Informal Spaces are places that we choose to inhabit, to join other like minded people in a shared and communally owned place. Be it for contacting friends, finding knitting patterns or playing Warhammer, our motivation to be there may be self interest (i.e finding something out or selling something on eBay) or altruistic (trying to help other people).
Whatever our own reasons for being there, other people will also be interested in our presence, be it to sell us a credit card or some specialist pills. The slow dance between advertisers and consumers is a fairly mature one, having started with print advertising, graduated to television advertising and now fully embedded in the online space.
In itself, this is no bad thing. I assume that enough people buy whatever it is that the other people are selling to make the whole thing worthwhile. But there may be added levels of complication. There is value not only in what i choose to buy, but in my very presence online. There is value for someone to know my online habits, to know whether i am the type of person likely to spend money online, to know if i am in the UK or China and to know who else i know!
The apparent struggle to do the ‘right’ thing with this data has landed a number of major players in hot water. Whilst i love the iPad and iTunes, subscribing to the ‘counter culture’, design icon status, i am less comfortable when, as an Apple Developer, i also have access to iAds, Apples very own framework for managing advertising in Apps. Not that i’m averse to the advertising per se, but rather like the Victorians with table legs, i prefer it to be hidden behind a cloak of respectability. I don’t like to be reminded that the fundamental reason that Facebook exists is to make money, not to let me tell everyone that i’m at Pizza Hut.
The situation can become more complex when we start to look at formal learning spaces. When organisations get into social networking, they often do so for good reasons, or at least well intentioned ones. We need to consider thought, that there is value in understanding an individuals online profile, even within formal networks. If an organisation manages to create an effective, motivated and dynamic online community, be it around sharing professional practice or planning holidays, there is a material value to this. If the formal space actually enhances the performance and profitability of the business, this is actually worth something on all sorts of levels.
We need to look at issues around the ownership of the online space, be it formal or informal, to understand who ‘owns’ that data. If a knowledge based business has a strong knowledge sharing community internally, which forms part of their creative output (be it an advertising agency or a pharmaceutical business), there is real value in that space and the people who inhabit it; but is the business free to pimp and sell that space however it likes?
This is where the final complexity comes to light. Formal or informal learning spaces are often inhabited not just between 9-5, but rather throughout the day and night. People may not even be clear whether they are indeed in an ‘informal’ or ‘formal’ space, which can lead to all sorts of complexity.
Furthermore, who owns what is created within these spaces? If two technologists, chatting at the weekend in a formal learning space, but chatting about something totally unrelated to the core business, come up with the idea for eBay2, who owns that conversation?
If an individual builds up a large number of contacts in an online space, who owns the relationships? If these are business development relationships, can the company claim ownership of the data, or is the individual entitled to it too?
Some of these issues are small, but some potentially huge. At a time when organisations are striving to create engaging online spaces, it’s worth spending some time considering who owns them.