Facebook – a tipping point?

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FaceBook Friends Distance

Everywhere I turn in media I bump into a Facebook story; and it’s not the usual chatter. Of course we all know of the movie, and we now know of Facebook Groups, but it’s interesting to see our cultural commentators, such as Frank Rich and Malcolm Gladwell, sidling up alongside the likes of Anil Dash and Umair Haque to write about Facebook. Even the movie Catfish is referred to in a dig at Facebook.

I wrote last week about how Facebook Likes are the low bar for online campaign success measurement, by pointing out how easy it is to Like a brand, yet that action alone doesn’t suggest that anything is really happening. All the recent chatter is different – it has tended to lean toward, not exactly negativity, but at least to a perceived weariness amongst these commentators.

It makes me wonder what’s happening but it certainly feels like they, or we, have reached a collective nadir. Facebook clearly isn’t going away any time soon, but now that it resides in the rarified, and often vilified, air that it shares with Google and Microsoft, the only direction it can go now is down.

Unless Zuckerberg keeps moving the goal posts to retain media attention.

Perhaps we are entering a period of social media malaise – a tipping point. Below are some recent articles about Facebook:

Keeping Our Distance, the Facebook Way – Damon Darlin
Twitter and Facebook cannot change the real world – Malcolm Gladwell
Facebook Politicians are not Your Friends – Frank Rich
The Social Media Bubble – Umair Haque
Facebook: The Reckoning – Anil Dash

And just today on Twitter – as i predicted, facebook built a subprime ecosystem. twitter didn’t here’s the evidence @ev /via @umairh

Facebook Likes are not engaging

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“..the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is” [NY Times review of the movie Catfish]

Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet?” [Malcolm Gladwell - New Yorker 10/04/10]

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” [New Yorker cartoon.]

Credit: I have to thank Justin Spohn & David Ewald for helping me filter and focus my many thoughts, by sharing their own ideas, insights, and persuasive edits, that I have included here.

Let’s not confuse society, social and community
It doesn’t seem so long ago that society and social went hand in hand. There have been many writings about differing societies throughout history – Nomadic Pastoral, Agricultural, Horticultural or simple farming societies – and there has been plenty of debate over the marked difference between Industrial and post-Industrial societies. The common thread throughout though is that they were all phases of civilization. Historically, societies have tended to form to resolve issues, effect social change or for other positive purposes.

For a society to form, likeminded social beings are required. Humans are pretty good on the whole, at being social.

Social anthropology provides so many answers to human behavior, and today that information is available via technology right at our keyboards, which, to parse Marshall McLuhan, are an extension of our fingers. And although technology has shortened the distance between millions of people, we all still skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges.

Before I go on, it’s worth pointing out that we shouldn’t confuse society and community. This link points to almost everything you’d need to know about community.

“To feel part of a community people need to share a sense of purpose, a common set of values and beliefs. And for the community to grow and thrive it needs to draw on collective resource and a culture of support and interdependence to meet common needs and defend against shared risk.”Olivia Knight at eatbigfish

Does that sound like Facebook to you?

Why do I say that we skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges? Well, let’s look at Facebook with its 500 million users. That’s a half billion people. It’s also a large pool of users to study and there have been studies.

A 2009 Read Write Web article, points out that Facebook users actually interact with very few of their ‘friends’ -  “According to Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s ‘in-house sociologist,’ that number is four if you are male and six if you are female. Marlow’s research indicates that the average Facebook user has a network of about 120 friends, but only has two-way conversations with a very small subset of these ‘friends.’ Interestingly, even for those users who have a far larger number of friends (500+), those numbers barely grow [ten for men and sixteen for women].”

So four friends do not a community make. And six is barely larger than most modern households; according to sociologists, a social unit larger than a household is the norm for when communities form. On another note, there’s Dunbar’s number, which is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number is 150. Can we call those 500+ Facebook users a “community” when they don’t actually interact with each other?
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Facebook and your privacy – part 2 or How To Be Alone

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Privacy, privacy, the new American obsession: espoused as the most fundemental of rights, marketed as the most desirable of commodities, and pronounced dead twice a week.” – Jonathan Frantzen, 2002.

What does it mean to be “private?”

What follows is from Wikipedia and I believe it sums up neatly what the average person [i.e. not a lawyer,] might consider what privacy means:

Privacy [from the Latin privatus 'separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government', from privo 'to deprive'] is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share basic common themes. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity, the wish to remain unnoticed or unidentified in the public realm. When something is private to a person, it usually means there is something within them that is considered inherently special or personally sensitive. The degree to which private information is exposed therefore depends on how the public will receive this information, which differs between places and over time. Privacy is broader than security and includes the concepts of appropriate use and protection of information.

