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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confused by Facebook

Social network sites have become powerful tools and platforms for all sorts of content and cultural producers. Starting with Friendster, artists leveraged the network capabilities to communicate with their fans. This took on a new level with MySpace, resulting in the explicit creation of artist profiles. Even within the constraints of Facebook, artists built groups and found other ways to collect and communicate with their fans.

Unfortunately, artists are continually learning that when they rely on someone else’s platform to distribute their message, they’re under their control. Friendster did everything possible to discourage bands from communicating with fans on their site. MySpace reversed this trend by supporting artists, generating all sorts of kudos from the artistic community. Unfortunately, Facebook seems to have taken on a more Friendster-esque policy. My friend Baratunde was recently burned by Facebook. In an effort to curb spam, they killed off legitimate uses of mass messaging, silencing those well-intentioned users that adored them.

I am utterly confused by the ways in which the tech industry fetishizes Facebook. There’s no doubt that Facebook’s F8 launch was *brilliant*. Offering APIs and the possibility of monetization is a Web 2.0 developer’s wet dream. (Never mind that I don’t know of anyone really making money off of Facebook aside from the Poker App guy.) But what I don’t understand is why so much of the tech crowd who lament Walled Gardens worship Facebook. What am I missing here? Why is the tech crowd so entranced with Facebook?

I’m also befuddled by the slippery slope of Facebook. Today, they announced public search listings on Facebook. I’m utterly fascinated by how people talk about Facebook as being more private, more secure than MySpace. By default, people’s FB profiles are only available to their network. Join a City network and your profile is far more open than you realize. Accept the default search listings and you’re findable on Google. The default is far beyond friends-only and locking a FB profile down to friends-only takes dozens of clicks in numerous different locations. Plus, you never can really tell because if you join a new network, everything is by-default open to that network (including your IM and phone number). To make matters weirder, if you install an App, you give the creator access to all of your profile data (no one reads those checkboxes anyhow). Most people never touch the defaults, meaning that they are far more exposed on Facebook than they realize. zrven a college network is not that secure. MySpace on the other hand is rather simple: public or friends-only. Friends-only is far more secure than the defaults on Facebook. And public is well-understood to mean anyone could access it (and often this is the goal). But I know all too well that privacy has nothing to do with reality – it’s all about perception. And Facebook *feels* more secure than MySpace, even if it’s not. Still, I can’t wait to see how a generation of college students feel about their FB profile appearing at the top of Google searches. That outta make them feel good about socializing there. Not.

It seems odd to me that Facebook is doing all sorts of things to go against what gave them such strength: group support for people who wanted to gather around a particular activity, tightly controlled privacy defaults, and simple/clean profiles (which have been made utterly gaudy by Apps). I think I’m missing the logic here. ::scratching forehead::

I guess it’s that they’re trying to attract a new audience. There’s no doubt that the 30+ crowd has jumped on board over the summer (although many seem already sick of it). Is that crowd sustainable? Is it worth it monetarily? Is it affecting the college participation?

To all you professors out there… what are your students’ attitudes towards Facebook this fall? Are college students still super enamored with it or has it lost some of its appeal?

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37 comments to confused by Facebook

  • Although the recent focus on Platform (and now search) has appealed to the tech crowd, I think it’s more important to note that it has had the opposite effect on “normal people”. That’s an effect other players can take advantage of. Lots of people don’t like the flood of applications, and why should they? They either take away from the cleanliness (like you said; a major pt of appeal to begin w/), or they increase noise in feeds, messaging, etc. I’ve talked about this “social spam” and what applications appeal to users on my blog.

    Facebook has already become a site that I don’t like using, and I believe anyone who can create a social-network with better core applications (photos, groups, events, et al.) will establish itself as a more rewarding alternative. The strategy Facebook is using is basically eliminating context to appeal to the bigger crowds — Platform covers the long-tail of web-apps.. the feature companies..

    Re privacy: I think “privacy” has always been about the perception of privacy. I think you touched on this when you reviewed FB’s privacy mistakes with the News Feed launch. If I’m right, then MySpace is still a lot less private than Facebook. Facebook definitely does a good job making these distinctions very fuzzy with their privacy “controls”.

