February 2009

The recent uproar over changes to Facebook's terms of service has been loud enough to force them to recant the changes. That was a wise PR move, but Facebook has nothing to apologize for. I think this uproar is largely the result of some very simplistic, overly-entitled thinking about ownership of online data.

For me this breaks down into a very practical issue. Facebook changed their terms to say that information about you would not be deleted, and you could not revoke your license for Facebook to use it for whatever it wanted, even if you deleted your account on Facebook. At a very simple level that sounds crazy. When you delete your account, you expect that your information gets deleted too.

But think a little deeper and it gets much harder to think about how such deletion would work. When I delete my account, I expect my profile to go away. And it would. But, especially if I've been an active user, my fingerprints are all over the frickkin' place. I've left comments, joined groups, recommended things. I've posted photos, tagged other people's photos, written on walls, posted links and videos, many of which have been forwarded around. Maybe I've participated in collective, synthetic products – polls, ratings, and reviews, for example. When I stop using Facebook, which of these things should be deleted?

I certainly don't have an answer, but the key point for me is that no one has an answer. And as long as we can agree that there's no easy way to figure this out, we have to acknowledge that Facebook may just be responding to the uncertainty that's out there. I don't think they're trying to be devious, they're just recognizing the obvious.

Ownership of digital information is tough. It's tough enough when our digital goods are simple and atomic – like our pictures and profiles. But when things get synthetic and derivative, it's even worse. Who owns a collective product like Wikipedia? Who owns the synthetic public good that is created by Digg users? When I quit using Digg, should my part of that collective intelligence be removed because I still own it and revoke my permission to use it?

These are the questions that will make this one of the most important issues of this year. The silver lining in all of this is that Facebook seems to be doing what's right – stepping back from an internal decision, listening, starting a conversation. We'll need to figure this out, and quick, so let's give Facebook some credit for helping us along in the right way.

Facebook Logo

OMG, I'm the gajillionth blogger to write a post about Facebook's change to their terms of service. In a nutshell, they now reserve the right to keep and use your data even when you stop using Facebook and cancel your account. Eek! Fodder for privacy debate!

From my point of view, the interesting part is the metaphor we use to think about it. In Mark Zuckerberg's blog post defending the change, he says this:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work.

Touche, Mr. Zuckerberg. I see what you're getting at, but this is not the right metaphor. The real question is, when I send you a letter in the mail, does the postal service get to keep it and use it how they see fit? In the world of email, do the mail servers my message passes through get to log all the traffic, mine it for profit? Let's hope not.

But that metaphor doesn't quite work either, depending on how you see the issue of what services Facebook provides. So let's try a different one. If you make a bunch of copies of a photo of yourself – let's say you, wearing a funny hat, marker on your face, drunk as hell – and post them on public bulletin boards all over town, what rights do you have to your photo if you want to go back on the whole thing?

To Zuckerberg's credit, I think he rightly points out that there's nothing easy about all this, and the privacy issues are far from clear cut. I also think these little scuffles, which from my POV have few direct implications, are most important because they force us to reconcile these issues, which will only be more common as time goes on. What expectations is it reasonable for us to have when we put our data out into the cloud? What rights does a company that provides us with a free, valuable service have to the information we pass through it? Is Facebook more like a postal service or a bulletin board? The answer is likely to be both. Oh boy.

The latest issue of the journal Episteme has all the buzzwords of current topics. It's about Web 2.0, Wikipedia, prediction markets. And epistemology. Big time.

But don't bother. This journal is quite pretentious, and the articles are not particularly well written. Worse, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of new thought there. Rather it seems like a handful of scholars who have just caught on to what's been going on and are talking about it as thought it's the latest and greatest. It reminds me of going to a session at the American Anthropological Association meetings in 2003 and listening to a sincere anthropologist give a 6 point talk on how to use Powerpoint.

