The Private Web

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NSFW: Halloween in San Francisco and the gathering clouds of a location-based privacy storm

privateFor years we’ve been told the key to the future is the Open Web. And for years it’s been true that taking the open path eventually pays off. You can’t deny the power of open technologies to disrupt the incumbents, whether they are operating systems or carriers or the media in general. Arguing about what constitutes open can be entertaining, but in a world where realtime dominates, we are starting to move on to capture the value of open for ourselves, in the private Web.

As social media clouds become more resilient, we are trusting them more. Twitter lists are a robust signal that the company has moved from keeping up to encoding the value of its network. We won’t see many new stars as lists proliferate, but rather a better sense of how to model the new media forms that micromessages enable. Boiled down to vertical niches, lists are the instantiation of a way of looking at the Web, a kind of Yahoo 2.0 based on people aggregation rather than sites or topics.

But what value do these lists have in raw form? It feels like a Wikipedia page, where you learn not to click on hyperlinked words for fear of getting lost in ever-cascading tangents based on ever-more generic topics. Instead, you rely on the intelligence of whoever constructed the page, scanning for clues as to authority, serendipity, social characteristics worth capturing for yourself. Two problems: the list architecture is splayed all over the place, and we have no tools for harvesting the value.

Of course, we’re just seconds away from the onslaught of third party takes on the subject. Surely we’ll see interesting aggregations of the Top 100, the best, brightest, sexiest, etc. We’ll recognize the familiar names and ratify their positions in the new marketplace. It’s a marketplace that will have its own hierarchy, its own Oprah, its own politicians, police, and underworld. And with all that will emerge its own underground economy.

What is the Private Web? It’s the private place only we know about (or think we do.) It’s the place where our deepest fears and instincts combine to produce the hunches that drive our lives. As a parent of a teenager, I’ve seen my hunches evolve to reflect the rapid pace of social media and my daughter’s use of it. Twitter is nowhere on her radar, Facebook serves as a gas station where she pauses for fill ups, and video chat and IM are interrupted only for food, homework, and periodic audiences for the purpose of fundraising for road trips.

All of the most important parts of her life are conducted on the Private Web. This is not a good or a bad thing; it’s just what it is. I can sense her world but only by inference — more by the difficulty in understanding parts of it than any rational tool such as asking questions or withholding permission until information is volunteered. I feel like Steve Wonder, blind but with some heightened power of perception that slowly carves out information from the resiliency of the difficulty of it.

Take this exchange:

When are you going out?

In a bit.

[some narrowing to an hour, say 4]

Who are you meeting?

Uhh, Amy and mumble and whatever. [co-conspirator, someone I don't know, and no mention of whoever I want to know about, usually boys]

So when will you be coming home?

I don’t know I’ve done my homework [usually not] and it’s [whatever day it is] and I just want to have fun with my friends, Dad. Jeez. [Obfuscation of the length of the excursion to allow for audibles at the line of scrimmage to do all the stuff I should be concerned about]

Lengthy negotiation based on the hunches I’ve collected.

What’s important to understand is that my daughter already knows exactly what she wants to do and has modeled it to the best of her ability to predict the future, online and through the social media framework. Facebook tells her where the opportunities lie, texting confirms or augments those clues, voice is only used to ratify plans once the permission map has been drwan and pre-tested for potential disruption. These kids are really good at this stuff, and we are learning more from them than they from us.

Some conclusions gleaned from observations of the Private Web:

  • It’s not about Twitter, it’s about what Twitter has triggered.
  • Realtime is the best way to get what you want, before defensive measures can be deployed.
  • Friends are important, and particularly a deep bench. If one friend becomes overexposed, you switch to a backup.
  • Texting is the prime channel, then video, followed distantly by email and IM.

To unpack, last in first out. Texting is tied to a hard coded identity, credit card, device. This provides two-way leverage, where the parent (boss) can monitor and require timely feedback, while the child (you) can meter out pseudo-information to keep you happy while navigating largely unseen on the digital network. It is much easier to project a sense of action, reliability, and strategic positioning via social media when you can downplay the value of moving physically through space and time. Foursquare will hit a wall once adults (companies) discover the existence of these breadcrumbs. Foursquare will counter by virtualizing location.

Just as location will become more editorially enhanced, so too will the role of the team in social hierarchies. It’s much more useful to have interchangeable friends or partners, so that the parent (company) knows there will be some coherent continuity regardless of conditions on the ground. People profess to value collaboration, but the strongest connections in the social graph are between groups of overlapping friends who in aggregate add up to a rational team but don’t require hardcoded roles. Put in nightcrawling terms, it’s “OK, I helped you out last night, tonight you’re my wingman.”

Realtime, of course, just plain wins. You may get away with almost a few times, but once people are onto you, they’ll start serving the ball to the weakest point. Realtime is inexorable because our sense of timing adapts to each generation of realtime and soon gets frustrated with how slow it is. How many times have you interrupted someone’s argument because you know what they’re going to say? How many times have you skimmed a post or even a tweet for some clue that it’s worth whatever miniscule time you’re now tuned to? That’s why video is right there after texting, because a picture is still worth a thousand words. “If looks could kill…”

And first but not least, Twitter is so not the point but what it has created is. The key to the Private Web is notification, not the actual content. The social signals that enable or disable connections are the new PageRank. It’s not a link but the ability to see the metadata that describes a link’s immediate value that’s valuable. My daughter uses speed to get off the phone or out of range before I can pin her down for the next number to reach her at. The data is sitting there in plain sight but where it is is obscured. Understanding her social graph in realtime is what we want to know and what she wants to obscure.

The Private Web operates on deeper emotions and instincts than we are accustomed to acknowledging. Where do I want to go? Who do I want to be? In the case of my daughter, how do I get to be who I want to be? The keys to the Private Web are shared, not at a location but via implicit and dynamic permissions to access the stream in realtime. Those who signal their understanding of this deeper value pool will implicitly advertise their value, and encourage us to request permission to share with them. Those deeper conversations will contain higher value as we trust those who share them to keep them private to the group who values them.

Twitter may not support conversations very well, but it provides clues to where the Private Web exists. These conversations live in the cracks between the public stream and direct messages, hidden either by obscurity or purpose. As they become more useful, the tendency will be to make them public, but in doing so they will lose that unique quality of trust and value. Instead, these private conversations will grow, until everyone is participating.

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