Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Does the average person care about personas?

Earlier this week, ReadWriteWeb wrote about Google's plans to launch a new service called Circles. They didn't quite get the launch date right, but it looks like it's a real product that Google will release pretty soon.

The article embeds a great presentation by ex-Googler, Paul Adams who now works for Facebook. I completely skimmed over the presentation (i.e. didn't even know it was there) while reading the original article, but came across it again thanks to Jonathan Sander's tweet.

It's quite a lengthy presentation but well worth the read. Essentially, it talks about how current social networking services (like Facebook) don't really reflect how we behave in real life where we have various personas (e.g. one for family, another for friends and yet another for colleagues) which we present based on the context of the interaction we're having.

This is not the case in most online interactions. On Facebook for example, everyone is a "friend". It's rather difficult to share things with subgroups. It's not impossible, but it's very fiddly and time-consuming. That said, there are things we simply cannot share ONLY with a subset of our connections. For example, I can be quite picky with who sees my photos but my status updates go out to all my "friends". Side note: I underlined the word "sees" in that last sentence because your photos on Facebook aren't actually private. They control visibility on your photos using a "security by obscurity" mechanism. For example. here is a photo of mine (Heston Blumenthal's famous Bacon and Eggs Ice Cream for those playing along) which is supposedly only viewable by my friends. But because I managed to figure out the actual link to the photo (it's not very difficult for the average web user), I can now link to it for the whole world to see.

But who actually cares? In reality, everyone cares...as long as we're talking about things that happen in our "real lives". The most common example is that most of us like to keep our work and personal lives separate. We don't mix the two if we can help it. I have a few friends who actually sound completely different when I call them while they are at work. They sound "more professional" when they are working. And when they aren't, they revert back to the drunk fool I know from real life :-)

When it comes to the online world however, this changes somewhat. People seem to care less about separating their personas. It's partly a generational thing: I find people over a certain age (I purposely left the exact number out because this will be different depending on your perspective on things) who are fairly web-savvy try to keep things separate as best they can.

Of course, a quick search on Facebook will probably bring up your "private persona" but if you bothered to hide all the private info and your public profile picture isn't too incriminating, this doesn't matter. However, if I ask to be your friend, you may feel obliged to accept which then gives me full access to all your updates and the photos you forgot to protect with privacy settings. This scenario demonstrates how the current social networking model is broken because even if you want to present a different persona of yourself to me within Facebook, it's extremely difficult (impossible in some cases).

But when it comes to the younger crowd, very few care about splitting their online personas (even though they still bother with the mental separation of personal v.s. work in real life). They'll accept Facebook friend requests from anyone they've ever met which more or less gives everyone they've ever met full-access to their unfiltered ramblings and photos of them passed out on a friend's carpet while drunk.

The presentation struck a chord with me because the essence (at least from an identity standpoint) behind what we're trying to do with ProfileStamp is to be able to present a persona of yourself based on the viewer. If you've got an account and played around with the settings, you'll notice that you can be very fine-grained about the information shown when someone visits your profile. In fact, beyond simply hiding information when someone isn't allowed to see something, you can have a different version of the information shown. So, instead of having a simple yes/no decision to make, we actually cycle through the various versions of an attribute and show the relevant one based on the viewer. Of course, if there is no suitable version to show, they see nothing.

The mechanisms controlling the things your share about yourself online (data, photos, status updates etc.) need to move beyond the simple on/off switch model in place today. It looks like Google Circles plans to address this. I would assume Facebook is also looking at this given they have people like Paul Adams working for them.

The toughest challenge here is not the technology. It's not even usability (although this is more important than technology). It's actually user apathy. The average person (whether they are younger or older) doesn't understand privacy or access, let alone the controls one needs to work with to specify what other people can see. Most want the controls to be in place (or think they do), but they don't want to have to do any work to make it happen. That's something we've found with our set of private beta users. Most either leave the settings alone (which means their profiles don't present any information about them) or they ask for "a button that makes all my information public".

A secondary challenge is the lack of education about the damage that can be caused (to one's finances, credit rating, personal brand and so on) should the wrong things be made public. Our team had to actually advise a few of our users to restrict pieces of information to more select groups when they made them public. But until people start to realise this, they will remain apathetic and careless. Therein lies the challenge.