF OUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINTS

On a less macro level our digital footprints also lead to security and identity risks. It’s these macro and micro risks that led the European Convention of Human Rights to enshrine the human right to privacy. It should worry us deeply that the ability to track and record en mass has proved too tempting for the UK Government who are trying to ensure that up to three years worth of internet, email and other electronic footprints are stored on the whole population “just in case”. They claim that this intrusion is justified in the fight to protect freedom. It isn’t. It seems to me that freedom is to be in control, to be empowered with time and knowledge, and so be able to make the right choices for ourselves. The technologies we have today help connect us broadly with each other and provide access to thin convenient slices of knowledge, the growing opportunity is to help us control these technologies and the fears they create, thus allowing us to gain more freedom over how we choose to spend our time and energy.

The different role of social networks Facebook v. Twitter

You can now listen to this blog as a slidecast going through the model and data. Click play below. Or you can just read the text below.

There’s been a lot written recently on some of the changes which Facebook have introduced to try and stave off the threat from Twitter. We all know that Facebook tried to buy Twitter in November last year and were rejected – so we know that Facebook is interested in micro-blogging and are pushing their status updates functionality.

This prompted me to think a little more deeply about the differences between Twitter and Facebook in terms of type of network built and communications employed. This leads me to believe that Twitter and Facebook (in their current forms) occupy different spaces and can co-exist quite happily.

The following diagram illustrates some of the differences between the major social networks in my mind based on the intimacy, time, numbers and purpose of relationships in a person’s life.

At the core of of our relationship map are deep, loving relationships with close family. Then comes our relationships with wider family and friends. After this are community relationships and relationships with our colleagues. Then we get into the areas where social networks have really had a major impact: previous or infrequent friends and contacts and even people we will never meet in the real world.

Facebook is perfectly positioned to fill the needs of interest and connectedness with a wider circle of friends we used to know or don’t see frequently. Of course it still has relevance for closer relationships but the new thing it adds is an unrivalled ability to stay in touch with a wider group of people that you have probably known in the real world. It’s optimised for this purpose through features such as approval of friends, having “on platform” media rich options (photos, videos etc), allowing detailed status updates.

Twitter is different to Facebook because it extends the social networking phenomenon into a new territory of those that you probably don’t know or haven’t known in the real world and is optimised for fast communications. It fulfils the need of curiosity on a broader scale – following famous people, or thought leaders, or organisations is interesting and engaging. In Twitter you can follow anyone and anyone can follow you – no need for approvals. Because of this there is no real responsibility to your network of followers – as I have put it before Twitter is take it or leave it communication. Of course many of us (including me, @justinbasini!) try to share interesting updates but there is no expectation which there is more of in Facebook.

LinkedIn is a good example of a vertically focused social network focused on business contacts. It bridges between work relationships past and present, together with people you want to build relationships with in the real world for business or career success.

I think the usage numbers bear out the fact that Facebook and Twitter are used to serve different needs:

Time spent per user on Facebook is much longer than Twitter but Twitter has many more visits per month. This fits with a usage pattern that is less involved and more frequent. I also think the average number of connections is interesting. On average Facebook users have 130 friends. Social theory holds that groups of 100 to 150 are the most relationships that one individual can meaningfully hold. I suspect that this will grow as we get more comfortable with technology based contact but I don’t think this average will ever be 1000s.

Now clearly at the moment the number of Twitter followers on average is low at around 20. But what I think is interesting is that if you take the top 10% of Twitter users (who we could call the early adopters and might be indicative of future usage) their number of followers on average is 483 and it is increasing fast. I think the average number of followers on Twitter could well be 1000s in the future. This definitely means it will be a different sort of network to that which one has on Facebook and potentially very exciting since you could use it to get an insight into many more different people around the world.

As always PLEASE feel free to comment with your views and share with others who you think might find this blog interesting. Oh and please follow me on Twitter (@justinbasini).

