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May 11, 2010

Filed under: culture»internet

Face/Off

So, you're thinking about deleting your Facebook account. Good for you and your crafty sense of civil libertarianism! But where will you find a replacement for its omnipresent life-streaming functionality? It's too bad that there isn't a turnkey self-publishing solution available to you.

I kid, of course, as a Cranky Old Internet Personality. But it's been obvious to me, for about a year now, that Facebook's been heading for the same mental niche as blogging. Of course, they're doing so by way of imitating Twitter, which is itself basically blogging for people who are frightened by large text boxes. The activity stream is just an RSS aggregator--one that only works for Facebook accounts. Both services are essentially taking the foundational elements of a blog--a CMS, a feed, a simple form of trackbacks and commenting--and turning them into something that Grandma can use. And all you have to do is let them harvest and monetize your data any way they can, in increasingly invasive ways.

Now, that aspect of Facebook has never particularly bothered me, since I've got an Internet shadow the size of Wyoming anyway, and (more importantly) because I've largely kept control of it on my own terms. There's not really anything on Facebook that isn't already public on Mile Zero or my portfolio site. Facebook's sneaky descent into opt-out publicity mode didn't exactly surprise me, either: what did you expect from a site that was both free to users and simultaneously an obvious, massive infrastructure expense? You'd have to be pretty oblivious to think they weren't going to exploit their users when the time came to find an actual business model--oblivious, or Chris Anderson. But I repeat myself.

That said, I can understand why people are upset about Facebook, since most probably don't think that carefully about the service's agenda, and were mainly joining to keep in touch with their friends. The entry price also probably helped to disarm them: "free" has a way of short-circuiting a person's critical thought process. Anderson was right about that, at least, even if he didn't follow the next logical step: the first people to take advantage of a psychological exploit are the scammers and con artists. And when the exploit involves something abstract (like privacy) instead of something concrete (like money), it becomes a lot easier for the scam to justify itself, both to its victims and its perpetrators.

Researcher danah boyd has written extensively about privacy and social networking, and she's observed something interesting about privacy, something that maybe only became obvious when it was scaled up to Internet sizes: our concept of privacy is not so much about specific bits of data or territory, but our control over the situations involving it. In "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data" she writes:

It's about a collective understanding of a social situation's boundaries and knowing how to operate within them. In other words, it's about having control over a situation. It's about understanding the audience and knowing how far information will flow. It's about trusting the people, the situating, and the context. People seek privacy so that they can make themselves vulnerable in order to gain something: personal support, knowledge, friendship, etc.

People feel as though their privacy has been violated when their expectations are shattered. This classicly happens when a person shares something that wasn't meant to be shared. This is what makes trust an essential part of privacy. People trust each other to maintain the collectively understood sense of privacy and they feel violated when their friends share things that weren't meant to be shared.

Understanding the context is not just about understanding the audience. It's also about understanding the environment. Just as people trust each other, they also trust the physical setting. And they blame the architecture when they feel as though they were duped. Consider the phrase "these walls have ears" which dates back to at least Chaucer. The phrase highlights how people blame the architecture when it obscures their ability to properly interpret a context.

Consider this in light of grumblings about Facebook's approach to privacy. The core privacy challenge is that people believe that they understand the context in which they are operating; they get upset when they feel as though the context has been destabilized. They get upset and blame the technology.

This is why it's mistaken to claim that "our conception of privacy has changed" in the Internet age. Private information has always been shared out with relative indiscretion: how else would people hold their Jell-o parties or whatever they else did back in the olden days of our collective nostalgia? Those addresses and invitations weren't going to spread themselves. The difference is that those people had a reasonable expectation of the context in which their personal information would be shared: that it would be confined to their friends, that it would used for a specific purpose, and that what was said there would confine itself--mostly--to the social circle being invited.

Facebook's problem isn't just that the scale of a "slip of the tongue" has been magnified exponentially. It's also that they keep shifting the context. One day, a user might assume that the joke group they joined ("1 Million Readers Against Footnotes") will only be shared with their friends, and the next day it's been published by default to everyone's newsfeed. If you now imagine that the personal tidbit in question was something politically- or personally-sensitive, such as a discussion board for dissidents or marginalized groups, it's easy to see how discomforting that would be. People like me who started with the implicit assumption that Facebook wasn't secure (and the privilege to find alternatives) are fine, but those who looked to it as a safe space or a support network feel betrayed. And rightfully so.

So now that programmers are looking at replacing Facebook with a decentralized solution, like the Diaspora project, I think there's a real chance that they're missing the point. These projects tend to focus on the channels and the hosting: Diaspora, for example, wants to build Seeds and encrypt communication between them using PGP, as if we were all spies in a National Treasure movie or something. Not to mention that it's pretty funny when the "decentralized" alternative to Facebook ends up putting everyone on the same server-based CMS. Meanwhile, the most important part of social networks is not their foolproof security or their clean design--if it were, nobody would have ever used MySpace or Twitter. No, the key is their ability to construct context via user relationships.

Here's my not-so-radical idea: instead of trying to reinvent the Facebook wheel from scratch, why not create this as a social filter plugin (or even better, a standard service on sites like Posterous and Tumblr) for all the major publishing platforms? Base it off RSS with some form of secure authentication (OpenID would seem a natural fit), coupled with some dead-simple aggregation services and an easy migration path (OPML), and let a thousand interoperable flowers bloom. Facebook's been stealing inspiration from blogging for long enough now. Instead of creating a complicated open-source clone, let's improve the platforms we've already got--the ones that really give power back to individuals.

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