Death and the Email Account

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My mother-in-law died a few weeks ago, and one of the most surprising things my wife has had to deal with in the process is her mother’s email account. At first it was replying to emails from those who haven’t yet heard, but while difficult, these quickly became few and far between. It was what happened after that that was odd and interesting.

As a “watcher,” there’s no reason to delete emails, or unsubscribe from anything, so little by little the inbox is overtaken by mailing lists, special today-only discounts, and somewhat poignant “come log in and see what your friends are up to” messages from social services. There’s no longer any human, personal content flowing through, but there’s still constant activity.

Watching an email account after the death of its owner is like watching the weeds reclaim an abandoned house.

 

 

3/ The Major Version Update

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[See also part one, Identity and the Internet of Record, and part two, Different, But Also The Same.]

Sure, “Web 2.0″ is mostly a punchline at this point, but there is some truth and some value in the construction. Tim O’Reilly helped bring the phrase into common usage in 2004, so let’s think about what the Web was like a decade ago.

Blogging was in the mainstream consciousness — “blog” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2004 — but blogs were being considered largely as an emerging source of “news” in the traditional sense. LiveJournal had been around for five years already, but personal blogging was still an odd backwater scene.

Thefacebook was less than a year old and still limited to students at a handful of colleges. Twitter would not appear for two more years, and Tumblr was even further out. Six Degrees and Friendster were around, but MySpace was fast becoming the social network that mattered.

YouTube did not exist.

And lest we forget: in 2004 the Internet sat on a desk in your office or living room. You accessed the Internet through a computer, and quite possibly a computer that you shared with others. Your phone was for making phone calls, or the occasional text message. (Average American cell phone users sent about 200 text messages per year in 2004, a number that we blow through in a week or so these days.)

The degree of access to information and people that the Internet offered was incredibly exciting, but by our current standards it was a static, slow, and largely one-directional experience.

Web 2.0 — the rise of the “social Web” — really did represent a massive shift in how we use and how we think about the Internet. We became participants and contributors, rather than an audience. In 2014 the Internet is a thread woven through an ever-increasing part of our lives and relationships, where a decade ago we just browsed the Web sometimes.

Whatever you may think of the label, it’s hard to argue against the proposition that Web 2.0 — the social web — represented a major version upgrade on v1. And while I don’t claim to know what the 3.0 release will look like, I think that the exploration we’re seeing right now represents some pretty late releases in the 2.x series.

Five years. Maybe.

2/ Different, But Also The Same

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[See also part one, Identity and the Internet of Record.]

I see the services mentioned in the first part of this series as evolutionary rather than revolutionary because while they are “not like Facebook” in many ways, they still generally depend heavily on the current Internet’s formulation of identity and community.

Snapchat and Confide are the most traditional in this sense: a user’s identity within these services is fixed, and tied to the user’s offline identity. It’s only the ephemerality of the content being shared that distinguishes them from iMessage or Instagram — you want to share a picture or text with a known friend, but you don’t want that content to reach anyone else.

But there is still a rush — the freedom of lowered inhibitions — that comes with the feeling that the message you’re sending doesn’t go on your permanent record.

It has long since been established that none of the “ephemeral” services provide a real guarantee that the recipient won’t be able to capture and share those messages, but at least you don’t run the risk of accidentally picking the wrong “privacy settings” for that picture. If nothing else, these services provide a clear signal that the sender intends the message to be for the recipient(s) alone.


Sidebar: as I’ve mentioned before, I think that both Snapchat and Confide are more interesting when considered as commentary on our current attention and inbox culture


I have already written about Secret at greater length, but the key issue in this context is that while Secret is an “anonymous” app, it depends on a fixed identity system just as much as Snapchat or Confide.

What is posted to Secret is interesting (to the extent that it is) because we know that the secrets come from people in our general social or professional circles. The rush that the app offers comes from speculating on exactly who posted a particular secret — or from being dead certain that you already know who it was.

But because Secret is tied to the existing fixed identity system, it pushes users towards the kind of “secret” that goes into junior high school slam books. As I noted in the post linked above, without those kinds of secrets in play, I think Secret-the-app has a problem:

In one direction, you’ve got secrets so pedestrian that you don’t care whose they are, and in the other you’ve got secrets from people you have no interest in to begin with.

Secret ends up feeling like the masquerade ball from an 19th century novel: the loss of inhibition that comes with the anonymity is intoxicating for a time, but that anonymity is tightly circumscribed by a rigid social system. And as with a masquerade, the party inevitably ends, and everything that happened while the masks were on may well have consequences back in the “real world” of identity.

I’ve left Whisper for last because while in one sense it’s a very traditional fixed-identity social service, it also has an intriguing, somewhat more radical, twist with physical location coming into play.

A number of people have told me that Whisper seems odd to them because a social network that’s based on physical proximity, rather than pre-existing relationships or interests, feels weird and artificial. But why is a geo-based social network odd? Until very recently, remember, physical proximity to people was the single largest driver for our social relationships.

What intrigues me most about Whisper is that it questions one of the largely unstated assumptions underlying much of the Internet today: what you see when using the service isn’t determined so much by who you are as by where you are. You want to show someone at the office that Whisper you saw at home last night? Too bad, it’s too far away.

But why should what you experience online be the same no matter where you are? It’s assumed that should be the case, but in my view that’s simply because that’s the way we’ve done it thus far.Please note that I’m not suggesting that a geo-centric online experience is particularly better than a purely identity-centric approach, just that there’s no inherent reason that it’s worse, or wrong, either. It’s simply different, and I believe that with the shift to mobile networked devices, it’s a fascinating avenue to explore.

