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Social Network Sites

The last week has been full of news about Facebook's new moves. Expanded product offerings, rampant privacy violations and the like. The big question is whether Facebook can get away with statements like this:

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg said at a technology awards show in January. "That social norm is just something that has evolved." (via The LA Times)

FALSE. Objectively. Some people are comfortable, but many / most are not. The question is, can Facebook dictate that norm to the web by making business-first decisions now, worrying about the consequences after? Increasingly I believe the answer is yes.

I hear many people say that Facebook is destined to go the way of MySpace, and be superseded by the next big thing in social networking. But I don't believe that anymore. There was Lycos and Altavista and the crew, and then Google came along and people thought the next thing would be along soon. Even in the last few years, there were the people who predicted that Bing or Cuil, or Powerset, or Wolfram or whatever would be the next big thing. But no one's stealing Google's market share on search (although Bing is doing ok…). Google has become a standard, and it will be very hard to shake.

Well, I think Facebook is moving towards that same position. Facebook's idea this past week has been to explode its walls. Facebook wants to be the social graph that powers the web. There will still be new, cool sites for users to get involved in, but why re-invent the wheel? Facebook will allow these sites to slice off a part of the Facebook graph for their users and populate it with their own content. All the while, of course, Facebook is keeping track, expanding its own graph, making a mint. Facebook knows things are going this way, and so this week they slapped down their trump card and said "just you try and stop us!"

We've seen a pretty big backlash in internet terms, but nothing strong enough to lead to anything but minor concessions on Facebook's part. The only things that will stop them at this point might be action from Congress or the courts. At least a few folks in Washington seem to be paying attention.

In the meantime, I think the kind of protest, resistance we're seeing is useful and necessary. I'll be interested to see if Facebook really takes notice. I'm guessing no. So for most of us, our real decision is whether to accept a public life with Facebook, or log off for good. As for me, I'm not thinking of logging off yet, but only because I always assume information about me is public and widely shared without my knowledge. I decided long ago not to put anything on Facebook (or elsewhere) that I wouldn't want to share with the world. But that's me. Facebook allows me to manage my privacy the way I'd like by default. But it should do the same for others too, rather than forcing them into potentially dangerous and uncomfortable choices.

In what was the least surprising and most self-serving statement of the weekend, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proclaimed that privacy is no longer a social norm in our world. That's right. Privacy… GONE. Over. We're all now happy to put the most intimate and minute details of our lives on the internet, and we won't think twice about it. Thank goodness we have CEOs like Zuckerberg to tell us about our social norms.

RIP Privacy.

Now back to reality. Privacy is not dead. Far from it. Privacy is a bigger issue than it has ever been.

So how should we read Zuckerberg's statement? On the one hand, we can default to the most general implication of what he's saying: notions of privacy are in flux. True. But that's always been true. Is the internet changing privacy more fundamentally than radio or television did? It's interesting to think… It couls be that the pace of evolving norms has been accelerated of late. Or, we could remember that Zuckerberg is the mouthpiece for the internet's most prominent and, arguably, egregious privacy violator. It is squarely in his company's interest to argue that the default reaction of the Facebook-going public is to share everything with everyone. It saves him the hassle of having to deal with the violations that are increasingly occurring.

So, what can we say about privacy in the age of Facebook and Twitter? First of all, I think we should resist the urge to make blanket pronouncements. There is certainly a group of young people who have grown up with Facebook in their lives. For these people, privacy means something different, just as "friend" means something different, than it does for many other people. But that's far from a common view. Yesterday's NYTimes Week in Review has a nice article on this subject. For many, arguably most folks, privacy is still very real. And it's something that many people hold important and nuanced attitudes about.

With Coye Cheshire and Elizabeth Churchill, I have been looking into these attitudes. We've been finding that discretion – the ability or desire to suss out the nature of a specific situation and act accordingly, rather than applying a blanket attitude – is key. I suspect that many people exercise a huge amount of discretion about their online information. They differentiate between contexts, audiences, and types of information. After all, why do we assume that the same privacy attitudes would apply to information about, say, our bank accounts, our present geographical location, and our breakfast?

I think privacy is going to be the banner issue of 2010 and beyond. But the banner isn't going to read "Privacy is Dead." The challenge for sites like Facebook is going to be to build socially smart tools that don't apply blanket rules about privacy. Facebook's new privacy rules are organized around functions on the site. But I don't want to decide who can read all my status updates. I want different people to have access depending on what I'm writing about, when I'm writing, where I am, etc.

Dealing with privacy effectively will mean first doing some tough research. What aspects of individuals, of contexts, and of interactions bear on specific privacy attitudes? We need to be thinking of privacy as a whole range of attitudes, not simply a single standard. Then we need to design easy-to-use technologies that can give people the privacy they want based on what they're doing and who they're doing it with.

Facebook can't solve the privacy issue by wishing it away or declaring it gone. If Zuckerberg's comment is indicative of their stance, I'm seeing the chink in Facebook's armor. Some wily start-up is going to come along with a beautiful and flexible technology that will allow people to share the way they want to and they're going to eat Facebook's lunch.

Slashdot has syndicated a story about some research claiming that Facebook use is correlated with getting worse grades in college. Apparently:

…Facebook user GPAs were in the 3.0 to 3.5 range on average, compared to 3.5 to 4.0 for non-users. Facebook users also studied anywhere from one to five hours per week, compared to non-users who studied 11 to 15 or more hours per week.

If this seems fishy to you, you're not alone. At least the author of the press piece communicates the researcher's note that correlation isn't causation. The researcher herself (a doctoral student from Ohio State named Aryn Karpinski) seems convinced what she's seeing is an unobserved variable problem. I think that's likely to be true, but I'd also guess there's a huge bias in this type of self-report data. I'm guessing that, on average, college students use Facebook about the same regardless of their GPA. But – and this is a big but – if you're a person who's getting good grades, you probably also carry around a set of social norms about what you should be doing with your time. So when someone asks you how much time you spend on a distraction you're likely to under-report your time on Facebook, and over-report the time you spend studying. That would be especially true for something like Facebook, which increasingly carries a stigma as a frivolous time-sink.

In fairness, the researcher in this case seems to have worked as hard as possible to communicate her findings, and had her story twisted through the popular press. Blogger Ted Shelton wrote a fairly snarky piece about her (OSU Researcher Discovers Dorks), to which she responded directly, and Ted posted the response (and an apology):

The main thing to remember is that this research is correlational, which the media does not seem to understand (no surprise). I am not saying that Facebook CAUSES poor academic performance. I am saying that the research shows that there is a RELATIONSHIP between Facebook use and academic performance. There are a host of third variables that need to be examined that are potentially influencing this relationship such as personality, work, extracurricular involvement, other distractions, etc. Also, I'm sure that if it wasn't Facebook it would be another distraction. See how they twisted my words? Fun fun…