Who Owns my Online Self? And why should I care?

As people flock to test out Google+, I’ve been following the excited chatter and started testing it out myself.  However, this experience has really been difficult for me and has brought up real personal questions of whether I can invest in yet another network.  How can someone who studies this stuff for a living have such a hard time?!?!  It has to do with a deep human desire for self and ownership that I think current networking tools do not yet consider.

I might be typical of many young adults who grew up with social network sites.  I remember starting out in college with Xanga (a blogging community), moving on to Myspace, migrating to Facebook, and adopting Twitter as I entered the working world.  I thought little about what I was sharing and what was being done with my information.  What mattered to me was I had a place to share, it was easy to use, and my network of friends were in the same online community.

However, as I am faced with the prospect of migrating once again from Facebook/Twitter to Google+, I am tired.  Facebook has succeeded in collecting a high percentage of my personal network.  We’ve shared our joys and sorrows, highs and lows, over the years with our pictures, videos, status messages, comments, and likes.  I can outline my progression from dorky college student to equally dorky (if more comfortable in my own skin) adult, just by looking through my profile pictures.  Now I am faced with the prospect of moving this life to another platform.

As I face this decision, that pesky conversation about privacy and ownership of one’s information now takes on an emotional and personal light for me.  Facebook succeeded in winning my deep engagement because it best tapped into a fundamental human need to express oneself and connect with others.  It did this better than Xanga and Myspace.  The consequence of winning my participation is that my virtual artifacts – like the pics and status updates that litter my profile – now carry with them personal and emotional meaning.

This realization now helps me realize why many are outraged when Facebook keeps your information after you’ve deleted your profile or Google has infinite rights to use what you post on Plus for their own means.  For us mere end-users, our social information means something.  In the battle between corporate titans, our information is a means to their bottom line.  Facebook and Google are asking us to choose on which platform we want to create our online selves.  The likely winner will be the one who better taps into our most fundamental human desires – the need to connect, be voyeurs, or to categorize our friends into best and bestest circles.

But, the platform that can successfully tap into another of our most fundamental human desires – the feeling of safety, control, and that someone cares – while retaining the sociability of this current wave of networking sites, will ultimately win my heart.  Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ will win the short-term battle.  I will still use Facebook because so much of my network is on it, but I will share less status messages and pictures on the site.  This will make it easier for me to leave once Google+ (or something else comes along).  I will dabble with Google+ in the chance that most of my network migrates there (and yes, it’s weirdly cool to organize my network into circles).  But I will be cautious to get sucked into sharing too much there.  I know it will just hurt more when I have to migrate all of that information to another platform in 3 years.

I believe, the network site that will win the long-term battle for our hearts is the one that sees itself as (and is designed to be) an “actual Friend” and not a mere “platform for friends”.  This change in perspective is powerful.  I’ve shared some my self with 4 friends now (Xanga, Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter) with the high likelihood that they will all abandon me with nary a care for what I’ve invested.  I’ll start now with a 5th (Google+) with the expectation that it too will leave in a few years.  I hope we’re not raising a generation of folks with deep digital abandonment issues.

So what networking site will meet our desires for a platform that cares for us just as much as we care for it?  I have high hopes for Diaspora, and I really really hope it survives and is ready for primetime before too much of the world gets gun-shy about joining yet another social network.  I’m waiting with bated breath for Diaspora to be easy to install, use, and manage and not just a pet project for idealistic hackers.  And I now understand the motivation of those 4 idealistic hackers.  They state the benefit of Diaspora is that each of us can finally own our own information and choose what we do with it.  No, I think Diaspora can succeed despite coming along so late in the game if it can somehow show each user that they are valued and safe members of the network, and that this safety will never go away.