Creating the “town-effect” for social networks

Remember back when? Back when you needed to have a .edu account to get into your college’s Facebook network? And then remember when your company could start up a “network” and you could join in? But once you got in, it really just became a label on your profile. Nobody could send a message to the “network.” No members could vote on who administered the “network.” These were containers without purpose. When Facebook abandoned these vacuous networks, nobody really cared. After all there were still “pages.” And “likes” and, for a while, “fans.” Like many others, I became one of the “citizens for boysenberry jam” fans.

Of course, as of now, Facebook has become the monster platform for microblogging, social gaming, and media sharing. In actual terms, every individual member of Facebook is a customer for one giant network managed by Facebook (for its own purposes—read: IPO). Despite some attempts to provide for member input into its rules, Facebook continues to mold the user experience to meet its own goals. Getting a Facebook account is like moving into a city of 500 million people without a map and no way of fostering anything like a neighborhood that responds to your needs.

This membership model is significantly different from, say, the Ning model, where communities of interest spun up their own networks, and within these networks, smaller working-groups for focused collaboration and event planning. The real problem with the Ning model is discoverability. The networks are too small and their visions mostly too modest for them to have much of a presence on the big-bad web. They are like villages in the valleys; useful for their core membership, but not likely to grow into anything significantly more than what they were in the beginning. Here you’ll find brands and fans and NGOs galore. The sites are better than web portals for many purposes, but surely there’s something missing.

This something is what I would call the “town-effect.” A town is bigger than a village and smaller than a city. Neighbors live in a town, but so do strangers. So there are new people to meet. Unexpected, potentially marvelous events might happen. The town has a town hall; some place and some manner of governing what happens and why. This facility for self-governance is entirely lacking from Facebook and is mostly trivial for Ning (where, if you don’t like the network rules, you can always just start your own). The best cities in the world are really made up of several towns. From Seattle to New York to Paris to Rome: residents will tell you the town where they live, rather than the city where they dwell. They live in Fremont, or The Village, or Covent Garden, or Navona. Within these towns people live in neighborhoods where they might know many of the people they meet. But they also cultivate the conviviality of their town as a place to find new friends and opportunities. And when they visit a neighboring town, they know they are strangers only once (thanks Liz!).

The real challenge for the future of social networking is to build a platform where digital towns can emerge. Such a platform would enable a network-of-networks; each of which would be capable of growing into a digital-town, with real self-governance and aspects of community (opportunities for trustful collaborations, reputation building, micro-volunteering).  Each network can determine its own membership rules. An individual might be a member of several networks at the same time. The platform would scale up to millions of individual members, but any one network might have ten to fifty thousand.

In the US there are about two million people with PhDs (and twenty-times that number globally). The research interests of these individuals are amazingly diverse. An academic network-of-networks would reasonably contain several dozen networks centered on arenas of interest. Each network is a container that filters the content and amplifies the opportunities of its members. The “early American novel” network would not need to handle content from the “biogenetic structuralism” network. Job opportunities in geology would not show up in the oncology network. Any individual can join more than one network as their own interests dictate. And technical innovation at the platform level “lifts all boats.” Picture every network as a vibrant townscape, and you are approaching the model for this new platform.

Many of the potentials for social networking have not be explored by Facebook, which made the decision early on to dissolve its network-of-networks in favor of one great city.  The technology to create this network-of-networks is already here. In fact, this is built into Drupal Gardens (a software add-on to Drupal). I’m still on Facebook. And yet, beyond the possibility that someone from my kindergarden class might decide to friend me, I get very little out of being one among 500 million. I would feel much more productive and at home in a digital town.

Photo Credit: CC licensed by SouthernPixel on Flickr.

Facebook, schmacebook: We’re getting tired of shopping at the company store

I can’t wait to get off Facebook. Everyone I know can’t wait to get off Facebook. We are all waiting for the next good thing to come along and take us off this island of wasted opportunities. The two questions surrounding this situation are these: what’s wrong with Facebook? and what can we know, say, or do to help the next good thing happen?
A large problem with Facebook has to do not with what it does (or fails to do) but what it is. In fact, Facebook nailed the whole “social” side of social networking early on, only to then lose it. Facebook is a piece of software run by someone else with a business model designed to maximize how my content can be used by them to make money, but not for me. I donate my content and my time, and they keep tweaking the service to make my contributions more valuable for them. This situation is hardly a secret, so we are not talking about deception here. Just bad faith. Facebook is a social network service designed to convert my efforts (and those of 500 million others) into their IPO. Fine. For this, what do I get? A place to pop up microblogs (status updates). A space for random photos and videos (and a not very good service in terms of storing and retrieving these).  A constantly changing user interface that sends me suggestions I don’t need. A collection of my stuff that forever and without compensation now belongs to Facebook. There is no exit from Facebook. Users can only flee. But flee to where?
The next good thing in social networking will have to so several things better than Facebook:
  • Be big and small at the same time. Be a network of networks where each network has the means and the incentive to become more coherent and thus more useful and attractive. 500m members don’t help me out. 500 of the right members, with the right tools. That’s what I’m looking for.
  • Build in real reputation services, on top of powerful collaboration and publication tools. I’m looking for a place to publish once and publish everywhere. I need to know who’s reading what I contribute. I want to reward others for their insights.
  • Build in content sharing services so that I can load up my really good content and have this licensed (Creative Commons) and cited.
  • Build in property and privacy rules so that I control my own contributions. Give me an exit that packages all my content for me to take somewhere else and erases all of this on the system. Chances are I will not use this, simply because it is there. If you love my content, let it go. That’s how you get me to stay.
  • Last, and most importantly: build in network governance so that I have a say in how my social network(s) in the system are managed. I might want to donate some time to curate a part of the content. I might want to help build some policies about member services. Governance is the launching pad for network growth. When members own their own networks they care for and about these. Leaders emerge. Members become evangelists. This is the future of social networking. It looks a lot like democracy. Get used to it.
Back when a mining company opened up in a remote village it would force its workers to use the company store by paying them with scrip only that store would honor. The prices in the company store were managed to the company’s benefit. Often it was a pastel kind of slavery. Sound a lot like Facebook? This is where we are today in the tail-end of the first generation of social networking. We are living our online lives in the company store. And we are ready to jump ship.
Photo Credit: CC licensed for reuse by jekemp

