The Unfriending Wind of Unfriending

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is my weekly syndicated column, hence lack of links. BBC podcast is here.)

It’s an odd world where a word like “unfriending” becomes so common that we all know what it means. And we’re not thinking of unfriending in the old sense of hostile where Walter de la Mare would say

Sighed not the unfriending wind,

Chill with nocturnal dew,

‘Pause, pause, in thy haste,

O thou distraught! I too

Tryst with the Atlantic waste.

By Atlantic waste, here, he’s not referring to the stream of Facebook updates that come your way. But he might have been, because it transpires that Facebook–now one of the biggest nations on the planet, even if it is virtual–is full of unfriending people who will unfriend people for the most trivial of things. Like the cyber equivalent of talking too much.

To unfriend someone on Facebook, by the way, is to remove them from your contact list so they can no longer see what you’re up to. To ‘unfriend’ someone  is to banish them from your Facebook world: Where once they could see your photos, read your wall of musing and generally be part of your life, they will find only a blank space, accompanied by a message that says something like:

People who aren’t friends with Bob only see some of his profile information.

There is none of the fakery and social nuance of real life here: You once were in, and now you’re out. Unless of course you’re so embarrassed when the person complains that you pretend you didn’t unfriend them at all, but that Facebook deleted your account. Technology’s an easy whipping boy.

The New Oxford American English dictionary last year made ‘unfriend’ its word of the year. We like to think that our social networking world closely mirrors our offline world. But it doesn’t. There’s no real-world parallel for something like unfriending–excising someone from your real life isn’t as easy as clicking on a blue “remove from friends” button.

So why do people unfriend people? A survey by a student at University of Colorado Denver Business School has revealed that most people unfriend other people, not because they don’t like them, but because they give them bad information. After surveying more than 1,500 Facebookers, Christopher Sibona found the number-one reason for unfriending is frequent, unimportant posts.

In other words, you can be a good friend to someone on Facebook by giving them good, but not too much, information. Most people, Sibona found out, unfriend people, not because they’ve been nasty to them or because they stole their iPod, but because of the stream of consciousness they tend to throw onto Facebook. In short: I’ll be your friend if you don’t talk too much.

(I have a slight problem with this research: Sibona used Twitter, not Facebook, to reach his audience, which I suspect tilts his findings. Twitter is an information network, and while his questions are about Facebook the responses will inevitably be only from those Facebook users who are also Twitter users. While I’m sure many people use Twitter and Facebook differently, there’s an inevitable bias towards those people who use them similarly. The other problem I have is that Sibona does not appear to be a major user of Twitter–he follows only five people, nor of social networks in general: His LinkedIn page, for example, lists only 33 connections. For someone to research social networks to this degree, once needs to have extensive experience of them. I’m yet to be persuaded Sibona has these credentials.)

What’s interesting about all this is a point that I’ve been making for some time: all social networks use information as their currency. Joining Facebook is not enough: You need to be seen to be on Facebook, and, most importantly, to be seen to be useful on Facebook. This means, at the very least, that you provide entertainment for your friends.

If we believe this research it would seem to suggest that Facebook is not, actually, what it seems. We thought Facebook was a place where we were able to maintain, create and expand friendships. But instead it’s an information exchange. True, some of that information is about our lives, and so could be the stuff of letters we might in the past have stuffed in our end of year update cards to friends and family, but it’s also a place where we catch up on things.

Indeed, other research has shown that a lot of the time what we read online–in other words, where we get our news–is based on what people recommend we read. On places like Facebook.

So it makes absolute sense that some people on Facebook choose their friends the way we might in the past have chosen what newspapers to read: read the most informative; throw out the fluff.

This detachment, this pragmatism and ruthlessness can be seen in other surveys. A study by Nielsen found that half of 500 youngsters it surveyed didn’t personally know all of their Facebook friends. And kids, it turns out, don’t like being friends with their parents on Facebook: nearly a third of teens surveyed would prefer to unfriend their parents–particularly their mothers–if they could.

But it’s also a reflection of the fact that we don’t yet quite understand what the reciprocal obligations are of accepting someone’s friendship on Facebook. It’s virtually impossible to reject an invitation to be buddies on Facebook if you’ve ever met that person, however long ago and however fleeting the connection. But now you’re friends, what’s expected of you?