    CG

  • it’s overhyped (for all the reasons you mentioned); facebook’s biggest contribution was giving the world a marketing lesson in how to go viral.

  • One reason the tech community may be so enamored with Facebook is because it is one of the few internet phenoms that has yet to be acquired or have an initial public stock offering. I honestly think that as long as the top people at Facebook decide not to go into the realm of public funding, they will be in a constant battle to bring more users and ways to make more money via the system.

  • Amy Strecker

    I don’t think college students are enamored by facebook because all of them have had it for years — it opened up to them 3-4 years ago when they were in early high school. However, I do think they will continue to use facebook because when your priority is searching for, then obsessively checking the updates of people within your school network, nothing out there can compare to the user friendliness of facebook. Even college students, who have hours of free time a day, don’t have the time to individually click on profile pages to see if something has changed. Facebook tells you what’s changed so you know who’s profile is worth looking at again.

    Facebook is definitely not perfect, but for “regular” people users, I think its the best thing out there.

  • I believe Facebook is akin to Apple: technically, it’s a walled garden, but –in Stallman’s words– it makes people be “able to control what is in their machine” because they finally *understand* it. Similarly, to the expert, Facebook has all the bad sides of the locking-in network, but for the user, it feels better suited. I need overall data, but I have seen far more variety in privacy option during my wanderings on the site then on any other SNS: how more toggles and tweaks helped that? Dunno, but maybe finding the tweak you need instead of being undecided about a too broad all or nothing choice was just what the doctor ordered.

    Maybe some apps abuse the default settings, but Facebook has been surprisingly not shy in confessing it was wrong, taping the apps devs on the wrist, changing things, apologizing. And it will go on: I don’t doubt they will try any time soon to make clear how they mean to manage bands. (I’m assuming something along the lines of an “Appreciation Society” Group with alerts or news feed when a key officer wrote something worthy on the wall — instead of “fake” accounts, a hack.)

    Precisely: about hacks –because I think this is the key point– Facebook attempts to be hegemonic (great word) in the sense that they want to make official what used the be hacking, street-innovation, bending the features: for the maybe first time, innovation is both open & legit, i.e. fast & safe. The revolution you started ten years ago, leveraging feeble standards and tweeking narrow minded options, throwing spaghetti’s on the wall and banging on the black boxes, all that draft approach has come to a loop:

    – those who love Burning Man won’t like it so much because they loose they power, but Facebook tries to persuade them that the magic is just here, just not so impressive anymore;

    -those who are not so keen with dodging the bushed will love to have what appears to be guarantees.

    In the end, what could have changed compared to ten years ago? Humility: leaders have learnt to be witty, informal, careless, passionate — but what they drew out finally seems to be apologies. And I’m very happy about that (but I’m an hegemonic smart ass). . .

  • Facebook apps, while–you’re right–not being goldmines, allow even the most amateur developers to bootstrap on to an increasingly dense database. That’s were their power lies, it’s almost like a laboratory for applications of networking and social-interaction. I think this is the reason so many tech people have signed on. Also, their rather heroic and astounding lack of spam. But there seems to be some cosmic law that says when any network get too big, the spam *must* come.

  • I don’t have a problem with making my node on the facebook network also a node on the wider network of the internet.
    I expect it to be another way my connections with interesting people and thoughts will be amplified – with all the emerging value that entails.

    That said, I do understand why some people would NOT want to be involved in that widening. It’s clear from recently successful networks that control over how closed or open your personal group within a network is, is very valuable to many. Think Cyworld (Korea), think LinkedIn, and (usually) think Facebook.

    Seems to me facebook is scrabbling around trying to work out how to monetise its huge community (note this is a community, or series of communities, not an audience). Increasing the potential traffic and page impressions (a result of opening up to search engines) is a very standard interruptive advertising response.

    It’s attempting to gauge success in terms of Sarnoff’s Law: ie The more viewers, the greater the value.

    But it’s a serious under-estimation of the true (Reed’s Law) value being created in the facebook network.

    Examples such as the UK student group who turned over HSBC’s intended bank charges give a pointer to the value on offer – if only facebook could tap it.

