Perceived proximity on the Web

Over the years of traveling around the world to evangelize about Open Web and explaining the position and role Mozilla holds, I’ve encountered an interesting phenomena that I tried to put into a social context for quite some time.

My last trip to China, where I had met with Mozilla community in Shanghai triggered me to write about it, so here it comes.

The Web

The Web is a virtual plane on which human interact. It’s an incredible and amazing plane which breaks a vast number of physical laws and, in consequence, economical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, and, maybe in a most profound way, social laws.

From the social perspective, the web changes everything because  it holds an unprecedented characteristic:

The Web almost fully neutralize three basic physical dimensions in which humans operate, and, if that was not enough, it also severely limits the fourth one – time!

Think about it for a moment, please. Isn’t it mind blowing that we’re here, now, as it happens?

Spatial dimensions

Things on the Web are equally “close” to each Web user and the “dimension” that is closest to replace spatial distance – connection speed – is just a temporary factor that is disappearing over the course of a few years becoming ignorable itself.

It may not be the first invention that reduces the eternal impact of spatial dimensions on human life – cars, planes, mail, they all contributed to the sense of the world getting smaller, but the Web just cut it off entirely. You have access to this text from each place on Earth at the very same moment and you can build meaningful connections with everyone on the planet using the same techniques we use to build connections with our neighbors.

The laws of physical proximity and its impact on our social life is being transferred onto the Web and suddenly everyone is socially close to everyone else.

Time

Similar shift happens with the fourth dimension. With mobiles devices, laptops, SMS, video chats, forums, and push&pull notification systems we’ve not only overcame physical distance limitations but we also built a plethora of technologies to store, in a lossless mode, every data byte transferred between human beings. Every piece of communication. Every smile, every word, every information, story or emotion that we manage to encode into any of the digital communication channels may be stored, multiplied, transformed and replayed forever.

Once again, the Web is not the first medium to do it, books, photographs, CD’s, vinyl and cameras where there before, but the Web brought it to the next level. Everything that manages to fit the web can be ripped of action-time limitation. It doesn’t matter when it happens, and how far did it happen. I can record my fingers typing this text and broadcast them to everyone around the world plus let anyone interested watch it in 100 years. All this interesting social/cultural/memetic implications about your daughter reading your blog posts from when you were sixteen kick in!

And the price limes is zero! It costs almost nothing and it will cost less and less! (making economy laws not fit anymore).

Physical vs. virtual

Hola, hola! – as many of my spanish fluent friends would say – but that’s all virtual. Yes, we removed spatial and time dimensions but only from information. Nothing changes in the realm of physical objects. No teleportation, no time travels, right? Right!

But information is the single most important tool in our social interactions and culture. I cannot copy my phone for free, or my water, but I can make million of copies of my thought or idea for free.

I cannot send my t-shirt to everyone on the planet, but I can send my 140-character twit. And from a social perspective the latter is more meaningful and has higher influence on my life!

It means I shape up my social life in a different way, for the first time ever I can ignore many of the limitations that physical world exposes on us without using funny pills, high-volume liquids and other home-made workarounds. It has massive impact on how can I group with like-minded people to work on projects that we find most interesting and it enabled the absolutely unique and phenomenal bloom of online communities of action like Linux, Mozilla, Wikipedia and thousands of others, small and big.

I’m pretty sure that philosophical, psychological, anthropological and social implications of those changes are more profound and yet to be studied, but let me leave you with this to bring my discovery.

Discovery – virtual artifacts of physical dimensions outlast them

Mozilla is special in the field. It’s maybe the most successful open project ever that has been growing since day one to the point where it is sustainable, meaningful, is successful in achieving most of its goals and is capable of transforming itself to maintain the position. One of it’s unique characteristics is its “hybrid” nature – non-profit community around non-profit goals successfully competing on a for-profit market with for-profit companies.

It means that more than other open communities we need to be aware of the existing center of gravity in form of a small group at the epicenter of the project that is able to make living out of working on Mozilla and hold power granted to them by the whole community to steer the project in the right direction.

And just like physical real force of gravity, this socio-organizational one impacts the dimensions by bending them. In our case, it recreates one artifact of the physical dimensions – perceived distance – and I believe that we have to be actively mitigating this bend.

While talking to people around the world, and to my colleagues from Mozilla who travel a lot, we all see the trend:

The further physically the person lives from the Western Europe/Northern America, the more the person feels that the Mozilla project *is* far away from them.

It’s fascinating that our brains recreate the spatial dimensions in our virtual/social map of our reality. Think about it. “Mozilla is“. What does it mean? Where do we locate it? Where is it physically? How far Mozilla is/happens from you? Further than your street? Closer than the war on the other continent? How would you locate it? Why would you need to locate it?

It’s not uncommon for our brain to build spatial representation of spatially-impaired reality. We do this for computer user interfaces (hence Firefox Mobile sidebars!), we do this for social connections (“this person is closer to me than the other“), we do this for emotions (“I’m attached to this book/music“), but we also do this for words! We cluster words together so that the word wardrobe and chair are close to each other while rose and flower will be in a different group further away.
And it has real world implications on how quick our brain can connect those words, recognize shapes and respond.  Think about it! Words! Spatial memory is fascinating and may have interesting applications on the computer UI design.

But here we are measuring distance from a virtual community of people that are connected via virtual reality. It’s against common logic that a person in Minnesota may feel further away from an activity between a guy in New Zeland and another guy in France that is being stored on the server in Iowa.

Unfortunately there are some implications of having a significantly sized center of gravity that makes our brain use artifacts of physical dimensions to measure the distance. I can think of several but things like – language, time zones, culture codes, are all spatially located in our brains, so when we see the same artifacts in the virtual world we may easily “locate” the virtual project in the same distance from us as those artifacts are.

Counterforce

It’s a tricky problem that cannot be easily solved by translation or cultural agnosticism that Mozilla is so strong in.

But I believe that we have to fight it because it’s an illusion.

It’s an illusion that keeps wonderful and talented people in China, Russia, Ukraine, and many other regions from making an impact on the web they care for, because they mistakenly believe that they’re far away from the project that represents possibly the shortest way for an individual anywhere in the world to shape up the possibly most important social tool in the world.

We can localize all resources, globalize and glocalize all activities, but in order to reduce the NA/Western European shift vector of Mozilla and closer represent how the World population really is distributed we need to break the illusion that Mozilla happens somewhere in a spatial reality and that there is a notion of distance.

Now, since Mozilla may be the first project ever to be big, open and on the web enough to experience it, it’s we who need to find ways to solve it!

Ideas? 🙂