A New Social Contract
In January 2004 I started writing a monthly column for Darwin magazine called Social Contract about the then-just-emerging awareness of social software, and since I am starting a weekly column here at CMSWire I thought I would take a look at that piece, with eight years of messing with social tools intervening. And I thought I'd reuse the title, as well.

It's actually hard to recall where things stood in 2004. Nearly all the products mentioned in the Darwin column are gone or forgotten now, like Ryze and Friendster. It's also strange to realize that I was making an argument for the future impact of social, because it had not happened yet. Here's an excerpt:

Why Now?

The answer to nearly all 'why now?' questions is technology and money, and that is true here. The availability of low-cost, high bandwidth tools like blogs or systems like Ryze, when coupled with the critical mass of millions of self-motivated, gregarious and eager users of the Internet, means social software is certain to make it onto 'the next big thing' list.

Investment groups are eager to find a successful business model in social software, and I am certain that there are many to be discovered in each of the three key areas that define social software.

Despite the wet blankets and the naysayers, we are witnessing the appearance of a new crop of inductive, bottom-up social software that lets individuals network in what may appear to be crude approximations of meatworld social systems, but which actually are a better way to form groups and work them.

Perhaps just as interesting as the way that social software is transforming group interaction, across different time zones or in the same room. Social software is destined to have a huge impact on how businesses get at their markets. So the essential elements of social software will be incorporated into more conventional software solutions, changing the way collaboration and communication is managed within and across businesses, and ultimately transforming how companies sell and interact with customers."

And indeed, these predictions -- some of which I started to promote as early as 1999 -- have come to pass. The big surprise about the web is that it turned out to be social, a place where all roads lead back to us.

And we are now firmly into a new era, where the social exhaust of billions online is being mined by companies for just about every imaginable correlation and consideration. (I will leave to one side the discussion of what governments might be doing with our social data, which is a dark story to be revisited another day.) There is no longer a need to make a case for social, but there are new predictions that might be worth reflecting on.

The collapse of privacy in a world of publicy

We have moved past the escape velocity into an era where the conventional notions of privacy are torn away. We are trapped by the cold paradox of the web. To connect, to follow, to post: all of these gestures leave a trail, all of these are signals of our intentions, our ambitions, our cravings. We must act in a world of many publics, and those increasingly are owned by corporations whose interests are not ours. In a time of wholesale publicy, privacy may become unaffordable, and secrecy unattainable.

Web behemoths are fighting a war to own everything

As Marco Arment styled it. This will lead to a fragmented world, where RSS and other open standards will fall out of favor, and the competitors will at times act like a cartel and at others like criminals. We will see no deep Facebook integration in iOS 7, and Google will continue to jettison products -- even beloved ones -- that don’t drive traffic to favored tools, like Google+.

Learning Opportunities

We are at a time of great contradiction

Social is about bottom-up creation of social relations, but the organizations that are administering the "open web" are operated in a top-down and closed fashion, so that the shared space we seem to be sharing online is actually not our commons but the assets of publicly-traded corporations.

We need a new social contract, one that establishes the rights of the individual in a world dominated by gigantic corporations. We cannot be bounded by the terms of service we are coerced into signing in order to have access to a digital life in the modern world. In the next months, I will explore the principles and particulars of our new digital world, and the lineaments of a better social contract between us and the landlords who own our online landscape.

Title image courtesy of Thomas LENNE (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read Stowe's take on the future of the social enterprise Curation in the Enterprise: Imagining Increased Social Scale