Back when people online were pseudonyms, social networks were forums, connections were driven by primarily by interests – not as much as people and who they’re connected with – we chatted, i-seek-you’d, debated, learned and trolled* without fear, and spoke our minds, because no one really knew us in real life (rather, IRL). With the growth of social networks and opinions online have become ever so fragmented and with people using real-world-identities, a little more politically correct. I’m using Twitter, for example, for primarily discovering people with common interests, who can perhaps make a few things easier for me – help me discover differing perspectives, point me towards what to read, debate developments, and even inform me about interesting events in my city. More importantly, though, I learn more from debates and opinions on Twitter than I do by reading a newspaper.

Opinions matter, but the challenge is that they’re fragmented – to be able to learn more about everything that I’m likely to be interested in, I have to follow many more people and groups (I’m following 1300 people on twitter), and the more people I follow, the more I’m likely to miss because of the rate at which my time-line gets updated. So what do I do?

At the INK Conference** in Jaipur last week, Mark and Alexander Asseily introduced us to State, a site they’re planning to launch in 2012, which will focus on aggregating opinion across social networks, and mapping it to each individual and location. Asseily , in his talk at the conference, pointed towards the difference between what people are saying and what is being broadcast on television: “What’s interesting to me is what the people in these places are actually thinking. What do they believe? If we’re not getting a complete picture, how can we draw the right conclusions? And the second thing is that there were opinions coming from these from real people, with real lives and aspirations and how frustrating it might be for them, and how disappointing it must have been for them, and that might lead to pain and anger.”

Alexander  pointed towards our usage of filters – the first is through popularity (for example, Digg is one), and the other is through our friends and contacts. According to Alexander – and I quite agree – our judgments are being formed on the basis of incomplete information, and most people don’t have the audience or the time to gain the audience that celebrities do, for their views to surface. He finds this problematic because it has lost potential. Mark told me that State intends to address this by allowing each user surface his opinion to State by tagging it with pre-specified tags, and hence allowing the mapping of opinion for each individual. Alexander showcased the forming a mosaic of opinion for each individual, that being extended to create a mosaic of opinion according to geography.

Why this makes business sense

Now, though they didn’t say it, this could be a gold-mine of information on each individual. What Facebook has done so far, is help identify demographic information, and some psychographic information. This enhances psychographic information from a marketers perspective, and tends to go beyond. It lends itself to better targeting in advertising, though it’s unlikely that advertising will be introduced unless the product scales.

The other thing is that it provides businesses with an aggregated sentiment analysis at a glance, but the trick will lie in evaluating the context of an opinion. Media companies in India – I suspect this, and have no proof – already look at what is trending on twitter to choose which story to focus on, and at times, which way to lean with a particular story. The amplification that social networks provide cannot be underrated. State seems to, at some level, aspire to be a mass survey, except that no specific questions are being asked.

A few questions

1. Privacy: The danger here lies in the attribution of statements to each individual – it will help businesses and governments define a profile for each user on the basis of information that is being made public.
2. Context & Sarcasm: While as users we choose to make our views public, putting them in context is difficult – statements limited by 140 characters are open to mis-interpretation, and how will State deal with sarcasm and satire?
3. Political Correctness: Because an opinion is being attributed to an individual, it isn’t necessarily an honest opinion, but the opinion that someone wants to be attributed to him.
4. Change of opinion: How will state define a change in sentiment, because people’s views change when they learn more – for example, some might have supported Anna Hazare, until they learned about the public floggings in Ralegaon Siddhi.

The focus on defining interests is interesting, and I wonder if there are other initiatives aggregating sentiment on the web. If you know, do share.

* I’m still a bit of a troll, but you know that already.

** Disclosure: The writer attended the INK Conference on the invitation of its organizers, and they bore the cost of food and lodging for the duration of the conference. Content is (and always will be) at our editorial discretion.