Metcalfe’s law tells us that “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system”. In other words, the more nodes on a network, the more exponentially powerful it gets.
Now, consider Facebook. It has more than 800 million active users. Recently, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted that for the first time, it had two billion interactions in a single day. The service started just seven years ago.
He has even invented his own "law", in 2008, to describe the phenomen: each year internet users share twice as much information about themselves than the year before.
(Now before you quote this as genuine foresight, consider this: in 20 years we will be sharing 1,048,576 times more stuff each day than we did yesterday. Evidently, there is a ceiling to the law.)
The landgrab for subscribers is now diminishing in importance and the focus for massive social media sites is changing. Zuckerberg said recently while announcing a raft of new social networking features, the second stage of social networking is now beginning. It involves making the types of interactions between people using the networks deeper and more nuanced, rather than simply pumping up usage volumes.
"You get closer to your authentic identity when you share everything," he said. "You wake up and you're out of toothpaste, share it with your friends." (He did add that "you take a crazy big number two, don't share it with your friends. That's for Twitter." He also boosted of killing off MySpace.)
Whether you Like Zuckerberg or not, when Facebook moves, others follow.
Zuckerberg described ‘frictionless sharing’, in which apps given advanced, one-time permission by the user simply share information about what that user is doing, without the individual needing to interact with them.
Ultimately, this could mean that social network users need not manually ‘check in’ at specific locations, or tell people when they’re eating out, what TV program they’re watching, or what book they’re reading. The network will just know. This ambient information about their lives will be documented with far more veracity than it is today. (Here's a good run down of the pro's and con's of frictionless sharing)
Is ambient information good for you?
While many people over 25 will shudder at the thought of their entire lives broadcast, there may be social benefits to collating ambient information.
Frictionless sharing will enable information to spread very quickly throughout social networks. For the most part, this information will be insignificant, and will spread no further than a person’s immediate circle. Only a few people care remotely about what music I happen to be listening to.
But there are other possibilities. Some information will be more important. Or, more realistically, lots of seemingly insignificant pieces of information will become important when viewed together, in context.
Are large numbers of people in a particular region reporting feeling under the weather, or are their phones failing to check in at their regular work locations? Alert health groups for a potential epidemic.
Is someone elderly who normally listens to lots of music, interacts with people online and logs in every day suddenly doing none of those things? Did they also fail to check in at their local coffee shop today, after a pattern of check-ins stretching back for months? It might be worth notifying their family members, or a network of close friends in their city, and suggesting a phone call or a visit to check that everything is ok.
Such suggestions will doubtless raise privacy concerns. Like any enabling technology, the frictionless sharing that social networks are angling for could be used as a tool for good, or as a bludgeon to hammer civil rights with. The question is, how will we choose to use social technology as it evolves? If it gives us the chance to be more aware of the environment and the people around us (and further afield), isn’t it worth exploring?
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.