I offer a case in point.

One evening I searched for some schoolyard chums on Facebook and connected to them. No harm done; after all, they’re probably thousands of miles away so the commitment is negligible. But one wasn’t: He makes frequent trips to my neck of the woods, and I occasionally to his. We failed to meet up a couple of times, until I realised that we never would.

One weekend I found myself in his town and he was enthusiastic about meeting up, but then blew me off three times pleading work–while openly organizing a poker game with his buddies on Facebook.

I decided enough was enough. So I hit the unfriend button. But from it I learned an important lesson: Just because people are your friends on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re your friends. Even if, once, they used to be.

Being Facebook friends was about all my friend was ready for. I don’t blame him, though I wish there had been a halfway house between removing him from Facebook and letting things go on as they were.

In real life we would just have not gotten in touch again. I suppose if we’re youngsters we would stop sharing our Snickers bars or something. But on Facebook there’s a finality there. No going back. Unless of course he realises I’ve unfriended him and asks what happened, in which case I’ll blame Facebook.

Podcast: The Unfriending Wind

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my column on unfriending/unfollowing (The Business Daily podcast is here.) I’ll try to post the original column at some point.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 
East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Facebook in Asia: Seeds of Decline?

Some thoughts after trawling through data I’m collecting on Facebook membership in selected Asia Pacific countries

Membership of Facebook in developed Asia Pacific territories declined for the first time in a year in September, suggesting, possibly, that interest in the social networking site in the region has peaked. The figures may also reveal insights on whether, in developing countries, a social networking site can break out of their middle class enclaves.

Facebook populations in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong all fell during the month, while those in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all either grew only marginally or shrank somewhat. Hong Kong dropped by the largest margin—5.7%—while Thailand, alone among the countries under study, grew by more or less the same amount.

India and China, though included in the study, offer a more confusing picture. China’s data may be unreliable: after showing slow but steady growth until April, membership dropped precipitously before rising by nearly 140% in the past month. The reasons for these spikes and dips are unclear, but may have something to do with China’s limits on access to the service. In any case, the proportion of China’s real population remains negligible.

India’s too is negligible, although it did rise above 1% in July and and has been growing by between 400,000 and 1.7 million people per month. In most other countries that would be noteworthy.

But while the data overall remain questionable—these figures are from Facebook’s own statistics, but are not transparent, and are based on where members say they are from or in—there are some identifiable trends:

  • Australia and New Zealand seem to have not only hit a limit in terms of percentage of their overall population who are on Facebook (45% and 41% respectively), but may actually have begun to decline. After recording impressive growth up until May, membership plateaued for a month or two before falling in September. Google Trends graphs measuring traffic to facebook.com in these countries seem to confirm this. (Australia; New Zealand)
  • Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be in a similar boat. While more than half of Hong Kong was on Facebook in July, and nearly 49% of Singapore was on Facebook in August, both populations shrank in September. Only five months ago both territories were recording double digit growth.
  • Thailand is still growing, as is the Philippines. But both are from low bases: Less than 3% of Thailand began the year on Facebook, although that has now grown to 8%. The Philippines has risen from about 10% of the population to about 18% in the same period, but growth in both has dropped recently from earlier rates of up to 25% per month.
  • Indonesia is an interesting case. Its membership, too, was surging in the first half of the year—twice growing by a quarter in the space of a month—but has slowed considerably in the second half. Indeed, its population seems to have plateaued at about 11% of the overall population. That pretty much covers the country’s middle class, according to my calculations. (I wouldn’t want to labor the point, but based on the latest ADB figures, Indonesia is remarkable in the way that Facebook has extended beyond what would usually be considered the middle class limits of an Internet-based service. Those considered to be middle class or above by the ADB is about 11.6% of the population, which is exactly where Facebook’s Indonesia population currently stands. The Philippines—at 18.25%, about 5 percentage points behind the ADB’s calculation of the country’s middle class—has a little way to go, while Malaysia’s Facebook population has space to double in size. Of course, this has a lot to do with the growth of the mobile Internet, which is another topic in itself. )

Previous Facebook data posts:

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth? – loose wire blog

Facebooks Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North – loose wire blog

Podcast: Stuck on Stuxnet

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my column on Stuxnet (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 
East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Stuck on Stuxnet

By Jeremy Wagstaff (this is my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspaper syndication)

We’ve reached one of those moments that I like: When we’ll look back at the time before and wonder how we were so naive about everything. In this case, we’ll think about when we thought computer viruses were just things that messed up, well, computers.