And in a larger sense, questioning whether one’s offline identity must necessarily be the basis for one’s experience online is hugely significant. Location was a relatively obvious candidate to explore as an alternative, but I believe that we will see more — and probably stranger — explorations soon.

1/ Identity and the Internet of Record

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It should come as no surprise to most of you know me, or have ever read this blog before: over the next few years I expect to see dramatically accelerating interest in networks and services that allow us to share and interact with one another in ways that are not (or are not permanently) part of the Internet of Record that we know today.

Now when I say “Internet of Record,” I’m not talking about something like this blog or Medium, which I maintain with the explicit goal of having a particular corner of the Internet that is my own — and one that I do see as archival in the traditional sense.

Rather, I’m talking about the Internet of Facebook posts and tweets, casual Tumblr reblogs and Instagram selfies. We put these things online without intending them to hang around forever, but today’s Internet defaults to permanence and some degree of discoverability. Any given item may become more difficult to find as time passes, but unless we actively remove things they will persist as a part of our presence — our identities — on the Internet.

The first generation of conscious alternatives to the Internet of Record have been focused on either ephemerality (e.g. Snapchat, Confide) or anonymity (e.g. Secret, Whisper). All of these services are interesting in different ways, but I believe that they are also straightforward reactions to the rise of monolithic identity online: they are defined as much by being not like Facebook as by their own characteristics.

These services represent a different perspective on online identity, but not yet a different construction of that identity.

To borrow from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we are currently trying to make something new fit into our established paradigm — that of identity online, in this case — and not yet taking the “revolutionary” step of actually re-evaluating the assumptions that underlie that paradigm.

The service is “anonymous,” but your Facebook account defines the social context for those anonymous messages; messages disappear after being read, but you send those messages to the contact list already in your phone. This generation of services feels to me different but also the same, which leads us into the second part of this series.

Unmasked: The Secret Life of Pretty Much Everybody

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There’s been no shortage of posts about Secret in the past month or so, but Mark Suster’s How do I Really Feel About Anonymous Apps Like Secret? crystallized a couple of issues I’ve had rolling around in my head about the app.

I strongly recommend reading Suster’s post if you haven’t, as it explores a couple of important issues for Secret in particular and the-Internet-that-will-be as a whole: identity in its myriad forms, and reputation. But I also think that his post misses one issue that is key for both Secret and the larger identity discussion: identity, pseudonymity, and anonymity are all concepts defined in the context of a surrounding community. 

And that piece–the community that defines one’s identity on Secret–is where I think we hit something really interesting.

Your Secret Identity

Secret is, in my estimation, a textbook example of “managed anonymity.” The public face of your contributions is anonymized, but there is a fixed identity system under the hood. You log in with your fixed identity, and your contributions are associated with that identity: the service’s operators have the option of responding to bad actors, not just specific, individual bad actions.

[Editor's note: As always, I must now pause to call out Urban Baby, the grandaddy of managed anonymity. More than a decade later we're still just catching up to what was happening there.]

As Suster suggests in his post, this also opens up the possibility of bringing reputation into play. Even if other users don’t know which Secret contributions are mine, the operators (in theory, though difficult) could; if I consistently contribute content that the community flags as a problem, the service can start to take that into account. Maybe the universe for my contributions is circumscribed further, or maybe I’m removed entirely.

But look at how reputation is formulated here: I made the assumption that “the community” was indicating that certain contributions were unwanted or inappropriate. It’s not Secret’s operators deciding that certain contributions shouldn’t appear on their service, but rather Secret responding to the judgment of its users. The community on Secret–not Secret the platform–is necessarily the basis for reputation.

Your Secret Community

And so what is that community on Secret?

At the most basic level it’s your friends, or at least people you know well enough that you have their number in your phone. Secrets can spread from there, as your friends spread those secrets to their friends, but the explicit, stated core is that you’re sharing, secretly, with your friends. It feels, at least, like you’re sharing into a circumscribed, close-knit community. A secret may spread further, but you’re always sharing secrets “with your friends.”

And there, I think, is the rub.

We want to share secrets because we believe other people want to know. Whether it’s “Alice would never believe that this happened…”) or “Bob really should know that this happened…”, what makes exposing a secret appealing is the belief that we have an interested audience. A secret is at least as much about who doesn’t know it as who does. The worst possible response to revealing a secret isn’t shock or dismay, but indifference.

Secret, the app, depends on this combination of psychological factors. Consider the Secret about Mark Suster: the original keeper of the Secret shared it because they knew that people in their general circle of friends would see it, have context for the secret, and take note. The recipients in turn considered it noteworthy (if not necessarily “important”) because they knew that it originated with someone in their social circle.

Without this tension — wow, do you think Carol or Dave wrote that one? — Secret quickly loses its edge, its rush. In one direction, you’ve got secrets so pedestrian that you don’t care whose they are, and in the other you’ve got secrets from people you have no interest in to begin with.

I fully believe that the creators of Secret don’t intend for it to be used (solely) in the slam book-ish way that hit Suster. I also believe that they may have tied its future success to this model.

Bonus Micro-Post: Secrets and Whispers

If you’ve read all the way down to this, you’re probably already familiar with Whisper, another poster child for the ephemeral web. Secret is a much more elegant app, seems to take its anonymity more seriously, and offers a clear hook that Whisper lacks: secrets from people you probably know are more interesting than secrets from people you probably don’t know. Secret seems like it should be the clear winner. And yes: I’m not the first person to make the comparison between Whisper and MySpace on the design front.

But while I don’t particularly enjoy using Whisper, I’m almost always intrigued. I get moments of the unexpected from Whisper in a way that I don’t from Secret. Whisper feels to me like it’s got some conceptual space in which to experiment as it grows up, and I have a much harder time saying that about Secret.