The Social Web: Where are we going?

My answer right away to this question is ‘anybody’s guess’ because the rate of change on the web is so rapid, it could jump from any state in a matter of weeks. However, Eric Karjaluoto of SmashLab design has just posted some interesting reflections on the state of the social web [article], and although we work strictly in an academic environment, I’d like to add further comment to the state of privacy and community governance which affect us all in some proportion.

This is an interesting challenge for our own work: how do you facilitate collaboration between academics, but respect intellectual property at the same time? Or rather, how do you invite people to ‘share ideas’ in an environment that claims to uphold academic integrity and ownership? While current tools like CiteULike and FaceBook are already being used by academics, many remain with their toes in the water watching the rest of the world jump in. Not surprisingly either, judging from the blind enthusiasm of some social applications. *

*, which boasts “the first real estate search engine of its kind”, is a Google mashup to report bad neighbors – although it also returns at least six page results of ‘hot chicks‘ and one case of a ‘sexy 15 year old’ (thankfully, that one didn’t have a map). The nature of the application being a satellite map with pinpoint accuracy -and not much in the way of accountability- only compounds…well, the creepiness.

The issue, I think, isn’t whether or not privacy should be a concern but that it is and always has been a concern, and how we can address it appropriately within different contexts in a global community such as the web. The retaliation to FaceBook’s Beacon acts as public testimony.

From within our own framework, we’ve tried to identify as many privacy concerns as possible (without shelving the entire feature), like piggybacking the research of others within a study group – an issue first dealt with by Ryerson. We’ve also participated in campus discussions regarding the legitimacy of FaceBook, which I would agree is just a tool (albeit, a faster one) that facilitates collaboration – and cheating.

Governance in Accountability.
The solution that came out of these discussions always pointed back to community accountability – if you have a community that you value, you want to sustain it. One of the more interesting examples of this kind of accountability would be the now famous ‘Xbox Moron’ story, whereupon a young man whose Xbox is stolen has the XBox Live community help track down and flame the thief into facing the responsibility to his crime. We’d like to think that with current technology such as Google’s OpenSocial, the ‘anything goes’ attitude so common with anonymity would be replaced with distinct, formal profiles which could then illustrate negative or positive contributions, level of participation, and academic weight (did Bob Smith write for Nature? Shakespeare Quarterly? or Ebaum’s World?).

In Sum.
When it’s all said and done, the web is a very exciting place to participate with enormous potential for better understanding ourselves and those around us, we just need to start thinking instead of ‘just do’ing.

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