Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

6 Degrees of Privacy

In Social Networks on May 20, 2010 at 2:18 am

This grew out of thoughts on Danah Boyd’s Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant)

I surfed with her to her aunt’s page and pointed out that her mother was a friend of her aunt, thus a friend-of-a-friend. She was horrified. It had never dawned on her
(Danah Boyd)

(Post expanded, find Danah Boyd’s teenager story in part II)

Not your drab Dilbert job, in the social software industry every release is like a soap opera episode. Watch angry indignation, privacy betrayal, petitions of protest, organized desertion, EFF condemnations, class action and leaked chat scripts – even an ex-girlfriend. Facebook is the new F word, the Evil Empire du jour, the Goldman Sachs of social networks. Concerned bloggers want to know: will Facebook “succumb” to its users over issues of privacy?

What is privacy? Privacy is the button that Facebook pushed. From a social product point of view, privacy is restrictions on the sharing of information about me. When I want to encourage the sharing of information about me, I boast. We are proud of stuff that “builds our brand”; other stuff can stay private. Because, in the tribe’s food chain, one man’s shame is another man’s honor. So while we want to know about others’ opinions and misdeeds (so what did she do? say? say about me?) to score an advantage, we don’t want to let them know about ours (don’t you dare tell him). True, we are committed to keep private the secrets of our blood relations and immediate (say 5)  friends. But as in an inverse Buddhist prayer, when we consider farther relations, we gradually lose compassion and become paparazzis.

So, first: Privacy is social rules for banana fights rather than an idyllic co-existence in Noa’s arc. And my bet is that it isn’t so much that an Alpha has broken the rules, but that the rules are tough to implement in an arc this size anyway.

Privacy is about separation, right? So let’s see how large is the world, and how large is Facebook in it, in terms of degrees of separation. My PM’s mind rebels at the term “small world phenomenon” that we gave to the 6 degrees thingy – our perception is the only small thing in a world that’s 6 degrees to cross. With ~100m users x 126 followers per user,  Twitter is a 4 degrees of separation network. With ~400m users x 133 friends per user, Facebook requires 5 degrees. Dude, we’re living in an experiment. For our limbic system, everybody beyond grand-nephews (3rd degree) is “the others”.

We shout at the TV as if everybody is still within shouting distance as it were just 50,000 years ago. We already were 3rd degree cro-magnon minds in a 6 degrees world, but what if uniting the world is just inviting trouble? What if trouble starts when you cross 3 to 4 degrees, amplifies when you get to 5? Remember, there are only two organizations in the world larger than Facebook, and they’re quite chaotic. If I were Zuckerberg, I would brush up on my Confucius and my Bhagavad Gita.

Discussion of privacy pushes out primordial buttons because it’s really about the tribal rules on sharing of harmful information. See the amygdala overflow! Users rush to their “security apps” and blame Facebook for intentionally hiding the UI. Alpha leaders, who get blamed for betraying a whole generation’s treasure trove of family secrets, stutter. Google’s Schmidt, with his bionic Google charm, came close to insulting an CNBC interviewer on air (“if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place“). Zuckerberg is more collected at classic Alpha prime age, but a theory of “radical transparency” has nevertheless sprouting from where the cornered leader’s adrenaline sweat hits the ground. It’s a miracle, I say.

Back in the 21st century, an interaction designer’s impulse would be to fix the UI (as if one smart monkey, or banana stick,  can fix the shortcomings of our DNA). An attorney would point out useful clauses and bugs in the terms and conditions (Privacy as Product Safety – a brilliant approach, BTW. Using already-existing laws is a sign of the enlightened). A programmer might build an app to “security-scan” a Facebook account (presumably suggesting to Barak Obama to not share anything. Wait, is Facebook behind that app, trying to stop concerned citizens from sharing their opinions?).

(the rest of this blog post was transferred to The Friend of My Friend Was My Mother)

Every time you add a new friend you re prompted with a tweaked “Add to lists” pop-up.
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  1. >Are you comfortable with my extrapolations in the previous sentence?

    No, but because the *best* case scenario is that they’re true (and facebook coders are benign but lame). If they *could* anticipate Jane’s problem and chose to ignore it, they’re plain evil.

    >Some characterize Facebook’s actions as “Outing”, implying they see the bigger picture and understand “friends-of-friends” better than you or me. I’m not so sure.

    Saying that *software* can see a bigger picture than my/your mind can, isn’t such a radical claim.

    > [Zuckerberg:] “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”.

    What?!? I though it was a basic human right. They’re brainwashing us to believe that having geek/anti-gov/gay/etc. identities is wrong, but what it means is “make sure your private life is what your boss/gov/mother expect it to be”. Makes my skin crawl.

    >When we share with Facebook the information of who is a Friend, who is a colleague, we create several legal and privacy issues

    True. Trusting facebook to protect my privacy is even dumber than Jane 🙂 Relations (friends, followers) should be cryptographically protected. The technology exists, but even the word “crypto” became uncool because of this “radical transparency” hogwash.

    Social networking is a cool concept if done safely. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case [yet] in the known socioverse. Ask the #iranelections martyrs 🙂

  2. Has anyone built a Facebook-killer on the Bittorrent protocol?…

    Suppose we replace “Bittorrent” with the more general “P2P”? While Facebook’s architecture is centralized, and indeed “unsuitable” for P2P, it is used to serve user experience that is almost as P2P as the early AudioGalaxy 1.0 with its friend an…

  3. Is the concept of local (geographic) social networking (using Internet) creepy?…

    Two basic considerations are the absolute size of the network (or the hubs) and barriers to participation (several kinds of barriers). But another key point to consider is that we use our social connections to form a hierarchy of good and bad reputatio…

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