Privacy in the Virtual Front Region


I recently listened to a talk by Miriam Metzger, Assoc. Prof. of Communication at UCSB on the topic of privacy and Facebook. (Here is a news report of that talk: Here too is a video of the talk:

Prof. Metzger’s starting point was the notion that Facebook users say they want privacy but act in ways that reveal their intimate lives. This “privacy paradox,” she noted, was in part due to our outdated understanding of that privacy is in the digital era. For these users and in this digital environment privacy must have other referents. Here I would submit that the “privacy paradox” on Facebook may actually be explainable without abandoning other notions of privacy.

The core activities on Facebook are “friending” (the user acquires friends whose information becomes visible and who can in return view the user’s information), microblogging one’s status, and photo sharing (Facebook is the largest photo sharing site on the planet with more than 6 billion photos). Facebook is a social network the primary purpose of which is publicity. Users join Facebook to show themselves. This is probably why the service is not called “Hide-Your-Facebook.” There are scores of additional services and third-party applications that add to a growing suite of features. Almost all of these services and applications promote the sharing of information.

Asking users about privacy on Facebook is a bit like asking diners at a banquet about fasting (or members of a nudist colony about fashion, etc.). Presumably, some of them will mention their desire to fast, but the fact that they are eating while they answer questions about fasting is not necessarily a paradox. Similarly, asking Facebook users as a cohort about privacy will reveal a wide range of practices better described as self-publicity, and these practices will be simultaneous with answers that reflect a felt need for privacy.  As we shall see, this is less a paradox and more a balancing act.

Many of the privacy problems associated with Facebook involve the rights that the application owners claim for the users’ information; and the fact that Facebook’s internal roles (and the access rules they enable) are inadequate to match the roles of everyday social life. The marketing of user-contributed information as a part of Facebook’s business plan has created waves of ill-will between the company and its software users. Facebook has finally opened up its core user agreements for user-community input. This still does not solve the inadequacies of Facebook’s software in the area of information hiding. Hiding is the other side of sharing. Facebook’s features are so geared to promote sharing that they fail to support hiding.

Students may regularly hide information from their parents and teachers even when they reveal the same information to their friends. Workers hide information from bosses. Bosses hid information from workers. Parishioners hide information from their priests. In the non-digital world people have multiple ways to hide what they do not want someone to know.
But what happens when a parent or teacher becomes a friend (or a friend of a friend) on Facebook? What happens when your boss wants to be your friend? The founding data model for Facebook cannot handle this type of mundane social complexity. So the real issue in Facebook is not a privacy paradox, but a lack of control over the hiding of information. How do you share intimate, fun, often embarrassing moments with your best friends (who seem more than willing to share theirs with you), while controlling what information casual- and non-friends can see?

Facebook is the Geek God’s gift to sociologists. Not only is almost half of the information on Facebook–the entire profiles of nearly 70 million people–open to anyone who can data-mine this, but users are consciously making choices that can be surveyed. Facebook is a conscious, decision-driven social activity. The work of scientists such as Dr. Metzger will help to guide our understanding of how users negotiate their identities within the digisphere.

Another avenue of possible research here would explore “regionality.” This is a notion developed fifty years ago by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s front regions are spaces where people pay attention to their self presentation, while back regions (bedrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, back stages, etc.) are places where the constraints on self presentation are relaxed. Up to today, physical regions, places, and behaviors translate poorly into digital social networking services. In some ways, the act of “friending” someone may signal access to one’s personal back region. Certainly, from the photos aggregated at many (most?) profiles, back region behavior is in evidence (think duck tape and bottles of tequila). In non-digital activities, privacy is still managed through control of physical back regions. People still lock their doors.

It is certainly interesting to see how Facebook activities intrude on these private back spaces. The problem of privacy extends to friends with cell-phone cameras in bars and bathrooms. Facebook becomes a destination for publicizing these violations of physical privacy. For many, Facebook has become an archive of their backstage follies managed mostly beyond their control. I’ve been working with a large group of later-career scientists and technicians The great majority of them (perhaps 80%) consider Facebook an unwelcome opportunity. They would rather keep their privacy by the simple act of avoiding Facebook.

The dilemma for Facebook users is that the enjoyment they have to view intimate photos of their friends is measured against the chagrin of their being tagged in embarrassing situations. The act of removing a tag from a friend’s picture signals a remoteness, a lack to trust. Friends pay attention. The answer to the “privacy paradox” on Facebook is likely to arrive when the Facebook  owners or their successors turn the lens around and do their own sociology. Someone is going to figure out a data model that is flexible enough to allow people to have better control over just who they will allow into their digital back-regions and the ability (and social backing) to eliminate evidence collected without permission from physical back regions.

Photo Credit: The Doctr on Flickr used with CC license