5th Person Perspective
A life is recorded from different perspectives. Everything from diaries written in the first person to unauthorized biographies written in the third person creates a record. Now, life is recorded online. Technology has created a new perspective. The web is restructuring points of view and removing the constraints of time and space. The story of a person’s life is becoming a collaborative effort, maintained by the individual but created by a community. Through social media we see each other from a new perspective, a point of view I am labeling the “fifth person perspective”.
Many people believe our digital “second selves” are accurate representations of who we are. In an informal survey of 100 adults, 48% felt that they were both in control of their online presence and that it accurately reflected who they were. Half of the survey respondents believe they are currently writing an autobiography online that is true to life, free of bias.
Only 8% of respondents agreed that their online presence is out of their control and still accurate. These people are most aware that a new way of seeing is emerging. Instead of one person telling a life story, now it’s being recorded minute by minute. Individuals record it, but so do all the people that “follow” or “friend” them, acting as a team of co-editors every step along the way. It is precisely because we are not in control of all the contributions to our online presence that it is more accurate. The addition of multiple viewpoints reduces personal bias. This amalgamated perspective is more likely to give a deeper view of an individual. This is the direction in which we are currently heading in our use of social media. This is what will become the dominant point of view online and off, as the record of our lives is gathered in one location online.
Many adults feel the need to segment themselves by the roles they play in different social spaces. They do this by keeping separate profiles, LinkedIn for work, Facebook for play and Yelp for public reviews. This takes a lot of time and energy it is more work than most are willing to do. The need for the type of service Facebook Connect supplies shows exactly how much multiple login names and passwords have become disliked. To make life easier we are moving toward a central profile. Social networking sites are increasingly intertwined. It is easier to update social media sites simultaneously than to update each individually. Reviews on Yelp tie back to Facebook where we also see past check-ins from Foursquare. As we move toward one central profile comments meant for a specific group of people will be shared with many more than originally intended. In the past, white lies and lies of omission were used to save face or the feelings of others. Those tactics will be nearly impossible to maintain online. Inconsistent behavior is easily spotted in the fifth person perspective. Through an increasingly centralized profile the fifth person perspective will be built rapidly and showcased for others.
Currently there are three different types of Facebook users, the college only generation, older generations, and young children who are growing up with it. The first set of people started using Facebook as a social media outlet that was confined to college use only. The second group adopted the service after it was opened up to the public. Both groups grew up in a world where relationships were separated by roles and ages.
For the third group social media has always been present and includes extended family as well as friends. Although the official age to join Facebook is 13, parents and teachers I spoke to told me that their kids are starting accounts, with supervision, at the age of 8. The 2010 OFCOM’s Children’s Media Literacy Audit verifies this for the UK. In the UK, a quarter of 8-12 year old Internet users have social media profiles. To this new group the fifth person perspective is the only perspective they know.
Eight year olds who are establishing an online presence today already have a long history online. Sharing photos, even ultrasounds, has become common. The site STFU, Parents shows examples of ways people with children tend to over share. Childhood photo albums are documented by month and shared with family and friends online constantly – not confined to a physical album. For the next generation the fifth person perspective starts before birth. Some parents even start a social profile for their babies and interact with friends and family in the voice of their child, who is not old enough to speak. Now, you will tweet before you are able to talk. Parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents build a deep foundation in the fifth person perspective before a child makes his or her own contribution.
The concepts of “netiqutte” and “digital grooming” won’t be effective tools in influencing how others perceive us. Not even the most eloquent and well-mannered series of posts from a single point of view can dominate the fifth person perspective. In fact, the next generation will not separate online behavior from offline behavior. “Netiqutte” only applies to people aged 15 and older. For the next generation there is no such thing as “Netiqutte”. There is only etiquette.
The importance placed on our online actions will increase as we realize that data is rarely, if ever, totally destroyed. Fleeting comments can become screenshots that follow us forever. This is true personally and professionally. In the personal sphere, private emails and texts are often shared with other friends. How we meet people and get to know them has fundamentally changed with our ability to access the fifth person perspective.
As we all know, comments distributed online affect brand perception. A recent example is the Kenneth Cole debacle. The brand experienced this firsthand with an insensitive joke, removed from the twitter feed but not from the online presence.
The reason the fifth person perspective can broadcast truths is because it reveals behaviors we used to be able to keep under wraps. Moments used to be isolated because they were less frequently recorded and shared primarily in the physical space with a contained group of people. Now our moments are shared with many more people. The integration of multiple voices in one social presence creates a world full of “ambient intimacy”. The London based user experience consultant Leisa Reichelt coined the term to describe the diffuse intimate moments that happen online in a place where we can connect easily with a large network and maintain partial friendships. Partial friendships allow people to stay tenuously connected with us as our roles and status change through life. Even when a common interest no longer unites people a connection remains, so that a new shared interest may unite friends once again later in life. Relationships will evolve over a much longer time period. In this way we overcome constraints of time by maintaining opportunities for the future. As for the past, it is no longer something that can be left behind. It is accessible at any time; the evidence of our actions is no longer parsed out and reported but combined and based on actual behavior.
The fifth person perspective was made possible because of the web but its integration into the rest of our lives will make it the dominant perspective of generations to come. Basic human behavior is not changing but how we see it is. Each of us has a much larger audience than we would have had in the past. The depth of information our audience has access to is deepening by the day.
New acquaintances will know all the social roles you inhabit. The idea of relating to a person in one social role will become outdated. In the future you won’t be known at work for being the VP with family photos on your desk. Anyone who knows you online will know about your current interests and also your college connections, high school prom theme and the way you looked in the second-grade.