So far, betting on social forces has proved a more potent strategy than worrying about openness. In the space of less than a decade, Facebook has proved its astonishing capacity to bring together hundreds of millions of people, giving them something they urgently want in the process - each other.
Now that they’re connected, though, the great question becomes what they do next - and how much they do, or don’t, want other people to know about all of this.
There is, you might say, a digital “yuck” factor involved: a question of what exactly people are and aren’t comfortable with. Clearly, most of us are hungry for there to be digital equivalents of the ties of curiosity, affection, interest, envy, love and lust that make the human world so richly fraught. Do we really, however, always to be “us” online - as the basis of everything we do, in the eyes of the world, as a condition of entry to all digital services and knowledge?
Facebook reckons that we do - and beneath almost every aspect of its future business model lies the insistence that being online means being “you”, watched by and watching others through a digital lens. It is, in effect, a digital ID system, and one into which much of the world has poured a great deal of itself.
I can’t help but wonder, though, about that lurking “yuck” - and whether the biggest fly in Facebook’s ointment may prove to be neither privacy nor openness, but something more elemental: what happens if not having to be “us” online starts to feel like a better deal than the alternative.
I can feel it starting to happen to me already: an increasingly intense urge to stem the flow of friendly updates, reminders, glimpses of my own automatically-logged-in profile beneath blogs and shopping sites, invitations and exhortations to like and share, friends’ and acquaintances faces popping up in unlikely web spaces.
At what point does the desire to be “social” in the Facebook sense run out? To me, it’s a bit like meeting new people at a party. It’s fun at first; you chat, show off, argue, flirt, and perhaps swap details to stay in touch. Eventually, though, you’re exhausted and it’s time to leave.
And if everybody you’d just met followed you home into your living room, kept on talking and talking, and promised that wherever you went and whatever you did they would never again be out of earshot, you’d be appalled.
At least, I think you would. Which is why I’m betting that much of human knowledge may prove curiously resistant to the lure of personalization - and that the future of the social graph has a few more kinks in it than Facebook’s 24-hour-party-people would wish.