Digging deeper into friendship and privacy at Yahoo

My BusinessWeek story, What’s a Friend Worth?, only dipped a toe into the complexity that social scientists are grappling with. I wish I could have fit in some of the thoughts I got from Marc Davis. He’s a researcher who came to Yahoo as chief scientist for mobile from Berkeley.

He speaks extremely fast, and I had a hard time taking notes. But here are a few things he told me:

“Now social is becoming part of the infrastructure of the Internet. The social stack.” This stack holds immensely complicated data on relationships. Think of all the variables. You express an interest in people by following them. Twitter is an example. Other systems, like Facebook, involve a mutual declaration. That’s a different type of relationship. How quickly do you respond to each person’s emails? That says a lot. (As you might imagine, employees respond quickly to bosses.) How about blind copies? What kind of relations do they signal?

Then researchers can look at the pattern between people within groups. Who are their common friends? What kind of things do they share with each other? Does it go both ways?

Researchers aren’t the only ones studying these systems. We are too. They represent much of the future of human communication, and we’re all busy trying to interpret new rules and signals. Here’s one snippet from Davis:

“As humans we get feedback and alter our behavior. Is it safe or unsafe? We get cues… Now, he says, we’re busy getting feedback from the very networks we’re busy creating online.

This means that our basic ideas about friendship and privacy are being redefined. “Those things are up for grabs right now.” Davis calls it “the architecture of human interaction” and says it “can go many different ways.”

Many of us have a single idea about privacy and the individual. In the second half of the 20th century, when many of us had cars, lived apart from others, shopped anonymously in huge stores, and existed, in a sense, as ants.

But the future probably won’t look like that. In previous ages, our fellow villagers knew a lot about each one of us—and had minimal respect for privacy, if such a concept even existed. Davis says that we could be heading back in that direction:

“In the Middle Ages, the whole notion of having a private interior mental life was foreign. Identity was communal. That could be our future.”

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