The "Like" button is popping up well beyond the boundaries of Facebook these days. What was once a way to let your friends know that you approved of their Facebook postings can now help sites across the Internet tell you everything from which news articles your friends are reading to what songs your acquaintances are cranking up on Pandora.
One of the people working to proliferate this technology is Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer. His work is part of a larger move online known as social indexing, which was named a Top 10 emerging technology of 2011 by MIT's Technology Review. The "Like" button is just one algorithm that allows content and people to intersect -- but social indexing is much more than the expansion of Facebook applications.
"We're moving towards people rank, not just page rank," says Marc Smith, director of social media research group at Social Media Research Foundation, a research organization supported by various universities and Microsoft Research.
The first phase of social media was the websites and social media tools themselves: YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and others. Smith explains that people have up until this point creating the content: making videos, retweeting, editing wiki documents, uploading pictures with tags. Now that there’s all of this stuff out there, the focus is shifting to indexing it so that you can not only find it, but also do more with it.
"There's going to be a moment where you realize you don’t need to know where you put things," Smith told InnovationNewsDaily. "There’ll be a cosmic, celestial Google, and it will include people."
You could plausibly type a few key words and find every intersection between you and someone you know -- or don’t know -- from anywhere on the web.
While social indexing could make using the Internet a richer experience that is more focused on human connections -- it also raises concerns about privacy. If the information is being indexed, it means that all of a sudden people in your network can be tipped off to your likes, dislikes and whereabouts. While that might not be a big deal for a preteen, it can have a very different meaning for a social dissident in the Middle East. The recent uproar over iPhones and tracking is just the latest example of indexing being taken out of the hands of the user.
As the web browser itself shifts into becoming a social media platform, some people will choose to self-censor what they share online. However, as social indexing increases, it grows increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to choose what you share once you connect to certain networks, like Twitter or Facebook. For companies that are looking for new ways to reach consumers, social indexing has enormous potential.
"There’s a new resource to be mined and it is social capital," Smith said.
This story is part of a series covering MIT Technology Review's Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2011 list. You can read the previous parts of the series here.
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