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A shoutout to the Playful Librarian, who picked up on a great article about impression management on the social web in the New York Times the other day.  Here is his post, here is the Times article.

The Playful Librarian says he wants “to understand how social networking technologies are blurring the lines between public and private behavior”.  This question takes it out of the realm of virtual space and into that of public spaces- physical public spaces.  How does activity on the social web bleed into the physical world?

Right now I’d say the social web exists as a major conversation piece in our daily lives.  Its not enough for me to just play Scrabulous with my Facebook peers, it is not even enough for me to IM with them during the game.  Without fail, when I see those people “in human” we talk trash about the Scrabulous game, about Facebook in general, about the apps we use, why its way better than MySpace, etc, etc.  This may seem like minutia, but it is absolutely not.  It important to note that however intricate the social web phenomena are, they are ALWAYS tied to real world experience, if only through conversation.  For example, successful online dating leads to real dating, “in human”.  Put simply: most social web tools at this point lack the complexity of interface to actually redefine space.

Where does the line between public and private behavior begin to really get hazy?  I suspect this happens in the more robust online environments, places like Second Life or other gaming environments.  I’d suggest that the greatest blurring of public and private behavior happens in these virtual environments, between avatars.  Just as a tool like a hammer becomes an extension of your physical self when you use it, an online environment becomes an extension of your space when you greet and interact with other characters there.

In the physical world we are beginning to see the same extension of space into the virtual world, but it is a little different.  Mark Shepard writes in “Urban Computing and its Discontents” about observing a person in a bar in Brooklyn:

“The guy was constantly shifting his attention between his conversation partner and his new iPhone…. Mr. iPhones attention is constantly shifting between the virtual and actual modes of presence… What happens when the virtual and the actual are not understood in terms of a strict dichotomy but rather a continuity or gradient? How might we design for scenarios like this?”

I’m guessing we’ll see these two scenarios meld not-so-seamlessly into one in the coming years, like the heads side and the tails side of a coin somehow meeting in the middle yet retaining distinct opposite sides.  Admittedly that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can give for now.  I’m going to be interested in designing our public libraries to operate in both of these spaces, on both sides of this coin and in the murky area in between.  I’m excited to create access to information for patrons coming from virtual or physical spaces.  The definition of space is changing.  These are exciting times.

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