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To Share or Not to Share? Popular Technology at SXSW Pushes Personal Boundaries – Michael Bergman

Two weeks after SXSW and back to reality, I’m thinking about how our perceptions of technology and its role in our lives is changing, particularly in regard to how technology influences feelings about anonymity and exposure.

Social media, constant connectivity and personalization are favorite buzzwords of companies big and small these days. For consumer brands that are increasing their digital presence, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how people really feel about the role that new, and increasingly social, technology is taking in their lives. Peoples’ desires to connect and share come with increasing concerns about privacy, forcing brands to think strategically about where to engage and where to draw the line.

Location, Location, Location
I’ve never been a frequent user of Foursquare and other location-based software — partially out of fear of conversations that go something like:

Acquaintance: “How was X Restaurant last Saturday night?”
Me: “How did you know I was at X?”
Acquaintance: “Saw it on Foursquare”

But at SXSW, I decided to adopt shouting out my location because it felt as though we were in a walled-off garden — essentially a city of like-minded individuals, looking to have a great time, explore Austin and join others in soaking up every experience offered. This mentality prevailed over the fear of being cyber-stalked, and Foursquare experienced the highest number of check-ins in its history during 2011’s SXSW. I really enjoyed sharing my location and whom I was hanging with, because it seemed as though we all had a common goal — to explore and discover the next big thing.

Besides feeling that my check-ins were contributing to the creative collaboration at the conference — letting those around me know what I was up to and encouraging them to join me — I also took advantage of the special offers that merchants/companies use for check-ins, a practice that AdAge described as “dealification.” Returning home, however, I found myself reverting to shunning check-ins, fearing that I’d be broadcasting too much information about my comings and goings.

A Call for Anonymity
While across a great part of the social media movement, individuals are shouting their every move to the masses, one SXSW presenter has built a social platform that appeals to the desire for anonymity. I attended 4Chan founder Christopher Poole’s keynote address and discussion on digital anonymity. 4Chan allows its millions of users to truly be free on the web — sharing thoughts, art, social commentary and expression in a anonymous environment. The argument for anonymity is rooted in enabling people to really be who they are — rather than curtailing their thoughts or art to social norms.

So, how do brands and organizations support freedom on the Web? The answer comes down to the old attorney standby — “It depends.” People are sharing, collaborating and co-creating, but brands will need to make space for those who want to shout to the masses and for those more comfortable living in anonymity.

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