Facebook, Here’s Looking at You Kid

The last week and a bit has been bad to Facebook. It’s hard to recall what it was that triggered the avalanche of stories. Maybe it was the flower diagram we mentioned. Maybe it was the New York Times interactive graphic of just how complex it is to set privacy settings on Facebook:

facebook-privacy.jpg

Maybe it was Zuckerberg calling people who trust him “dumb fucks,” or the irony of him telling a journalist that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Or maybe it was the irony that telling people you believe in privacy while calling them dumb fucks is, really, a better example of a lack of integrity than having two identities.

Maybe it was the Facebook search (try ‘my dui’), or Facebook: The privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town. Maybe it was getting on CNN that helped propel it.

It all generated some great discussion like danah boyd’s Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant). It also generated some not so great ideas like “Poisoning The Well – A Response To Privacy Concerns… ” and “How to protect your privacy from Facebook.” These are differently wrong, and I’ll address them one at a time. First, poisoning the well. I’m a big fan of poisoning the wells of mandatory data collectors. But the goal of Facebook is to connect and share. If you have to poison the data you’re trying to share with your friends, the service is fundamentally broken. Similarly, if you’re so scared of their implicit data collection that you use a different web browser to visit their site, and you only post information you’re willing to see made public, you might as well use more appropriate and specialized sites like Flickr, LinkedIn, Okcupid, Twitter or XBox Live. (I think that covers all the main ways people use Facebook.)

But Facebook’s problems aren’t unique. We’ve heard them before, with sites like Friendster, MySpace, Tribe and Orkut. All followed the same curve of rise, pollution and fall that Facebook is going to follow. It’s inevitable and inherent in the attempt to create a centralized technical implementation of all the myriad ways in which human beings communicate.

Play it Sam…once more, for old time’s sake

I think there are at least four key traps for every single-operator, all-purpose social network.

  1. Friend requests The first big problem is that as everyone you’ve ever had a beer with, along with that kid who beat you up in 3rd grade sends you a friend request, the joy of ‘having lots of friends’ is replaced with the burden of managing lots of ‘friends.’ And as the network grows, so does the burden. Do you really know what that pyronut from college chemistry is up to? Do you want to have to judge the meaning of a conversation in light of today’s paranoia? This leads us to the next problem:
  2. Metaphors Facebook uses two metaphors for relationships: friend and network. Both are now disconnected from their normal English meanings. An f-friend is not the same as a real friend. You might invite a bunch of friends over for drinks. Would you send the same invite to your f-friends list? Similarly, if I were to join Facebook today, I could join a Microsoft network, because I work there (although I’m not speaking for them here). Now, in the time that Facebook has been open to the world, lots of people have gained and lost Microsoft email addresses. Some have been full time employees. Some have been contractors of various types. Some have been fired. Is there a process for managing that? Maybe, we have a large HR department, but I have no idea. One key point is that membership in an f-network is not the same as membership in a real network. The meaning of the words evolve through practice and use. But there’s another issue with metaphors as made concrete through the technical decisions of Facebook programmers: there aren’t enough. I think that there’s also now “fans” available as an official metaphor, but what about salesguy-you-met-at-a-conference-who-won’t-stop bugging-you? The technical options don’t match the nuance with which social beings handle these sorts of questions, and even if they do, telling a computer all that is too much of a bother. (See the chart above for an attempt to make it do something related.)
  3. Privacy means many things Privacy means different things to different people. Even the same person at different times wants very different things, and the costs of figuring out what they will want in some unforeseen future is too high. So privacy issues will keep acting as a thorn in the side for social network systems, and worse for centralized ones.
  4. Different goals Customers & the business have different desires from the system. Customers want fast, free, comprehensive, private, and easy to use. They don’t want to worry about losing their jobs or not getting one. They don’t want to worry about stalkers. They don’t want their sweetie to look over their shoulder and see an ad for diamond rings after talking to their friends about engagement. But hiring managers want to see that embarrassing thing you just said. (Hello, revenue model, although Facebook has not, as far as I know, tapped this one yet.) Stalkers are heavy users who you can show ads to. Advertisers want to show those diamond ring ads. Another example of this is the demand to use your real name. Facebook’s demand that you use your real name is in contrast to 4 of the 5 alternatives up there. Nicknames, psuedonyms, handles, tags are all common all over the web, because, in fact, separating our identities is a normal activity. This is an idea that I talk about frequently. But it’s easier to monetize you if Facebook has your real name.

So I’m shocked, shocked to discover that Facebook is screwed up. A lot of other shocked people are donating to Diaspora ($172,000 of their $10,000 has been pledged. There’s interesting game theory about commitment, delivery on those pledges, and should they just raise a professional round of VC, but this post is already long.) There’s also Appleseed: A Privacy-Centric Facebook Slayer With Working Code.

Now, before I close, I do want to say that I see some of this as self-inflicted, but the underlying arc doesn’t rely on Zuckerberg. It’s not about the folks who work for Zuckerberg, who, for all I know are the smartest, nicest, best looking folks anywhere. It’s about the fundamental model of centralized, all-purpose social networks being broken.

To sum it all up, I’m gonna hand the microphone to Rick:

If you don’t get off that site, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting off that Facebook. Now, you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we’d both wind up with our privacy in ruins. Isn’t that true, Louie?

Capt. Renault: I’m afraid that Major Zuckerberg will insist.

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