I attended an event in NYC sponsored by the MIT Enterprise Forum that addressed issues related to how digital users handle their online identities. It was a very revealing session led by Judith Donat, who is the founder of the MIT Media Lab’s Social Media Group and a Harvard Berkman Faculty Fellow. Also on stage was Michael Schrage, well-known author and Research Fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business.
While most of us think of “social” as what we do on the current social networks, Judith took us through the evolution of online social platforms and explained how advancements in each era enabled new possibilities. From news groups in the earlier digital days to the ability to create multiple online identities with AOL in the mid-90s, Judith argued that there is a need for anonymity in our social presence. Reviewers, she pointed out, may not want to be identified permanently with the product they just reviewed. On the other hand, she also presented cases were anonymity enabled dishonesty.
Current social networks make it very difficult to discover specific online personas and Judith believes that we need to have the ability to find segments of our networks. Rather than being exposed to of one’s contacts, she hopes the day will come when discoverability improves to the point where we can find segments with our networks such as our work colleagues, our parent networks, or our college friends–without burdening the other groups with those conversations.
Judith also questioned the impact tools such as facial recognition will have on online social behavior as they become more persistent and make it harder for users to become anonymous or assume other personas.
After the panel, I also had an opportunity to speak at length with Michael Schrage. While he only played the role of moderator during the panel, his work is also impressive. We discussed the role APIs play in creating enterprise value and how the companies that are killing it right now are doing so by leveraging the network effect into monetizable products.