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June - 2009 - issue > Technology
Consuming Media in a Social Networking World
John G. Waclawsky
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Social Networking is driving the Internet into the Fabric of our Lives.

While technology is helping us to adapt to living in a sea of on the go connectivity, it is also burying users in an avalanche of media choices such as MP3 players, iPods, mobile phones, TV, cable, desktop computers, and wireless 2G, 3G, and soon 4G networks. Access to personal media from anywhere, at any time, is a critical part of the much broader picture of human social interactivity. Technology is increasing our ability to satisfy fundamental human needs, such as belonging to a group, sharing our experiences with a number of peer communities, and further enhancing our ability to be socially connected. Understanding Maslow’s five level hierarchy of needs (often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the lowest level associated with physiological needs, while the upper levels with community, esteem, self-actualization, and hierarchy needs) lets you begin to see how mobile devices, TVs, and computers help us meet our needs on all the Maslow levels utilizing rich media. For example, you can satisfy many basic physiological needs by ordering a pizza, checking on your dry cleaning, or making a hotel reservation while using media as a way to help satisfy your curiosity to what you are buying.

Continuing up from the physiological bottom of the Maslow hierarchy, when my daughters go out, they take a cell phone, not just to stay connected with their friends, but also for security (and my piece of mind). When a car meets with an accident that causes the airbag to deploy, some cars automatically call 911 and report the accident location by GPS coordinates. Moving further up the Maslow hierarchy, today we have evolved from safety and security to increasingly using phones, computers, and PDAs to meet social needs such as staying connected with our friends and loved ones, as well as to break the ice with new acquaintances, ask for a date, be ‘cool’, and to find and become part of new communities. Media is especially valuable in any social context such as sharing pictures and videos. Especially with today’s younger generation, network devices such as mobile phones and their usage is no longer just about talking on the phone - they are about community, belonging, self-actualization, and the consumption of content.

Older people even enjoy emails and IMs with pictures and videos as well as share links to the websites they find that feature quirky, fun, beautiful, social, or entertaining content. Sharing with your peers the photos, music, and videos that you like is a big part of demonstrating who you are as an individual (Maslow’s status and esteem needs). Content recommendations also turn social communities into viral content and advertising distribution vehicles. This social aspect makes content distribution even more attractive and valuable; especially for long tail content providers to serve up content to targeted social community audiences like motorcycle clubs, investment clubs, school curriculum, and particular sports venues. When users share and recommend, they are saying these are my tastes, this is relevant to my community of interest, and this is who I am; and it can lead to product sales focused around social activities.

While individualism and anonymity has ruled the Internet in the past, sharing and self expression are growing today as more individuals, young and old, are using the Net, to not only conduct business, but to create and join in new forms of community. Social applications are here today - like MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and many others - and, as the Internet develops into a social fabric, devices at the edge of the network are increasingly important for content consumption and are evolving to allow the dynamic formation of a wide variety of networks to meet social needs. Membership will range from an individual and his or her buddy to a bridge club to an alumni association or even larger groups of people.

Business people are also benefiting from this social trend of joining (and leaving) groups. For example, client programs installed on hotel guests’ edge devices at check-in or beforehand could automatically add information about the hotel operator, front desk, and housekeeping to your phone book or even into your IM buddy list, and delete these references when you leave. The net result is that you and the hotel are better connected and you can easily express your needs and the hotel can serve you better. In the future, such social networks are likely to form and go away as people come and go. There are two main points here: first that everyone and their devices will be communicating all the time, and second, that a lot of interesting and useful things can happen when end users collaborate and form business or social communities.

The result is that we have a growing social use of networks, a large variety of devices, expanding consumption of content, and network technologies that can be used for these new purposes, with a generation coming of age that is ingrained in using technology, by virtue of their childhood habituation to constant connectivity via their cell phones, laptops, and PDAs. It is important to begin a serious effort in addressing the shortcomings of today’s siloed environment that has numerous disparate devices (TVs, mobile phones, computers), multiple types of media, and lacks the flexibility for the user to easily consume and share at will. For example iPods are restricted to what is on it with little, if any, social interactivity. TV is an example of no interactivity in the extreme, and the TV content you consume is controlled by others. Now let’s consider some of the impediments, and how they could be addressed.

