Tag Archives: Mark Zuckerburg

AboutFacebook

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspapers, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I talked about Facebook’s brave new world of connecting your profile to all the other bits and pieces you leave on websites. I erred, and I apologize.

I thought that people wouldn’t mind the reduction in privacy that this would involve. At least I didn’t think they’d mind as much as a couple of years ago, when Facebook tried something similar.

But people did. And Facebook has been forced to respond, simplifying the procedures that allow users to control who can see what of the stuff they put on Facebook.

So was I really wrong? Do people still care so deeply about privacy?

Hard to say. Back then I said that we have gone through something of a revolution in our attitudes to privacy, and I think I’m still right about that. But I hadn’t taken into account that just because our attitudes have gone through wrenching changes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Social networking—itself only a few years old—has forced us to shift our approach. When the Internet was just about email, that was pretty simple. We might balk at giving our email address out to weirdoes at parties with hair growing out of their ears, but that was no different than handing out our phone numbers, or home address.

But social networking is different. By definition the barriers are down, at least partially, because the network demands it. Networks require nodes, and that means that Facebook and every network like it needs to make it easy for people to find other people—including your folically resplendent stalker.

So already we’re talking a question of degree of privacy. And of course, we insist on these services being free, so the relationship we have with the purveyor of the social network is an odd one: Our investment in it is one of time, not money.

But nowadays many of us value time more highly than money, so we feel oddly possessive about our social networks. It’s not, I hasten to add, that we wouldn’t take our business elsewhere, as we did with MySpace and Friendster, but Facebook is somewhat different.

For one thing, the numbers are astonishing. Facebook has more than 400,000 active users—half of them logging on at least once a day. In other words, for many people Facebook has become email.

This has forced changes in privacy, because it’s impossible not to be private and be an active Facebook user. Unlike email, most Facebook activity is visible to other people. So I can, if I want (and I don’t, but can’t really help it), find photos of my nephew caressing a female friend, something I would have been horrified to allow my uncle to see when I was his age.

In part it’s a generational thing. We adults have no idea what it must be like to surrounded by cameras, transmission devices, mass media—an all-embracing Net–from our early years.

But does that mean that younger people are just more relaxed about privacy, or that they just haven’t learned its value? Much of us older folks’ understanding of privacy comes from having lived under snooping governments, or knowing they exist on the other side of iron or bamboo curtains. Or we read and could imagine 1984.

Or, simply, that we’ve had something private exposed to the public. I once had some love poems I had written at school to two sisters read out in front of the school when I foolishly left them behind on a desk. Since then I lock up all my love poems to people related to each other under lock and key.

Younger people, it’s thought, don’t care so much about this. They grow up in a world of SMS, of camera phones recording every incident, of having one’s popularity, or lack of it, measured publicly via the number of friends one has on Facebook.

This is all true, of course. And while employers may still be Googling potential employees, and looking askance at images of them frolicking, this is going to get harder to do when all their potential employees are on Facebook, and all sport photos of them frolicking.

This is part of a new world where the notion of privacy is balanced by transparency: Online is no longer a mirror image of offline, in the way email was just a more efficient postal service.  It’s now a place that one shares with lots of other people, and to play a role in it entails a certain visibility.

This is both the price and the reward of being online. There are bound to be things we’d rather keep to ourselves but we also recognize an advantage in such public access. Just as people can discover things about us, so can we discover things about them. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. If you have an Internet connection.

In some ways this is deeply subversive, since it undermines the traditional structures of society. A teacher or speaker can be subverted by a back channel of comments among the class or audience to which he is not privy. Reality gets distorted, and traditional dominance undermined.

I was sitting in a hearing the other day where those being grilled by the legislators were maintaining a quite noisy twitter presence that stood in contrast to their respectful tone in the session. Two channels, both of them public, but both of them trains running on parallel tracks. Which of them is real?

Technology is moving ahead, and we’re catching up. But we’re catching up at different rates.

If an employer can’t make a distinction between an employee’s office persona and their, for want of a better expression, their personal persona, then they’re probably not very good employers.

Still, there are limits. The British man who joined a rampaging mob in Thailand and yelled at a passing citizen journalist hadn’t considered the consequences should that video clip end up on YouTube. Which it did and he now faces a lengthy time in jail.