    I had the pleasure of dinner with Alan Moore (co-author Communities Dominate Brands, and the man who coined the term ‘engagement marketing’) last night.

    He had just returned from time spent working with Xtract in Helsinki. And it occurred to me that the combination of facebook, Alan and Xtract could prove very powerful.

    A quick snapshot of how great the potential, is demonstrated by Robert Scoble’s 5000-strong facebook group and explained by him in his video about how he gets to know so much about each of his readers – and how much value they bring to him through blogfriends and shared google reader.

    (An aside: Robert’s video is pitched as exclusive content available only to his facebook friends – yet when I add it to my vodpod it seems that content is made freely available outside of the facebook wall!).

    Anyway, I took a look on Facebook to see how I might go about contacting the right person to get the conversation between Alan, Xtract and Facebook started.

    I ended up having to pretend I wanted to place an advert in order to be able to send any kind of message to HQ at all!

    Seems like facebook values its privacy…

  • You can’t fault Facebook if its users don’t know how to use the fine grained control that Facebook provides.

    And I’m curious if you have any firm statistics on what percentage of people leave all the privacy settings on default, or if that’s just anecdotal?

  • danah,

    The start of the semester is upon me, and I brought up Facebook with a large group of friends over a few large bottles of wine. Essentially, the apps are a huge turn-off, though they were fun at first. “Pointless” and “annoying” were a few of the words tossed around.

    Facebook is definitely losing its appeal amongst the college crowd, even as its appeal soars amongst the techies. Tit for tat, it would seem.

    However, that doesn’t keep my friends from updating just as often as they always have. Nor does it influence the still-growing trend of using wall posts to maintain relations- I do it myself on a regular basis. It’s just another way to groom, inevitable as we begin to once again sit lonely at our desks, seeking contact, and always, always always- procrastinating.

    Be well!
    Jenny

  • Michael Lamb

    The Facebook mania in silicon valley is because the VCs have dreams about being 20 and creating a billion dollar sensation. They are living vicariously thru Zuckerberg (dork that he is).

  • the .edu concern is the biggest one for me but so far it still seems really useful to my college freshman in connecting with new friends at school and his high school friends going to other colleges to say nothing of his family at home…

  • I’m intrigued by FB. I see a great attraction of being connected immediately on a level much more than “Hi how’s it going? What have you been up to?”. eg last night here in Aust I connected with a UK friend driving a truck through Sudan. I look at my profile & it’s structure reflects how tend to organise things & shows some aspects of me (as a 30+).

    Techs have always been especially enamoured with empowering technical things & web APIs are hot right now.

    I have wondered about the privacy of application privacy (who gets access to my profile data). This is my own laziness in not spending time to understand what FB privacy truly means. I want to connect rather than spend time in admin.

    MySpace privacy sounds easy & FB privacy may be too complex to be successful. To quote a tech whom I work with: Programmers designing systems often opt out from ‘correct decision’ for users and say we’ll make it an option. Privacy control should be the simplest possible but no simpler. Maybe that’s why FB groups aren’t as well formed as in MySpace.

    BTW: congrats on 10 years of blogging; your connections where none previously existed are refreshing & inspiring.

  • I think there may be a big difference in how Facebook is seen in the US, where it’s old news and my impression is that 30+ people use it in a limited way, and in the rest of the world, where it’s taken off without anyone having the idea that it’s “for students”. In just six months since it started getting popular in Norway, more than five percent of ALL Norwegians are on Facebook. Australia seemed to take off a little later than Norway but may be surpassing Norway now. I assume other countries that I’ve paid less attention too are experiencing similar developments.

    Whether or not US college students continue to be enamoured with Facebook may not matter much if Facebook continues to expand so rapidly internationally. And of course, one of the strengths of Facebook’s networks is that US college students may never realise the huge numbers of Norwegians, Australians and others who are on the Facebook. We can all stay oblivious of each other, locked in our own little networks – only occasionally finding a connection from somewhere else entirely…

  • When I joined Facebook last month, I realized that you could *do* all sorts of things that the blogosphere can’t. Facebook has a movie-rating app. The blogosphere is begging people to start adopting microformats. There’s no contest.