The only gem seems to be a long-ish article by Larry Sanger (Wikipedia co-founder) on expertise on Wikipedia:

Sanger, Lawrence M. 2009. "The Fate of Expertise after WIKIPEDIA." Episteme 6:52-73.

I'm not sure I agree with most of what he has to say – I need to stew on it a bit more. But regardless I think it's an interesting piece of opinion and history from someone who was there at the beginning.

I hate who John McCain is right now. This one paragraph from an article in today's NY Times set me off:

Republicans, bolstered by their coordinated opposition to the package, remained on the offensive over the weekend. On CNN, Senator John McCain continued to brand the stimulus bill a “generational theft,” and accused Mr. Obama of not reaching across the aisle despite promises of bipartisanship. The measure gained the votes of only three moderate Republican senators in the Senate. No Republicans voted for it in the House.

Two big problems here:

  1. On Thursday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jon interviewed former Republican Senator John Sununu. It was a pretty testy exchange, and Jon ended up making what I thought was a great point. Future generations pay for everything that government does. No exceptions. Every dime that the government has to borrow, for every purpose, will be paid down by future generations in some form. So isn't it funny that the Republicans are trotting out this argument now, like somehow Democrats are mortgaging the country's future? What about a few years ago when Bush pushed through his ridiculous $1.2 trillion tax cut, which apparently did nothing to stimulate anyone? Who's paying for that? Oh, right, it's our children. And our children's children. And our children's, children's chil… holy hell. Enough already.
  2. From one point of view, maybe it's only fair for McCain to be complaining the Obama's not really reaching across the aisle because he didn't get many Republican votes. Obama himself has admitted it was a mistake to define bipartisanship that way. There was never any real chance of getting many Republicans to vote for the bill. What's happened is that party, in the face of a powerful, popular president and shrinking numbers in congress, have decided to circle the wagons, not give an inch. So, what… Obama's going to give up on Democratic principles to get Republican votes? Nope. But McCain is sticking the screw in, like the little pissant that he's become. I used to respect this guy, but now he's become such a Republican stooge. Maverick my ass.

If you're interested in checking out the Stewart / Sununu interview:

…the irritatingly overused euphemism, that is, not the socio-technical phenomenon. Techcrunch is reporting on a marked decrease in the amount of marketing material they get that includes the pesky term. They're also marshaling evidence from Google in the form of a Google Trends chart on the incidence of the term in search results over time.

Let's be honest, though: whatever Web 2.0 is/was is not going away. Rather, it's gone the way of color (as in TV) or stereo (as in sound) and become so ubiquitous that we can safely assume it's there (whatever 'it' is). The difference, of course, is that Web 2.0 is not just a set of technologies but a set of practices: a set of socio-technical systems. Those systems will continue to evolve over time, and hopefully we'll learn to talk about them in more specific and meaningful ways.

Today I feel like my research is starting to pick up steam. I just got news of CPHS approval (that's IRB for all you non-Berkeley folks), which is no great surprise, but a significant bureaucratic hurdle. Now it's on me to get started, and I couldn't be more excited. At the same time, I've made a lot of progress over the last few weeks, with the help of Coye and Robb, in focusing a broad proposal into a do-able project.

Motivated by Information: Information About Online Collective Action as an Incentive for Participation

Abstract: This paper describes research focused on understanding the role of incomplete structural information about online collective action systems in participation decisions. Specifically, I use qualitative interviews to examine knowledge about and perceptions of online systems that form public goods, questioning whether the notions of public goods and social dilemmas are relevant and meaningful for individuals making real-world participation decisions. This paper also describes concurrent experimental research focused on exploring the potential relationships between structural information about online systems as public goods involving social dilemmas, an individual’s personal characteristics, and participation. Finally, this research explores the potential to use informational feedback about the characteristics of online systems as public goods to promote increased participation.

If I've still got your interest, and you want to know more, check out this short (2 page) research summary. Still interested? Drop me a line.

Thanks to Andrew for pointing out this super-romantic view on relationships:

(Click for larger version)