Edo the Reliable

The Friend of My Friend Was My Mother

In Social Networks on May 28, 2010 at 10:45 pm

With the prevailing anti-Facebook sentiment, it’s striking how rare is to find anti-Facebook use cases. This is why I was thrilled to discover one in Cyber-ethnographer Danah Boyd’s self-titled “rant” against “Zuckerberg and gang”.

Boyd’s use case – like others I found at this time – doesn’t relate to OpenGraph at all. It’s amazing how that launched without much controversy. In most cases, users can live with Facebook transferring data to corporations, but they get agitated about Facebook transferring data to friends. I showed something to Joe, and Facebook overheard us and repeated it to Jane. Facebook betrayed my trust! (and don’t you disrespect Joe – he is my 1st degree Friend!)

Danah Boyd writes:

A while back, I was talking with a teenage girl about her privacy settings and noticed that she had made lots of content available to friends-of-friends. I asked her if she made her content available to her mother. She responded with, “of course not!” I had noticed that she had listed her aunt as a friend of hers and so 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 that her mother might be included in that grouping. 

Is this a good use case? Teenagers have been a focus of Boyd’s research, but are not currently Facebook’s marketing focus. Facebook’s 2010 stats show a 900% explosion in the 55+ age group (compare to 88% growth of the 13-17 group). According to some demographics, your typical new user of Facebook is more likely to be a 60 year old male from Atlanta, GA (Jim). An unfortunate incident where Jim inadvertently transferred information to his 30+ daughter (or vice versa) somehow isn’t as shattering as Jane’s example. I’m not belittling Jane’s complaint, but you can see why a single persona might not tell the whole story and not just to her mom.

The Friend of My Friend Is Not My Mother

Now, a girl misses the fact her mother might be reading the wall of her aunt (on either side). Not exactly the condemning use case from hell, but let’s pursue it. Why does the girl makes this mistake? Boyd says that it’s because the concept “friends of friends” is too abstract. Referring to the list of friends-of-friends, she says “Facebook is hiding behind lists“.

If missing the connection between your aunt to your mother reflects a cognitive difficulty in extrapolating 2nd degree contacts, if lists have this cognition-limiting power, doesn’t it also affect Facebook’s designers and the prophets of “radical transparency”? Perhaps they, too, can’t imagine that a “user’s friend’s friend” – that is, a friend of the aunt of the user is the user’s own mother? Are you comfortable with thinking about how a Facebook designer relates to his user who has an aunt who has a friend born to the same father or mother as the designer’s user’s friend?  Didn’t my extrapolations irritate your brain like these riddles where a man turns out to be his own grandfather?

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.

Lists Are Contexts

Another way to explain Jane’s complaint is that she forgot “Friends” can be “Family” because in her real life it’s arranged in separate groups. Boyd noted in the past that “friends” is really a shallow concept, because it doesn’t provide much context.

Facebook, Google and LinkedIn are throwing the idea of lists at this issue. In Oct. 2008, Google introduced preset contact groups: “Friends, Family, and Coworkers“. Facebook only introduced groups of friends in March 2009 with “add to list” action, though it didn’t campaign very loudly for the feature and did not introduce preset groups. LinkedIn launched two preset groups (colleagues, classmates) in January 2010. In May 2010, Facebook is the only major social network without preset groups.

Why? A recent Zuckerberg’s quote opposes segmentation on moral grounds:

The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity“.

This quote has been used to show that Facebook’s CEO has an Orwellian, neo-con master plan. On the other hand, could it be that he’s simply glorifying a temporary limitation to the press?  Let the product manager who has not seen his/her CEO do that throw the first stone.

In reality, I notice Facebook is quietly tweaking its list management tools under the “Edit friends” menu item.  It suggests to users “Control every time you share” by selecting a friends/friends-of-friends/everyone setting, or user-customized lists. Every time you add a new friend you re prompted with a tweaked “Add to lists” pop-up. In fact, the official example for that customization is a Family list.

The Problem with Lists

One non-Facebook witness re: the problematic nature of lists is Google’s own Paul Adams. Adams shows (pic) that if asked to create lists of contacts only 3% of people create a “Friends” list, and 60% of people’s lists have unique names. In other words,

Rushing preset lists may create exaggerated expectations, and may turn to disaster with incorrectly perceived privacy settings. The Work list may also create unrealistic expectations for LinkedIn-level functionality. Facebook will also need to teach users to migrate their contacts and then use these lists.

More issues follow: can users be listed in more than one list? But if so, Janet may still inadvertently get in trouble with her mother. Another issue is: when we share with Facebook the information of who is a Friend, who is a colleague, we create several legal and privacy issues. Have we not created a larger information share by attempting to shore up  the first, individual breach (a Heisenberg paradox of sorts)?

Friend lists (and preset lists) are a vital part of any future social network “privacy controls”.

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