Transparent Lives -- Social Technologies Releases New Report

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Three scenarios for the future of transparency.

More consumers are deliberately choosing to make various details of their personal lives public, via searchable blogs, photo and video websites, and social networking websites. At the same time, advances in infotech are also driving personal transparency--often without the knowledge or consent of the consumers whose information is being exposed.

The growth in both voluntary and involuntary transparency will likely have a dramatic impact on the how people operate in the coming years, according to a new report by the futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

"Over time, these trends could play out in several different ways, with different effects on people's lives," explains Social Technologies analyst Matt Sollenberger, author of the report, who points to the following potential outcomes:

  • Transparency triumphs. Transparent living becomes a social norm, and consumers fully embrace transparency in most areas of their lives.
  • Consumers take control. Consumers adopt a discerning approach to their personal transparency, embracing it as a social networking tool, but expecting rewards for disclosing their personal data and rejecting involuntary transparency and monitoring efforts.
  • Consumers opt for opacity. People come to regard most forms of transparency as intrusive and possibly harmful, and shift back toward anonymous lifestyles.

Drivers of transparent lives

Four drivers are fueling increased transparency in consumers' lives:

  • Advances in infotech. The development of transparent lives would not be possible without significant advances in communication, sensing, and monitoring technologies. "Applications like Twitter or mig33 (a mobile-based, social-network service) rely on the ubiquity of mobile phones," says Sollenberger. "Infotech advances are also enabling more involuntary transparency, as seen by the 45% of US parents who use Internet monitoring software to track their kids' online activity."
  • Constant communication. Many consumers use mobile phones, email, social networking sites, and instant messaging as always-on points of contact. "These systems enable both voluntary and involuntary transparency," Sollenberger adds. "Since users are never out of touch with their friends, coworkers, and/ or peers, their activities and locations can be tracked--indeed, many services market their transparency features as a selling point."
  • Shifting privacy values. As people lead more connected and transparent lives, cultural values around privacy are being redefined. For example, people are becoming more accustomed to their lives being exposed via the Internet. A Pew Internet Project survey found that only 21% of Internet users who looked themselves up online were surprised by how much information they found (while 13% were surprised at how little information they found).
  • Business data-seeking. In a trend that might be called "incentivized transparency," businesses are offering products and services to consumers willing to give up a bit of their personal privacy. Many consumers seem willing to trade privacy for discounts or expanded access to products, whether it's     getting a loyalty card that tracks purchasing at a local grocery store or giving their mobile phone number to Google.

Business implications

  • A highly transparent society would give businesses an unprecedented window into consumer lives. Product development and marketing would be revolutionized as companies gained the ability to tailor their offerings to specific consumer audiences at a far more fine-grained, real-time level than ever before. Companies could monitor consumers' lives from a distance, or actively partner with them to     co-create products that meet consumers' needs almost as soon as they arise.
  • Over the next decade, consumers could fragment into multiple levels of transparency according to how much control they want over their privacy and data. A new market would arise in "transparency management," helping consumers to organize their data flows and choose where and when to disclose their information, and who has access to it.
  • In a world tilted toward opacity, consumers would see privacy protection as a valuable product/ brand attribute. This is likely already true to an extent; there may be a largely untapped market of people who want to function in the information age with minimal surveillance and no digital footprints.
  • The transparent lives trend--especially the heavy use of streaming video files--requires huge volumes of bandwidth, and is already threatening to overload the Internet unless backbone providers invest billions of dollars in new infrastructure.

Learn more

To set up an interview to talk with Matthew Sollenberger about the future of our transparent lives, contact Hope Gibbs, Social Technologies' leader of corporate communications: hope.gibbs(at)

Matthew Sollenberger ) Futurist

Matthew Sollenberger joined the research team at Social Technologies in the spring of 2007. Previously he worked as a research analyst at The Arlington Institute (TAI), a futurist consultancy in Northern Virginia, where he focused on the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Project for an Asian government, and engaged in Middle Eastern conflict modeling, systems thinking, and morphological analysis. Also at TAI, he co-authored a paper on the implications of wildcards for long-term US national security interests, published in the fall 2006 issue of National Strategy Forum Review. Areas of expertise: Foreign policy, technology.

About ) Social Technologies

Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, Shanghai and Tel Aviv, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information, please visit, our blog:, and our newsletter:


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