Friday, 17 January 2014

Facebook don't get social

I was a fairly early adopter to Facebook. As a Cambridge graduate I was one of the earliest group of people who was allowed to join in the UK and it helped me keep in contact with all my friends who had gone to live in That London. Over the years I've had a love-hate relationship with it, but my main social media is now Twitter. I'm still a Facebook customer, but you might include my story in the apocalyptic stories of Facebook's impending demise (more of that in a bit).

Fairly early on in my Facebook use, people who I really did not want to be "friends" with, particularly former bullies from school and university, were sending me friends requests. Also, still, I don't want everyone knowing that I'm gay before they even meet me. As a result, very early in my Facebook career I completely locked down my page and adjusted my privacy settings accordingly. You could not find me by searching Facebook.

The other day I received an email from Facebook (an actual one, not a phishing attempt) and now when I log in I get this warning:

This makes me very angry indeed and I am contemplating leaving. The reason given is that I am now find-able through tagged posts etc. And I have found I get some odd people commenting on posts on my timeline because friends with no/few privacy settings have put them there. But I've gone back to my privacy setting and locked them down yet further.

To go back to impending demise of Facebook (the more interesting story is this one) one thing in these stories I find very interesting is the assertion that teenagers stop using Facebook when their parents befriend them and then head off to use more anonymous social media like Twitter, Whatsapp and showing off their rude bits on Snapchat.

Now, to link all this to my anger and the subject line of the blog, for me this is because Facebook just do not get being social and this seems hard-wired into their business. It does not take advanced sociological knowledge to understand we generally do not just have one social identity. As Goffman explored, we have social roles, and we adjust how we present ourselves in those social roles based on the expectations of the context we are in. Facebook, it seems, presumes all social contexts are the same and therefore everyone will want everything known about them. At its most basic this presumes everyone lives a very pure and worthy existence at all times and never engages in perfectly normal social behaviours such as bitching or gossiping.

And this is essentially how I use Facebook - because it's not as public as Twitter I am very careful as to who I befriend and I use it vent in a way that would be wholly inappropriate in a group of people who were not my friends. One way I have increased my use of Facebook is as a member of a group linked to my sports coaching - there we mainly share facile comments about how much we are exhausted/aching after a training session. Slowly I'm letting this people into the rest of my Facebook universe where I moan and make very sarcastic comments which I'd otherwise keep quiet about.

Facebook, at its root, seems to fail to understand how people manage their sociability and social roles in this way. For me this has to be linked to its business model. It is trying to monetise social connections between people and therefore has to make them as transparent as possible. So, to give one fictitious example, a company will want to know that my friend has mentioned them in a Facebook post as a potential employer. They might start targeting advertising at you. But then your present employer might search for your timeline and quickly get you into a lot of trouble.

Compare this to Google's business model. I have an Android phone (in fact a brand new Fairphone, but that's another story) and a Nexus tablet and I use Chrome. Google could not know more about me if they sat me down and interviewed me for hours. In fact the only thing they seem to get wrong, is they pick up on my friends' posts about their babies on Facebook and occasionally targets adverts for baby products at me. I'm oddly comfortable about this. I find the alert on my phone to set off for a meeting quite useful (if not disconcerting at first). Everyone knows Google's attempts at social media have not been a resounding success - every time I log into Google+ my thought process is "wow, this is amazing. But there's no one here". But unlike Facebook they want to know you as an individual because that's what they can monetise. They don't want to force you to be sociable to monetise that. You can't keep a secret from Google, but Google isn't going to tell your friends.


  1. "It does not take advanced sociological knowledge to understand we generally do not just have one social identity."

    That's true, but I don't think it's as common-sensical[1] as you think.
    I don't know how aware you were of the arguments around Google's "Real names policy" when they launched G+... it encountered a lot of the same issues.

    Not having just one social identity is probably obvious to somebody who has, you noted above, wanted to manage who they are out to at certain times... it's obvious to many people for many reasons... but it's possibly not obvious to plenty of predominantly young, straight, white, cis, male geeks in the tech world. I suspect there's an argument to be made that the more privilege one has, the less one needs to manage one's identity.

    Presumably the actual policies are driven for business reasons - in Google's case, having one unique identifier for each person that is linked to a credit card makes it much easier to monetise people; in Facebook's case that is also true, but their business model is also based around "encouraging" everybody to share as much as possible with everybody... This is obviously just intuition, but from how things are handled I often feel that that Facebook is aware of the issues and cynically chooses to proceed anyway, but that Google's people simply don't see the objections. Neither is great...

    [1] Is that a word? It should be.

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