November 7, 2007

Is there too much pressure to be social online?

The growth of Web 2.0-related products and services has brought numerous new technologies to life on the internet, many aimed at integrating various aspects of our digital lives together. One of the most prolific, especially over the last year, has been social networking websites. Sites like MySpace and Facebook attract millions of members, and, as seen in Alexandra Rankin Macgill’s blog post on the Facebook-Microsoft financing deal, they are also becoming big business.

Now Google, whose shares passed the $700 mark last week, has entered the field with the launch of OpenSocial Nov. 1. With the motto “Social Will Be Everywhere,” Google joins the ranks of innumerable companies in recent years stressing the many social possibilities the internet presents. I don’t know about you, but I feel the pressure to be “social” on the Web somewhat overwhelming, and I am someone who is fascinated by the topic. I often wonder how other people who aren’t as familiar with all the social aspects of the Web — from social networking sites to OpenSocial, deli.cio.us, Second Life, and so much more — feel when they hear about these technologies. They may not realize it, but the very structure of interaction on the internet is changing, and it is changing very fast.

Companies certainly feel the pressure to make new products that fit within this social milieu. Remember Zune, Microsoft’s response to the iPod that launched last year? Its motto was “Welcome to the social,” and it emphasized music as a shared experience by including wireless technology which allowed users to share songs between players. This idea followed Microsoft’s successful launch of the Xbox 360, which allowed for interactive game playing. Zune, however, did not see the success of the iPod or even of the Xbox 360. Perhaps because of that, Zune’s latest ad campaign, which launched Nov. 1, bears a new motto: “You make it you.”

This trend, especially with the launch of OpenSocial (which creates a set of common APIs so third-party programmers can write new applications that work on all of Google’s partner sites), appears to be the next logical step in the progression of social networking and interconnectedness across the web. But what if you don’t want to be “everywhere”? Are we heading down a path where one’s online identity can no longer be limited to specific locations, but must be relegated to the apparent bottomless pit of personal information online? And a final – and most important – concern to be addressed is that as one shares personal information across a wider number of sites and applications, that information becomes easier to compromise. How will companies joining this movement ensure the security of users’ data once “social” is truly everywhere?

Google and others involved in the online social movement will have to address these concerns in upcoming months and years as more people create virtual identities. I expect this marks just the tip of the iceberg in the growing online privacy debate.