By 2020 technology would allow you to enter a room and view someone’s pertinent social details floating above their head.
Imagine entering a cocktail party full of strangers, and instantly knowing all of their names. Or meeting a business contact for the first time, and not having to exchange cards–you already know his contact information, his reputation among his peers and even his criminal record.
Web-based social networks are cutting-edge technology in 2010. By the year 2020 they’ll be so commonplace–and so deeply embedded in our lives–that we’ll navigate them in the real world, in real time, using displays that splash details over our own field of vision. We’ll even use the social capital that results from these networks as a form of currency.
That’s the conclusion reached by members of the “Social Media” group at Forbes and Frog Design’s Future of Computing workshop, held in December at Frog’s San Francisco offices. This group, led by Frog’s Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston, consisted of Forbes editors and experts from the world of technology including Facebook’s then Senior Platform Manager Dave Morin. Participants pondered the increasing pervasiveness of social networks like MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter, then extrapolated them forward a decade.
The resulting vision of the future imagines radical changes in human society–but first requires changes in our technological infrastructure. Members of the group began by assuming that high-speed wireless networks will quickly become ubiquitous, and that by 2020, you’ll be able to access the Internet anywhere. They also projected the development of augmented reality displays–systems that project computer graphics directly into your field of vision. Today these systems use headsets or eyeglasses; by 2020 they may be projected directly onto your retina, making the virtual world appear indistinguishable from the real one.
In its simplest incarnation, this technology would allow you to enter a room and view someone’s pertinent social details floating above their head; name, job, hometown, marital status. But the ability to instantly access many different networks and databases would give the system much more value. You could set the display to list friends you have in common on Facebook; bands you both like, as identified on your MySpace profiles; or restaurants you both frequent, as drawn from your Foursquare histories. The system could also pull up data from myriad public databases, including court documents and SEC filings.
The virtual display could be used to illustrate relationships between a group of people. A husband and wife might be linked by a thin glowing tether. Flowchart arrows could indicate if one person is another’s boss. Even former friends–people who were once connected but severed ties–could be identified with broken chains or angry lightning bolts.
The final part of the system, as imagined by the group, was the concept of using social capital (reputation, good deeds, influence) as a type of currency. This currency–dubbed Whuffie–would fluctuate constantly. Help someone out, do something interesting or creative and your Whuffie score would go up. Be a jerk or rip someone off, and it would plummet.
The concept of Whuffie was introduced in Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, a novel by writer Cory Doctorow. In the book, Doctorow imagines a future world without scarcity. In a society without want, dollars and cents would have no value. Thus the idea of Whuffie.
“Whuffie has the same winner-take-all problem as cash: People with a lot of Whuffie have a lot of chances to earn more Whuffie,” says Doctorow. “This is a bug, not a feature.”
Obviously we will still have money in the year 2020–a world without scarcity will forever be a pipe dream. But the Forbes editors and Frog designers noticed how increasingly people assign great value to things like how many Facebook friends they have, or how many people follow them on Twitter. It seems logical that in the next 10 years, these measures of regard and reputation may acquire concrete value–and that someone will come up with a practical way of implementing Whuffie.
“I’ve had lots of people try to implement Whuffie, and I always give my blessing,” says Doctorow. “There is no trademark on Whuffie. If you assert one, I’ll be unhappy. Same with patents.”