A great slideshow prepared by Google's Paul Adams who works on things like Google Buzz and has lots of research into social networking's users.
There are some fascinating things in there to discuss. I think I'll start with my one gripe:
The problem is that the social networks weʼre creating online donʼt match the social networks we already have ofﬂine.
Everyone being shoved into this big bucket. People donʼt have one group of friends.
People have multiple independent groups of friends. Ofﬂine people have multiple groups of friends that form around life stages and shared experiences.I agree that real life social networks are complex and segregated. You act differently around your friends, family, co-workers and hobby-sharers and many social networking applications don't let you manage these people in the most ideal way. But it seems as if this presentation suggests that you outright cannot even begin to organize your contacts in any meaningful way - which just isn't true. Here's two examples I use daily:
I'm normally not one to defend Facebook, but I'm honestly tired of people complaining about its security management. Facebook's newest update to privacy features makes it very flexible and customizable, you just have to play with it a little. At the moment I am quite pleased with my Facebook settings. You can fairly easily group Facebook friends into groups (called "lists") These groups are particularly useful in privacy settings! I have a few lists I actively use:
My security settings are based around these lists. Limited Profile isn't allowed to see any identifying personal information, updates or my photos; this is for people I do not know but whose stuff I like to read and/or comment on. (The "pages" I "like" of go under Limited profile, too.) Acquaintances are the people I know a little bit but aren't close. They see most of my activities but can't see IRL contact information. Sensitive Family is for when I post things that would potentially offend some family members (or would make me uncomfortable that they see it) - I can change the privacy of a specific post. Small children is the same thing - I try not to let this group see swearing, controversial opinions or photos of me drinking lest the poor things get in trouble from their parents. By default this group can't see anything I post or that is posted on my wall unless I specifically say so. (I'm not worried about getting in trouble and I don't think children need to be protected from things like that, but I don't want my cousin to lose her Facebook privileges because I wrote "fuck" and it showed up in her feed!)
Clearly, one of the biggest social networking tools out there has implemented features that allow users to do exactly what Adams says they should be able to do!
Windows Live Messenger aka MSN and Yahoo! Messenger
On pages 92-93 Adams shows his IM client and comments,
Think about Instant Messaging. People's chat roster contains people they are close to, and people they are not so close to. They are all there, one big group. IM lists are not designing to support different types of relationships.This is only partially true. His following point that you cannot selectively change your display status to certain people seems to hold true with most of the modern clients I've tried, but you can certainly organize contacts!
MSN, for example, allows you to organize contacts into categories (previously "groups") for easy management. You can have one contact in multiple categories, too. You can also invite people to join "groups" which are like permanent multi-way conversations. You can send messages to everyone in a group or a category at the same time - very convenient for organizing events. Personally I only have two categories: "Favorites" (the people I care about) and "People" (the people I know/knew but don't talk to anymore). One could easily create groups like family, strangers, gaming friends, high school, work, etc. Now, it doesn't much affect your interaction with these people, but at least your contact list better reflects your relationships with these people. It's a lot easier to find a specific type of person.
I do know that with Yahoo Messenger you can set a stealth mode on a person and always appear offline to just them, and there are definitely other IM services that support that too. I just happen to use MSN because (surprisingly!) it is exactly what I want.
After praising Facebook for a bit there, I think I need to step back and be critical. I was very intrigued by this statement,
Research on Facebook usage showed that only 8% of users had left their proﬁle open to anyone searching on the Facebook network, and that 64% of users had adjusted their proﬁle to “only friends.”These results absolutely fly in the face of the sorts of things Mark Zuckerberg has said recently about Facebook privacy concerns and social networking usage:
44% take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online 71% change their privacy settings 47% delete unwanted comments on their proﬁles 41% remove their name from photos
Young adults (ages 18–29) are more likely than older adults to say that they actively control their privacy online.