Yours

Justin

justin@basini.com
http://www.basini.com/
justinbasini.blogspot.com
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Across the trenches – how the First World War created communities of trust

Men going “over the top” from a trench in the First World War

Imagine you are in the trenches of the First World War. It’s muddy, dank and dark. It’s raining all the time and you are never dry. The rations are meagre. Your day starts and ends with the boom, boom, boom of enemy shelling. Some compatriots are being driven mad by the constant pressure, threat and thud, thud, thud of the shells; others are suffering from trench foot, the rotting of the feet over exposed to water. Danger is ever present either through enemy attack or the lunacy of commanders sitting miles behind the front line. The order to “go over the top” running headlong into machine gun fire and shelling could come at any time. When commanders come to inspect the trenches they are remote and clearly not in touch with the realities of your situation; maybe they need to maintain a certain remoteness in order that they can signal the orders that might cause your death.

In this madness you look for any and all survival strategies; you look for anybody or anything that can help to alleviate the grim reality and secure a modicum of safety. As you look over to the enemy trench you catch a glimpse of the men you are fighting. They look somewhat similar to you, they are the same age, they look just as tired and fed-up as you do. They repair their trenches, clean their guns, they shell your lines but they also laugh, they eat, they watch, they do the same things you do day-in, day-out. And as the days and weeks go past you begin to realise they are just men like you, longing to see far away family and children, and dreaming of a homecoming.

And over time you realise that the shells that you put into the artillery everyday are now slightly missing their mark, and you don’t correct them. The next day you notice that their shells are now slightly off the mark and they don’t seem to correct them either. And this becomes the status quo, shells fired and missing, day after day, adding to the futility but contributing security. Then a friend of yours dares to go out behind your line and openly stand up in plain view of the enemy, walking around and then sitting reading a book. No action is taken by the opposite trench. The next morning you see one of their soldiers walking around, you momentarily reach for your gun, but then pause and stop, you take no action. Whilst unwritten and unspoken there is now an agreement across the trenches to act for the greater good of the community – the community of men living under mortal threat sitting in wet, muddy, holes in the ground – a community that is much more real and important than the command structure of the army for which you serve. Sympathy and trust in the common good of the mutually accepted futility of the reality of war creates and maintains a status quo that delivers a modicum of security and fraternal feeling even amongst “enemies”.

I came across the source for this story in Marek Kohn’s fascinating book Trust – Self Interest and the Common Good. He goes into more detail about how these informal arrangements of trust across enemy lines grew up and his book is well worth reading.

Lucian Camp, the advertising, brand and marketing guru (http://www.luciancampconsulting.com/) is fond of saying that trust broke down irrevocably in the First World War as millions of men were sent to their death by commanders who used outmoded and futile strategies seemingly with little regard for human life. Lucian wrote a great blog on Trust. If you agree that the collapse of hierarchy and the established social “order of things”, especially in Britain pre 1914, started during the First World War, maybe this story of trust across the trenches illustrates a move to trust in a more immediate community that is easier to judge and seemingly more important on an individual, real time basis.

We read and hear a lot Web 2.0 and word-of-mouth / peer to peer interactions being powerful marketing and communications tools all facilitated by new forms of internet based communications such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Friendfeed. And whilst undoubtedly true that the pace of change has increased with technology, there has been a fundamental cultural shift happening over the past 100 years from looking upwards trusting in hierarchy to trusting in each other and our community (however one defines this for oneself).

What I think this story demonstrates is that “communities” can be built around important topics or situations without the need for overall alignment on goals – you can support green issues whilst also driving a 4×4 or be a Tweeter whilst not conforming to the 12-18 stereotype. People are inherently a complex mass of differing opinions, prejudices and competing priorities – most segmentation efforts miss this. Also I think it demonstrates that channels of communication go way beyond the obvious and explicit. There are powerful insights to be discovered by analysing the more subtle signals in what we don’t do, as much as in what we do. What does it say about me that my blog is about marketing (my profession) and my Tweets tend to be either happy or professional – what am I not sharing? – and what does this say about me and what I need?

Clearly across the world there is a need to build trust across divided communities. Communications technologies have a powerful role to play in bringing together people who may have opposing goals in a explicit or implicit dialogue for the greater good.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this story, these trends and what you think – please feel free to share, follow and comment.

Justin

http://www.basini.com/
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