Phil, once small, became a dragon, thanks to

by phil on Wednesday Mar 3, 2004 12:28 PM

Silicon Valley is in a mini-bubble right now under the banner of "social networking services," which are web-based communities like Friendster. The main innovation compared to previous communities, where you joined fan clubs, is that in the new services you are the fan club. It works like this: (1) you sign-up online and create a profile (2) you invite your friends to your circle (3) you then surf their friends to find hotties and business contacts. This tool has become such a phenomena among college campuses and hipsters that even Google has gotten in on the action with the launch of orkut, which has helped spawn a term to describe this glut YASNS (Yet Another Social Networking Service).

Since you can read more about technology trends elsewhere, I'll spare you the yawns by getting to the philosophistric angle. Read on.

A particular YASNS caught my attention,, a site whose name comes from the booklet of classmates' faces given to students entering Columbia or Stanford freshman year. The difference between and Friendster is that you can search for students by the courses you are taking, which causes an interesting dynamic that I observed entering class this morning.

Before I begin, let me describe the homework I did before today. Last night, I spent some time sexing up my profile, adding in my favorite movies, books, and bands. Then I did a search for students in my class, and as I started reading their profiles, I noticed a feature that marks when students were last logged on. When I discovered that many students were either logged in or had logged in a few hours ago, it dawned on me that I was being watched as well. I'm not that vain, but I've seen students use these kind of services and with my knowledge of the kind of person it takes to list yourself by class, I don't doubt others are clicking on me as well. My classmates could potentially be armed with background information from my profile when they see me the next morning.

And so when I strolled into class earlier today, I felt like I was inflated. In addition to my trendy green shirt, my nice fossil watch, my azure-metalish necklace, and my strange hairstyle, I was also sporting my profile. It was as if Thom Yorke from Radiohead was standing next to me, with a hand on my shoulder, endorsing me by saying, "Phil has music taste." To the right of me, I felt as if Robert DeNiro from the 1976 cult film Taxi Driver was letting others know, "Phil is not just trendy, but he also scours for classics." Better yet, floating above me was my blog, which people can get to from my profile. This whole array of personal information made me feel like a dragon that has twenty-foot-long wings adorned with pop-culture icons and philosophy memes. I felt simultaneously claustrophobic and quiet as my profile was doing the talking for me.

A similarly wild transformation occurred to my classmates. My class used to feel lonely, where it seemed like it was just me and the teacher interacting while everybody else was grayed out. Then, after I read profiles, it felt like somebody took the boring flat line of my class and pumped up its amplitude. Two girls by the edge of the table, who were previously dim, lightened up because I knew that they were friends of my friend. Then this dude, who used to be merely pale, faded to black as I thought, "Ew, he likes 50-Cent and 'Yo La Tengo.'" My once dead class was abuzz with life, and I no longer felt like I was in a class of strangers.

The three identity processes--Identity Expansion, Identity Distribution, Identity Filtering--are extending through technology. You can hear the tremor of trend from a few sources such as Zach Lynch on information sciences, Richard Florida on the Creative Class, and just by observing the explosion of blogging, which is the ultimate tool in Identity Expansion. It is becoming more clear that humans are going to end up as deeper and deeper wells of information.

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