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Wikileaks and Facebook: The Two Futures of Social Media

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The Wikileaks controversy has quite a bit to say about the future of social media, and about information culture more generally.  In particular, this controversy tells us that in the future there may be more secrets, rather than fewer ones.

I’m sure that conclusion seems quite counterintuitive: after all, didn’t Julian Assange just rock the diplomatic world with his dump of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables?  Doesn’t the easy electronic transfer of documents render this type of thing more likely in the future?  Isn’t this just the beginning of a new age where transparency is the norm?

Well, yes and no.  We are entering a new age of transparency — for you.  Everyone will know more about you, and your secrets, and every detail of your private existence (just check out Gary Shteyngart’s  hilarious Super Sad True Love Story to see this notion taken to its logical and horrific conclusion).  But perversely, the inclination will now be for governments and large commercial institutions to hold real secrets about themselves even more tightly to their chests.  With data security a more pressing issue, fewer people will be permitted to see real confidential information.  More telephone calls and less documentation may become the norm.   The trend towards fewer secrets may render real secrets all the more difficult to know.

Nearly every technological development over the past several years has been devoted to capturing data.  Document management systems and data mining, e-mail archives and browser cookies — all of these things and so many more are devoted to finding and maintaining data.  But if the growth of electronic media has resulted in the dawn of an age where nothing is ever forgotten, it is suddenly becoming apparent that a lot of folks miss that option.  People want to have their mistakes erased, they want to be able to step away from that drunk moment on Twitter.  But they can’t.  Individuals are becoming like flies caught in amber, a series of embarrassing moments frozen in time forever.  Companies and governments, however, can act with a bit more intentionality.  With an understanding of how e-discovery works, and the knowledge that Wikileaks is out there as an option for disgruntled ex-employees, many folks will see an advantage to holding cards closer than ever to their chests, which can make the process of public disclosure far more challenging, and perhaps impossible.

So our two futures may exist in paraellel — one, where everything is known, and another where everything is disclosed but the real secrets are never revealed.