Archive for the ‘sns’ Category

Selling the Footage


A Russian Internet investment firm has invested $200 million in Facebook, giving the social networking company a cash buffer during the recession and pegging its value at $10 billion.Digital Sky Technologies, which has invested in leading Russian web properties like Mail.ru and Vkontakte.ru, will take a nearly 2 percent stake in Facebook in exchange for preferred stock, the two companies said on Tuesday.

…Digital Sky won because its founders Yuri Milner and Gregory Finger have strong experience running Internet properties in Eastern Europe and Russia, and “a deep, advanced understanding” of social networking technology, Zuckerberg said.

“Ultimately (it was) this deal and my comfort with Yuri and the team,” said Zuckerberg, 25, who founded Facebook in a Harvard University dorm room five years ago.

My immediate thoughts were that Yuri and Gregory must simply be frontmen for Hubertus Bigend, but that’s probably not right. Tumblr is much more Blue Ant’s speed.

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What is Facebook for?

Alice Marwick directed me to an interesting analysis on Facebook’s redesign, which posits that,

Facebook’s new design, as many of us have been noting since the company began testing it months ago, seems to emphasis features also seen in trendy new web services favored by us self-styled “early adopter” types.

Mark Slee of Facebook, in talking about the redesign, says:

The profile is very personal; it’s important to us that everyone have control over their own profile. Along those lines, once you’ve published stories or posted content, you can adjust the size to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting.

And in discussing the redesign with my friend BC yesterday, he noted that the redesign eliminated clutter, and that the news update had eaten the rest of Facebook: no more static pages. Taken together, it’s a clear change in stance for Facebook. Just as they’d re-adjusted to saturation within college campuses by opening it to everyone, they’re now positioning themselves in response to the rise of micro-blogging services like Twitter by centralizing the News Feed in its presentation – trying to corral those users they see spending more time and energy elsewhere.

I think this may be a key misstep by Facebook – because as “hot” as Twitter and similar services are, their actual user bases are still very, very small (a few percent of Facebook’s, even with explosive growth), if amplified by disproportionate representation in early-adopter communities like bloggers. But it’s not a shock that Facebook would be looking for a solution to some problem, at this point in its history: as my colleague Fred Stutzman noted last November, Facebook’s blessing is also its curse:

Ego-centric social network sites all suffer from the “what’s next” problem. You log in, you find your friends, you connect, and then…what? Social networks solve this problem by being situationally relevant. On a college campus, where student real-world social networks are in unprecedented flux, Facebook is a social utility; the sheer amount of social information a student needs to manage as they mature their social networks makes Facebook invaluable.

… What happens when a social network is no longer situationally relevant? Use drops off.

…Try as they might, once ego-centric social networks lose situational relevance, its pretty much impossible for them to retain their status.

…The coolest tools, the best exclusive media – these are only “fingers in the dam” to keep users in non-situationally relevant spaces.

This clarifies the problem. Facebook’s situational relevance for many users after the initial high-use, friend-finding phase – as an ego-centric social network, based on one’s connections to other individuals – either at college or in the post-college working world is not primarily about finding out what your friends are doing. Rather, it’s a low-involvement way of tracking where they are and where they go, and how to keep in touch with them. Ongoing research that Fred and I are conducting shows that even among current college students, the intensity of Facebook use and identification follows the familiar pattern of decline over time, even if it’s not abandoned entirely.

And Facebook is caught in a bind, because, having both accepted venture capital infusions and sold off a sliver to Microsoft, they now have a very particular interest to keep chasing: increased profit growth. For them, this means, exclusively, increased advertising revenues. synedochic has a long, detailed analysis of why this is a bad/hopeless place to be for social media enterprises (which are slightly different than social networking sites, but similar lessons apply here), but long story short: you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock, and chasing increased ad revenue with a user base whose use is already declining is a very self-defeating proposition.

The vast majority of Facebook users are still Digital Natives who’ve never had (high school or) college without also having Facebook. For them, it’s not simply a case of Facebook becoming passé – it’s a matter of their changing social needs, of shifting situational relevance. As they move into different social contexts – college, work, new cities – there may be bursts of activity where they add and approve new friendships, but it won’t be a “place” to spend time in the same way. Having a new Facebook where they can “adjust the size [of items] to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting” is beside the point if your relevant social reality is mostly taking place elsewhere – indeed, it’s just more things to ignore.

For all the worries about Digital Natives’ social lives moving to endless hours in front of the computer screen, preliminary research is showing very different effects: “a strong association between use of Facebook and… social capital.” Facebook, and social media generally, are a way to connect with friends, but not the place to connect with friends: that still happens mostly IRL, and ultimately it may be the case that after a “Facebook phase” of socially connecting, offline socialization may increase in aggregate over time (though that’s pure speculation on my part, for now). But the bottom line is that already-experienced Facebook users aren’t going to take on the characteristics of techie “early adopters,” and they aren’t going to go back to “hanging out” on Facebook. Redesigning layout to foreground the News Feed won’t change that.

