Serious Doubts About Facebook

At the risk of becoming an all Facebook all the time blog, which I really don’t want to be, I do have a few more things to say before hanging up the FB hat for the week.

Last week, they rolled out “social ads” which will be so delightfully targeted just at us that we won’t even perceive them as ads, they will simply be information. Lest the lack of nonverbal cues fools you, I don’t believe it for a second, ads are ads and I don’t want to see them.

In conjunction with this, they also announced brand sites where a company/celeb/whatever can create a profile, and then instead of becoming a friend of that profile, we, the mere users, can become “fans” of that brand. Yep, that’s right, I can announce to the world that I am a “fan” of Facebook. Or Google. Or, apparently, Neko Case. Label conveniently provided by Facebook. All I have to do is bite and my whole social network can know.

Part of me wants to applaud them for recognizing the distinction between “friend” and “fan.” Part of me wants to appreciate the movement of “fan” from “weirdo who needs a life” to “person who’s into Facebook.” Most of me wants to scream. Why? Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but aside from the fact that its execution seems so lame (as Rob Walker nicely summarizes), it just seems so crassly tied to the advertising piece. It also seems aimed to supplant groups that form around brands and enable a much more top-down form of brand-fan interaction.

Facebook’s overt strategy — enter their “beacon” script that sends info from “affiliate” websites back to Facebook so they can share with our networks (and themselves) what we do on the rest of the web — is to turn all of its users into little viral advertising modules. See Fred Stutzman’s blog for the best coverage of the privacy implications of all that FB has been up to lately. Unsettling, to say the least.

I have really liked Facebook these last several months. It’s been a great way to keep contact with a wide group of people I really like but don’t generally keep up with very well when we’re not at the same meetings. It’s been playful, professional, and entertaining.

But if I end up feeling like all those friends are just advertising parasites using my friends as hosts, and if my activities are just fodder for targeted advertising, then I’m done. If Facebook doesn’t make it really easy and obvious for people to opt out (or better yet opt in) to the “affiliate” program, then I’m done.

I am deeply concerned about the degree to which we are living our personal lives in proprietary spaces that do not belong to us and in which we have no rights, not just Facebook and MySpace, but also roleplaying games (what do you do when you get kicked of World of Warcraft and that’s where your friendship group all hangs out?). The inability to download my own information from really bothers me. The inability to download or export information from Facebook is problematic. But if my social life is going to be all about sending and receiving ads, I want out. And if being a “fan” is going to be reduced to “providing advertising for” I want out.

We need ways to build business models that aren’t just about using people to sell stuff and selling stuff to people. Human connection is worth more than that.

Is Facebook A Fad?

picture-1.pngThe video is now up from [Canadian public television station] TVO’s current affairs program, The Agenda‘s panel discussion of the future of Facebook that I participated in the other night with 4 other guests. For the first half I listened along thinking “everyone’s got something interesting to say,” but toward the end there Om Malik pulled out the old “people socialize online because they are socially awkward and don’t want to talk to people face-to-face” canard and I couldn’t help but leap into action to combat caricature with evidence. Wind me up and watch me go.

It was a real hoot recording this. I went to Kansas City Public Television, where I sat alone at a table on a little stagey kind of thing, with a cameraman (who was obscured by his massive camera) and an engineer (hiding behind a little wall behind me) with bright lights beaming down on me. Given that, I was surprised how fully I got caught up in the discussion. When it ended, the camera man and the engineer continued discussing the topic with me, which I thought was a neat testament to how engaging the discussion was. The whole thing was a class operation start to finish.

There were several things I would have liked to have said if it had been a longer discussion, like about the need to differentiate between privacy in terms of what we show others on our facebook pages and privacy in terms of what information facebook collects about us behind the scene for their own use (which is getting creepier by the day), and about the fact that there are privacy controls for the former that people can use (so they could, for instance, opt out of being google indexed on facebook), even if research shows that they rarely do use them. Jesse Hirsch makes a point in the discussion about the basic literacy skills needed to understand how facebook affects one’s privacy that’s important and deserved some elaboration.

So if you’re interested in a high quality half hour discussion of the question, enjoy the video [you have to click the blue 'Is Facebook A Fad' tab next to Steven Pinker]. The video could be very useful for teaching purposes too — I know I’ll be showing it when I teach social networks in my Communication on the Internet course in the next 2 weeks.

Update: The video will only stream for 10 days. If you yearn for your own personal copy, subscribe to the podcast here and you can download it.

