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We Live in Public + Facebook + Google = ?

The web is atwitter this week with yet another change to Facebook's privacy practices, which will allow your information to be shared with third parties. The examples being provided are things like:

- If you go to imDB to research a movie, you'll see which of your Facebook friends have "Liked" it.
- If you go to Pandora, it will suggest music based on the contents of your Facebook profile.

Some may think that this can be controlled by strapping down application and privacy settings within Facebook and controlling browser options (like removing all cookies on exit), but I have been wondering for awhile how Pandora currently is overriding browser-level controls. What I mean is: I have a Pandora account, and I use Firefox for browsing. My browser is set to clear all history, saved information, form data, and cookies when I close--and sure enough, when I restart Firefox, all data has been cleared. When I browse to Pandora, however, it remembers who I am, which makes me think its stuff is based on IP address rather than cookies.

Now imagine the merging of a) Facebook technology implemented on other sites with b) a shared record of your Facebook activity.

The fluffy side of this advancement is a "better user experience" or quicker access to what you're looking for on other sites.

The not-so-fluffy side: a more public record of your online activity, personal beliefs, and intimate information. If you're a big consumer of online porn, you might as well come out of the closet right now. (See related article: "Porn virus publishes web history of victims on net" by BBC on April 15.) If you suffer from depression and seek information about getting help, expect that to eventually be shared with potential employers and insurance companies. Anything you do on third-party sites may be given back to Facebook and spread there. Facebook's pitch may feel warm-and-fuzzy now, but you should think ahead five years: Every site will have this technology in their toolbox (just like blogging, RSS, embedded video, and analytics have become commonplace but once were state-of-the-art concepts hard to wrap our heads around), and it will expand from "Likes" to "Dislikes" and "Visits."

Do you spend most of your time online? Would you rather send an email, text, or Facebook message than call or visit someone? Do measure your life in Likes, Views, Subscribers, Followers?

If so, I highly recommend you watch a documentary called We Live in Public, which profiles Josh Harris, an Internet pioneer who has keen foresight about Internet technology (and seems to believe in a Matrix-like future for us all). He has been able to not only technically understand the global network we share, but also accurately forecast our collective use of it and its evolution. The picture he paints parallels his own life: In an attempt to connect more intimately with others, we're simultaneously detaching ourselves from one another and creating a cycle of escalating dynamics--an ouroboros, if you ask me.

Harris was at the forefront of web video, actually working before the curve--helping to establish the technology before users had an understanding or the necessary infrastructure to widely use it. With his dot-com fortune, he conducted social experiments that at the time seemed weird and meaningless but later served as examples of his ability to see our interaction on a different level than most of us do.

For instance, Quiet, a project that housed around 100 people in a Big Brother-esque bunker with cameras, was funded and managed by Harris right around Y2K. In exchange for free food, housing, and entertainment, participants were required to have cameras on them all the time and be subjected to interrogations. Artists and alternative people clamored to be accepted into what they thought was performance art or an experiment in socialism; they even gave up very sensitive information just to get through the interview process, including sexual history, Social Security number, and preferences of relatives. What this "art project" turned out to be was a visionary's glimpse into our collective online future.

I don't want to give away all of the film, but it's been replaying in my head ever since I watched it. Be sure to check it out if you care about Internet privacy or simply wish to live more connected to the world and people.

At the same time, you should view these presentations about Facebook and Google Grid, which--while kind of dated--provide a better understanding of how this stuff all works together.

Video: Epic 2015 (Google Grid)
Video: Does What Happens in Facebook Stay in Facebook?
Video: We Live in Public trailer

Yes, there are some conspiratorial elements to these videos. Rather than thinking about these technical advancements as evil tools of a mad genius, tyrannical governments, or the Illuminati, I am more interested in the social aspects.

I am naturally an introvert and workaholic, and I know there is comfort in using a digital technology to attempt intimacy. For a reserved or shy person, it's more comfortable to have a confrontation and or to communicate something tender via email; rejection, anger, disgust, or other negative responses are softer as black words on a white screen (or no response) rather than disappointed faces and harsh words sitting before you. It's also easier, faster, and more reparable to cut off (or connect with) someone digitally. By making things easier or less comfortable, are we losing some of what it means to be human?  

Most people have websites these days, and everyone is screaming for attention. They're pleading--via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook--to have someone, anyone notice. Instead of evaluating the value of whom is paying attention, people are focused on quantity--relying on an increased number of Views, Fans, or Followers to dictate their self-worth and decide whether they should expose even more of themselves online. Would your Likes mean so much if you knew they were all coming from child molesters, retarded people, or neo-Nazis? What about if they all were coming from Mensa members, celebrities, or experts in your field? Would that change your perception of who you are or the quality of what you're sharing on the web?

So I ask, as I urge you to watch We Live in Public and think a about your web life: Are we social animals? Are we humans or are we machines? Are physical contact, in-person socialization, and privacy integral to our survival as a species? 

I don't know the answers, but I do feel like the next few years are going to make for a bumpy and interesting time. Maybe there will be a small Renaissance faction, a group of free-thinkers who will actually detach themselves from online socialization in order to achieve what it's actually breaking down: true connection with other humans.