When telephones were first invented, you didn’t just call a number and get a person on the other end: usually, first you’d talk to an operator, who would then connect you to a local loop where the desired party resided. There were special rings within each loop to distinguish who was getting the call, but if someone else on your loop or the loop you were calling wanted to listen in, you couldn’t stop them. This was a function of cost – it was pretty expensive to get a residential telephone line before the federal government guaranteed universal access and then deregulated the phone companies.
This was, it’s pretty well agreed, a bad system notwithstanding the excellent fodder it produced for light farce. The residential system that replaced it was pretty problematic, too, leading as it did to:
a 70 year or so period where for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else’s life and they were expected to come running, like dogs.
So, not the best either, even though it too did produce some great songs.
The growth of electronically-mediated and time-shifted communications may have a mixed record on a lot of issues, but it’s an unambiguous good in terms of individual control over their method, mode and timing of response to communications. I think this is a good thing. Communications where the sender is unsure of the extent of the audience, or the receiver potentially forced into confrontation, are not beneficial for either the clear conveyance of meaning or social cohesion.
Which is why Facebook’s recent actions are both troubling and perplexing. By making all connections public for all users, they are ambiguating audience and forcing potential confrontations (between managed identities, work and personal lives, etc.) for all their users. The shift in Facebook privacy settings takes as its central premise that the advances in telephone communications of the past century were a bad idea. It is forcing all of its users into an always-on global party line, where the conversations are transcribed and sold to all interested parties. That’s not good.
Digital technologies allow us the ability to talk to basically whomever we want (and only them) whenever we want (and only then). That Facebook would consider these to be bad things is deeply weird, and makes a compelling case against using it as a central mode of communication.