Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Two World’s Collided_2

(Continued from last Post – Two World’s Collided)
As we mingle in these two worlds parallely – it is interesting to note how protocols & conventions from the physical world are being selectively carried forward into the online world. Here is how:

1. Space: In the physical world we prefer to keep our belongings with us – so either at home / office, or where we are. The only thing we do not mind stashing out of home (given that we feel that it is safer or wiser to keep it there) is our money. It sits very conveniently in banks and we almost never complain about it not being safe.
However when it comes to storing our information/data online – we are still very cautious. Observe how individual users still prefer to keep their information on personal external hard disks that are owned by them and usually kept at home. In a country with seamless Internet connectivity, this is definitely not the most efficient way to access information – however it is still preferred over the more accessible online storage.

2. Time: It is very strange to ring friend’s door bell at 12 midnight or call him or her at 1 am, but it is perfectly Ok to chat on an instant messenger though the night.
It is strange to buy things in the market after 10 – but it is perfectly ok to shop for cosmetics or gifts online 2 am in the morning!

3. Expression of emotion & thought: More often than not, most of us are much more expressive in the digital world than in the physical world. It is very strange to flirt with a married man in the office but it is Ok to get intimate & talk about anything with him in a chat room.
Perhaps because of the fact that the online world offers an opportunity for us to be able to say things and not bear the consequences as directly as it is in physical world. (“we are less shy, when we do not need to look in the eye..”)

4. Social Protocols: While the convention for greeting in the physical world is all about reciprocity, we are very comfortable not reciprocating similarly in the online space. Leaving a friend alone at a bar table, without telling him is considered odd, not replying to something that your colleague is asking you across the cubicle wall is considered rude – however it is common to leave an instant messenger chat without intimating others, it is common not write a thank you mail to someone for the help that was received from him through email.

5. Attention to detail: It is ok to have a letter or email or text message without worrying about the grammar, capitals and even spellings – but it definitely is not a good idea for a hand written document or any a typed document that would be printed!

What I have outlined here, are just some of the many protocols that we have subconsciously consented to follow or ignore.
On the surface I am left curious wondering why on some occasions we choose to follow the protocols and ignore them on other occasions?
However what challenge me even more are some fundamental questions that this user behaviour raises

1. Semi Anonymity:
As the digital world expands to acquire a role bigger than that of the physical world of today (Read more about Digital World Upstaging the Physical World, in the Feb 2007 post: ‘No Lungs to invest in eco stocks!’) no one would perhaps really know our true identity – what would be the meaning of privacy then?

2. Space:
What would be the meaning of ownership when things would no longer have to be physically located near their owner?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two worlds collided_1

Today we do more and more things online & large part of us lives in the digital world.
• Email, chat (to communicate)
• Twitter update our thoughts/emotions (sharing/communicating)
• Mining, Sharing, Uploading, Downloading Information (for work or leisure)
• Blogging our hearts and minds (sharing/communicating)
• Networking (to socialize)
• Gaming (to entertain ourselves)
• Online avatars (for a Parallel Lives/entertainment)
• Shopping (for Leisure/Value)
• Buying/Selling/transacting cash (Commercial goals)
And many more..

If we were asked to think of things that we couldn’t accomplish online - they would mainly be those that involve a necessary interaction with the physical world of atoms. Most of the other things can be accomplished online.

This engagement with the digital world is manifested when we look at the three key ‘time zones’ in everyday life viz. home, work and commute - we see that our engagement with the digital is the physical world is illustrated even better.

Home Time
At home especially if the family is small without kids etc- the online behaviour is not much different from the office. We are either online – updating Facebook profile, organizing pictures on Flickr, reading a book online, or offline engaged in domestic chores, buying the stuff from super market, going out for work or socialization, taking pictures etc.
Home Time

Work Time
At work, we are predominantly engaged either with the digital world (email, web conference, web surfing, chatting, preparing documents etc) or the physical world – talking to a colleague, going for a ‘physical’ meeting, having lunch, smoking, walking up to a colleague’s cubicle, so on an so forth.

Transit Time
Even while we are in transit – a time when we are expected to be in the physical - we see people absorbed in their mobile phones – reading novels, or comics, viewing video clips, talking, playing games, texting so on and so forth.