Henceforward, with every mechanical screw-up, every piston that fails, every pump that gives out, any sign of smoke, we’ll be asking ourselves: was that a virus?

I’m talking, of course, about the Stuxnet worm. It’s a piece of computer code–about the size of half an average MP3 file–which many believe is designed to take out Iran’s nuclear program. Some think it may already have done so.

What’s got everyone in a tizzy is that this sort of thing was considered a bit too James Bond to actually be possible. Sure, there are stories. Like the one about how the U.S. infected some software which a Siberian pipeline so it exploded in 1982 and brought down the whole Soviet Union. No-one’s actually sure that this happened–after all, who’s going to hear a pipeline blow up in the middle of Siberia in the early 1980s?–but that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of those stories you know are too good not to be true.

And then there’s the story about how the Saddam Hussein’s phone network was disabled by US commandos in January 1991 armed with a software virus, some night vision goggles and a French dot matrix printer. It’s not necessarily that these things didn’t happen–it’s just that we heard about them so long after the fact that we’re perhaps a little suspicious about why we’re being told them now.

But Stuxnet is happening now. And it seems, if all the security boffins are to be believed, to open up a scary vista of a future when one piece of software can become a laser-guided missile pointed right at the heart of a very, very specific target. Which needn’t be a computer at all, but a piece of heavy machinery. Like, say, a uranium enrichment plant.

Stuxnet is at its heart just like any other computer virus. It runs on Windows. You can infect a computer by one of those USB flash drive thingies, or through a network if it finds a weak password.

But it does a lot more than that. It’s on the look out for machinery to infect—specifically, a Siemens Simatic Step 7 factory system. This system runs a version of Microsoft Windows, and is where the code that runs the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are put together. Once they’re compiled, these PLCs are uploaded to the computer that controls the machinery. Stuxnet, from what people can figure out, fiddles around with this code within the Siemens computer, tweaking it as it goes to and comes back from the PLC itself.

This is the thing: No one has seen this kind of thing before. Of course, we’ve heard stories. Only last month it was reported that the 2008 crash of a Spanish passenger jet, killing 154 people, may have been caused by a virus.

But this Stuxnet thing seems to be on a whole new level. It seems to be very deliberately targeted at one factory, and would make complex modifications to the system. It uses at least four different weaknesses in Windows to burrow its way inside, and installs its own software drivers—something that shouldn’t happen because drivers are supposed to be certified.

And it’s happening in real time. Computers are infected in Indonesia, India, Iran and now China. Boffins are studying it and may well be studying it for years to come. And it may have already done what it’s supposed to have done; we may never know. One of the key vulnerabilities the Trojan used was first publicized in April 2009 in an obscure Polish hacker’s magazine. The number of operating centrifuges in Iran’s main nuclear enrichment program at Natanz was reduced significantly a few months later; the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization resigned in late June 2009.

All this is guesswork and very smoke and mirrors: Israel, perhaps inevitably, has been blamed by some. After all, it has its own cyber warfare division called Unit 8200, and is known to have been interested, like the U.S., in stopping Iran from developing any nuclear capability. And researchers have found supposed connections inside the code: the word myrtle, for example, which may or may not refer to the Book of Esther, which tells of a Persian plot against the Jews, and the string 19790509, which may or may not be a nod to Habib Elghanian, a Jewish-Iranian businessman who was accused of spying for Israel and was executed in Iran on May 9, 1979.

Frankly, who knows?

The point with all this is that we’re entering unchartered territory. It may all be a storm in a teacup, but it probably isn’t. Behind all this is a team of hackers who not only really know what they’re doing, but know what they want to do. And that is to move computer viruses out of our computers and into machinery. As Sam Curry from security company RSA puts it:

This is, in effect, an IT exploit targeted at a vital system that is not an IT system.

That, if nothing else, is reason enough to look nostalgically back on the days when we didn’t wonder whether the machinery we entrusted ourselves to was infected.