(Last of five posts related to the WWW 2009 conference, held the week of April 20, 2009.)

The social networks camp was interesting, with a special meeting around Twitter. Half jokingly, we (that is, the OpenLink folks attending) concluded that societies would never be completely classless, although mobility between, as well as criteria for membership in, given classes would vary with time and circumstance. Now, there would be a new class division between people for whom micro-blogging is obligatory and those for whom it is an option.

By my experience, a great deal is possible in a short time, but this possibility depends on focus and concentration. These are increasingly rare. I am a great believer in core competence and focus. This is not only for geeks — one can have a lot of breadth-of-scope but this too depends on not getting sidetracked by constant information overload.

Insofar as personal success depends on constant reaction to online social media, this comes at a cost in time and focus and this cost will have to be managed somehow, for example by automation or outsourcing. But if the social media is only automated fronts twitting and re-twitting among themselves, a bit like electronic trading systems do with securities, with or without human operators, the value of the medium decreases.

There are contradictory requirements. On one hand, what is said in electronic media is essentially permanent, so one had best only say things that are well considered. On the other hand, one must say these things without adequate time for reflection or analysis. To cope with this, one must have a well-rehearsed position that is compacted so that it fits in a short format and is easy to remember and unambiguous to express. A culture of pre-cooked fast-food advertising cuts down on depth. Real-world things are complex and multifaceted. Besides, prevalent patterns of communication train the brain for a certain mode of functioning. If we train for rapid-fire 140-character messaging, we optimize one side but probably at the expense of another. In the meantime, the world continues developing increased complexity by all kinds of emergent effects. Connectivity is good but don't get lost in it.

There is a CIA memorandum about how analysts misinterpret data and see what they want to see. This is a relevant resource for understanding some psychology of perception and memory. With the information overload, largely driven by user generated content, interpreting fragmented and variously-biased real-time information is not only for the analyst but for everyone who needs to intelligently function in cyber-social space.

I participated in discussions on security and privacy and on mobile social networks and context.

For privacy, the main thing turned out to be whether people should be protected from themselves. Should information expire? Will it get buried by itself under huge volumes of new content? Well, for purposes of visibility, it will certainly get buried and will require constant management to stay visible. But for purposes of future finding of dirt, it will stay findable for those who are looking.

There is also the corollary of setting security for resources, like documents, versus setting security for statements, i.e., structured data like social networks. As I have blogged before, policies à la SQL do not work well when schema is fluid and end-users can't be expected to formulate or understand these. Remember Ted Nelson? A user interface should be such that a beginner understands it in 10 seconds in an emergency. The user interaction question is how to present things so that the user understands who will have access to what content. Also, users should themselves be able to check what potentially sensitive information can be found out about them. A service along the lines of Garlic's Data Patrol should be a part of the social web infrastructure of the future.

People at MIT have developed AIR (Accountability In RDF) for expressing policies about what can be done with data and for explaining why access is denied if it is denied. However, if we at all look at the history of secrets, it is rather seldom that one hears that access to information about X is restricted to compartment so-and-so; it is much more common to hear that there is no X. I would say that a policy system that just leaves out information that is not supposed to be available will please the users more. This is not only so for organizations; it is fully plausible that an individual might not wish to expose even the existence of some selected inner circle of friends, their parties together, or whatever.

In conclusion, there is no self-evident solution for careless use of social media. A site that requires people to confirm multiple times that they know what they are doing when publishing a photo will not get much use. We will see.

For mobility, there was some talk about the context of usage. Again, this is difficult. For different contexts, one would for example disclose one's location at the granularity of the city; for some other purposes, one would say which conference room one is in.

Embarrassing social situations may arise if mobile devices are too clever: If information about travel is pushed into the social network, one would feel like having to explain why one does not call on such-and-such a person and so on. Too much initiative in the mobile phone seems like a recipe for problems.

There is a thin line between convenience and having IT infrastructure rule one's life. The complexities and subtleties of social situations ought not to be reduced to the level of if-then rules. People and their interactions are more complex than they themselves often realize. A system is not its own metasystem, as Gödel put it. Similarly, human self-knowledge, let alone knowledge about another, is by this very principle only approximate. Not to forget what psychology tells us about state-dependent recall and of how circumstance can evoke patterns of behavior before one even notices. The history of expert systems did show that people do not do very well at putting their skills in the form of if-then rules. Thus automating sociality past a certain point seems a problematic proposition.