Should We Optimize Our Children's Online Presence?

From U.S. elections to fishing markets in Kenya to baby names, Internet technology is changing our choices and behavior daily.
  • Transcript


Question: How are we changing our choices because of the Internet?  

Clay Shirky: I had a campaign years ago called “Give your kid a GUID,” a Globally Unique ID, as they are called.  That kind of Google calculation about providing a unique or rare ID for you kid.  I’ve grown up with that, right?  People write me, are you the clay Shirky I knew in high school.  Well, I can’t exactly say, no.  I mean, it’s an unusual enough name.  And that kind of... providing that kind of legibility, the sociologists call it, for a society is a big calculation because everybody’s realized now, you can’t get the login named “Susan.”  Right?  It’s just you’re or you're SCrawford, or whatever.  But the awareness that these name spaces are all global all the time is, I think effecting how people think about the world. 

There is certainly, I mean, I think the biggest difference we’ve seen so far in calculations that involve the Internet come from people with something significantly public at stake.  Right?  There’s lots and lots of private changes around anything from, "I don’t need to own a cookbook because I can get recipes from the Internet," to will help me find someone to date.  The public stuff, though, is quite remarkable.  In particular, politicians after the Trent Lott defenestration and after the "macaca" moment in Virginia, have seen that saying one thing to one group and another thing to another group can be a career-ending moment. And as a result, for I believe for the first time in American history, politicians are on message all the time, and that message is always national.  The upside of this is there’s a little bit less of the preaching trade barriers in Michigan and open borders in Florida kind of stuff—depending on whether you’re import or export driven, you know, talking about import or export driven parts of the U.S. economy—but the down side to that is we know less about what a politician thinks when they get into office than if there had been lots of different environments they’d been talking in.  I was delighted when Obama won, I’d given him money, I voted for him, but at the same time I was a little dismayed that the hope and change message was so dominant and so universally adhered to that... that the rhetoric that he used, he'd correctly assessed, had to work for every voter all the time wherever he was, but it meant that we knew less of him than we would have, I think, in an earlier campaign, even though that was the winning strategy. 

How is the Internet affecting business in emerging markets?

Clay Shirky: I teach a class—I’m down at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU—and I teach a class in partnership with UNICEF.  And one of the interesting things about thinking about access on mobile phones, is you take a lot of web design principles, right?  The idea of two-way data-driven social communications and you end up repurposing them for the simplest possible devices, right?  SMS back and forth with mobile phones.  And in many cases, you get really astonishing bits of value, like the Fisherman’s Marketplace in Kenya, right?  Fishermen coming off the ocean can SMS ahead and figure out which port has the best price for the fish they currently have.  All you need for that is SMS.  This is fantastic.  All of the M-Pesa mobile banking stuff coming out of Africa, again designed to work with the simplest possible phones. 
On the other hand, the kind of rich, face-oriented, social interactions that we’ve all gotten used to from the Web get attenuated on the mobile phone.  And so, I think the question becomes, and it’s still an open question, which of the design principles that were pioneered on the Web were pioneered because we had an open system—but now once we got those principles we can move that to anything?  And the closer it gets to being market-oriented or transactional, the easier it is to make it appear on the phone.  And which of those things only work on a web-like interface, or on a PC-like interface with you know, a really visible large-scale screen, camera, etc., etc.  The separation of the PC and the phone is now ending, right, as netbooks, iPads, iPhones converge on not a single point, but on the range that covers the difference between sitting in front of a large screen at home and carrying around tiny screen on your phone.  And one of the great design challenges in the next five years is essentially figure out, at what point along that scale do you have to say, "I can’t squeeze a Web site down any further.  I have to custom," versus "It’s actually the social interaction pattern I care about; it will work on any device."
So Facebook squeezes down to the phone less well than Twitter for the obvious reasons, and mobile banking and payment systems squeeze down to the phone—n fact, they’re kind of born to be on the phone.  It’s not even a question of squeezing—work on the phone beautifully and don’t really get much benefit from being on the Web. 
And so rather than being in the lumpy world we were in ’95, here’s your computer, bang!  Here’s your phone, it’s crappy and can hardly hear anything.  There’s nothing in between.  Now we’ve got this whole range between the biggest and smallest devices.  What we don’t yet know is where there are real break points and where it’s just a spectrum.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown