MIDWAY: Global village

If you were to stop someone you know and ask them to give you a list of all their friends — together with their friends’ friends, complete with their special interests — you would be dismissed as strange, if not bizarre. Yet that is what is happening voluntarily with the seemingly unstoppable expansion of social websites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook. For years we have been worried stiff about a state-backed Big Brother using new technology to extract personal information about us, whether from the web or CCTV cameras. But now it has all changed.

Surveillance is so pervasive that it won’t be long before someone publishes a consumer’s guide to CCTV cameras; and we are so unworried about privacy that we are voluntarily shovelling information about ourselves into the public domain which can be used by virtually anyone.

If you accept someone as a friend on Facebook you immediately have access to all their friends’ photographs and details, together with similar information about their friends’ friends and so on. Members have a personal wall on which anyone can write comments for everyone in their network to read and comment on. They can also take advantage of a box where they can leave comments about what they are doing at that moment, however trivial. The curious thing is that it is easy to build up your own image of the kind of person unveiling themselves.

New sites are coming out, such as Imagini.net, which are successfully building accurate profiles of people based on their reaction to photographs shown to them, but that is nothing to what can be gained from trawling a social website.

It is easy to write a disaster scenario for a world in which everyone is linked and in which you can communicate instantaneously with everyone in your group, however extensive, since the accelerating speed of circulation of news and comments could produce the worst excesses of madness of crowds. But it could also produce a global counterbalance to the excesses of politicians and corporations and an electronic version of darshan, which Marshall McLuhan described as “the mystical experience of being in very large gatherings”. The global village may at last be at hand.