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.