Archive for » May, 2010 «

Quitting Facebook is pointless?

Over at apophenia, danah boyd writes that quitting facebook is pointless and what is actually needed is for us to challenge facebook to be more responsive.

I find this rhetoric profoundly disempowering. Social movements and social pressure doesn’t happen only from everyone marching to the beat of one drum. I’m sure more moderate feminists told radical lesbian separatists that their actions were pointless too but the movement needed all these different ways of acting to build the solidarities and arguments that it did.

I think danah might be reacting to tech elites who are presuming that because they quit, they will be taste leaders. I think that is crap. However, calling quitting pointless misses that quitting isn’t just about affecting Facebook. Decentering Facebook, we might recognize that:
1) Quitting actually creates time and occasion for other modes of sociality. Making those other forms, in some cases by going back to straight up talking on the phone and in others, playing and experimenting (as my lab did by making LUCIbook with whiteboards). Quitting, then, is an opening to a set of experiments. But you don’t *have* to quit to experiment.
2) If quitting is meaningful and feels good to some people, why deny them that? Why slam it and call it pointless? Why use a position of authority as a prominent blogger to foreclose options?
3) Quitting (and switching, perhaps) seems, to me, a better alternative than hoping FB gets its act together, changes its corporate culture, and starts actually being responsible and responsive. It doesn’t even have to be an anti-corporate mobilization. Frankly, compared to Facebook, Google and Twitter are amazing at being responsive and simple to understand, and they are right there right now, ready to use. This doesn’t have to be about corporate purity, as I noted in my last post about platform pluralism.

The role of feminist argument ought to be deepening our analysis of complex power relations, open-ended possibilities, and agencies springing up in unusual places. It should not be making foreclosing claims about alternate social practices, whether that’s quitting facebook or staying on it.

Tactical Facebook Politics

I’ll begin with a little context. I quit Facebook two weeks ago. Why? I’d taken to describing Facebook is my manipulative, drunkenly gossiping, remorseless friend. Facebook’s privacy changes, confusing controls, and refusal to acknowledge upset users seemed to make it a place of bad faith. I mean, hiding the Logout button under the account tab? Forcing you to either switch you interests to pages or delete your interests from your profile? When I designed user interfaces (UIs) at Google, we’d hire people coming over from EBay which by then owned Paypal. They’d talk about Paypal UI tricks they’d have to design to get people clicking on the $2 insurance policy they didn’t really need. Human factors for deception. These shady UI tricks were popping up all over Facebook. To make things worse, Facebook’s privacy controls are horribly confusing and Facebook has a very long history of fumbling new features by oversharing unexpectedly (recall when Newsfeed first came out, broadcasting old profile edits; remember Beacon). I worked on Web History, Search History, and Google Accounts while at Google and we regularly worried about and tried to design safe, clear ways for people to encounter personalization and data tracking features. It wasn’t rocket science. It was just caring and spending a few weeks thinking about it. Since it seems like half the people at Facebook are former Googlers (Elliot Schrage, Shona Brown, and also some friends from my Google days), I couldn’t figure out how they kept messing it up. Eventually, I decided they just must not care.

So I quit. I joined the ranks of the Facebook “privacy nuts” (as one of my twitter friends put it). I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking a lot about Facebook with Keith Murphy, who hated Facebook from day one and never joined. The half-bakedness of these ideas is completely my fault.

A week later, I laughed very hard at this XKCD comic. I was also thrilled that the comic raises questions about the politics of infrastructure.

I’m not, however, actually coming to see the light of open source. Open source — and “openness” — is only one infrastructural tactic. Open source seems to promise transparency, access, and democratic participation. The obvious feminist question is transparent, open, and accessible to whom? The dearth of women in open source should give us pause, not because open source isn’t a representative microcosm of the larger world but because the relative absence of women points to the unevenness of citizenship in open source modernity. It’s a symptom of other sorts of racialized, gendered practices of technoculture. (XKCD has lovely if sometimes overprotective comments on gender here and here.)

