Ever since the social web started emerging, the internet became a collection of highly personal data. This data already ends up at companies and governments, but they merely use it in their design process or to determine the direction in which they develop their policies instead of making it a part of the actual product or service itself. This made me wonder; is this it?
For the first time in history our day-to-day emotions, thoughts, decisions, discussions, experiences etc. are being collected in one centralized place, and all we can do with it is use it to create guidelines?
When you talk to people about the internet being one big collective diary, then most of them will agree; it really is something extraordinary. But that’s often where it ends. There are already people who ‘play around’ with this data in a different way than just using it to create guidelines. Jonathan Harris for example, is intrigued by the hidden stories of the internet and has tried to uncover them in projects like ‘we feel fine‘ and ‘I want you to want me‘. Within these projects emotional trends are made visible and when you place them on a timeline combined with historical events, interesting things start to happen. You can see how ‘the world’ experienced a lot of negative emotions around the attacks of 9/11, and a lot of positive ones after Obama won the elections. But in the end, projects like these only put a greater emphasis on the potential of the data, instead of actually doing something with it.
I believe this data has the potential to change both human-computer interaction and human-human interaction tremendously. For now I want to shoot at human-human interaction. Though the thoughts behind it are much more conceptual than the ones behind human-computer interaction, I also find them to be much more exhilarating and I believe they will have a much more profound impact on society. I’m not trying to explain a bulletproof theory here in any way, but merely illustrating one of the many points of view which one can have upon this matter.
One of the things in which the internet excels is exposing the social cohesion (the common ground) amongst groups of people, and bringing them together in one place. This is what happens in online social networks. As a consequence people who are completely unknown to each other are often seen having a wonderful conversation just on the basis of for example their taste of music. (a friend of mine is now even in a terrific relationship with someone he met on last.fm) This is an example of how personal data has been made relevant for more people than just you and your friends.
Nowadays, mobile internet is booming and wifi spots are popping up everywhere. Once you’re connected we know who you are (not just your name but think of all the stuff you left on facebook, flickr, youtube, twitter , the things you bought on amazon etc), and where you are. Now imagine going out for a quick lunch by yourself. How would that be different if you would know that the friendly looking fellow sitting next to you went to the same concert as you last night, or just became a father just like you? Would you start a conversation just as easy as you would online? Off course a lot of other factors play a role when you decide wether to start a conversation with someone or not, but could it aid in lowering some thresholds?
Let’s take it a step further. Tv-commercials are very different in each country, but the commercials from charities like Unicef or Novib all have some characteristics in common. Often they contain tragic images from children or amputees in third world countries (or other tragic images alike). Why? Because we can relate to those images. After seeing them we feel compassion, some people even experience a feeling guild. These are strong emotions and if experienced strong enough we act upon them.
Now what would happen if you could evoke those emotions amongst the people in a soccer stadium when riots break out. What if everyone goes ballistic and suddenly family pictures and pictures of kids who are currently present in the stadium show up on the screens accompanied by a strong message. Would the riots die down quicker? Could all the personal data of people collected on the internet serve as a tool for crowd management? Simply by showing people that they’re not so different from each other or by trying to let them relate to others around.
A couple months ago I gave a presentation at the Next Web Salon (a intimate version of the Next Web conference) in which I talked about these ideas. Someone there asked me the question if this could mean the end of war. Now I don’t believe that’s the case. But what can we achieve by uncovering the right common ground at the right time? Would we be happier when feeling more related to each other? Would our behavior change as a consequence of this? How will the biggest collective diary known to mankind change our behavior in our future society?
Image: Visualization of the internet made by students from the university of Birmingham