Sunday, January 10, 2010

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

I got off Facebook today. I was only on it for about a month, but I learned some interesting things from the experience about the internet and social connections, some of which will help me improve my own social web application (Rakontu), and some of which may be useful to others.

Me and the gorilla

There were three essential reasons I left Facebook after only a short time. First, the privacy issue was big. To begin with, I set up separate accounts for my work and personal selves, which I've read is something many businesspeople are doing. I managed it, but it was an uneasy start, and later I found myself going back to my privacy settings often to check and recheck that I had things properly set. The kerfuffle that happened a few weeks ago where you couldn't log on without being pestered to reduce your privacy was reminiscent of the guilty-until-proven-innocent feeling of just having bought a Microsoft product.

The near-final blow came the other day when a friend said she liked the picture of me somebody in my family put up. I didn't mind it that she saw the picture. But I didn't like being surprised that she could see it. What happened was, I went to my family's (private) Christmas party, and at one point I sat down in front of my cousin's beautiful warm fireplace, and my cousin came and sat next to me. One of my sisters was roaming around taking pictures, and she came up, said "say cheese" and snapped a picture of the two of us sitting in front of the fireplace. That is what happens at family gatherings. It's what we do. It's what everyone does. But having that picture turn up in another conversation with another person in another context, without my having done anything or known about it, was unsettling. I didn't have on my acquaintances face in that picture, nor did I have on my professional consultant face. I had on my sisters face. The event was of no impact, but it showed me what easily could happen in a more serious way, eventually. And it didn't feel right.

I didn't feel I could trust Facebook to help me navigate my real social world. It felt more like I had to fight Facebook to navigate my real social world, because its privacy policy was not engineered for my benefit. Using Facebook was like sharing a bedroom with a very well behaved gorilla: no matter how much Shakespeare the gorilla read, I didn't sleep soundly.

Nobody has only one face

The second reason for quitting Facebook was that I didn't want to know everything it told me. (You know that joke, "That was more than I needed to know!") People tell different people different things. They present different faces to different people. Facebook may have started with one face (college classmates), but now it mixes faces together, or at least it does if people are not scrupulous about setting up separate lists (and most aren't). Within minutes of starting to use Facebook I was seeing things relatives and friends said to their friends and relatives, things that I would never have known they said, things I didn't like, things that made me feel sad to find out that we have so little in common and disagree about so much. You could argue that I should revel in the transparency and argue with people and learn about them and wade deep into the mayhem, but hey - this is the real social world we are talking about, not a game. Some arguments can never be won, and the stakes are high, and I have better things to do with my time.

There are generational differences too. Things that are appropriate to talk about when you are 20 can be inappropriate when you are 80. I remember when I was a teenager "dead baby" jokes were funny. They were taboo and cool and I passed them around like everybody else did. It was fun to say the wrong thing then. But eventually I learned, as I try to tell younger people (but they never listen) that all of the things you aren't supposed to do aren't actually all that fun. What is really fun is finding things you do well and doing them well, and finding people you can love and loving them well. In middle age and with a young child, I could barely bring myself to type the phrase "dead baby jokes" into Google to check that I had the term right, and once I saw it appear in the list I couldn't bear to click on the search button. What matters to people changes. What is fun changes, what makes sense changes, and what hurts changes. And here's the thing: people know better than to smash all the ages of life together. Few grandchildren walk up to their grandparents, swear a blue streak, and poke fun at cherished beliefs. But that sort of thing happens on Facebook every day.

Hey, social media, nobody wants to know everything about everybody. Read Erving Goffman, for goodness sake. If we did know everything, we wouldn't have friends or stay in touch with family. Human social relations are not that simple. I felt that Facebook clumsily and ignorantly reduced my ability to get along with all the different people I know in many different ways. I know many people, but I know them in many ways, and one size does not fit all. Telling everybody everything about everybody doesn't work for real people with real families and real neighbors and real friends and real work.

Obligation without differentiation

The third thing about Facebook is, it sets you up for an obligatory time drain. It is so easy to "friend" somebody you barely know that you end up with social obligations that don't match the relationships. Putting my father in the same list as a guy I barely remember from high school just doesn't make sense. The obligations I feel towards those two people differ by orders of magnitude, but in Facebook it all looks the same. (No offense to that guy - See? I just felt a social obligation to say that!) I found myself feeling socially obligated to review and comment on things people I've never met have been doing, and I perused picture after picture trying to figure out if I knew any of the people in them. I only got up to 25 "friends" so I can see how this sort of thing could take up huge amounts of time. The social obligation to say something, anything, is overpowering.

And it's not the same kind of time drain you get from television or reading. If you turn off Charlie's Angels the angels won't be offended. I'm pretty sure Thomas Mann doesn't know (or at least doesn't mind) that even though I loved The Magic Mountain I couldn't make it through Doctor Faustus. But if you are rude to your old social studies teacher, you feel you have done something wrong. (And when you get "friended" by someone you last talked to at the age of fifteen, what in the world do you say?)

Using Facebook is like having everyone you ever knew in your whole life sitting in your living room and asking for cups of coffee. They say house guests are like fish because after three days they start to stink. What does a house full of Facebook "friends" smell like?

What's good for selection isn't good for commitment

People who want to read this blog regularly are just going to have to read this paper (or Harrison White's Identity and Control) so that I can stop explaining the difference between selection, mobilization and commitment - because the distinction applies to lots of things, like Facebook. (Selection interactions are those in which people make choices, like which toaster to buy or which social group to join. Mobilization interactions are those in which people gather support for causes or ideas, like recycling batteries or buying Macs. Commitment interactions are those in which people carry out tasks in teams with linked roles, like building a car or raising children.)

