Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Future Internet

In 1995, I spoke to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations conference and predicted the Internet would be very big for PR.

Email arrived, web sites arrived and it all happened.

Five years later, in two books I made it clear that the interactive nature of communication for individuals and groups would be very significant for PR practice. Chat, Instant Messaging, Message Boards, Usenet, blogs, MySpace and Facebook (and with a nod towards Second Life) became mainstream and it all happened.

But last year, I went through a patch when I could not see forward. I am more confident now.

My thinking is now going beyond the internet as a place for interaction to a place where we truly become natives.

As a driven social species, capable of seeking and managing change, humans seeking novelty and added capability.

That is, driven by our DNA, the user public will adopt an internet model that is closer to human drivers and because so many people are involved, they will seek and demand change in the area of most internet use - social media.

Technology and regulation is becoming subservient to the online commons. The implications for PR practitioners may be un-nerving. But so too was the advent of the Internet, email and the web and even today, much of the PR industry is nervous about social media.

Each iteration of social media has been richer in content and interactivity. Each has brought more mechanisms for self expression and and ability to display likes and dislikes from favourite films to groups of interest. The social portals offer people a rich array of facilities and content. Much of this self expression is replacing or is a substitute for many of the benefits humans get from direct, face-to-face relationships.

The people who use this media have an agenda described by Stephanie Sanford quite well She argues that there is a changing landscape in polity beyond the collapse of social capital described by Putnam and that there is a kind of online substitute to the social structures that are dominant, if struggling, offline today.

We are a complex blend, a repertoire, of private and social selves and in the last few posts I have been looking at how, we, as human beings, find social media so tempting and why portals like MySpace, Facebook appeal to so many people .

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has examined how we can be completely absorbed in an activity and can 'shut out' other distractions. If you watch a youngster concentrating on a Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), you can see how absorbing some online activity can be. But such effort is linear. It does not cater for a range of 'selves'.

Facebook is very much the same, as is MySpace. Both now offer many ways to express a particular self but not many 'selves' depending on the 'mood' or social frame we are in. Can I please have a Facebook for me as a grandfather and another one as a lecturer – oh! and can I have one as a writer 'self' too. Way back in the 1990's it was evident that many people online had several different online personalities. Even today, most of us have a number of email addresses. My Hotmail account is there for different purposes to my Gmail account and I never use my University accounts at all! Many people have multiple blogs – i.e. different 'selves' already.

So people are involved through their online experience, seek Csikszentmihalyi's engrossing applications and an ability to be the 'self' that matches mood and nature (and the current influences on our lives) look for the next social network to be available online to match the moment when needed.

How big are theses 'selves' in social numbers?

Well, they are not monolithic unless they are social.

Aristotle argued that it was in our interest, given our deeply social nature, to participate in in civic life in order to fulfil ourselves. Jefferson, followed this through when he wrote the American constitution and interpreted it as the 'pursuit of happiness'. He believed that small social groups would build a strong country. There is more modern evidence to support this idea. Robin Dunbar has looked at the nature of social groups across many species and suggests that there is a correlation between cortical size and the actual size of primate species. We are biologically pre-programmed to be personally effective in groups of about 150 people. Small businesses don't seem to need a hierarchical structure until they have 135 employees. Jennifer Muller suggests that teams can function to monitor individuals more effectively than managers can control them. In companies team size is an issue and when a person my have 150 people in their personal 'tribe' working effectively means working with a small section of this tribal whole as Muller notes in her recent paper. The basic military unit is under 150 too and has been for thousands of years (The Roman army First Cohort, called Primi Ordines, consisted of five centuries of 120 men). Political systems that remove social groups (communist Russia is an example) eventually crack under the weight bureaucracy when dealing with big populations whereas delivery of social support (looking out for older neighbours and over the top teens) is delivered effectively when these are sufficient convergent values in a community (a group of actors within a compass of 150 people held together with values that form a a polity) - as suggested by J. Eric Oliver in his book Democracy in Suburbia. He posits that local government is important primarily because it provides an accessible and small-scale arena for the resolution of social and economic conflict. It would seem that the big state, the big business and the national army all have to obey social rules and at a personal level obeying the personal 150 rule in order that the bigger unit (political, economic, social) institution can thrive. To survive big means acting social.

