My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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will facebook learn from its mistake?

As Fred Stutzman noted, Facebook Broke Its Culture this week. In an attempt to provide something that would make people’s lives easier, they created a privacy trainwreck. Earlier this week, they unleashed a feature that notified all of your “friends” of EVERY update that you make. Live. Feed style. Users panicked! Sure, anyone could’ve written a script to do that. Sure, it’s data that’s already there. But not in aggregate. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want information to be easier to access.

Not all “friends” are friends. Sometimes, you say yes to save face but you count on those people not actually being stalkers. They don’t really watch your page with any focus so most of what you put up goes by unnoticed. But not if all of your “friends” are notified of your every move.

As the chaos mounted, people started protesting. Nearly 700,000 joined a “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group. Others discussed boycotting the service or deleting their accounts.

Apparently, Facebook is paying attention to this uproar. It doesn’t sound like they’re going to revert the feature but, instead, let people opt out. Yet, at the same time, they think that people will get used to it. And they are telling their users why they should like it. (Gosh i hate when people try to configure their users.)

This situation is quite interesting. People are taking to the (virtual) streets to object to what the architects are doing their (virtual) city. They don’t like the changes in the architecture and they want their voices heard. And it also looks like virtual protesters can raise a far greater ruckus than the ones in meatspace.

While digital communities are fantastic, one of the issues is that people don’t actually own the turf in which they’re creating cultural artifacts. When earthquakes rattle digital streets, it’s not Mother Nature at work. It’s the work of a Corporation. We all like to think that these corporations have the best of intentions and we rely on them to serve the people. Yet, as Sasha is always reminding me, they are not elected officials, this is not a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. We count on the creators to be benevolent but they can make an earthquake whenever they want and we still have to clean up the pieces.

I wonder what this protest cost Facebook. I also wonder if they will learn from this. (I still have immense respect for Six Apart from the time when they pissed off their users and apologized and changed.) But more than anything, i wonder when companies will start thinking of their users as constituents and think about engaging them before executing major changes to the foundation of their social interaction. Of course, i recognize it’s a tradeoff. Companies don’t want to leak what they’re doing pre-launch but if they change things radically, they piss off their core members. And the core members disengage emotionally because they don’t feel as though they’re a part of the system. Yet, in my opinion, to use Kathy Sierra’s phrase creating passionate users is *everything*. And that means engaging them rather than being as dramatic as Mother Nature.

Update: I decided to respond to myself. Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

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20 comments to will facebook learn from its mistake?

  • Michael

    I am a member on Facebook as well, but I am not rebelling in any form. It just doesn’t bother me for some reason. Personally, coming from the fact that my real life social network is what I’ll call lacking, I don’t mind others seeing what I say or do, I hope that it will perhaps strike up interest in me and get me some new friends in real life.

  • Perhaps the culture has changed, but while it sounds parental, I think it’s seriously for the better. Not only does it allow Facebook’s social network to be more connected (lively), but it also educates students on how their private worlds have never been private in the first place. With employers looking potential applicants up on Facebook, this affords greater user awareness of themselves.

    The fearmongering that exists about privacy via the aggregation of a user’s online trail shows the true nature of the web, that is there are no virtual rocks anyone can hide under. While I’d like to think that the masses of students joining anti-newsfeed groups indicates the honest opinion of the masses, I’m afriad that this could simply be an effect of flocking behavior where friends influence other friends to do the same thing. Such was the very reason how Facebook got popular in the first place.

    Risking overgeneralization, I seem to get the sense that students from the Ivy Leagues don’t mind the change, while the lesser ranked university students seem to dislike it with a vengence. While actual numbers are needed to show this, it would be interesting to see how different user demographics perceive the Internet differently. Any takers?

    My view on all this at http://theory.isthereason.com/?p=1229

  • I’ve started seeing some interesting uses of the news feed. Someone had a general question for their friends in a network, so he posted it as a note and it showed up on home pages like an announcement. Very effective.

  • Kevin

    “…it also looks like virtual protesters can raise a far greater ruckus than the ones in meatspace.”

    While I don’t question the effectiveness of the “protests” on Facebook I do question the evidence supporting the above statement. Dodging the question of whether or not continuing to use Facebook is indeed a protest, I think there is little or no evidence that what happened was more or less effective than if a horde (or even a small group) or users had actually shown up in Facebook’s offices to launch a traditional protest.

  • “…their users as constituents…”

    This is similar to asking when governments will do the same.

    I don’t know if this will cause too much of a long running upheval. Mainly from the standpoint that new users won’t know any different. Mainly it effects current users and there are enough “backup” communities they can go to.

  • Moon-light

    When I am lonely I start thinking and talking to my God Almighty and He realluy helps me out of my problems and tensions .
    I love to have a sincere friend . Do contact me if u r sincere . but keep in mind only sincere persons either male or female.My e-mail address is ehmadjamal@yahoo.com

  • No doubt a hoarde could’ve showed up at Facebook’s office but just a small hoarde can’t really effectively show up in Washington and get the attention of our government. There are structural limitations to the hoarde gathering in meatspace even when they want to. And they certainly can’t mobilize that fast. 700,000 people on the lawn in DC would make a significant statement if they could mobilize overnight. Even better, imagine if 10% of the American population showed up immediately (or whatever 700,000 is as a percentage of the total constituency).