The original printed "face books" were selection-only devices. They helped people remember the names of people they saw around campus. But Facebook has moved far into the territories of mobilization and commitment. The damage in mobilization is not large, because there is still some degree of distance and presentation involved. However, crossing the line into commitment, specifically that related to families, neighborhoods, and close-knit groups of friends and co-workers, requires different attention, especially to context, boundaries, coherence, roles and rituals. Facebook works for finding people and for selecting new acquaintanceships, though I'm not sure it works very well given the tiny trickle of social information it affords compared to actually meeting people or even talking on the phone. It does not work well for maintaining existing relationships, especially the complex, long-standing, and deeply contextual ones people have with family and friends.

Context is key

Have you seen those funny signs that say "What happens in the garage stays in the garage"? If "unfriend" was last year's word, I think context and boundaries are going to be good candidates for next year's word. I started to do a Google-dregs collection on "what happens in the X stays in the X" - but I had to give up because the number of "X" elements went through the roof. Essentially every conceivable geographical location (Atlanta, Dubai, etc), as well as every social context (kitchen, preschool, library, camp, playgroup, accounting, etc) is listed. I wonder if this is an indicator of a backlash, because I don't remember this joke being this prevalent before. Jokes are usually good indicators of things to come in the social world, especially if they are told in regular conversation. Ironically, "What happens in Facebook stays in Facebook" does come up - but the references are to the fact that Facebook doesn't delete personal information when an account is deactivated.

Look, I loved connecting with my relatives on Facebook. I'd love to have our Christmas party last all year. But a physical gathering has something Facebook does not have: bounded context. At the Christmas party we know we are at the Christmas party. We don't say the stuff we say to our friends. We may make little probing jokes about some of our differences, but we know when to stop. We don't push the hot buttons we know are there because we want to get along. The same goes for every gathering of every group of people happening anywhere. As people go to different gatherings, they know that the hot buttons move around. Some of the things I can say to my family I can't say to my friends or neighbors. When social web applications start paying more attention to these things, they will start working for real people.

New ideas

I said at the start that I learned some things I will use in Rakontu. One thing I learned is that I should move the "quit this group" link to somewhere more prominent. I suppose it's a mark of underconfidence that leads developers to hide the quit button and surround it with a lot of confirmation. We don't want to think people might not like our shiny thing. But people need the fluidity to move in and out of groups and contexts, and they need our help doing that. Otherwise social apps are just jails with fancy icons, and people will behave in them the way people behave in jails: they will turn inward and tune out.

Another thing I learned is that I should think more about ways to make context more visible. I've already thought a lot about context because it's more important in storytelling than in regular conversation. But I should go back and rethink things like better (maybe subtler) ways to communicate the unwritten rules of the space. What is the equivalent of what happens at parties where people know how loud to talk, how to stand, what to eat and drink (and bring to eat and drink), and how much to argue? I'm guessing both the web and Rakontu need more of that sort of support. Maybe we need to go far beyond banners and mission statements.

The third thing I've learned - and this is hard to say - is that Rakontu won't have succeeded until I can invite my family to it. The reason I haven't is the same reason I bought a new outfit for the Christmas party: what I have isn't good enough for family yet. But even if I'm not ready to ask them to try it, I need to think about what would work if I was sharing stories in that context. I am sharing stories in a Rakontu with some people right now, but I have my work face on there, and that's the easiest face to support. I need to at least think about what Rakontu needs to work for my family face, and my old-school-friends face, and my newer acquaintances face, and my neighbors face. When Rakontu is good enough to work for all of those faces, it'll be good enough for the world.

In all I think it's been a successful experiment. I've learned a lot. I hope lots of other people are making the same experiment and designing a new generation of social software that works for people. I think people are thirsty for it.


merlinregis said...

I couldn't more disagree with you.

Example :

- We are close friends
- You come to my place for a supper or whatever kind of get together event
- During the GT, I decide to take a pic of you.
- Have I got the right to do what ever I want to do with that picture?
- Unless you EXPLICITELY take the time to mention to me before I take the picture that you want this picture to stay secret, you DON'T have the right to keep me from having it made into a T-Shirt picture if I want to. Hey I could have one of my house's walls covered with it if I'd want to.
- "I" am the beholder so "I" am the one to decide who when where why and how people see it.

I found it fun to have you at my place, I decided to let people know that I had a GT, I decided to let them know that you were part of it, so I decided to show them that pic. Where,s the friggin problem?

Next time you come to a GT to my place, I'll ask you to come hooded so nobody recognises you in the pics that I'll take.

Come on! Get serious!

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thanks for posting a comment. Actually, whether it is legally permissible to publish identifiable images of people at a private event without their permission is a gray area that hinges on the meaning of a "resonable expectation of privacy." Some people say that if the event is not on public property - a street or park - you need permission from each identifiable individual to publish the picture. Others say you can get away with more than that (though they are generally not lawyers).

But the legality of posting pictures is beside the point. You started out by describing the situation that "we are close friends." I would not BE close friends with you if you posted pictures of me without getting my permission. (Or if I was and you did, I'd be sure to let you know I didn't like it.) Some people feel differently and would not mind. But that's the point: people vary, and relationships vary, and groups vary. Getting along with others is full of nuances and idiosyncracies, and I don't think social software has yet done a very good job of working with the realities of social life.