My Internet, My Self

Recently, I asked my 14-year-old daughter Sam to let me follow her around on the web. I wasn’t trying to pry, mind you. “Oh yeah, right, Dad!” says Sam. (What is the emoticon for an adolescent eye-roll, by the way?) I really just wanted to understand how her generation was coming to use the medium as an always-on device. “Dad, that is such a lame tactic!” Turns out that if you run just a couple of background checks and DNA scrapings on some of your daughter’s male friends, a parent gets forever branded as a “spy.” Teenagers!

The first thing I discovered in my sleuthing is that the web is not so much always on for Sam as it is always there. You and I may conceive of the digi-verse as something we access, but for Sam it is more of a presence. With her WiFi network and laptop, the IM window always open, her social network of scores of contacts are like constant companions. The creaking door sound effect on AIM tells her when people are coming and going. For her peers, being online or offline seems like a distinction that sounds too technical for what they experience. For them, you are either here or away.

Am I just making semantic distinctions here? I don’t think so, especially as I speak to more of the R&D folks in academia and marketing, who are watching our involvement with the web deepen. Several consumer and tech researchers I consulted about the next stages of web evolution talk about the internet becoming more personable and much more of a virtual environment. Many people in the marketing and media communities seem to think (or hope) that we will become more avatar-like in cyberspace. The social profiles and networking of MySpace and 3D parallel worlds of Second Life will become the interface for being “here.”

Some of Sam’s behavior points in the direction of a more virtual reality. She already uses her MySpace page as a kind of social hub. It is always on her screen, and kids from school contact her there. It is as if she is at her desk in real life doing her homework but in cyberspace she is camped out at her digital profile. She uses MySpace the way some of us as kids occupied the front stoop in order to engage with the neighborhood. Except she has more friends than I did.

While on the one hand we may invest more of our selves and our social interactions online, the other piece of web-volution is an internet that grows massively more intelligent. As the databases we use as merchants, content providers, and social networks come to know what we do and want, they will also start linking up and connecting the breadcrumb trails we leave behind. I have heard some call it the “semantic web” and others the “implicit web,” but the upshot is that the digital realm starts developing an AI that acts like a valet. One communications academic I know calls it the “digital doppelganger.” The web becomes a shadow self. It sits on our desktop, monitoring what we work on and feeding us the content we need to complete tasks, because it knows us as well as a personal assistant.

Set aside for the moment the viper’s nest of privacy issues such a scenario uncovers. This is all about the internet following a trajectory that has been apparent for years—towards becoming our most intimate medium. As much as content providers have always wanted the internet to be just another one-to-many distribution platform, it is not. Watch the next generation of both B2B and consumer websites emerge in coming months and see how once-static content “destinations” will start “talking.” In the prototypes I have seen of many relaunches in the pipeline, the voices from the community, the teeming activity of peer-to-peer communication is coming to the surface and mingling freely with all of the “professional” content traditional editors contribute.

It is not surprising that a more personal, and personable, web would take some cues from my daughter Sam’s MySpace page. It is a location for interaction as much as it is a content delivery vehicle. It is not a site; it is Sam. You talk to her, and she talks to you. Is that what she and her friends will expect from the rest of the web, too? Is our content ready to converse with the next generation?