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. (1)
We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are. (1)And I'm sure there are hundreds more quotes along these lines. The truth finally comes out: The user doesn't want to be open; Zuckerberg has an societal ideal he wants to force people into accepting:
Our mission since day one has been to make society more open (2)
The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly (2)
Mark really does believe very much in transparency and the vision of an open society and open world, and so he wants to push people that way. I think he also understands that the way to get there is to give people granular control and comfort. He hopes you'll get more open, and he's kind of happy to help you get there. So for him, it's more of a means to an end. For me, I'm not as sure. (3)Honestly, I'm not afraid of that as an end result. I don't think we should be so judgmental of people and hold others to a high standard we, ourselves, couldn't meet. People are all too quick to forget that their coworkers, boss, children, employees, teachers, etc have "secret" social lives just as much as we do. They're only human! So why do we so insist that they keep these lives secret? Why are we so scandalized to see someone drunk or someone swearing or someone expressing that they're in a bad mood?
The part I'm worried about is the transition phase. Huge social transitions like this are frighting, confusing, and take many innocent bystanders with them. In the end it could be a good thing, but as long as there are fragments of the previous attitudes, people will get hurt. That is why both the user and the tool (Facebook, in this example) need to tread very carefully.
This whole thing actually reminds me of a remarkable novel by Arthur C. Clark & Stephen Baxter, "The Light of Other Days". Spoiler alert:
The wormhole technology is first used to send pure information via gamma rays, then developed further to transmit light waves. The media corporation who develops this advance can spy on anyone anywhere it chooses. A logical development from the laws of space-time allows light waves to be detected from the past. This enhances the wormhole technology into a "time viewer" where anyone opening a wormhole can view people and events from any point throughout time and space.
When the technology is released to the general public, it effectively destroys all secrecy and privacy. The novel examines the philosophical issues that arise from the world's population (increasingly suffering from ecological and political disturbances) being aware that they could be under constant observation by anyone, or that they could observe anyone without their knowledge. (4)
The transition period from pre-wormcam to post-wormcam society is nasty - full of war, divorce, financial ruin, political ruin, the fall of major religions and more. But once society recovers, the world is quite different - arguably better. Everyone is accountable for their actions, everyone understands that everyone else is human. It is a fascinating exploration of privacy and society.
I am not afraid of the end result of extensive social networking - I could adapt to a society that is more transparent and tolerant. Even now in a society that is not transparent and tolerant, I don't mind the idea of my web experience being customized for me. I am fine with - even excited by - the idea of my online behaviors being stored as encrypted data on a server somewhere and having smart knowledge-extracting algorithms deduce things from it. An example I used in a conversation earlier was that I am OK with buying a purse on eBay and a book about rabbits on Amazon and going to Modcloth and being shown a purse with a rabbit on it. The key here is that my personal data is being kept private - my private data is still only being shared between myself and a server.
I am NOT okay with my behaviors being used to hone marketing, to entice my friends to buy or look at things without explicitly doing so, or for someone to find while Googling around. If I haven't explicitly said "This is public information" then I don't want it given to any other human being. I currently do not trust websites that mine users for information - especially Facebook. I purposely stay logged out of Facebook so that when I hit a website that supports a Facebook feature, such as commenting, sharing with a friend or "like"ing something, Facebook has no way of knowing it was me who was on that website.
Social networking is a very intriguing topic and many people could write many thousands of words on the subject. It is interesting from a social, technical, academic and financial point of view. I absolutely agree with Adams' statement,
The social web is not a fad, and itʼs not going away. Itʼs not an add-on to the web as we know it today. Itʼs a fundamental change, a re-architecture, and in hindsight its evolution is obvious.although I disagree with this one,
New technology doesn't change how our brains work.The Internet will never be how it was before, where it was a sort of interactive book. It then took on properties of catalogs, magazines, newspapers, billboards, bulletin-boards, and then produced things that could never have existed before it. The idea that technology both reflects and molds changes in society - and therefore changes in humans themselves - is a solid one discussed heavily in sociology. Changes like this are permanent and as we move forward into the future we'll see the effects of this fundamental redesign of social communication. Hopefully the transition will be smooth and hopefully it will be quick - but since this is something that is completely new we are fumbling around in the dark and are bound to take some missteps. It'll be an interesting few years to come.