Adolescents who share racy photos of themselves by cellphone are discovering the limits to transparency when those photos spread like wildfire. And one can’t help but suspect that not all school kids feel comfortable with the intensity of digital interactivity.

Which brings us back to Facebook.

Facebook is the thin end of a big wedge. We’ll probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in questioning Facebook’s actions or its motives.

But we’d be smarter if instead of putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks, we took stock of what we really want out of these services, and what we really want to share and what we don’t. I suspect that we simply haven’t done that yet, and so we lash out when such moves force us to confront the new reality: that definitions of privacy and openness have changed, are changing, very radically and very quickly.

The Revolutionary Back Channel

A tech conference appears to have marked yet another shift in the use of social tools to wrest control and flatten the playing field.

Dan Fost of Fortune calls it Conference 2.0 but I prefer the term (which Dan also uses): The Unconference Movement. (I prefer it because anything with 2.0 in it implies money; calling it a movement makes it sound more like people doing things because they want to.)

Dan summarizes what is being billed as a pivotal moment: an ‘interview’ session where columnist Sarah Lacy faces a growing discontent of the audience for her interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. (You can see the interview here, and the comments are worth reading.)

Jeremiah Owyang pulls it altogether and tags it as a Groundswell, which happens to also be the name of a forthcoming book by his Forrester colleagues. A Groundswell, he says, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.”

Shel Israel sees it as “revolutionary in the same way that American colonists wrested power from the British; that Gandhi did it with homespun cloth and boycotting British-supplied salt and in the same manner that students attempted to do it in America of the 60s.”

Tools used: twitter, meebo.

What’s interesting here is this:

Twitter has changed, at least for some people, from a presence/status tool (“doing the ironing in my underwear”) to a communication tool (“@burlesque you were right to slap him. where’s the altavista party?”)

I must confess I haven’t caught up with this trend. When I complained to a geek friend that tweets were no longer entertaining and now more likely to feel like eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, he said that was the point. But it’s not eavesdropping: these conversations are public and, by definition, open to including others.

Indeed, that’s how, at SXSW, a lot of the parties and gatherings evolved: one tweet offering a party in an empty bar attracted 100 participants in minutes.

But we need to recognise this isn’t for everyone. Twitter tools work great for people who share the same interests, or inhabit the same area. And the difference with Facebook here is instructive: Status messages are just that, while postings on friends’ walls can be seen by other friends, which makes those messages social (while messages can’t).

Which is more social? Facebook is a walled garden of trusted friends; Twitter is an anarchic network that allows users to hunt down new friends based on what they’re talking about. In a way it’s more like music taste-sharing sites like Last.fm than Facebook: I join a service like that not because I only want to hang out with the people I know, but to meet people I’ll draw value from via a shared taste and interest.

So what else is worth noting from this ‘Groundswell’?

Is this revolutionary? For those of us who have nodded off in presentations and dull panel discussions that could, for all the lack of connection with the audience, be on another planet, this can only be a good thing. Allowing the audience to participate is clearly a must, and any interviewer or moderator in that format who denies that is wasting a key resource: the audience.

That was always true, but the audience is not passive anymore: They have the tools to discuss and organize among themselves, and, in the case of the Facebook session, to fight back. It can get ugly (at times the video felt more like a mob lynching than a ‘Groundswell’, but after 45 minutes of poor questions, maybe my patience might have snapped too.)

I am not sure this is a revolution on the par of Shel’s comparisons, but there are lots of things happening here. Destructive as it may appear on the video, this is actually an example of collaboration, however chaotic, and alliance-making, however brief, that is social media at its best. A group shared a technology that allowed them to communicate, and they collaborated. The mood of the room could be felt by those present. But the mood defined itself on the backchannel chat (“Am I the only one here who is finding the questions boring and irrelevant?”) and then expressed itself vocally–one individual, initially, but supported by the applause of others in the face of the interviewer’s defensiveness.

I’d love to think that audiences, with their collective knowledge, enthusiasm and, let’s face it, investment in being there, can turn the traditional format of dominant speaker/moderator and appreciative but docile mass on its head. If that’s a revolution then I’m up for it.