anonymity

Social Nextworks

The impending death of Orkut (2004-2014) made me think of the evolution of social networking and its transience. Orkut lived ‘only’ for 10.5 years, and this is despite being part of Google, though some would call that a disadvantage. Facebook  has been around for the same time, and the fact that it is a force to reckon with is a testament of its understanding of this transience. It also explains the acquisition of Instagram, Whatsapp and the attempt on Snapchat.

However, I recently realised that I am probably more active on Whatsapp, Instagram and Pinterest than Facebook and Twitter. I am also reasonably active on Secret. That made me dig a bit deeper.

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What is changing? From my observations, there are at least two factors that are driving the change.

Perspectives on connectivity: The early era was fueled by the need to connect. Facebook is soaring well beyond a billion users, and its longevity is (also) because the need still exists. It continues to look for better ways to do this, manifested through front end and back end changes. But despite this, and my own curation of my newsfeed by sending signals to Facebook, I am regularly overwhelmed by the volume. This goes for Twitter too. Personally, I have treated these platforms as a means of self expression. I would also like to choose the people whose perspectives I want, and who are entitled to a judgment, if any. But that’s not so easily done on popular platforms.

That’s when I start to look at the many ways to handle this – from social networks to messaging apps. I could go to where the crowds are relatively less and/or are more ‘focused’ – by domain or use cases, (LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram) I could interact with smaller groups, (WhatsApp) use ephemerality (Snapchat) or be anonymous (Secret) As I mentioned, at least three of these work for me. A wonderful nuance I caught in Mitch Joel ‘s prophetic ‘The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity‘, is that it may not just be ‘something to hide’ that makes some prefer anonymity, but it could also be so that ‘who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion’. Anonymity on the web is not new, but many of its enablers are.

Devices: The networks of an earlier era (eg.Facebook) were made for desktop and had to adapt for mobile. On the other hand, Instagram, Whatsapp, Secret, Snapchat etc are mobile natives. Given the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, their growth is not surprising.

What are the possible business models and what’s a brand to do? As more and more users flock to these new platforms, they would need to mature, with business models which could mean associations with brands – the journey from social network to social media.

Instagram and Pinterest are already social media, making advertising at least one of their revenue sources. WhatsApp does not like advertising and already makes money on downloads. Its competitors like Line, KakaoTalk, WeChat etc, however, have found various other means – virtual items, (stickers, in app purchases in free video games) promotional messages, baby steps in electronic payment handling fees, and interesting tie-ups. Snapchat already has many marketers on it and is likely to offer promotion options too, probably tied to a time bound event.

Secret has a lot of negativity surrounding it – s3x talk and startup malice and being just a fad – and there are comparisons to Formspring and its demise despite funding. But beyond advertising and in app puchases, maybe, there’s also potential for insights on a brand and its use cases? Things that cannot be found on indexed platforms. Also, Whisper already has a content deal with Buzzfeed.

Analytics for such platforms haven’t even really begun yet, but it can’t be far away. But more importantly, all of these platforms are potential enablers for a brand to take forward its narrative and become relevant to its users. It continues to be about storytelling, and digital.

Brand Personalities

The discussions on anonymity are back in full force on the web, mostly courtesy Google’s stance against pseudonymity on Google+. Google has its reasons and is supposedly working on it.Considering that I represent myself as ‘manuscrypts’ and an icon/logo on most social networks, identity on the web is an issue that I can definitely relate to.

But when I consider this from a brands’ perspective, I sense an equally grey area. The brand is usually represented on social networks as a logo and a ‘voice’ that cannot be tied down to a person. Most studies indicate that consumers/users would rather talk to a person than a brand. But that also sets the stage for a BBC-Twitter like incident to happen, a scenario I had written about a couple of years back. I have seen only a few interesting alternatives. (eg. Chicago Tribune’s Twitter directory or adopting a persona like Hippo)  There is a different side to it too – how many brand managers would like to associate themselves with the product they manage? (for various reasons) When agencies manage social platforms on behalf of clients, what is the best way to present that? A person has many identities, some he/she wants to share, and some others he/she does not, a brand is rarely given this leeway.