Does open source offer control and transparency? Clearly not to most Facebook users. Does control or transparency even exist? The EFF thinks bill of rights so but I disagree. I think believing in some bar of “control” that users have universal rights to get is like believing in a perfect public sphere in which rational communication and decision making can include all people. In other words, I don’t believe it is possible and pretending it is is dangerous. There’s no universal human who can be expected to have the capacity, access, and epistemological alignment with Facebook to perfectly understand levers the service provides. That’s why I posed the question about whether a command line interface and ability to do database queries would be sufficient “control” in Facebook.

I’ve instead been thinking of it, tacitly I think until now, as responsibility in the Donna Haraway sense (yes, the stuff about dogs…ha). My problem with the deceptive facebook UI tricks is at one level the lack of control but it was also what the UI design said about FB’s intentions. They were trying to deceive us into not logging out, installing pages, etc. You can read this deception as imperfect information and impeding my rationalism but it is more importantly, for me, evidence that facebook is disingenuous to begin with so even if they gave me levers to the UI, I wouldn’t trust what was happening inside the facebook sausage factory, if you will. Facebook further evidences the shadiness in the NY Times elliot schrage response, in their radio silence or “don’t worry!” response to user backlash, etc. By contrast, when Google launched the Buzz service and automatically opted people in, people got pissed and Google said “I’m sorry! Our bad!” and actually changed the code to opt-out and increased visibility of the follower con trols. It’s not that Google got the perfect controls. It’s that they were responsive and responsible (respons-ability is what Haraway calls for as an ethical mode of engagement since we can’t believe in universal rights and figures anymore) when the process of technological change started stepping on too many toes.

Rather than relying on one open platform then, I’m interested in approaches that allow for platform pluralism — talking and being present across multiple platforms that can talk to each other. The unicorn social software Diaspora may allow for this by creating software people can run on their own servers or host for others, more like how email works today with a range of options from corporate hosting to a server in your closet. For me, simply switching from Facebook to a combination of twitter, Flickr, email, phone, and Buzz is also platform pluralism. You don’t have to author software anew to tactically reconfigure it. Articulation work, Leigh Star taught us, is worthwhile and thoughtful practice. Pluralism doesn’t hope for a perfect interface but instead hedges its bets, commits provisionally, and keeps one hand on the door knob.

OMG I missed the singularity?

I’m not sure this magazine means it ironically but the graphic is funny nonetheless.

Via zinc, who posted it in the comments and I had to front page it.

Hanging out with the South Asia/Technoscience crowd

STS/ South Asia : Forging a collaborative transnational conversation

I’m posting some comments made at the Roundtable discussion at the UT Austin STS-South Asia conference in May 2010. Many participants described it as “the best conference I’ve ever been to.” Indeed, the whole seemed to add up to even more than the sum of its excellently designed parts.  Itty Abraham and the UT_South Asia staff  produced this very special event with  warmth and hospitality; the participants then took everything to another level, simultaneously familiar and unprecedented, stimulating and challenging.

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Facebook as a medium to explore privacy issues

Liz Filardi, an artist based in New York, is trying to come to terms with her lack of ownership and privacy of her personal identity on social networking sites such as Facebook. Her work is timely– it foregrounds privacy issues and latent problems in the site, such as recent changes that allows anyone to see who is attending an event and linking Facebook data to other sites such as CNN (see here and here.) In her piece, Black and White, she imagines how a fatal stalking case that led to the first Anti-Stalking Law in California, could take place on Facebook. By logging in as the perpetrator or victim, you discover the messages that could have taken place between them.

Liz Filardi describes this piece:

One of the original cases of criminal stalking in America is retold within the framework of a social network called Black&White, which consists of two mirrored profiles, those of Laura Black and Richard Farley. The website extrapolates on the tongue-and-cheek usage of the term “stalking” to describe the accepted social protocol, a far cry from the original behavior that, in this case, lead to a massacre at a booming Silicon Valley company in 1988. This project points to new and different levels of trust, privacy and social order in our networked society, tells the story behind the first Anti-Stalking Law passed in California in 1991 in the language and structure of networks, and tragically binds together two tormented people, once at opposite ends of an ineffective restraining order.

Black and White:
http://turbulence.org/Works/stalkingsocial/blacknwhite/