I’ve been holding conversations with friends around a short story I put up on the Web last week, Demoting Halder, and interesting reactions have come up. Originally, the story was supposed to lay out an alternative reality where social tracking and sentiment analysis had taken over society so pervasively that everything people did revolved around them. As the story evolved, I started to wonder whether the reality in the story was an alternative one or something we are living right now. I think this is why people have been responding to the story.
The old saying, “First impressions are important” is going out of date. True, someone may form a lasting opinion of you based on the first information he or she hears, but you no longer have control over what this first information is. Businesses go to great lengths to influence what tops the results in Google and other search engines. There are court battles over ads that are delivered when people search for product names–it’s still unclear whether a company can be successfully sued for buying an ad for a name trademarked by a competitor. But after all this effort, someone may hear about you first on some forum you don’t even know about.
In short, by the time people call you or send email, you have no idea what they know already and what they think about you. One friend told me, “Social networking turns the whole world into one big high school (and I didn’t like high school).” Nearly two years ago, I covered questions of identity online, with a look at the effects of social networking, in a series on Radar. I think it’s still relevant, particularly concerning the choices it raised about how to behave on social networks, what to share, and–perhaps most importantly–how much to trust what you see about other people.
Some people assiduously monitor what comes up when they Google their name or how many followers they have on various social networks. Businesses are springing up that promise even more sophisticated ways to rank people or organizations. Some of the background checking shades over into outright stalking, where an enemy digs up obscure facts that seem damaging and posts them to a forum where they can influence people’s opinion of the victim. One person who volunteered for a town commission got on the wrong side of somebody who came before the commission, and had to cope with such retaliation as having pictures of her house posted online along with nasty comments. I won’t mention what she found out when she turned the tables and looked the attacker up online. After hearing her real-life experiences, I felt like my invented story will soon be treated as a documentary.
And the success characters have gaming the system in Demoting Halder should be readily believable. Today we depend heavily on ratings even thought there are scads of scams on auction sites, people using link farms and sophisticated spam-like schemes to boost search results, and skewed ratings on travel sites and similar commercial ventures.
One friend reports, “It is amazing how many people have checked me and my company out before getting on the initial call.” Tellingly, she goes on to admit, “Of course, I do the same. It used to be that was rare behavior. Now it is expected that you will have this strange conversation where both parties know way too much about each other.” I’m interested in hearing more reactions to the story.