The bold highlights are mine as I feel the words and sentences that I picked out are at the core of the debate about Facebook and privacy because of this – “Data privacy refers to the evolving relationship between technology and the legal right to, or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data about one’s self.”

In 2010 our ideas of privacy today versus the same ideas when considered in Latin now rest on that sentence – “the legal right to, or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data about one’s self.” Technology fractures the relationship between public and private information and creates a moral and ethical debate, now being aired in public, over how that information is used.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sparked this debate when he rather foolishly saidthe age of privacy is over…” I say foolishly because I think his intentions were not to fan the flames of discontent that were already smoldering around privacy issues [see Google Buzz,] but to try and get ahead of his competitors by attempting to embrace what he considered a societal shift toward more openness wherein he misconstrued openness as a willingness for people to share everything in public. He was very wrong.

He was wrong because in Western society, many people especially in the USA, consider privacy in many different ways. Here’s how Jonathan Frantzen considers his own privacy from his book of essays ‘How To Be Alone‘ – “…the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.
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Facebook and your privacy – part 1

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Facebook, Privacy, Time Magazine, NORTH

Some questions to preface this article: Did Facebook just become too big? Does Facebook really wreck your right to privacy? As Facebook approaches its 500 millionth user, how many of those users understand what privacy means? My off-the-cuff answers to my own questions are – the bigger you are, the better the target [see Google's current issues,] and no, I don’t believe Facebook wrecks my privacy, plus I would argue that only a small percentage of users understand, or for that matter care, about privacy nor do they understand the true meaning of privacy in many contexts. I’ll explain my thoughts on the “idea of privacy” as I empty my head on to the page as it were… [actually in part 2 as I need to be more detailed.]

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb posted his thoughts last January, but last week the negative Facebook stories began to spread as invasively as Kudzu. Here’s a video from Tim O’Reilly who sorta kinda sides with Facebook. Nicholas Carr has a go at Zuckerberg over Facebook’s Lock-in and now Time Magazine gives the story the front page. I found all those articles and many more during a very cursory search, it appears that the webs are a-humming over this one.

It feels like there’s a lot of fear out there; fear over an assault on our civil liberties, fear of our privacy being invaded. It’s palpable and yet it’s understandable; when we are reminded every day that we must protect our social security numbers from tricksters and hucksters who’ll steal our “identities,” then yes, we could get a little paranoid. But sharing your information on Facebook is not akin to exposing yourself or your social security number to thieves. Nor is it an outright invasion of one’s privacy. At its worst, it appears that Facebook execs have not been truthful about just how much of your personal data they actually share with marketers and advertisers. They have made some huge PR blunders, not least when CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that “Privacy is dead,” at the same time Google has blundered too . Yet the process for changing your privacy settings on Facebook is labyrinthian, not to mention that it’s almost impossible to delete your account, so it’s difficult to defend them. [If you are ready to delete your account here's how for reals.]

Let’s put the white noise to one side for a minute and try and put this in perspective by starting with a simple premise. When using a web platform or web site you can give away as much personal information as you like, or as little. It’s your choice. You can also back out and provide no information. It really is up to you. For instance, I can’t remember how many of my female friends I have contacted on Facebook to ask why they would publicize their address and phone number on the platform. Stalkers anyone?

Now think about how many company web sites you have entered personal information in to. And not only personal information such as name, address, phone, D.O.B. but also credit card details – Amazon? Apple iTunes? Google? Your online bank? Mint? – do you use a grocery store discount card? How about a frequent flier plan with an airline?

I ask because all of the above have an awful lot of data about your spending habits and other mercantile activities. They share this rich and juicy data with marketers and advertisers. [Don't kid yourself into thinking that "well they say they won't" is a decent defense.] Then there are applications like Foursquare where we share our personal whereabouts. Once you give up your locational privacy why would you scream at Facebook about privacy? The Please Rob Me web site would be funny, if it wasn’t funny…

It doesn’t stop at Foursquare. What are you doing with that location-aware mobile device in your pocket..? Take a look at the EFF article On Locational Privacy and How to Avoid Losing it Forever – you may be shocked by what you read. Also, the Centre For Democracy & Technology has a good piece on Over Sharing and Location Awareness.

It’s really a matter of personal responsibility and common sense. Facebook executives may, or may not, care about your personal “privacy” but we do know they want to be paid for letting you use the site for free – that’s why one is bombarded with irrelevant advertising every time one visits. The data you provide, that in turn Facebook provides to marketers willing to pay for ads is what keeps the doors open.

Facebook is a business, so you should consider how much information you want to share with any business, not just Facebook.

In part 2 I will share my thoughts on the “idea of privacy” inspired by danah boyd’s keynote speech at this year’s SXSWi conference and Jonathen Frantzen, particularly his book of essays How To Be Alone. Stay tuned.

[Edit] 3 Ways to Keep Facebook Likes More Private via @WebTrends