Facebook and mobile publics

“Facebook is the new landline”, according to the provocative argument in Valdis Krebs’ recent post. Before the rise of the mobile phone, phone-users needed to be at a given location in order to take a phone call. Answering machines and answering services helped blunt the pain, but phone calls were fundamentally tied to a landline at a given location. The rise of the mobile phone, broke the dependency on a location. Phone calls now come to a person, wherever she is.

Facebook, argues Krebs, is analogous to a landline. It requires people to go to a single website in order to see their messages and updates. “Facebook does not allow for natural flexibility of human interaction, you and your relationships are ossified in their computer code. In a truly networked world we do not have to go anywhere to connect to others — we just ping from where we are at and wait for the response from where they are at.” A new generation of standards-based distributed social networks will emerge that allows users to bring their identity and stream wherever they are on the web.

But Krebs’ argument raises an important question without an obvious answer. Conference calls aside, telephones are mostly for 1:1 communication. Facebook and other social networks are mostly for many to many communication. And to make things more complicated, the “many” that one intends to address on Facebook or Twitter or other network is often actually a set of semi-overlapping publics, following Kevin Marks’ post. The set of people who follow a Twitter link to the blog post you are reading on social software design will be significantly different from the people who follow a Twitter link to this post on Jewish ideas in post-modern thought. Valdis is right that in the offline world, “This is how we naturally network — we decide on the fly, who to talk to, in what voice, and how much to share.” But how does this concept of “mobile publics” – the idea that we choose what to say to whom, in what context – apply to the web? What will come to represent these social contexts by which we choose what voice to use? In the realtime web, the concept of “place” is being substituted by the concept of a stream. Will the concept of “place” reemerge, and recreate the notion of a public – but with the added benefit that recipients have the ability to remix the messages they receive in their own contexts? Will interfaces emerge that make it easier to choose who to address on the fly? Today, it is pretty confusing to think about who you’re talking to, when you address the mass of people on Facebook who constitute your highschool buddies, local political contacts, professional acquaintances, family members, and close personal friends. But what sort of set of services and interfaces might enable the notion of “mobile publics”.

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