    There’s also a neat poetic justice in the various folks running up against scaling limitations (e.g., Baratunde, 900; Scoble, 5000; Calacanis, bankruptcy). Which is neat because it shows that is not a scale-free network, and thus power-law is curbed somewhat.

    I’m just waiting for my high single-play score on the Scrabulous app to show up in the Global Stats.

  • facebook is way too much cluttered Alsi i really don’t need to be transformed into a werewolf or receive a stupid egg. All I want is to meet people with the same interests that I have and joib them in groups.

    i’m playinga round with orkut and it looks OK

  • Streamlined

    I hooked up with Facebook quite late, but the thing that attracted me was the API and the possibility to develop for it. I started to develop a mobile app, but just before my release FB themself released thier mobile platform. Hours just in the bin…

    Well, what it looks like now is that the API is just a huge set back. I’m flooded in invitation for stupid quizes and spam to join this or that chain-app. So for I’ve not seen many useful applications at all. They are just a huge pain.

    I’m alos VERY disturbed by the lack of security within FB. The worst thing is that it gives you the cense of being safe, but you are not! I have very violent and dangerous enemies (ie. nazis, the situation over here in europe is pretty extreme at some points) so privacy is very urgent for me. I’m walking on quite thin ice as long as I’m a member of FB.

    I probably will resign from FB.

  • I liked Susan Merrit’s reminder that FB is Just Another Social Network. Why is it popular? Because despite all the annoying apps, spam “friend” requests and privacy issues, there isn’t anything else as good with the same critical mass of volume of users, (comparative) ease of use and sense of immediacy. I don’t love it and there are days when I barely tolerate it (the mobile version has some very flaky moments) but compared to LinkedIn, it at least gives you the sense of genuinely communicating with people. It’s like AOL – good enough at everything to make it just about worth sticking with. Of course, when alternatives finally arrived that were a just little bit better at everything, AOL had to move over. It’s still there, still a player but it’s Just Another Internet Portal.

    My money’s on Club Penguin in the long term. Meanwhile, FB is a great learning environment for our organisation and I’m personally enjoying connecting with large numbers of friends/acquaintances I’d thought I’d never hear from again.

    Next year, of course, there’ll be something else.

  • Hi d….important point about the fetishizing of Facebook. I noticed this at a particular high level tech conference, where all the over 30 crowd was running around touting the use of Facebook for business networking. When I finally relented and posted a profile, I didn’t see any clear use for business networking– much of the info we’re requested fill out for a profile has so little to do with my business personna.

    Which made me wonder what the over 30 crowd is thinking. All I could conclude is that for many there may already be a fusion between their personal and professional personnas, and there’s a strong desire to encourage others to do the same–as this, to many, is a sign of career success. Personally, I don’t think the two should be so closely fused because of the impact on one’s sense of self once career-time is over.

    But trying to tell other over 30s about this way of thinking is tatamount to blasphemy. Or at least invites recriminations of immaturity.

  • As far as the techie over-30 crowd is concerned, my personal experience was that joining facebook increased my professional network in a virtual sense, when many folks I had fallen out of touch with scraped their linkedIn contacts into facebook. I don’t know that facebook has increased my personal/professional network, but it has reified it in a way linkedIn and mySpace were unable.

    Whether that reification has any traction, only time will tell, but I am also perplexed at facebook’s loss of simplicity. If I want a social networking tool, I will opt for mySpace; if I want a social network, I will opt for facebook.

  • As far as the techie over-30 crowd is concerned, my personal experience was that joining facebook increased my professional network in a virtual sense, when many folks I had fallen out of touch with scraped their linkedIn contacts into facebook. I don’t know that facebook has increased my personal/professional network, but it has reified it in a way linkedIn and mySpace were unable.

    Whether that reification has any traction, only time will tell, but I am also perplexed at facebook’s loss of simplicity. If I want a social networking tool, I will opt for mySpace; if I want a social network, I will opt for facebook.

  • This is a really interesting post. Thanks…I have a facebook page simply because I find the entire application to be enjoyable. My friends and I use it because it provides an excuse to play online.