Challenges and Directions

If we look again at our online business and social worlds, then you see that when privacy, safety, or money are at stake, there are serious outstanding issues. For example, if you don’t know a new participant, how do you measure their reputation, or determine if they can be trusted? These issues of trust and reputation are among the most critical in these new social usages of the Net. Something like a person’s Whuffie - the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow’s sci-fi novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - is a general measurement of his or her overall reputation. It is lost and gained according to other participant’s judgments of the person’s favorable or unfavorable actions. You’d be more likely to do business with someone who has a good rating than someone who doesn’t. Success is measured not monetarily, but by what money really represents - your personal capital with your friends and neighbors.

Although Whuffie was never intended for real world implementation, many community-oriented websites are built around Whuffie-like concepts of reputation management, such as Slashdot’s karma system or eBay’s feedback ratings. Currency systems similar to Whuffie include local exchange trading systems (LETS, in which goods and services can be traded without printed currency) and the ripple monetary honor system. A related and very significant challenge for networking environments of all sizes is promoting ‘good’ behavior and stopping or reducing ‘bad’ behavior. If you look at issues like behavior and reputation from a network operator perspective - that is, what could you charge for services on the network that might help with these matters - you can see how the idea of walled gardens came naturally to network operators. You can also see how antithetical walled gardens are to the way people are actually using social networking today and that behavior and related issues need to be addressed by the social sites themselves in conjunction with functionality at end user devices.

For many users, especially the younger ones, it is not about money; it is about reputation and identity and fulfilling social needs. That doesn’t mean network operators, or others, couldn’t make money by addressing reputation, security, and identity issues, it just means that they will more likely succeed by doing this with social sites, content provider and end user device cooperation - not with ineffective stand alone services created and controlled in the core network.

Once trust and reputation and identity issues are addressed (no doubt, they will be) and the social-centric and content consumption trends we have discussed above will take off even more quickly. We will evolve to an environment that would facilitate content providers and new business model opportunities and a more satisfying end user experience. Social networking will include having a lot of proximity interactions when you are en route to meet your friends - while traveling in a car, participating in a party, in the beach, or in a meeting at a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant. When we are close to each other, bluetooth, 802.11, near field communications (NFC), and other ad hoc proximity networks will give us more opportunities to share our stuff. When we are home, we will be using local connectivity to load up our iPod with selections from our music or video libraries and enable socially connected end users to utilize triple-play platforms and multi-device support so that they can enjoy content and meet the Maslow needs along with social networking experiences in their living room as well as on the go. Interactive TV is a natural for social experiences and can even be used as part of massive online communities such as voting for American idol contestants right from your TV or any location.

Additional Issues
The inevitable question that arises when you look across all the social websites is how to integrate them into your life for the best and absolute professional and social mobile networking experience. Being present in all of them at the same time is important since they often serve different purposes. While the list of features varies among the social websites, having to deal with complex controls that differ among the sites makes the usage of more than one of them time consuming and too confusing today. What help do you have to organize, simplify, and productively manage your diverse social and professional online and desktop worlds in a private and secure way? And of course how do you conveniently enjoy the spectrum of contents available from social networking sites (and other sites) from your living room and also on the go.

In addition, our children need simple to use and adequate controls for improving their safety not only at a particular site but at all sites that they feel meet their budding social needs and supplythem appropriate content. Non-intrusive parental controls are needed to set the rules and enforce them to keep inappropriate content confined to those mature enough to digest them. We need to do more to keep our children from inadvertently sharing personal information in their profiles, detect cyber bullying or cyber stalking, and help everyone surf their online social worlds safely.


The critical questions for innovators, content providers, advertisers, device manufacturers, software application developers, and network operators alike include:

1. How do I enrich the life of end users and supply them with the tools to belong to a group and share their lives with members of peer communities?

2. How to facilitate consuming and sharing of content beyond existing silos but within a healthy eco-system?

3. How does an end user become simultaneously present in and interact with all of his social communities?

4. How do I make it easy, automatic, and routine for individuals to get information, participate in commercial and social interaction, and everything else that an individual seeks on a daily basis?

5. And finally, how do I accomplish all the above across multiple devices?

In answering these questions, I believe, we will find that substantial new opportunities will present themselves.

Author is a member of the technical staff of Mobile Tribe responsible for advanced architecture and focuses on social networking trends and directions.
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