2/ Different, But Also The Same


[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.