Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By Noah Nelson
There's no better way to rile up an online community than to mess with its privacy standards. And yet, as digital networks evolve, we'd better make sure our models for online social interaction are nimble enough to change when they need to. In this three-part series, Youth Radio's Noah Nelson looks at the privacy strategies--and failures--of three of the most influential online phenomena: Blizzard's World of Warcraft, Facebook, and the infamous image board 4Chan. The future of the Internet resides somewhere in the DNA of these three communities. Read Part I.
Facebook's success hinges on the simple thing they got right: people want tools to share their lives with others.
But getting that right hasn't been enough. There's a key dimension to identity that Mark Zuckerberg and company just can't seem to grasp. You can see Facebook's blind spot every time there's a backlash over the company changing how their privacy settings work.
Reduced down to its essence, the point of Facebook is for users to construct a publicly searchable, digital version of their identity. To encourage this, Facebook entices users with tools that let users conduct their actual lives (event planning, text chat, etc.) not just passive digital encounters. And that's where the problem starts: being restricted to one "true" persona flies in the face of real social interactions.
The construction of an online persona on any service is an immense act of self-creation and self-censoring. Because once it's up, it's pretty much there for every and anyone to see. While Facebook offers users a degree of control over what gets out there and to whom, the company can't really afford to be that nuanced with its levels of control. If it did, there'd be nothing to sell its real customers: advertisers and marketers.
This is where the consistent pattern of Facebook's privacy screw-ups comes in: a leap towards compulsory openness (good for revenue) followed by a reactionary retreat in the face of withering criticism (the "social graph" strikes back).
On the bright side for the company, it could be that Facebook has been so effective in creating an "authentic" platform that people want to act there like they do everywhere else-- i.e., differently with different sets of people. Most people either accept those personality contradictions or make a game of it through experiences like World of Warcraft, cosplay and other identity simulations geeks love. [Disclosure: I can explain the difference between Tatooine and Arakis, so don't think I'm writing that "geek" line as an outsider.]
Sometimes it feels like Facebook is run by the kind of people who just can't accept that identity is malleable--who have a visceral reaction to "two-faced" behavior. If that kind of thinking is prevalent at Facebook HQ, it explains why they're not building intuitive, seamless ways to create gradations not just between public and private, but across different versions of a user's Facebook self (short of creating entirely separate profiles, which some users already take upon themselves to do).
Mark Zuckerberg has talked about how the Facebook team seeks to maintain a "beginner's mind," asking themselves what they would do if they were starting the company now. That's got a nice ring to it, and I'm glad to see that California is rubbing off on him. [Disclosure: Cali born and raised.] Yet instead of manipulating the social norm to their business model, it would be better if Facebook began developing some expertise in modeling the norms that already exist. To roll out a new tool that matches what users- with all their complex identities- intuitively expect wherever they go.
That said, a site that lets its users embrace the fluidity of their personas with zero restraint might look like anarchy. Like the Internet of days gone by.
NEXT: 4Chan-- where anonymity, heroism and LOLcats meet pr0n, trolls and identity play.
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