Why are these issues worth such thorough examination? I believe that as especially Digital Natives come of age in a world of networked publics, where increasingly even offline actions are archived or accessible online, it’s important to follow the shape that the infrastructures of these publics take. While ultimately I do not believe that this redesign of Facebook will achieve the desired goal of restoring high usage levels among long-time users, it will, without a doubt, create a very different experience for newer users of Facebook (which has and will retain a central role in the social lives of millions of young people). For them, Facebook will become mostly about watching other people, and seeing what they do. Will they like it? Will it turn them into voyeurs, or make them more susceptible to suggestion and peer pressure? Will they identify more naturally in groups rather than as individuals? As always – more questions on which only time will tell.

(cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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I’ve been ruminating for a while now on The Real Paul Jones’  excellent post on the differences between social and collaborative spaces and practices, and the implications:

This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say del.icio.us, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say last.fm, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?

After mulling this over, I don’t think that that’s quite right, but I’m also still figuring out what I think the difference is between social and collaborative spaces. LinkedIn – in that it basically presents contact and relevant contextual personal information (in its case, work experience rather than, e.g., music tastes) – seems more like a traditional profile-based social networking site (SNS), mainly useful for the maintenance and growth of social capital. That it’s a professional and not a particularly sociable space (as, e.g., Facebook or MySpace is) is not quite the point – whenever collaboration occurs, it will be as a result of actions taken on LinkedIn (that is, social actions) but the collaboration itself will take place elsewhere. Mostly, existent SNS are designed for sociability, and functionally are crippled for collaboration – they include neither the basic features (e.g., document storage; basic word processing, etc.) or the flexibility of interface (truly open API) necessary for it. It’s also not for nothing that these SNS have become perceptually established as social spaces and thus users are likely resistant to their re-framing as collaborative work spaces.

I don’t think that, at present, there are many truly collaborative spaces online. Something like Ning suggests other possibilities as a collaborative space because,

  1. it hasn’t really been established as a social space, for many people, and
  2. it does include the flexibility of interface to make it into a collaborative space

Indeed, many self-organizing social networks on Ning are explicitly organized around professional projects or interests – constructed social spaces for the purpose of collaboration. Not being in the prognostication business, I’m not going to call for Ning to be The Next Big Thing but I do think that we’ve reached or are rapidly approaching a transition point in online activities.

While the socializing-online-will-destroy-the-world crowd still gets in their punches, an increasing body of research combined with the personal experiences of a large share of society are revealing that social activity online can actually be a net benefit and indeed result in more offline socialization rather than less. Part of this is down to the maturity and ease of use of the technologies, part to habituation of users, but basically – many people have “figured out” socialization online, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial part of many people’s daily lives.

Work and collaboration, by contrast, still exist for most users in the same hybrid online-offline space that has predominated since e-mail became a widespread tool and computer workstations a taken-for-granted element of office life. We’re talking about 10, 15, 20 years here, which is kind of awesome to contemplate – almost literally forever in Internet time. Most people still collaborate by e-mailing successive drafts of a document and then talking about it in meetings, or accessing copies on a shared drive. A range of platforms are making document-based collaboration easier, but this is just a part of the puzzle. The perceptual shift that hasn’t quite happened yet – and this is, again, a function both of technology and of habituation – is the movement of collaboration from a splintered, multi-modal (Word Doc -> meeting -> IM conversation, etc.) process to one that is streamlined and takes place in a single space, or at least a space in which all of the various elements are coordinated in such a way as to make the space effectively unitary.

Okay, so maybe I am a prognosticator: this is going to happen, even if the particulars of the how remain to be sorted out (and there’s more grist for the mill). But it will happen especially and increasingly among those for whom living online is the default presumption, who’ve grown up IMing each other for help on homework and working together as squadrons in Halo. That perceptual difference – of always having additional cognitive resources in your ear or at your fingertips – seems to me the bridge to be crossed in developing truly collaborative spaces online.

(Cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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There was a thoughtspurt the other day among several components of my distributed non-me thoughtspace – Fred and Warren Ellis commenting on a Techcrunch post, the Real Paul Jones commenting on Fred’s post and offering his own thoughts – and all of it together, and substantial other peer pressure, convinced me to join Twitter. And start thinking about it.