    There is some networking, but that’s not the strength of facebook. Myspace is better at that though in the end it becomes The Place for Spam. And that’s a damn shame. The strength of facebook is the simplicity, that it does demand then that one become intentional in communication, purposeful in communication with peers and colleagues.

    As a member of the over thirty set, I do think I get that. And I agree with your assessment. Professional identity and personal identity need not conflate. Perhaps some of us are fortunate enough to have careers that express our personal identity. But most don’t. My point (and I have one) is that Facebook is simply a reflection of the people within it and the product of how they use it. So, if professional folk who feel that twenty-somethings are naive show up, Facebook will reflect that. I know. No surprise there. It’s a community like any other. People at every stage of life, happiness and disappointment will manufacture community as they see fit.

    Bring on the disillusionment!

  • ahoving

    I was taking a pass on Facebook altogether until my grad prof started using it to run the class (last year he used a blog for one, and a wiki for another), so I guess it’s the flavor of the month/season.

    In the future, tho, won’t the kids with all the MySpace and FB profiles at the top of Google be running things and be able to figure out how to “fix” the problem — maybe by releasing little webclenzing bubbles or something? I dunno.

  • ahoving

    I was taking a pass on Facebook altogether until my grad prof started using it to run the class (last year he used a blog for one, and a wiki for another), so I guess it’s the flavor of the month/season.

    In the future, tho, won’t the kids with all the MySpace and FB profiles at the top of Google be running things and be able to figure out how to “fix” the problem — maybe by releasing little webclenzing bubbles or something? I dunno.

  • Steve

    I am not a Facebook user and know little about its details. However, it fascinates me to see the diversity of perceptions of that service expressed in these comments. This suggests to me that there is no longer a unified or even a dominant perception among the user base as to the distinctive “character” of the service. People are there for all different reasons and the “branding” of the service is no longer under the control of its owners, at least for the moment. The future of the service is thus radically uncertain, being at the mercy of the flow of events which is under no particular control.

    This promises to be great fun for observers.

    -Steve

  • I personally loathe facebook because it won’t allow me to fix the year that I was actually born..lol

  • I could not agree more. I have been experimenting with Facebook and frankly I find it all a bit irritating. The games and comaprative analysis exercises are somewhat pointless and do not appear to improve quality of life. I was particularly annoyed by a trashy sponsored item that appeared in my News Feeds this week. Facebook removed it.

    I have set more stringent privacy settings however I wonder how my real friends react on Facebook when I ignore their requests to play “this game” or try “that quiz”. Will they be offended? I do not have the time for those pursuits.

    Facebook is an elegant platform and it has a clean interface however it all seems too cluttered now.

    I just read this item on Twitter Facts. Quote: Messages from private Twitter accounts should be only read by other Twitter accounts that have been approved by the owner of the private Twitter account. I discovered that messages from private Twitter accounts can be read by other users on Facebook.

    http://twitterfacts.blogspot.com/2007/09/private-twitter-accounts-visible-on.html

    Facebook is indeed headed down a slippery slope.

    Cheers

    John

  • the good thing about FB is that you can get your “friend” Baratunde to get someone to build an app that will address his not very complicated problems. all this is just a storm in Russell’s teapot.

    as far as privacy is concerned, you can give whatever information you want. the user is in control. you can be whomever you want to. much ado about nothing up the walled garden path sentence.

  • Rukia13

    Very interesting dialogue!

    FB quickly lost its luster for me (I’m in the over 30 crowd). Those apps annoyed me to no end and the superficiality of it all grated on me.

    Networking with people I’ve lost touch with? Ha! How can you call it networking when, as one poster mentioned, the activities there have little to do with work? How can it be networking if the extent of your contact is to read people’s status updates? Where’s the relationship building in that?

    Danah is completely right in her assessment regarding the privacy settings. FB gives you the illusion of having more privacy settings, but that’s not the case.

    I may have mentioned this in an earlier post. I found that although my privacy settings were set quite high, people I wanted no contact with ever again or people who should not have been able to see my profile, could.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that although you can “deactivate” your FB account, all it means is that you can’t log in. Your profile is still visible and accessible by everyone in the FB network and potentially, the World Wide Web.

    Unless you minimize the information in your profile before you “deactivate” your FB account, you will still be found.

