Lessons from the virtual worlds have begun to seep into mass consciousness. What began as a niche pursuit for nerds looking for an escape from drudgery has begun to leak into the real world.
Google, Facebook, and other major companies already track, measure, and utilize a large portion of the data on consumer behavior pulsing through the internet. If a user does anything on the web, that behavior will be stripped down, analyzed, fed through dozens of algorithms, diced up, and sold to eager buyers.
If you send an e-mail about going on a ski vacation through your Gmail account, you’ll probably see an ad for ski poles. If you share your love of freeze-dried food on Facebook, someone will throw an ad at you hawking preserved foodstuffs.
Web services divine what people are looking for on the internet and deliver it to them as efficiently as possible. There are still plenty of malfunctioning aspects to this system. But the most brilliant engineers and mathematicians in the world are busy ironing out the bugs, both at major firms and within startups.
If I search for an electric hammer on Google, the service will guess that I want to buy one and display it next to a listing of hammer-related articles in less than a second. If I wanted to go to Home Depot to pick up a power hammer, it would take me around 60 minutes of total commuting and another ten minutes of finding it in the store.
Yet, when I stand up from my computer, I’m transported to a world that looks almost exactly the same as it did during the 1980s. Much of my city is at least marginally spiffier than it was during that decade, but technologically, meatspace has barely changed. Cars drive up and down the roads. Ordinary people walk the streets.
Shops hawk stuff the same way they always have. Even with a smartphone, my perceptions of reality remain tethered to my five senses and my thoughts.
It Changes Suddenly, All At Once
Foursquare is largely misunderstood. It’s not about the check-ins, badges, or achievements. Those are just the cookies laid out in front of the users designed to entice them to share more of their data.
That data can do do to the real world what Google and Facebook have done to the web. It’s becoming an informational overlay to heighten the awareness of the users and assist them in making better decisions.
Currently, location-bound businesses must rely on scatter-shot methods to bring in new customers. They can advertise in old media, advertise online, and rely on word of mouth. Aside from annoying and expensive-to-run surveys and customer loyalty programs, these small businesses have no economical method to learn more about who their customers are, where they live, and what their habits are.
They can learn a bit from data mined card purchases, but for most small businesses, it’s cost and time prohibitive to cohere that data and make use of it.
Bringing the Efficiency of the Virtual World to Reality
In a typical virtual world, it’s simple to find what you want almost immediately.
If a typical World of Warcraft player needs to group up with a team of friends to overcome a challenge, they can find people to do it almost immediately using tools offered by the game world. They can track the locations of their friends in real time anywhere in the world. If they need to purchase a particular product or contract with a service provider, they can do so rapidly using organized communication channels.
Oddly enough, the real world is much less organized. If I need to schedule a meeting with a friend, there’s no unified interface that I can use to find out where they are in real time.
If I want to group up with like-minded people for a temporary excursion (say, to a concert) I have to organize it beforehand. With more comprehensive communications technology, I imagine that creating ad hoc groups of friends and strangers on the fly will be much simpler.
The Anonymity Trade-off
People lose a degree of privacy and anonymity when they use social networking.
What many don’t realize is that this enables companies to reduce marketing costs and keep costs down. Marketing is usually one of the largest costs associated with bringing a product to customers, typically far outstripping the costs of production. The existence of social media enables the creation of more viable products and companies than could be otherwise.
The kind of marketing being performed at the cutting edge is more relevant, entertaining, and useful than that offered by the previous generation. The newer variety is responsive to the personality, desires, and needs of the customer. It’s fun to participate in and share with friends. And it’s less intrusive than ever before. If you don’t want to share information about yourself, you can easily opt out. If you don’t want to see advertisements, you can filter them.
The world is becoming richer and better connected largely due to the same privacy invasions that people protest on one hand and support on the other.