More on privacy, the workplace & social network software

Unless you have been living under a rock you will have heard about the sites called Facebook, or MySpace, and their professional cousin LinkedIn, you might even remember their predecessors Friendster. These sites are basically social network software/service (SNS) where you connect with other people and share information.

Today I read a great article by Cory Doctorow in Information Week about how the growth of Facebook within the workplace will eventually kill Facebook. Why?

It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list — but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who’ll groan and wonder why we’re dumb enough to think that we’re pals).

Basically we will all run from these services as our workplace joins in so this example does not happen:

Here’s one of boyd’s examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn’t like her boss doesn’t really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it’s perfectly valid to demand to be “friended” in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend’s buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.

In the article Cory links to several really good pieces. Such as a Times article on how Facebook is using all of the data it collects about us to help targeted advertising. One part in particular scared me a bit:

He suggested that internet-users could no longer expect to remain anonymous online, but could control only the amount of information about them that is available on the web.

Cory also references Danah Boyd article (her stuff is truly amazing if you have not read any of it do so) on Facebook and Privacy. Her conclusion has some great advice, emphasis mine.

Yes, people reveal personal stuff to a website. They know that they revealed that information but they still have an assumption about how it is to be presented and the ways that make them comfortable and the things that make them go ick. This is really about context, context, context. As i’ve said before, there’s no way that people can comfortably negotiate all contexts at all time. They could retreat and go into hyper private mode but what kind of life is that? People choose to make risks based on what they assume the architectural affordances and norms of a space to be. I think that asking people to retreat into paranoia is completely unreasonable. Instead, i think we need to find ways of providing reasonable levels of protection and comfort, recognizing that there are always risks when you are still breathing.

Danah also lists her reason why she feels people “friend” each other on SNS:-

1. Because they are actual friends
2. To be nice to people that you barely know (like the folks in your class)
3. To keep face with people that they know but don’t care for
4. As a way of acknowledging someone you think is interesting
5. To look cool because that link has status
6. (MySpace) To keep up with someone’s blog posts, bulletins or other such bits
7. (MySpace) To circumnavigate the “private” problem that you were forced to use cuz of your parents
8. As a substitute for bookmarking or favoriting
9. Cuz it’s easier to say yes than no if you’re not sure

Some final thoughts.

First I really hope Facebook, and the other services, don’t “misplace” all of our data like the little event in the UK.

Lastly I can see a whole “HR” mess brewing to resolve a SNS disagreement between workers!

2 thoughts on “More on privacy, the workplace & social network software

  1. Every time a new technology or paradigm appears, you create aficionados. Add a bit of marketing (viral preferred), and you transform those aficionados into evangelists. Add a bit of spin, and you have a hype. Wait a little bit for any drawback, and here come the doomsayers.

    Doctorow has a perfect analysis of a problem though: by “friending” everyone, it becomes more difficult to differentiate between who’s a real friend and who is actually an acquaintance, or even worse a colleague (and as discussed some are creepy).
    In the real life you don’t behave the same with your friends than with your colleagues or with your boss. However on Facebook, all your relations are considered as friends.

    This is a problem that has already been identified (I can’t find back the articles), and Doctorow rightly points to the newly-created Boyd’s Law:

    Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.

    Clearly identifying a problem, though, does not necessarily results in the right conclusion.

    Problem: I cannot differentiate between my real friends, my colleagues, my boss, my church members, my cooking lessons colleagues, …

    Wrong Conclusion: Doom is upon us. Social networks will die

    Right Conclusion (IMHO): Social Networks will evolve and allow us to categorize the relationships we have and to behave differently depending on the categories.

    For instance, when posting a picture, I could decide that this is for everyone. If I am drunk on the picture (hypothetical case: boss, this NEVER happens to me), I can decide to have it available ONLY for my drinking buddies, etc..

    Another solution might reside in OpenSocial (future will tell). This is the scenario of your personal uber-network, that is a combination of all your networks.

    For instance:

    * You have a network on LinkedIn with all your business acquaintances
    * You have a network on Facebook with all your real friends
    * You have a network of employees on the corporate social network (e.g. SelectMind)
    * You have several networks on Ning for various communities you belong to
    * and…
    * You have your uber-network that allows you to have a picture of all your other networks, and also allows you to post things centrally and decide what network(s) to spread on.

    Anyhow, social networks on the web are still in their infancy and will grow up as we are getting used to them.

  2. Romuald social networks software/services (SNS) are in their infancy and will need to grow to be fully accepted. I think we are all in agreement we need some way of controlling the privacy aspect, otherwise SNS in their current very open form will die. One of the reasons social networks 1.0 were elitist (from your post http://collabatwork.com/?p=87) is it allowed the network to control who had access so their privacy was not subverted.

    While Facebook is being bashed around for their lack of privacy, in actual fact they have provided their users with the ability to control who sees what, the problem is it is complicated given all the different applications that allow you to set privacy options.

    Until we are able to have this control within SNS there are continually going to be people within organisation who end up losing out. Either through sackings, discrimination or bullying.

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