Publicity that followed the recent death of Steve Jobs proved who the true heroes of our age are. In last two decades, famous developers and IT inventors started to get the attention equal to pop stars and politicians. And all of those internet icons fall roughly in two categories. We have successful entrepreneurs and businessmen like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page or Bill Gates. And then we have some shady figures, the swashbucklers and buccaneers of the digital age, people like Julian Assange or Kevin Mitnick.
One of the messiahs of this underground web is a quiet New York student, Chris Poole, also known as “moot”. In 2003, being just 15 years old, he programmed a simple website that with zero marketing and one-man development grew to 18 million unique monthly users in less than ten years. I’d give you a link, but you would click it immediately and then you’d go back to complain about inappropriate content you found there. Because Poole’s invention is an anonymous, uncensored, and (almost) unmoderated image board called 4chan.
Over the years, this page, especially the off-topic /b/ channel, gave us countless internet memes, myriads of funny pictures circling around the web, and finally the Anonymous hacker group, famous for faux- historical Guy Fawkes masks, that took part in attacks on Sony, organized an internet crusade against the Church of Scientology, and helped Assange during his WikiLeaks days. Recently Anonymous also joined the “occupy Wall Street” initiative that quickly spread all over the world. That’s a lot of world-changing stuff for a simple internet forum.
Recently The Observer called Chris Poole: “the most influential web entrepreneur you’ve never heard of”.
If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, we can call Chris Poole the Zuckerberg of anti-web. Encouraged by success of his 4chan project, he later went on to create a more polished, more regulated version – Canvas. He’s also a developer celebrity, showing up on various venues, like the recent Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco.
You see, Web 2.0 summit is where all the important people hang around, including Dick Costolo (CEO of Twitter), Sean Parker (Napster, Facebook), Jack Tretton (Sony), Dennis Crowley (foursquare), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Michael Dell and of course the tireless Steve Balmer (Microsoft).
You’d think that Poole was in a wrong weight category here, yet he still managed to give one of the most electrifying, interesting speeches of the show.
According to Poole, big social media players like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are all going in a wrong direction. Why is that? Well, moot argues that user personality is not a monolith that can be described on a single profile page. In an earlier Time interview he admitted: “My personal private life is very separate from my Internet life… There’s a firewall in between”.
Moot argues that most social networks are built around the oversimplified psychological model, while in reality, we are complicated beings, acting differently in family life, in a workplace, and with various groups of friends. If Freud was alive, he would probably give Chris Poole a high-five, as the theory that we have more than one personality has long been explored by psychologists and philosophers. Scientists were debating the idea of personality itself for many centuries, and today most psychologists agree we are built from different personas. There is a deep true “self”, and then there are masks we wear on various occasions. Current social networks do not make a good job of replicating that.
And there might be a good reason. A fixed and verified internet identity is monetizable. A pseudonym, a persona being only a part of real human mind, is not. Current social networks like your real data a bit too much, so much in fact, that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is often using a term “identity service” as a synonym of “social network”. For him, it’s all the same.
For some years now, Chris Poole has been preaching against “persistent user identities” and “identity services”. He believes in a value of multiple and anonymous identities as opposed to a single identity that connects the internet life with a real life.
And it seems he might be right. His site, that doesn’t require users to create permanent profiles, is insanely popular. It also sparked a very creative (in both right and wrong ways) community that spawned multiple influential internet groups.
Poole famously said ”power lies in the community to dictate its own standards”. In fact, his imageboard only has one rule – against illegal depiction of minors. Everything else is a fair game, and yet community editors managed to chisel a recognizable profile from what many thought was doomed to become an internet cesspool.
It seems that Pool might be right about a lot of things, and that every developer should give those ideas some serious thought.
Why would you want to force identity consolidation on your users? Why tell them they can use your systems only under their own name, with their own photo, like Google+ does. Do you really want users to describe their identity when they sign-up? Do you have to ask them about interests and favorite colors? Should we really be so afraid of anonymity? Why not let user’s actions speak instead of the user’s words? Should we make systems that are interest-driven or rather identity-driven?
Some new networks, like CircleMe or StormDriver, try to take new approaches. Users are described not by what they post during sign-up, but by what they actually like, by what they do, and what influences them. By the content they consume. The idea of prismatic identities is slowly trickling down into mainstream.
Soon, the discussions that philosophers and scientists started centuries ago will play out before our eyes, in the world of web development.
So, what would you want personally? A world of uni-personality, where everyone can identify everyone immediately? Or a multi-faceted world of temporary internet personas, shifting and not connected to anything in a real world?
It is up to us to decide the future of the web.