Sunday, February 15, 2009

Facebook's Allure, Facebook's Peril

Many a hand has been wrung and brow furled over the prevalence of anonymity on the internet (e.g. here, here, here), but my experience with Facebook provides a telling rejoinder, albeit not a refutation.

Facebook inverts the usual formula: it's a web forum in which people interact with people they know and who know them. There are exceptions to this --- no doubt many of the accounts on Facebook are faked, and it's not clear how much authentic two-way human interaction backs the currency of a Facebook "friendship" involving non-famous persons and celebrities (smart money says none), but generally speaking, scammers and schemers aside, Facebook is a place where people interact in their existing, real-world social networks.

What's the result?

In terms of accountability, the watchword of one strong strain of the anti-anonymity critique, it fares only too well. Facebook's content is now indexed by google, with predictable consequences:

People are now also able to search for listings from the welcome page without first signing up as a member. Welcome to the front page! Beware of what you air in places like Facebook ... People are losing their jobs over this. Take the Goldman Sachs trader Charlie Barrow for instance. He became addicted and got fired for spending too much of his time prattling. He went as far as adding a warning letter from his employer on his profile. Penn State’s Daily Collegian columnist Zach Good was fired over comments made regarding a cancer fundraiser.
The stakes are high, but the structure of the experience militates against warnings to say only what you'd willingly say out loud in your boss's presence. Whether you sign up meaning to or not, you cull "friends" from all aspects of your life: grammar school through graduate school, previous jobs, neighbors, family, memberships, friends per se, people you met, people who find you via common interests entered on Facebook. Etcetera.

All these "friends" -- and they're all categorized as "friends" without distinctions -- write on your "wall" (more or less the space on your Facebook 'home'), comment on your status updates, and otherwise interact on your space (and you with theirs), in ways that you don't necessarily want your boss to see -- or even all your Facebook friends. What's the proper thing to say in full view of all your "friends," consisting of nearly-forgotten drinking buddies, classmates, your high school girlfriend, your current spouse, miscellaneous siblings and cousins if not parents, your fellow members of the local chapter of [controversial organization of your choice], and so on?

It's possible, of course, to decline friendship requests from people with whom you don't want to interact in ways that you wouldn't want your boss to see; obviously you can take all available measures to lock your profile information from public viewing; obviously you can post only rarely, and when you do, with only the sunniest and most blameless words imaginable.

You can do all of this and more, but it's safe to say if you do this, you're doing it wrong. You're not doing Facebook, you're establishing a placekeeper on Facebook where your profile might be. Many seem to take this approach, and to a person, they're boring the hell out of their "friends" (and friends), and coming off as something of a gutless tool.

What Facebook's non-anonymity piles on in the way of accountability tilts the scales away from what makes it appealing -- the free-associative cross-seeding interaction across all the varied depths and troughs of your actual social network. Facebook reveals that network to be, well, complicated if you're old enough to be logging in to Facebook.

Imagine the possibilities from putting yourself in a big room in which everyone there knows you, but don't necessarily know each other. Imagine the conversations you could all have! You definitely wouldn't want your boss there, and probably not your spouse or parents either. It's not clear the room would not turn to riot.

Update: This video short captures the reality of Facebook really well.

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