Archive for the ‘sns’ Category

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 ├╝ber-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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