Create a social media network to be of friends, family, tribe and polity (and many other groups) and Facebook would be old fashioned quite quickly. People seek society in different groups, different types of groups and for (sometimes convergent) different purposes and different 'selves'. The portals that provides this will be part of the emerging internet.

One of the amazing things about people is their ability to extent the capability of the body and brain beyond its biological capacity. We can travel further and faster on a bicycle, car or plane because we have extended our physiology with knowledge. We have extended our brain with devices like pocket calculators, digital cameras and computers, that is, we use our brain to make machines do extra mural work. We have also extended our memory with access to wikipedia and the rest of the internet. We have also limited our physical capabilities. A Londoner, and attempting to survive in the Borneo jungle is beyond our ken. We have lost skills and knowledge too. The proverbial Londoner does not have the skill to feel the texture of ground corn to know if it is properly milled into flour (a skill called the 'miller's thumb').

Using the evolving internet will include achieving even more things to facilitate our needs both physical and intellectual (and emotional).

Large brains confer an advantage when responding to variable, unpredictable, and novel ecological demands through enhanced behavioural flexibility, learning, and innovation. (Vrba, E. (1988) in The Evolutionary History of the Robust Australopithecines ). Human have large brains. Better than that, humans like novelty. Humans are quick to learn causal associations between co-occurring environmental stimuli.

The evolving internet is and will continue to be a place where we can experiment with novel things. From Usenet to Twitter and beyond is part of human biology. This means the evolving internet will be a place where people will seek to experiment for simple human gratification.

As a nerve cell in the human brain is stimulated by new experiences and exposure to incoming information from the senses, it grows branches called dendrites. With use, you grow branches; with impoverishment, you lose them. People can even use parts of the brain to do novel things. The ability to change the structure and chemistry of the brain in response to the environment is called plasticity.

This plasticity capability in the adult cerebral cortex can change substantially as a result of practice and experience throughout life (Kolb B, Whishaw I. Q. Brain plasticity and behavior). Furthermore, a specific variant of the gene ASPM (abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated) in humans suggest that the human brain is still undergoing rapid adaptive evolution (Mekel-Bobrov et al ).

The evolving internet will be more addictive and people will develop their brains to cope. With the new internet we can expect new skills to emerge (even programming a video recorder can be learned) and we will both learn and evolve to do these things.

Human biology as much as human society seeks to satisfy needs that ensure that the social group can be trusted. We need to be able to trust people. There are dozens of devices that say they offer secure relationships and for people this means more than ever they need to be recognisable. Throughout history, people have recognised people from their looks, voice and mannerisms. But online, its easy to steal identities. I guess that its the next evolution of Facebook and MYMelcrum will have something like eye scanning (biometric iris scanning) built into a security system that allows many 'selves' but only one self.

As the internet evolves into these new social networks, its networking sites will need feeding. Just as Twitter or Last.fm can be embedded in Facebook, so too will services be needed for the future internet. Web Widgets have a fine future. Feeding these places where people hangout is a big issue and big business. The services available for word processing or automatic video download from cell phone to MMORPG or PC is technically possible and cannot be far away. Integration will be important if only to beat the big problem online today - available time.

Finally, there is the question of when.

When will all this happen?

Usenet and IM stood the test of time for five years before the better blog mousetrap came along. MySpace took three years, Twitter a few months. Adoption of new and more 'human DNA' friendly social networks will accelerate.

Look back five years and the rate of change is fast but its the rate of adoption that is more interesting. Usenet was for geeks and sex maniacs. Myspace is for them (still) but mostly for a huge proportion of young people. Most of my friends in Facebook are older and the podcasters are older still! Adoption will become less a generation thing.

So, who will be using this new Internet. To begin with it will be less complicated and thus more available to more people. And the more it satisfies human biology, the more pervasive it will become. Answer - everyone.

The new Internet is a place to live.