To me it is much easier to understand our preoccupation with these digital interfaces when we look at them not as a PC, a Mobile Phone or a Laptop & instead look at them as elements of a new world that is taking shape. I call it a world because a large and growing part of the population is doing more and more things online. One possible way to evaluate the significance of the role that this world plays in our lives would be to visualize one month without it! Even if it is gone for 30 minutes, most of us feel lost without Internet at work for some of us it is true even at home!

The popular activities that people engage in when they interact with the new Online World have 3 key defining characters. (There could be more – but let us start with three.)

The online world turbo-charges our reach. Although we continue to know a select group of people but our set of acquaintances grows multifold and the people who we interact with but might not know much about, grows even more. This vastly expanded network but relatively shallower understanding people in the network, (and thus weaker bonding with people in this network), gives us what I can be referred to as semi-anonymity.

Expression free from context:
I usually summarize it thus – “we are less shy, when we do not need to look in the eye!” The online world offers all of us a unique context because more often than not it does not make us think much about the context. It is much easier to say something personal, private, provocative or even intimate, and do this much sooner, in a relationship (or even when there is no relationship), when one does not need to do it in person.
The online world offers this chance! It frees the personal expression from the context in which it is being said – thus stakes seem to be lower.

Digitization of Physicality:
Unlike the physical world that operates in on physical dynamics governed by space – the online world collapses physicality. This makes the online world offer an entirely new paradigm to its users.

In the next post – I would attempt to illustrate how the above three characters of the online world impact our behaviour in different situations. How we make subconscious choices to carry forward the offline protocols and how sometimes we switch to new protocols.

Monday, April 13, 2009

So where was I going? What was I doing?

Does it occur to us that every time we log on to the Internet – more often than not -we end up spending more time than we originally planned? More so at home, given that the proverbial ‘cyber cafĂ© clock’ is not there to haunt us!
Over-running our planned Internet time is linked with aimless clicking from one page to another. WILF or ‘What Was I Looking For’ is the expression used to describe this phenomenon. WILF happens mainly due to the hyperlink-to-hyperlink clicking that we engage in. Reading about something, clicking on a link that has more to tell about the same and so on - the chain can be endless.
Once we are on to the chain we can easily lose track not just of time but also what is that we were originally looking for – thus ‘what was I looking for..” This chain starts with the random surfing that begins during the time that the browser window is loading the web-mail page, or the time between clicking on an attachment icon and the opening of the file and many more similar in-between moments. These are moments in which we engage in checking out the other stuff’! As a result after about ‘2 hrs of what we would describe as ‘checking email’ and ‘surfing’ –what we have actually done is just about read 4 mails, deleted 15 spam mails and a lot of ‘random clicking.’ Many young college-goers actually suffer from such net addiction.

However this post is not about WILF. This post is about the potential impact of location aware mobile devices, on our movement in the everyday physical space. This post is about the possibilities that would emerge when our location aware mobile devices would start interacting with user generated soft maps (soft map = city map layered with information about personal preferences viz. my favourite pub, the quietest street, the best pizza, ‘my crush lives here’, get your camera & click the sunset from this point, the best park for the morning jog etc.)

When people would walk around while being constantly told, by the location aware mobile device sitting in their pocket, about the best that they could do in the place that they were in – wouldn’t they be prompted in a way that is similar to the way an interesting hyperlink prompts people on a web page?

Of course a lot of this prompting can be switched off – perhaps almost in the same way that we block unwanted pop ups on websites. However location prompts could be harder to resist for they would not just be linked with our physical location (and thus much more relevant) but also sensitive to our preferences that our mobile device would be much more aware of.
For want of a better example – Amazon’s customized home page is the closest web equivalent of an irresistible prompt of the location sensitive future.

I am curious to know the social impact of this consumer technology that is headed our way – soon!

Imagine young people wandering around the city, moving around district while staring into their mobile devices just to get to that place that their friend has tagged as ‘the place’ for the best local street snack, only to get distracted after a while by another tag that points at a spot which is best place to click the city from an elevation and then discovering a bargain on hand painted T-Shirts – that is two blocks away.. and then running into a GPS driven treasure hunt game organized by a bunch of local skateboarders who are looking for a partner..and at after a few hours of all this the person is left wondering where was I going, what was I doing?