    Streamlined, I recommend you do this before you “deactivate” your account for your privacy and safety.

    ***
    Congrats on 10 years of posting Here’s to many more years of blogging!

  • This discussion got me asking why is FB so popular with 30+ crowd? From my own experience it’s a great way of being connected. My gen is probably the most internationally mobile gen ever.

    We pick and move to wherever the next job is anywhere in the world. In my travels I make new friends and leave them as travel takes me away. My sister, brothers & parents live in different cities in different parts of the world.

    * FB makes it easy to stay in touch in *more ways* than a chat can; & at times that convenient to me.
    * FB means I can be lazy & not pimp my profile UI other than with ‘Apps’.

  • I’m a FB user — and I also use it to support several of my classes. As a Professor I find it a great way to stay in touch with my students, and I am finding several of the applications to be quite useful.

    The iRead application, for example is providing an opportunity for me to set up book discussion groups for my classes AND the added bonus of students showing off the books they are reading.

    I have also plugged in the DivShare application which has allowed me to post my class syllabi on my profile.

    As a marketing prof, I find the issues you raise to be fascinating. I am watching as FB continues to offer opportunities to widen their reach, and to provide ways to allow others to find their service. Again, it’s about connecting. I too wonder when there is a breaking point — it is clear that people can reject the applications and choose not to use them, so there in lies the sense of control that other posters have referenced.

    I think that there is more to come and at my college, at least, many of the students are still engaging around it because it does provide a fast and easy way to see what your friends are up to.

    Elaine Young
    Associate Prof. e-Business Management and Marketing
    Champlain College

  • Cathy Dwyer

    I agree that Facebook’s privacy policy is not as safe as you might think. If you don’t know who is in your “network,” then you don’t know who can see your profile. I have been to presentations attended by Facebook’s chief privacy officer, and they market Facebook as being more private than MySpace. Opening up the site to Google seems to be completely contrary to their “privacy” philosophy. The only reasons to do it are for economic benefit (for Facebook that is). Adding an opt out feature only papers over the problem.

  • jon

    my only lament is that people would take personal responsibility. y’all act like facebook doesn’t have a way to alleviate most of these concerns if only one would read.

  • jon

    my only lament is that people would take personal responsibility. y’all act like facebook doesn’t have a way to alleviate most of these concerns if only one would read.

    [apologies if this is twice posted; i neither saw a notification that the comment was in moderation nor a confirmation of posting]

  • I’m not a keen user of Facebook or MySpace. Perhaps I’m too old. I’m nearing 60. Anyway, some of my friends joined Facebook so when invited, I joined up. Yeah it was fun for a while. I liked playing scrabble with them, but I hate it when a friend sends me something to do and I have to add that app in order to do it. I hate those apps. I don’t want to answer silly questions or draw graffiti on walls. But you feel obliged to do what a real friend asks. In fact I’ve been challenged to ask a question.
    Most of my other friends didn’t want to join. They are certainly not as tech savvy as some of the others and think their identity can be stolen by joining up. After what you have said about Facebook, I’m wondering if they are right! I never write anything on the internet that is too personal anyway. My bank account details are certainly not on Facebook.
    I have a web site and a blog and podcasts and videos to play with, which I find more satisfying.

  • Johnn B.

    I came across an Ad Age article about Facebook this morning.

    Leave it to advertisers to offer some great perspective…

    A couple of interesting points:

    • While Facebook strives to mirror their users offline network, it fails because there are people IRL that would never have an online profile. It remains a place to find your friends who like to create online profiles
    • Demographic data is unreliable on social networking sites because people tend to fudge facts about themselves. If Facebook plans on basing their ad network on user profile data, they need to guarantee the soundness of that data to advertisers. If not, then welcome to the world of direct online advertsing like what currenlty pollutes MySpace
  • angelica

    though i signed up for facebook i am not using it any more because of confusing User Interface

    http://www.ceveni.com/2008/09/why-facebook-is-confusing-and-mess.html

  • SweetV

    um…. i dont know where to start…. i guess i wanna know if it is possible for some one to take the pics and things from face book and fake messages from them to you…. i think this is happening to me … what should i do? please w.b.

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