So, word on the street has it that friends lists privacy controls are on the way. I believe allowing Facebook users to specify who has access to which information will allow them to take advantage of the self-presentational opportunities afforded by the site without having to use workarounds, such as a dull, dull profile or rejecting friend requests. Grouping people and then being able to control the kinds of information they have access to makes perfect sense. Unfortunately for me and all the other dozens of FB researchers, all those papers on FB Friending will have to be rewritten, trashed, heavily marked “At the time data were collected….” or otherwise tweaked. If only the academic publishing cycle wasn’t so incredibly long! Or the technology didn’t change quite so quickly!
Now – I think that “trashed” might be overstating the case somewhat. As big as the samples are on some of these papers, in the end SNS research right now is an ethnographic enterprise – we’re trying to snap as many pictures of a varied and evolving landscape as we can from a fast-moving train. So cataloging what the state of play is at any given moment seems a worthwhile project, provided it’s couched in the fact that it is of a particular moment.
Easy for me to say – I’m not the one who’s going to have to tweak, qualify, edit those papers already in process. But as someone who studies these issues and will get around to proper paper-writing about them, eventually, I think it’s important to place this development in its proper context.
Earlier today, Michael Zimmer gave an excellent talk here at UNC on issues of privacy and mobility – I might have some further thoughts on this, later, but one of his key points was the importance of value-conscious design. More specifically, he talked about the role of academics researching mediated technologies in advocating for software design that is better, not in the straightforward sense of working more smoothly or elegantly (that, too), but in the sense of treating its users – people – with more dignity, and giving them more autonomy and freedom. It’s lofty stuff, but – that’s why I’m here. I don’t like to use “academic” as a pejorative, but I’m pretty clear in that I don’t wish to associate myself with the kind of inquiry that the pejorative implies: cold, detached, observing from a safe distance and making sure not to get involved. For one, I think that the idea of that kind of non-involvement is a fallacy, but more than that, I want my research to – and think academic research generally should – do whatever it can to make people’s lives better. And while I know Nicole’s frustration is mostly in jest, it seemed a good time to underline the fact that to whatever extent her and others’ research and writings helped draw attention to the various problematic issues surrounding Facebook (in this case, the persistent threat of context collapse), I see that as a really good thing. And on the bright side for academic researchers, it also means even more fascinating questions to ask and behaviors to observe.