Articulation of virtual cues

Jofish wrote me at the end of last week:

i like that i have had four different communications of varying degrees of privacy from you in the last few days: blog posts, lj blog posts, email to a handful of people and individual emails. wow. it’s almost like this whole electronic medium lets you… control and mediate your identity!

I thought this was an excellent observation. I like what it implies about the future of social software. It’s not about having just one piece of software that mediates our social identity, it’s about having a constellation or ecosystem of software that we can choose among, depending on the message and privacy and identity. Given that we have multiple social identities, it makes sense that I would communicate differently when using different mechanisms with varying degrees of privacy.

In the real world, we use these sorts of tools effortlessly because we have so much experience with them – Jofish later commented that the real world equivalents of the four electronic levels he observed would be a public talk, a workshop session, a dinner conversation and a private conversation. We all have absorbed the different meanings that each of those communication media imply, such that if I tell you something in a private conversation, it is probably not meant to be public, but if I say it in a public talk, it obviously is. As I’ve observed before, we’re still learning those cues in the electronic media world.

One nifty thing is that in the electronic world, those cues are often made explicit. Sometimes it is unclear what the intended scope of information is in the real world – if I’m sitting around with friends and tell a story, is it only meant for those friends, or is it just a story I tell in public? In electronic media, because the audience knows I have a variety of publishing methods available to me, the choice of media indicates the preferred scope explicitly. If I put it on my public blog, you know you can point anybody to it. If I put it in an email to a few people, you know it’s probably close friends only. So because I can use any or all of the media, my choice of media is a cue as to the appropriate context for further discussion.

But this only works if I have a choice of electronic communication media. In the days of email, you could create some of these artifacts with mailing lists vs. selected friends vs. individual emails, but the scope was limited compared to the vast array of options available in real life. But with the growing number of electronic media options, it’s becoming more of an option. I can express different aspects of my identity on my blog, LiveJournal, IM, MySpace, email, Friendster, LinkedIn, orkut, etc. And that multiplicity of options lets us manage our identities with a greater specificity than we sometimes can offline, where there’s always the possibility of mixed social contexts.

I also think this is why social software will continue to stagnate as long as companies expect me to run my entire life through their software. One piece of software is not going to allow me enough articulation of identity to be sufficient. So we will need to come up with open standards that allow the various pieces of social software to interact with each other in ways that let us manage our identities with the precision that we desire. The FOAF project is one effort along these lines – I suppose I should really read up on them.

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