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social sites repurposing contacts

A month or so ago, Cory Doctorow wrote a column about how your “creepy ex-co-workers will kill Facebook,” and introduced what he calls “boyd’s law:”

Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.

I think there’s an important corollary: adding more features and content types to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.

Recent concerns about Beacon are one example. Yes, the privacy issues of an opt-out tool that follows you around from site to site recording your behavior are huge. But there’s also the issue of having this content added to the Facebook at all. Even among my close friends, I don’t want a list of their recent purchases. It’s not something we do in person, and it’s not something I want to do online. A site, though, can cause the same problem by adding content that I share with some people, but not necessarily my current friends. Facebook users presumably friend each other based on the norms for sharing the content that existed on Facebook at the time, adding more content or just changing how Facebook shares the content already there can cause some problems. Some of the content Beacon tried to so forcefully share isn’t that much different than if LinkedIn suddenly started sharing relationship status: you don’t want software deciding to re-purpose one set of social ties into another. For now, Facebook is handling this challenge with extremely fine-grained privacy controls, but that’s a lot of overhead.

The de-placing of facebook
When Facebook was smaller and the bounds were clearer, users had less need of the privacy settings. Two years ago, I had a pretty clear distinction in my head. Facebook was for some social communication and sharing among my college friends and some friends from high school. It had a clear identity, and felt either like a place or very connected to my school as place. I knew who I would “run into” on Facebook, and I knew that the content would be related to college students’ self-expression, communication, and socialization. Within the bounds, it was possible to identify a fairly consistent set of behaviors and information that members were willing to share with each other. Not so anymore. As Facebook adds users and features, it undermines this sense of place. Anyone, including the creepy ex-coworker, might show up. With new features and new applications, I am also less able to anticipate Facebook’s content.

I’m not necessarily criticizing Facebook’s decision to reduce their placiness. Its leadership has decided to trade some of the sense of place for growth, instead becoming an application platform and contact/identity management system. That’s their gamble to take, but I am critical that they seem to be moving in this direction without clearly thinking through some of the consequences for their members.

Other examples of repurposing contacts
Facebook isn’t the only company that has recently re-purposed existing social network information to share additional content. This December, if you use Google Reader and GTalk, Google decided to share all of your shared RSS feed items with all of your GTalk contacts. Your GTalk contacts were already being added to from people you email, so for many users, this exposed their shared items to many people they’d emailed a few times. This decision seems to be based on the incredibly na├»ve assumption that if you share content with some people, you want to share it with everyone you email. One user reported that this “ruined Christmas.”

Unforunately, as Google and Yahoo increasingly leverage our inboxes to compete with Facebook, we can probably look forward to more of the missteps.

Pursuit of places
I do think it’s possible to grow while keeping a distinct sense of place. After purchasing Flickr, del.icio.us, and upcoming, Yahoo! kept their contact lists separate and retained the identity of each property. Some would probably criticize Yahoo! for not integrating their brand, but I think that time will show they’ve made the right choice. It’s also true that managing the separate contact lists is very similar to the overhead of Facebook’s privacy settings, but there are a some key differences: managing your Flickr contacts does not interfere with the sense of Flickr as a bounded place, and you can (at least currently) be reasonably comfortable that Flickr is not going to repurpose your Flickr contacts outside of the social norms for Flickr users.

This also makes me believe that social startups like dopplr and others can succeed by creating a clear identity as a place. Even if Facebook offered better features (and perhaps more convenience) for sharing my travel status and tips with others, I’d still seek out Dopplr for its characteristics as a space — it’s a much more pleasant experience.

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