The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas

“Web 2.0,” if it means anything at all, is a term usually used to reflect the modern trend of interactive web sites that encourage users to create and share content. Blogs, wikis such as Wikipedia, forums, social networks, podcasts, comment streams, RSS feeds — all these approaches and technologies form the backbone of the web 2.0 universe. (The term also reflects the second decade of the web’s existence, and the transition of web users from dialup speeds to broadband speeds.)

Web 2.0 today is in a state similar to the state of the web in 1998. Back then, four years into its rapid growth period, the “World Wide Web” (as we still called it then) had proven itself to be much more than a passing fad, and the vast majority of major organizations had created a presence. URLs had become a common sight on billboards. While mainstream and popular, there were still many people who had not really used the web extensively.

Today, almost everyone has heard of blogs, and most have used one or more of the vanguard web 2.0 sites such as Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Twitter, etc. But even the most popular of these sites sign up only a small fraction of their visitors as users.

The central dilemma I see as a barrier to future growth is an adoption paradox: Coming up with incentives for users to create accounts and to start generating the content that in turn attracts more users to sign up. Peer pressure is an effective motivator, but many potential users don’t sign up because they don’t get what their role is, what the site is about, or how it would benefit them. In the meantime, they either avoid the site or lurk there.

(The lurker phenomenon is prevalent: A popular Flickr photo will have tens of thousands of views, but very few comments or links. A popular Twitter user’s page might be read by 100 times more people than actually sign up to follow that person. YouTube has hundreds of millions of viewers, millions of registered users, but less than a million users who have uploaded a video. For, according to my server logs, more than 5,000 unique visitors came to this site last month, and an unknown number more viewed the content via an RSS reader — but only 20 unique users left a comment.)

A user’s role at a web 2.0 site falls along a continuum between what I’ll call “public” versus “personal” personas.

Let’s take Flickr as an example. When you sign up for Flickr and begin publishing photographs, you’ll be doing one of these things:

  • Publishing artful or beautiful or technically proficient photographs intended to be appreciated by a general audience
  • Publishing photographs of a particular subject matter (such as, say, model airplanes) intended to be appreciated by fans of that subject matter (such as model airplane enthusiasts)
  • Publishing photos of your friends and family, intended to be appreciated by people who know you
  • Some combination of the above

YouTube follows the same pattern: Many users are uploading family videos, others are uploading things they find generally amusing or interesting, or a series of videos on a particular topics, or anywhere in between.

Similarly, blogs can be personal and intended for friends/family (journal sites), or public but general (such as a celebrity’s blog), or public and focused on a particular topic.

With some sites, such as Digg, the expectation is that there is no “personal” content — everything is for public consumption. You’d never promote stories about your family, only stories of interest to just about everyone.

Other sites, such as Facebook, are the opposite: Other than corporate or celebrity profiles, everything a user puts there is personal, about you, so almost no Facebook profiles are for artistic purposes. It’s all about your personal life.

Some Twitter users highlight the personal even to point of banality (“Ate lunch at sandwich place again. Had Turkey. Was good.”) while others spread breaking news, one-liners, observations, or punditry in an effort to attract more followers and support their public persona as a blogger or artist.

I’ve written about FriendFeed previously. and it continues to be the web 2.0 site I’m most interested in. The dilemma for me (and therefore I presume for most users) is where to draw the line.

For example: A friend posts a picture of their new haircut or has a status of “sad.” Because it’s a friend of mine, I want to compliment the haircut or ask them why they’re sad. Sometimes I just want to post what I had for lunch.

BUT — I have a few different types of followers on FriendFeed (co-workers, friends, business acquaintances, online contacts, random strangers). The people who subscribe to me who don’t know the person involved won’t want to follow that conversation. Sure, it’s fairly easy for them to skip it, but if my goal is to acquire more followers, I need to do so by keeping my persona public. So part of me becomes reluctant to post “personal” comments or links on FriendFeed, because the role I’ve so far taken on there is more public than personal. (I’m usually interested in starting conversations with a wide variety of interesting people about topics that I care about, and the items I share there are generally not about me.)

One prolific FriendFeed user, the notorious Robet Scoble, discussed creating a second account that’s more private, just for personal items — but that’s far from an ideal solution. Fragmenting yourself into different accounts is difficult to manage (especially when you start getting into the weeds of managing duplicate feeds, remembering to unsubscribe or subscribe to different people and join certain rooms on both of your accounts), and the UI of the site presumes that you only have a single account.

