Davos07: On identity

One of the thin threads I saw cutting through much of my Davos experience was the notion of identity:

* We are what we make. Our YouTubed videos, Technoratied blogs, Flickred photos, Facebooked pages, Amazonned reviews, and iPodded podcasts and playlists altogether are an expression of us. There was a lot of hubbub at Davos about avatars: interviews with the players in Second Life (I wonder how many saw those sessions vs. read blog posts about the proceedings vs. read news accounts… vs. didn’t care). I remain skeptical about Second Life. I don’t need an avatar. What I put on the internet is my avatar. Our creations express us.

* Caterina Fake of Flickr gave the media people an elegant explanation of the value of “publicness” (they like to make up words at Flickr; see “interestingness“). She said that was what separated Flickr from his predecessors: the realization that people want to make what they make public; it is an expression of their identity.

* Often, creation is its own reward. At Davos, Chad Hurley revealed that the service will share revenue with producers. But he said he started YouTube without remuneration (and I suspect he couldn’t afford it on top of the bandwidth bill) because he didn’t want people running off to the next highest bidder. He wanted to give people a voice and build a place where they would share. Creation creates community.

* Anonymity is a virtue that can enable freer conversation, especially in repressive environments. But anonymity also cloaks the bad guys who spam and bot our internet or troll our blogs.

* Privacy is a concern. Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner of Information Society and Media, kept raising fears for the privacy of the individual online. And yes, there are concerns. But what the parental types don’t realize is that standards of privacy are changing rapidly: Privacy matters less to the children of the internet because you have to give up something of yourself to make connections with other people. You have to have an identity on the internet to find friends.

* Transparency is identity, too. You have to give up something of yourself for people to trust you. Journalists are having a terribly hard time understanding that; they keep thinking they should be trusted because of who they are (or whom they work for). But we don’t really know who they are.

* Every mogul wants a social network like Rupert’s; media people kept begging for clues about how to build social webs about and around their stuff. One of the young moguls at Davos said that media properties are not meant to be social networks. I’ll disagree somewhat: The sad thing is that old media don’t realize that if they had just opened up years ago, they’d have seen that they already had social networks. I tell magazine people that they have communities gathering around the good stuff they create or find that we all like; newspapers have local communities. But because they were closed castles that kept their communities outside, they didn’t realize this. And so the people outside have gone to build their own social structures — which they clearly always wanted — now that they can. Too late for the big, old guys? Maybe.

* All this opens up lots of opportunities in technology. I said to a couple of my fellow participants at Davos — a media mogul, an internet entrepreneur — and I will say it in another post here that I think the real opportunity is not to start a social network but to better enable the social network that the internet already is, to pull together our distributed identities and help us manage them and make the connections we want to make. That comes through the expression of our identities. We express that both with our content and our connections: We are the company we keep.

  • Speaking of social networks (and citizen journalism) there is something interesting going on with the Scooter Libby trial. In addition to the usual press types there are a few bloggers as well.

    Unlike newspaper reporters they have no need to limit the length of their postings and so are giving detailed reports on the testimony. This has allowed avid followers to parse the testimony. In the old days the two sides would have several people looking for weaknesses in the other side’s arguments, now there are hundreds. By the law of the intelligence of crowds they are finding interesting things. Today there are several discussions of discrepancies with Ari Fleischer’s testimony of yesterday including a follow up column by John Dickerson who Fleischer mentioned in his testimony.

    This probably would have slipped past in earlier days. With such close scrutiny of important trials (and even congressional hearings) happening more frequently it’s not surprising that the courts (especially the Supreme Court) are reluctant to allow cameras.

    Proof once again that a transparent government is always better for being so (at least from the point of the citizens).

  • Glyn

    While I defer to no-one in my admiration for flickr, they certainly never made up the word “interestingness”. If you rerer to the Oxford English dictionary – “Interestingness – the quality of being interesting” – you’ll see that it’s been around for more than 200 years as shown by this use by Adam Smith in 1759: “[The axe] the emblem of having been beheaded, which is engraved under those [heads]..sheds a real dignity and interestingness over their characters. ”

    Interesting how people’s avatars in Second Life are always better looking than the person in reality, but that’s understandable. I do think you’re being a little over critical of it, though. No doubt in another 200 years our great-grandchildren will all have migrated into Second Life, leaving the earth to recover without us.

    All of which has nothing to do with Davos, mildly sorry about that.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, what exactly is the purpose of Davos? I’m still trying to understand why I should care that moguls want a better network, and that they spend their shareholders dividends to spend a week hanging around Switzerland. I don’t know why the world is a better place because all those folks went to cocktail parties and talked about populism and networking and democracy. Doesn’t this have a sort of hollow, hypocritical core underneath the veneer of altruism?

  • David

    With respect to Glyn’s post, Caterina Fake’s declaration that what Flickr users upload represents an “expression of their identity” is preposterous. It is instead, like Second Life or any similarly anonymous web venue, a manifestation of most users’ aspirations–how they would be in real life if they could accentuate what they like about themselves and eliminate what they don’t.

    I think that the reason why marketers are so enthralled by Second Life is that it offers them the opportunity to distill exactly what people seem to think they need to do to themselves to achieve “perfection.” This sort of knowledge could inform the development of new products and help companies more effectively package existing ones.

  • Why do all of the problem creators go to Davos and pawn themselves off as problem solvers? John Kerry? Give me a break.

    The next YouTube is being inspired and created now by someone far removed from Davos – perhaps as far as Hurley was when he created his site.

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  • penny

    Howard, bloggers have a place at the table, the MSM monopoly is over. This isn’t news.

    The best war reporting, insights into Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, replete with the best photos, interviews and 24/7 slogging through the minutea have been embedded bloggers….. Michael Yon, Michael Tottem, Bill Roggio…. they there are out there.

    You use the phrase “citizen journalism”, sadly, I doubt you are even aware of where to find it. It’s out there, becoming increasingly more established, and, I can assure you that you won’t like it as a person that regurgitates all of the MSM agenda driven products. How stupid is it that you can glance at the news purveyor like the NYT’s, WaPo, Guardian, etc and write the damn article yourself as they are so it so hackneyed.

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  • “Often, creation is its own reward” … but sometimes, it’s a $1.65 BILLION dollar buy-out. The awww, shucks line is a little bit faux in those circumstances.

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  • The local groups which “need” web services already exist. You mention the groups around local newspapers which newspapers have declined to serve online; but, of course, there are many other very real groups which use the Internet for email but don’t use the web – yet – to communicate. Serving these groups (not forming them) is the next great Web opportunity. These newbies don’t need a life – let alone a Second Life – they already have one.

    But, with broadband penetration over 50%, these groups can enhance what they already do by taking some of their interactivity online.

    more on this thought at http://blog.tomevslin.com/2007/01/the_newbies_are.html

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  • Great post.
    re: opening up lots of new opportunities – I could not agree more. Do you know of any particular companies doing this?
    btw – Sam Sethi (ex-Techcrunch UK) has had a few interesting posts on the subject from the openid perspective. See for example here

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