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Internet Immortality

My social network appears to be wide, diverse and technologically savvy enough that I have a large number of friends and acquaintances with large Internet footprints. That includes people with a presence on a variety of social networking sites like facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter and Flickr feeds, multiple email accounts and even blogs.

Having a broad sample of such connections means that life cycle events are not unusual in this group either. That includes death. I have now – several times – had the oddly jarring event of having a message reminding me about a birthday of a friend who passed away or a suggestion to reconnect with a long-dead relative and similar communications from across the chasm – as it were.

There is both joy and sorrow associated with these episodes. The sorrow is obvious but the joy is in spending a few moments reviewing their blog thoughts or their facebook photos and, in essence, celebrating their life in quiet, solitary reflection. And it provides these people with their own little slice of immortality. It bolsters the line from the movie The Social Network saying that “The Internet isn’t written in pencil; it’s written in ink”.

This got me thinking.  In an odd way, this phenomena struck me as an opportunity.  An opportunity for a new Internet application.

I see this opportunity as having at least two possibilities. The first would be a service (or application) that seeks out the Internet footprint of the deceased and expunges and closes all the accounts. This might have to include a password cracking program and some clever manner to deduce or infer login names – for the cases where little is known about the person’s online activities.  It may be the case that after closing the account, the person may live on in the databases hidden behind the websites that are never purged, but they will be gone from public view.

The alternate would serve those who wish to be celebrated and truly immortalized. This would collect the entire presence of a person on the WWW and provide a comprehensive home page to celebrate their life, through their own words and images. This home page would include links to all surviving accounts, photos, posts and comments thereby providing a window into a life lived (albeit online).

In an odd way, this creates an avatar that is a more accurate representation of yourself than anything you could possibly create on Second Life or any similar virtual world. One could certainly imagine, though, taking all that data input and using it to create a sort of stilted avatar driven by the content entered over the course of your life.  It might only have actions based on what was collected about you but a more sophisticated variation would derive behaviors or likely responses based on projections of your “collected works”.

Immortality?  Not exactly.  But an amazing simulation.

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I have decided to use this blog to out-gas on things I am thinking about. Aren’t you happy about that?

I have spent some time looking around the popular virtual world platform Second Life. In a virtual world, you assign yourself an avatar (basically a cartoon character representing you) and walk around this large simulated space and interact with other avatars and objects. There is a fun and coolness factor to it all. There are museums to explore, historical location recreations, science fiction universes and dance floors. Lots of dance floors. But what really intrigues me is the very presence in Second Life of large Fortune 500 companies like IBM and Cisco. What are they up to there?

I spoke to some people experiencing and supporting those companies’ Second Life presence in impromptu discussions “in world” (as they say). The conversations often left me with more questions than answers.  While the Second Life experience promises a high degree of interaction, it comes at a significant cost.  A user needs to become conversant in the use of the proprietary viewer (a special-purpose browser to connect you with the virtual world), the methods for creation, manipulation and animation of  objects and the utilization of the on-line chat facility or its voice-based interaction mechanism.  The primary question is: given all of these costs and barriers to adoption, what is the benefit of this experience over say, WebEx (which Cisco actually owns) or Telepresence (which Cisco also heavily promotes) or even a standard teleconference?  The common answer was either that Second Life was “cool” or “fun” – just what I experienced.  But is that enough?  Does that constitute “the killer app” for virtual worlds? It’s “cool” and “fun”?

There are also, however, some intangibles. People hiding behind their personal (and anonymous) avatars tend to be a little bolder. They tend to speak more openly and honestly. That can allow for more compelling and fruitful interactions and in collaborative circumstances result in better outcomes and solutions developed. Some studies have even shown that this boldness is transferrable to real life. So maybe, these companies are engaging in a little social cognitive therapy for those legions of techies they employ expecting to elicit better human interaction as a result. And that makes it all worthwhile.

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