Yesterday FriendFeed launched a beta test of their new interface, and it’s a great improvement. In addition to improved aesthetics, there are a plethora of new features. The most important is the ability to categorize the people you follow into whatever labels you assign (Personal, Coworkers, Interesting, Noisy — whatever). Two of the default labels are “Personal” and “Professional,” which supports the observation I’m trying to make here.

However, I think FriendFeed has it almost backwards: It’s not so much that I want to categorize my friends based on how I know them (although I do want that) — much more, I want to categorize what I publish. Let me label the things I share as “Personal” or “Public” (and use even more tags if I want to assign them). That way the people who subscribe to me can decide if they want the full feed (complete with my lunch plans and haircut comments) or to automatically excise those parts they won’t care about.

For all web 2.0 sites, the first job is to clearly explain what the site is about, show how it benefits the prospective user, and ease new users up the learning curve. Once that’s done, helping users understand and manage their role along the public/personal continuum is essential to making the site sticky and successful. Tagging and categorization is the answer for that. Smart tools and good design will be needed to make this task intuitive and easy.

With Flickr, you can subscribe to a user’s entire photostream, or just to an individual series (as tagged by the user). The next step for many other web 2.0 sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and most of all FriendFeed, is to catch up to that concept.

9 Responses to “The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas”

  1. Dave Zatz Says:

    Living outside the Bay, I wonder if I feel it more – most of my “real” friends aren’t on Flickr or FriendFeed. I call them on the phone, meet them for dinner, play with their kids, etc. Nearly everything I do online, I would call “professional” (tech-related) though of course some of the “personal” is exposed as well along the way. But you’d probably have to dig hard to find my personal travel photo albums – I see no need to share them “publicly” on Flickr. And I agree there’s a learning curve issue on many “Web 2.0” sites… my mom gets ‘albums’ but tags or sets don’t mean much to her. (Another reason why Yahoo made a bone-headed move in shutting down their original, highly trafficked photo site for the “Web 1.0” crowd.)

  2. superk Says:

    Hey there,

    Great post. I’m also split between having two profiles, one public and on private, to manage the stuff I share with others. On my blog, I stress that it’s all about “fiction” as in creation, so nothing, or almost, is about myself.

    Like French poet Rimbaud said, Je est un autre (“I” is another, or something like that), so for the creative side of myself that works fine. But when I want to share trivial stuff like my kids’ baseball highlights or what I ate for breakfast… I hesitate since some people follow me for the fiction part…

    I’ll keep reading you, see if anything new comes up 🙂

  3. Stephen Says:

    Thanks superk. I’ll check out your fiction blog.

    Dave, despite living in the Bay Area and working in high tech, only a minority of my family, friends, and co-workers use social networking or web 2.0 sites with regularity.

    To me, geography has less to do with it than mindset: You clearly have set out to be public blogger and have a public persona, which is reflected in not just your blog (which have I told you lately how much I enjoy reading?) but also your Twitters and your FriendFeed stream.

  4. Liens du matin 08/28/2008 « Le Journal de Ray Dacteur. Intranet, banque2.0, musique et crème de marrons. Says:

    […] Zeigen » Blog Archive » The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas […]

  5. Laurie/Halo Secretarial Says:

    Great post! I have definite concerns and wonderings about combining aspects of my “online life” with my “real life”. I have a business site and blog and I use Twitter and LinkedIn to promote them. But I also have a mom blog which uses the same Twitter account for connections. And separately I use Facebook which is so far limited to my in real life family and friends.

    It’s confusing deciding which applications to use for which relationships and how much co-mingling there should be. It would definitely be nice to be able to post things and tag them to just personal connections or just business connections or both, depending on the topic.

  6. Amitai Givertz Says:

    There have been a number of trends emerging along the 2.0 track enabled by the social web. Business 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 are two that immediately come to mind.

    Another trend to have emerged out of the social web is the attention to personal brand, reputation and digital identities.

    A third element in all this is the reemergence of values like trust, transparency and authenticity, again enabled by the web.

    So, I’m not sure if the question is how to keep public and personal personas separate but how to present a multifaceted and authentic “you” that transcends the once distinct roles we play.

    If our personas have traditionally been compartmentalized in functions of work, family, play, community and so on, then doesn’t the social web flatten those barriers to also enable an accurate representation of who we are as “whole” people, evidenced in the content we generate, consume, and share?

  7. Mike Says:

    Hello All,

    Fairly new to web 2.0 and reading your comments helps me understand that I am not the only one in transition. Mike

  8. » Personal or public personas… for your kids? BayDad Says:

    […] reading BayDad Zeigen’s post “The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas” I thought I’d pose this question to the other Dads out […]

  9. Links for September 4 2008 « Pixie Links Says:

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