I feel that in all the time that has elapsed since my earlier post, the networks have not yet built systems that allow brands to fully explore the ‘people-conversations’ aspect that makes social work. Twitter and Facebook, the premium players, both lack a way to surface the identities of the people tied to the brand, in context. There is only so much a Twitter bio can hold, and no one looks at the Info tab on Facebook. (LinkedIn is best placed, but very few brand centric discussions happen there.) The focus, whether it’s Facebook’s Ads API or Twitter’s promoted tweets, seems to be on broadcast, albeit more targeted. Foursquare is still early in the game, but the self-serve brand pages are a decent step. I hope Google considers all this when they do allow brands to play on Google+.

If a platform does manage to work it out, it would be helpful for all concerned. Brands could apportion responsibilities. Monitoring systems and reaction mechanisms could build in roles, ‘filters’ and ‘rights’ accordingly, and users would know exactly who to speak to for what issue? The other way, of course, is for brands to build that network themselves, feeding in data, personas and conversations from existing networks. That way, they can even assign responsibility to early adopters within the organisation to test out new platforms on their behalf, and communicate that. With the rise of SoLoMo (social, location, mobile), the need for a distributed social architecture is now of much importance.

until next time, a brand’s personal identity

Connecting people

It might be time for Nokia to rethink that line, thanks to the following recent launches- Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect, both of which offer data portability across sites which have implemented the services. It got me thinking about online identities. Before we get to that, a bit of introduction.

Facebook Connect, when implemented on a website allows any user to log in using their Facebook credentials and use that identity to comment etc, and also transmits these activities back to Facebook. FB seems to have focused on popular web services like Digg, Hulu, among others, and a couple of entities that got me interested in the deal – Disqus (soon) and Twitter. It perhaps hopes to use their massive user base, to popularise itself. On the other hand, Google  seems to be have the average blogger in mind, and has tied up with Yahoo, AIM, Open Id and now Twitter to have a common login across websites that have implemented Google Friend Connect. A good comparison can be found here.

As a blogger, Facebook Connect seems to be a more difficult thing to set up, but implementation in individual blogs will be helped by the plugins (esp on WordPress). I’m wondering whether FB will try to seed this service through the Blog Networks app that’s quite popular there. FB Connect does offer great advantages thanks to the social connect that is brought about by the usage details being transmitted back to Facebook.   So if I had installed FB Connect on this site, and you had used your FB id to login and comment, the fact that you’d commented would be shown on your newsfeed on FB, thereby giving that extra exposure to this site. Although Facebook assures data security and privacy, it does seem a little like opening your FB account to the world, since a lot of profile details will get displayed when you use the FB Connect service. The other question I have is whether these activities become the property of Facebook by virtue of appearing in the newsfeed? (I remember the old controversy on ownership of content uploaded on FB)

Google Friend Connect seems to be quite easy to set up, and in that sense makes it simpler for a regular blogger to adopt it. The snag is that inspite of the Invite option, I don’t get much additional exposure since the usage information doesn’t get reflected anywhere (not even Orkut). I wonder if Google will have a one click installation of the service in the next version of Blogger. I am also thinking about where Ad Sense will be made to fit into all this.

And now to the identity part. I blog as manuscrypts, a handle that I have used for more than 5.5 years now. For most of those years, the real me could only be pieced together from various posts I’d written. With the increasing usage of social/business networking services like Facebook and LinkedIn, my real world identity is not exactly a secret now. If i choose to comment on any blog using FB/Google Friend Connect, it has to be using the ‘real identity’, unless I create profiles only for my virtual self. :)

On one hand, a portable identity across the web, and the advantages it offers are tempting, on the other hand I’m not sure whether I want all these networks to be talking to each other – when I comment on a social media site, I wouldn’t want the other users of the site to see my tagged photos on FB.  So far, I’d controlled what information about me goes to a contact, depending on his/her relationship with me. Different amounts of data for different levels of friendship. Yes, my profile is open on FB, but I don’t advertise it outside. That will not be the case if I use FB Connect. More importantly, I don’t want an entity like Google (which invokes paranoia in me) to know everything about me. The sad part is that I dont think an increase in transparency will improve personal integrity, tolerance etc, but that’s a different debate altogether.

Me? I’ll wait a while before I encourage the use of either service on this site, who knows, maybe a LinkedIn Connect might come about. For now, let me try this app, that adds a twitter identity to my commenting system. :)

until next time, connect :)