    As for the government starting to think of it’s users as constituents, sadly, i couldn’t agree more.

  • Jared from Subway

    This situation is quite interesting. People are taking to the (virtual) streets to object to what the architects are doing their (virtual) city. They don’t like the changes in the architecture and they want their voices heard. And it also looks like virtual protesters can raise a far greater ruckus than the ones in meatspace.

    Right, right, this is why the the draft riots, the Watts riots, the race riots, the LA riots, the seattle riots, etc. etc. were totally ignored, but the national guard is prying the keyboards out of these ruffians’ hands.

    I think one of the super-interesting things about online communities is how they seem to distort participants’ perspectives as to the actual reach of the participants’ activities. Anil’s example is good.

  • Kevin

    I don’t dispute the immense difference between the ease with which one can join a “protest” group in Facebook and actually organizing a physical protest. But that’s exactly the point – if it takes almost no effort then is it really an accurate measure how strongly those people feel and their level of committment to the cause? I’m not dismissing online “protests” but I do assert that they differ in many important ways from meatspace protests, particularly obvious measures of committment. Those differences are likely great enough that we can’t simply equate the two forms of protest with a simple mathematical formula (100 online protesters = 1 meatspace protester). More simply, the two forms of protest differ qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

  • Isn’t this proof positive that the Facebook/MySpace generation are thick as two short planks? I mean, come on, this news feed is the best thing anyone in the social networking space has done for a long time – it actually makes these sites somewhat usable. If only they had RSS, it would be perfect.

    I’ve just got to say: thank you, Facebook guys, for making my Facebok experience 10x better. Thank you for introducing a well-designed innovation that is making this particular user’s life easier. Thank you for not carrying on down the spiralling path to the bottom that MySpace has done for social networking. The “page” model is dead and has been dead ever since the virtual ink dried on the RSS 2.0 specification. Facebook have almost brought their service to the place where they should have been at least 2-3 years ago.

    As for you boneheaded Facebook users who are protesting a good technological change, do you know what you’ve done? You’ve made it so that technological advances are far less likely to happen in the social networking sphere. How likely is it that MySpace is going to take the news feed view and implement that, despite the clear advantages that model has over the unscaling “go and look at all my friend’s profiles” model, when the last time Facebook tried to make things better, all the users threatened to walk away?

  • From my blog yesterday:

    I just finished re-reading the recent study out of Duke University that concluded that the average American only has two real friends in his or her life. That conclusion comes after a 20-year longitudinal study of people from all walks of life.

    So, what if the Duke folks are better at conducting studies than policing frat houses, and what if each of us has but two friends with whom we can truly influence? Won’t that screw up a lot of well-thought-out business plans floating around Silicon Valley? All those businesses whose hopes are pegged to the value–and volume–of our friendships? But, while it may be hard to accurately measure the volume of friendships in our lives, it is pretty easy to measure the value. Just go to jigsaw.com. Each of your friends there is worth five points.

  • Cody

    Yes, I hate FaceBook. I have to admit, some features are rather nice but I think its pathetic how people are falling over each other to signup with it. Too complicated and lacks alot of simplicity, as well as the fact that its oddly personal and tells you and others things that some shouldnt know.

    I run my own community site, WumbaShare:
    wumbashare.com

    And as you see, I use a simple interface while giving users the features they want at the same time. Sites could get a few pointers from mine perhaps.

  • At first, many would believe the collaboration between LonelyGirl15 and the United Nations is a brillant idea. I too believe the move by the United Nations is a bold effort to raise awareness for the cause. However, I believe that the United Nations does not fully understand the reasoning behind online social video sharing websites such as YouTube. Internet fans are quite sophisticated and it suprised the world when LonelyGirl15 dupped millions of her fans when revealing that her diaries and back story were nothing but a fraud for a bigger cause (acting career). I am a little disappointed with the United Nations move as the video is cute but there is no real heart.

    The entire anti-poverty video produced by LonelyGirl15 also brings to mind the millions of former fans who will have totally shut their minds to any future works of the online star because she literally defrauded us all.

  • I’ve started seeing some interesting uses of the news feed. Someone had a general question for their friends in a network, so he posted it as a note and it showed up on home pages like an announcement. Very effective.

  • adsl

    I just finished re-reading the recent study out of Duke University that concluded that the average American only has two real friends in his or her life. That conclusion comes after a 20-year longitudinal study of people from all walks of life.

  • That conclusion comes after a 20-year longitudinal study of people from all walks of life.

  • I am a member on Facebook as well, but I am not rebelling in any form. It just doesn’t bother me for some reason. Personally, coming from the fact that my real life social network is what I’ll call lacking, I don’t mind others seeing what I say or do, I hope that it will perhaps strike up interest in me and get me some new friends in real life. thank youu

  • thanky ou.. I am a member on Facebook as well, but I am not rebelling in any form. It just doesn’t bother me for some reason. Personally, coming from the fact that my real life social network is what I’ll call lacking, I don’t mind others seeing what I say or do, I hope that it will perhaps strike up interest in me and get me some new friends in real life. thank youu

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