Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I'll tell you everything except my name.

           My friend Jennifer Cobb, of Spruce Advisors, is an expert on social media and has published a new paper. It's titled "Designing Social Media for Creative Outcomes", and gives us another prism through which to view these.

            Jenn writes that Facebook and Google+ argue that sites where people use their real names tend to be more polite and cleave to accepted social norms. "The problem is", Jenn says, "this lines their pockets with vast amounts of personal data about us that they resell for great profit."

           She reports findings from Andres Monroy-Hernandez, writing at the Social Media Collective blog about two key axes of design --- from anonymity to strong identity, and from permanence to ephemerality. Jenn reports that her secondary research shows that they do make a difference on the level of interactions. The more you know about a person, them more you tend to like them. "But paradoxically," she writes, "it turns out liking them has little impact on your evaluation of the outcome" in group situations.

           There are other things happening on Facebook and Google+ as well. When you see someone's real name, you're more likely to edit your responses. Because anonymity promotes uninhibited behavior, and masks failure, Facebook and Google+ may indeed be inhibiting creativity. It's not so easy to mask social risks.

           Would we be more creative on social media if our names were identified but our comments were wiped away every 30 days? How about if our names went away but our comments remained? These are both more like normal conversation, where nobody's keeping records on who said what when.

           I'm struck by how much social media is like all our relationships. We're always freer to make a mistake if people don't know who we are and there are no consequences. We've all said or written things that we'd like to have vanish into thin air, and are more creative when we have the freedom to fail.

          We're social beings, so I suppose we're social media beings. Jenn has brought up some really good questions. Would it really be social media without our names? Can our relationships be real without our vulnerabilities and our humanity?

           I don't think so. I am a specific person with specific vulnerabilities. So are you. And once we lose sight of those, we're just usernames and passwords.

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