When I am asked what the next big thing on the web will be I say patterns. We have increasingly been opening up and sharing stuff, which is in itself useful and interesting, but the real benefits start to come when we make sense of the patterns that this activity shows us. We know that Facebook makes its money out of the information we share and the patterns that that information makes. To varying degrees we are uneasy with that trade with the devil that we all indulge in to get "free" functionality depending on how Facebook treats us and our information.
I am currently loving Waze, a car navigation app that makes use of users patterns and traffic patterns to make intelligent decisions about routes. It is able to do so because I leave it running all the time and the system can track my movements. The benefit to the individual is significant but, based on this self interested willingness to share, Waze is clearly going to make its real money by selling these accurate patterns of travel to people planning infrastructure or designing cars.
The Quantified Self is a whole movement of people interested in measuring things like fitness activity, diet and even mood. The tools are used for your own interest but increasingly have the ability to share the data more widely and produce patterns. Again of interest to governments, or those designing food products - or even insurance companies.
Recently I was shown a tool for monitoring internal social tools and producing patterns of activity. Who is contributing the most, where are tensions arising, what topics prevail and when? It is obvious that there will be benefit from these patterns being visible but it really matters how those benefits manifest themselves. If the data is being collected to be fed back into the network to allow those in the network to make better decisions and use it more effectively I can't wait. If it is being collected for a group of managers who don't take part in the network but are wanting to take decisions based on the activities of those in it then I wouldn't want anything to do with it.
There is clearly huge benefit in seeing these patterns but huge risks as well. If the patterns are made visible to users in the various networks they will help us to navigate and use them more effectively. If we end as factory farmed meatware being used to benefit others at our expense we will have created a dystopian future not out of place in A Brave New World. We will also have missed a wonderful opportunity to get collectively smarter and make better decisions about some of the complex and pressing issues that currently face us. This is a choice that matters.