Decorating a Social Space

The design of online spaces reflects personal identity, danah boyd said in her excellent talk on the SXSW panel on the Esthetic of Social Networks. The “Fakesters” on Friendster didn’t mean that users were trying to fake out the system — they were expressing their identity by affiliating with icons, in the same way that kids put up dormroom posters, restaurants put up signed celebrity photos, and people put family photos on their desk at work.
There are analogs in the world of games, but much less in the realm of other social software. This insight points to an opportunity in social software design, and an opportunity to push the limits of some bad laws, too.
In the 3d world, people have many ways to decorate shared spaces — interior design in homes shared with family and guests; and exterior design of houses and gardens.
Today, flickr lets people share photos with IM buddies and others in social networking groups. This is cool as a feature, and would be even more powerful integrated with other online social spaces.
Music is a universal means of expressing shared identity. Today, there are widgets to publish a personal playlist on a weblog. There ought to be similar group tools to play music for online groups. Individuals could vote about choices, to maximize collective preferences. “Off” would be an important standard option.
This can be done legally with Creative Commons-licensed music from Magnatune and other sources of open-licensed music. And it should be legal — there shouldn’t be any difference, legally, between Joi Ito playing music for friends in his living room, and the #joiito IRC channel sharing tunes.
These features will be subject to intense negotiation, just as they are in 3D, where home decoration and neighborhood zoning are fraught with negotiation and conflict. The benefit of online spaces is that they’re not constrained to four walls, one set of color choices, and one playlist. Individuals should be able subscribe to some of the group’s choices, but not all. The consequence of semi-personalization could be greater tolerance and diversity, lower levels of affiliation, or some combination of both.
It will be interesting to see how danah’s insight plays out in the evolution of social software to reflect more of the cultural affiliation patterns of humans in groups.

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