While combing through the 185,000 apps at the iTunes store today, I came across Friends Around Me, an app for the iPhone and iPad. The name alone makes me a little uncomfortable. I find what it does to be downright eerie. Friends Around Me is an app that links to your social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) and allows the user to see profiles of others--friend or stranger--that are in the general vicinity. It's the kind of app that Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg would love. It's also the kind of thing that makes me think we're witnessing a fundamental dissolution of historically accepted boundaries through technology, mobile and otherwise.
There's been a lot of talk recently about Facebook's on-going struggle to fix its privacy settings to be more user-friendly. Zuckerberg has offered no apologies for what he calls "granular" settings that offer users more control over their information. His tone throughout the discourse has consistently remained generally dismissive. As the CEO of what could overnight become the largest advertising network in the world, Zuckerberg comes by his anti-privacy cheerleading quite naturally. And while every ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ might be a dime in Facebook’s pocket, I wonder what the rest of us lose from contributing to Zuckerberg’s trove of the world’s most valuable information.
Social networks would not be what they've become without the advent of the smartphone. The fact that people can now take their entire social circle with them everywhere has led to a kind of collective psychology that feeds the narcissist in all of us. We now speak in terms of tweets and check-ins. More often than not, when we do get together in person, someone inevitably pulls out their phone to share a picture that someone a thousand miles away just posted on Facebook. The situation is ironic; it appears that we are at once addicted to ourselves and afraid of ourselves.
If you listen to Zuckerberg talk, the social fabric that he has created will not only continue to grow, it will become the most important aspect of the Web going forward. Mobile is the key to social networking's ubiquity. According to a recent Harris poll, four out of five teens carry a wireless device, and 57 percent of teens view their cell phone as the key to their social life. Smartphones in conjunction with social networking create and maintain connections that were unheard of less than a decade ago. In the year 2000, how many people would have claimed that they had 130 friends? Today, that's the average for resident of Facebook.
I took time out to wax thoughtful on this subject today because I think that the kinds of privacy issues represented by the Facebook dilemma are at the core of where mobile technology is headed. We are at a point where we can literally share just about every part of our life from an iPhone. We can let everyone know exactly where we are, what we just saw, did, thought or felt. For me, that’s kind of a scary thought. For others, that’s probably an incredibly liberating idea. The important thing is that we have the choice as to how much we want to share and when we do that we know with whom we’re sharing that information. Some will say that we can either join Facebook or not and that’s all the choice we need. I suppose that’s true, but if Facebook goes where it wants to go and becomes as integral a part of the Web as it would like to be, it’s not going to matter whether I have a Facebook account or not.
What makes me leery about all of this is that the social networks don’t exist entirely for our benefit. They’re not the local Grange co-op or town gazebo. Facebook wants your information, which it then intends to use in order to sell you things via a massive ad network. Sure, they like to say that by giving them more information they can serve you advertisements more accurately tuned to your likes and dislikes, but isn’t that just another way of saying, “Don’t worry, we know what’s best for you.”?
Alas, for all my griping, I am not opposed to social networks. I like to think of the smartphone, Facebook and even that ominous Friends Around Me app as actualizations of our evolving collective mind. But I desperately want to believe that the realizing of a “collective mind” will lead to a better understanding of one another and to the solving of some of our planet’s most pressing problems. Right now, however, all I see is a technological cocktail, impressive as it may be, that amounts to the death of silence and the selling of more junk.