Internet Inquiry Goes to Press! (and me on TV)

Yesterday my co-editor Annette Markham and I sent the final manuscript of our collection, Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method, to our editor at Sage. The book is targeted at graduate students learning qualitative research methods (participant observation, ethnography, interviewing, discourse analysis, etc), and those who want to consider those methods vis-a-vis the internet. We hope to see it wind up in qualitative research and internet studies seminars, as well as on the bookshelves of internet and qualitative researchers.

It’s based on the premise that there is no recipe to getting it right, instead there are smart ways of thinking through key questions. So what we did was pose questions, have one accomplished researcher explain how she answers it, and then have two other accomplished researchers respond to that response and offer their own answers. Those familiar with the field of internet studies will likely recognize many of the included authors. The initial reviews have praised it for being the only one of its kind, well written, and useful. I don’t know when it will be published or go on sale. In the meantime, here is the table of contents:

Introduction: Making Smart Choices on Shifting Ground
Nancy Baym and Annette Markham

QUESTION ONE: How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects?
Christine Hine
Lori Kendall
danah boyd

QUESTION TWO: How can researchers make sense of the issues involved in collecting and interpreting online and offline data?
Shani Orgad
Maria Bakardjieva
Radhika Gajjala

QUESTION THREE: How do various notions of privacy influence decisions in qualitative internet research?
Malin Sveningsson Elm
Elizabeth A. Buchanan
Susannah R. Stern

QUESTION FOUR: How do issues of gender and sexuality influence the structures and processes of qualitative internet research?
Lori Kendall
Jenny Sundén
John Edward Campbell

QUESTION FIVE: How can qualitative researchers produce work that is meaningful across time, space, and culture?
Annette N. Markham
Elaine Lally
Ramesh Srinivasan

QUESTION SIX: What constitutes quality in qualitative internet research?
Nancy Baym
Annette Markham

I owe a huge thank you to Annette for how hard she’s worked this last month getting this out the door. It’s been a long process.

On another note: Canadian readers can find me on the teevee this evening as part of a panel discussing the future of sites like Facebook on The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  Video should be on their website tomorrow.

What should a middleman mediate?

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote a piece about “Buddylube,” a middleman agency that specializes in making widgets for pop bands:

“The artists need promotion,” Eaton summarizes. “And all these new technologies of social media need artists.” So what if there was “a one-stop shop” — a Jiffy Lube, if you will — for celebrity-centric social media? Since then Buddylube has established itself as a middleman — Eaton prefers “concierge” — between dozens of social-media companies and scores of music stars (well, the Web presences of scores of music stars). Eaton compares the use of these tools with the kind of community-specific promotion that bands have always used — except that instead of putting up fliers in a particular geographic location, the target is virtual: Like offering a “skin” that decorates your Snapvine voice-mail player with a picture of Enrique Iglesias.

There is a bit of an implication, which Walker conveniently uses me to counter, that there is something insincere or artificial about a “concierge” mediating the relationship between rock star and fan, not unlike the Facebook fakesters I wrote about here. The point I’m quoted as making is that giving fans a way to spread your music around to other fans and potential fans is inherently positive. It says to the fan “I realize that you are an important part of my success, and here are some free tools that will give you pleasure and help you fill that role.”

I don’t think audiences expect that everything that comes from a band, or celebrity or — and Walker makes this link at the very end — politician will come directly from the hand of the one it represents. We’re used to publicists, spokespeople and speech writers. And we can do math and figure out that if someone has 10 fans, we’ll probably get things straight from the human in question but that this won’t scale to thousands, and certainly not to hundreds of thousands or millions. There is a real market for middle-people, and so long as there is no deception going on about it, I think that is just fine. It would be far worse to omit the middle people and skip the communication altogether.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which this relationship-moderator market seems focused on filling out forms — fill in the blanks to create a widget, insert your video here to include moving images, add photos here, link to mailing list goes here, etc. Create a street team by signing up here and clicking this link to do this or that.

Once everyone’s got the technology down, they will realize that communication is not just about form, but about how the form is conveyed. It is about style as well as substance, or, as we hammer over the head in our communication courses, it’s about the relational messages that are sent as well as the content messages. Technomiddlemen are getting very good at crafting content messages and so long as not everyone has them, that’s enough. The mere existence of the thing is enough to send the message. But when everyone’s got them, the relational subtleties will matter even more than they already do. Understanding the tone to strike for each artist given his or her fanbase (and desired fanbase) is a sophisticated communication task — how do you speak to the new fan and the die hard at the same time? the casual listener and the devotee? PR professionals, artist managers, and their ilk are generally trained — through practice if not schooling — to speak to crowds. Speaking to crowds while also speaking to individuals and making it feel interpersonally meaningful is an increasingly important task that no technology can solve.