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Panel Session: 
The Future of Social Networks and the Internet

Global-scale interconnection is opening up new possibilities

Brief description:
According to a recent study, 47 percent of adults use social network sites. Few technologies have grown as fast and had such an immediate impact on culture, communication and commerce. This panel assessed the future and considered the next 53 percent, or what happens when social networking becomes ubiquitous. It examined some of the challenges faced by individuals and organizations as social networking expands. Session organizer was Fred Stutzman, social networks researcher and consultant, founder of ClaimID.com. Panelists included Chris DiBona, open source and public programs manager for Google; David Recordon, senior open programs manager for Facebook; Henry Copeland, the founder/CEO of BlogAds; Zeynep Tufekci, a professor and social networks researcher who works at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County; Wayne Sutton, social networks consultant and strategist at Fragment.

Details of the session

We need a new cultural toolkit to deal with the realities ahead as more people spend more time in social networks. This was one of the points touched on in a spirited discussion of the future on the second day of the FutureWeb conference in Raleigh, NC.

Zeynep Tufekci, a researcher in this field, said if you take a look at history you can see the future. "You see this again and again with technology," she said. "The telephone was invented and business people were, like, ‘you must use this to do business,’ and they were upset that people were using it to socialize. Claude Fisher’s got a great book, ‘America Calling,’ that shows how the business people were trying to block people from using the phone to chat. And then you see this with the next technology… with the Internet. But what happens when you put people anywhere? They are going to socialize.

"Now there are serious implications to moving your sociality from a medium like this [talking face-to-face in person], which has laws of physics, that we have a cultural toolkit for. Usually, space confines who can see you and time makes your speech ephemeral – it just goes away. On the Internet, space collapses and on the Internet stuff just stretches, it isn’t ephemeral any more. It’s there and there and there, and we do not yet have the cultural toolkit to deal with socializing in this environment."

The unpredictability of the social Internet was discussed by panelists. You never know how people will adopt and adapt a tool when it is offered to them. Dave Recordon of Facebook said nobody would have guessed that people would go so nuts over sharing their personal photos. “It changed things,” he said. “It was one simple thing. Now you have this new way to look at your life.” Facebook hosts more than 15 billion photos now.

Recordon later noted how Facebook and other social networks are influencing politics as well. "It has a large impact on elections all over the world," he said. "And peace.facebook.com shows how Facebook has been used globally."

Henry Copeland of Blogads spun from this into talking about the amazing amount of content people are pouring online - more than 5 exabytes every two years. "We are all part of giant organisms, these swarms, these hives that are doing things, and we're going to have so much information that it's only going to be possible to consume that information within filters that are going to kind of boil it back down and say, not 'What are you talking about?' individually, but what are all your friends talking about... The Internet allows a profusion of social networks and peers. You have all of these subsets of people who have discovered each other. You have a giant profusion of niches."

Through the savvy use of multiple social networks, Wayne Sutton has built a global reputation as a consultant in the field. He said he's thankful for where the online social world has taken him. "Look where the opportunity has taken me," he said. "Using it to my advantage has opened doors for me."

Sutton predicted that in the future people will not simply build their identity into a place like Facebook but instead they will maintain a personally owned homebase such as a blog as their centralized identity site and "something as simple as an implementation of your Google profile and Buzz" with links to Facebook, Twitter and other outreach applications while operating from your own URL. "An aggregation of platforms based on your interests will be your home base," he said.

Tufekci, an academic slipped into an enthusiastic lecture mode a few times. She brought up some research into stable social relationships by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. "The Robin Dunbar number gets thrown around a lot," she said. "You know, the number of friends [any one person can handle having at a time], 150. I think that there should be a new category of research – that which gets summarized in the least-useful way – because it’s really very interesting research.

"The key point there is that the human neocortex might exist just so we can keep track of who’s going out with whom and who’s my friend and whos not. That kind of reciprocal social status management is at the heart of social groups. It’s a core human feature. We have all this cognitive capacity, but that cognitive capacity is likely a secondary artifact to the fact that we need to keep track of our social environment very exclusively. We need to know who’s friends with whom. We need to know who’s got our back. We need to know who stole our boyfriend or girlfriend. And we need to know who’s that back-stabber. We need to know all that stuff.

"The maximum number of things that people can keep in their head without really writing stuff down seems to be about 150, with the Internet that number can’t really apply like that. What the Internet has done is make social networks and all of the sociality that goes into everyday life visible. It was always there, it’s going to be there."

When the conversation turned somewhat critical of the businesses that mine personal data to create capital, Copeland responded, "Let me defend the capitalists. Those are the people who spread literacy, and it's a necessary evil and we should live with it."

Privacy online - or the lack of it in social spaces - was one topic that raised some heated comments. When Tufekci was critical of the practices of Facebook in "pushing openness" on people before they are ready for it, Chris DiBona of Google responded, "People have to look after themselves on the Internet. I'm OK with that. You get what you deserve. You spare the rod you spoil the Facebook. People need to learn these tactics. People need to take responsibility for their actions online."

Dibona later predicted that "social collaborative filtering is where the Web is going." And Copeland followed, saying, "We all belong to many different tribes and we will be able to experience those tribes distinctly and discretely."

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