SNS visibility norms (a response to Scoble)

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by: Danah Boyd

A few days ago, I lamented the tech crowd's Facebook fetish. Scoble raised the bar by responding to all of my nitpicks. Now, it's my turn again. Tehehe.

I think that Scoble summed it all up perfectly with this:

"But what I don't understand is why so much of the tech crowd who lament Walled Gardens worship Facebook." Because there isn't anything better. It's like why we are so gaga over the iPhone. The iPhone is locked up tight and doesn't let us play. But it is so superior to the alternatives that we’ll put up with all the walls.

He's totally right. And what he's really saying is that I should recognize and accept the hypocrisy within the tech crowd. They will happily say one thing loudly, but if the cool new glittery toy that they want has major failings, they'll bite – hook, line, and sinker. I'm not convinced that FB is "so superior to the alternatives," but I totally see how it plays into the values and aesthetics of the tech crowd. Maybe we should start calling FB (and other tech toys) "Precious"? And then we can run around in demented voices saying "One tool to rule them all!" ::giggle:: (OK, that's probably not funny, but it's late and I'm entertaining myself here.)

Anyhow… what I really want to address was a realization wrt visibility that I had while reading Scoble. In writing my earlier post, I was thinking primarily of teens when I was talking about visibility. Scoble points out that he really WANTS to be super visible, searchable on Google, etc. And he references the career-minded college students who will relish said visibility. This made me think about the different factors at play when it comes to visibility on social network sites.

MySpace started out as PUBLIC PUBLIC PUBLIC. They only added privacy features when they welcomed 14 and 15-year olds and for a while, you had to lie and say you were 14 to get a private profile. While the teen crowd was not using MySpace as a hyperpublic platform, artists were. They wanted to be as public as possible, to get as many fans as possible, to SEE and BE SEEN. This wasn't just the story of musicians… even semi-porn divas like Forbidden and Tila were all about being hyperpublic and there were certainly teens who thought they'd be the next American Idol or Top Model by being found on MySpace. There are folks who want to leverage the platform to be the object of everyone's gaze. As it expanded, MySpace received unbelievable pressure to add privacy options, to protect its users (both young and old). Even though a MS Friends-only profile is about as private as you can get, MySpace is constantly shat on for being dangerous because of exposure.

Facebook differentiated itself by being private, often irritatingly so. Hell, in the beginning Harvard kids couldn't interact with their friends at Yale, but that quickly changed. Teens and their parents worship Facebook for its privacy structures, often not realizing that joining the "Los Angeles" network is not exactly private. For college students and high school students, the school and location network are really meaningful and totally viable structural boundaries for sociability. Yet, the 25+ crowd doesn't really live in the same network boundaries. I'm constantly shifting between LA and SF as my city network. When I interview teens, 80%+ of their FB network is from their high school. Only 8% of my network is from Berkeley and the largest network (San Francisco) only comprises 17% of my network. Networks don't work for highly-mobile 25+ crowd because they don't live in pre-defined networks. (For once, I'm an example!)

The interesting thing is that Scoble wants to make Facebook do what MySpace does. He wants to be a micro-celeb with a bazillion friends/fans and he wants to interact with all of them. And he wants to do it on Facebook because he sees that as more his space than MySpace, even though the other is set up for that. (I can't really see the porn-Scoble or the emo-Scoble, but it sure would be funny.) He's bumping up against the fact that Facebook was designed to be closed, to be intimate, to be tight. It was what made its early adopters value it. And now, for whatever reason, Facebook has decided to move in the direction of MySpace – slowly tiptoeing to being a very public service.

It makes sense to attract those who want to be public, but how public can they go without affecting those who relish the closed-ness? For the most part, Facebook has been immune from privacy-related attacks from the Attorneys General and press. They've been toted as the "right" solution. Can people who want to be private live alongside those who want to be PUBLIC? How are boundaries going to be negotiated? It seems to me that this all comes back to context and context is really getting cloudy here. It seems to me that there might be two totally different sets of expectations emerging without an in-between solution. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the "solution" is to push people into accepting being public.

I feel the need to address folks' response that it's all about the privacy settings. Someone out there has to have public data on how frequently people change settings vs. staying with the defaults. (I've seen plenty of private reports on this, but don't know of any that I can cite.) Let's just say that defaults matter. Very few people change the defaults. They are more likely to shift their behavior (or leave a site) than change the defaults. Thus, a move to force people to "opt-out" is not only about dictating the social expectations, but also setting people up to face the costs of those defaults, even if they don't really want to. I don't really understand why Facebook decided to make public search opt-out. OK, I do get it, but I don't like it. Those who want to be PUBLIC are more likely to change settings than those who chose Facebook for its perceived privacy. Why did Facebook go from default-to-privacy-protection to default-to-exposure? I guess I know the answer to this… it's all about philosophy. Unfortunately, it's not a philosophy that most of the teens I interviewed or their parents share. But this type of exposure is far more insidious and potentially harmful than the privacy trainwreck I documented earlier.

I think that one of the reasons that the tech crowd lurves Facebook is because they both want the "transparent society." This is the philosophy that information dissemination can only be beneficial and that people should not seek to hide things. Embedded in this are unstated issues of privilege and normative views. It's OK to be transparent when you look like everyone else, but go ask the gay Christian living in an Arab state how he feels about being transparent about his social world. Fleshing out a critique of the transparent society requires a different post, but I'm starting to get the sinking feeling that we're all part of a transparent society experiment and my discomfort stems from a deep concern about who all is going to get washed up in that tsunami. The goal doesn't seem to be about helping people maintain privacy; it seems more like pushing them to accept a world where they are constantly aware of everyone around them. Hmm…

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