What I think is this – Fred frames Twitter as a social network service, and I think that’s right, with a particular emphasis on the service: it’s a plugin of sorts for digital identity. But where Fred says, “By locating the network around the profile, we were really locating it around “communication”. In Twitter, the “profile” is our communication, an always-on, interactive wall.” I’m not sure I agree entirely. I think Twitter is, if not exactly a digital ramora, then at least mostly dependent on the silt of our previously-established digital identities. We don’t need to restate our cultural preferences etc. again on Twitter because that’s asked-and-answered and, for most Twitter users (at least at this point) fairly easily accessible in one form or another – via Facebook, a primary blog, etc. But that identity – or an aspect of it – is, as Fred says, continuously reaffirmed via “an always-on, interactive wall.” Twitter is thus an expressive identity affordance in a way that isn’t possible on other channels of communication – SNS too static, IM limited person-to-person, blog limited to a particular set of expectations of the medium/audience demand, etc.

Twitter is definitely a medium-big deal at this point (though I do stick to my story that it only really burst on the scene because the WiFi kept crapping out on the third floor at SXSW Interactive ’07), but still mostly confined to an early-adopter multi-channel communicator population, which (in certain places) online makes it seem like a bigger deal than it is generally. So will it scale – will mobile phones be advertising their integrated Twitter clients in 18 (or 12 [or 9 {or 6}]) months? Maybe. But I don’t think that it’s necessary for the continued viability of Twitter – it could get along just fine as the kind of between-modes expressive affordance for high-use multi-channel communicators that it currently is. And I think that along the same lines, the coming death of Facebook is overstated – more cognitive energy might be directed to Twitter or other channels, but a functional, established, static SNS repository for that particular aspect of digital identity seems a viable long-term gambit. Especially if, as Twitter seems to suggest, new forms of SNS are increasingly not replacements for profile-based services but supplements.

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Via Nicole Ellison, SNS researcher par excellance, comes this:

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.

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Beyond Beacon

There was naturally a lot written about Facebook’s über-creepy Beacon application when it launched last week; now thanks to user pushback there’s political movement there as well.

This pushback is good, and I think that Facebook is making a massive mistake here, trashing the trust and goodwill that had previously existed [PDF] as compared to other SNSes. Any over-specified predictions are of little value, but I think that the reaction from Zuckerberg et al. will probably follow a pattern begun with the News Feeds: some increased user controls that ultimately do little or nothing to change the overall substance of the program.

While the implementation and roll-out (surprise! we’re watching! everything!) leaves a lot to be desired, it’s not difficult to understand Facebook’s motivations here. They’re a company with a brand-new and highly lucrative partnership with one of the world’s most powerful corporations based on a huge growth rate that at some level they must know is unsustainable. Their most valuable asset is user data – the information that their users have exchanged as payment for the Facebook service. Trading with other actors in the same market (user data acquisition – the only market that really matters online), be they providers of movie tickets, consumer electronics or what have you – is a perfectly reasonable thing for everyone involved.

Well, except for users. But they’re not involved – and that’s really the issue here.

For any number of services – anything from Facebook to gMail to a bank or credit card account – users click through and sign at the dotted every day without reading or understanding and “agree” to Terms of Service (ToS) and End User License Agreements (EULAs) that tend to grant total freedom to the corporation to share or sell user data, and indeed to change the ToS or EULA without notice. Even if a user were to object to specific items in a ToS or EULA, the only option they have is to opt out entirely – not to have a Facebook, e-mail or bank account.

This is a serious imbalance of power in the market for personal information – pretty much a total imbalance of power, actually. Users have none, and corporations have all – indeed, even if you delete your account, do you think you get your payment (your personal information) back?

Maybe this and other miscalculations (and the normal life-cycle of online enterprises) will sink Facebook, in the end, but without a very broad demand – enforced by action, with users not signing up for or leaving services where personal information is not adequately protected – there’s little reason to believe that the next Facebook/MySpace/Friendster will be any better. And even if they are – Citibank/Amazon/Google will still have that data, and be willing to share for the right price. The market’s not going to solve this one, because it has no interest in solving it to users’ benefit.

And so what’s needed in our shiny new information economy is that boring old process that’s still the only way to move markets away from their natural tendencies toward static monopoly – regulation. Techno-libertarians might not like it, but the simple fact of the matter is that markets need rules to function properly, and “AGREE: YES/NO” is not a sufficient basis to rationalize the market in personal information. What’s needed instead is a transparent, comprehensive legislative process that examines all transactions where contracts, ToS, EULAs, etc. are under-specified (see also the predatory sub-prime lending fiasco), identifies problem areas and structural imbalances, and proposes and implements sustainable systems for users to protect their rights and personal information. Whether we can get that kind of process out of this or any other Congress or administration is another question – but that’s the only way this is going to happen.

Yup, democracy – the worst kind of guvmint ‘cept for all the others.

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