Facebook and Techcrunch: the costs of technological determinism and configuring users
When Nicole and I were trying to decide what term to use and how to define it, we struggled with the many misinterpretations of social networking sites. “We chose not to employ the term “networking” for two reasons: emphasis and scope. ‘Networking’ emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers. While networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC).” To our frustration, online dating sites and community forums and other such sites were all getting lumped into the frame “social networking sites.” To clarify, we purposely employed “social network site” to emphasize that what makes this genre of social media unique is the way that it allows people to publicly articulate (and leverage) their social network. It’s a small shift, but a significant one. Some people leverage their network to engage in networking, but many don’t. We wanted to account for this and really scope out what made a specific genre of social media unique.
Folks thought we were crazy. I can’t tell you how many tech folks have told me that no one thinks that “social networking sites” implies that people meet new people. Yet, the moment I walk into any public audience where non-tech parents are present, I’m confronted about how the whole purpose of these sites is to help strangers meet, no? It’s been clear to me for a long time that there’s a divide in understanding when the term “social networking site” is employed. And that has tremendous ramifications for how people engage with these sites and how they are politicized (and regulated).
Well, this curshuffle isn’t over. Today, Tech Crunch reported a brewing controversy over an application that encourages collecting of Friends. An email sent from Facebook to a user states:
Please note that Facebook accounts are meant for authentic usage only. This means that we expect accounts to reflect mainly “real-world” contacts (i.e. your family, schoolmates, co-workers, etc.), rather than mainly “internet-only” contacts. As stated on our home page, Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you, not a “social networking site”. It is meant to help reinforce pre-existing social connections, not build large groups of new ones. If this is in direct contrast to what you expected as legitimate Facebook usage, I apologize for any confusion. This is simply the intention behind the site.
TechCrunch responds by noting that people do connect to people that they don’t know and gives an example of a public figure in the tech world who has mostly connected to people he doesn’t know personally. My co-author Nicole takes up this issue to point out that data shows that most (but obviously not all) users are not engaged in mass connecting to strangers. Fred Stutzman takes this in a different direction by emphasizing that a corporate mantra doesn’t necessarily dictate practice. Later, TechCrunch posted an update from Facebook:
Putting these pieces together, we should collectively experience a massive wave of deja vu. Feel the wave, feel it… cuz you know where we saw this issue before? Friendster. Let’s back up.
Nicole is 100% correct that people primarily use Facebook (and MySpace and Friendster) to interact with people they already know. We know this and that’s why we agree that the term “social networking site” is a bit of a red herring. Labeling is simply political and we believed that it’s better to label a genre in a way that best reflects the practices taking place rather than use a term that signals something that is not dominant. (This is particularly important when, as in the case of these sites, the term is used to create cultural misinformation so as to add fire to a moral panic.)
That said, the categorical term that we use to label a particular site or genre of social media does NOT determine practice. The intentions of the designers do NOT determine practice. The demand of the company does NOT determine practice. In science and technology studies (STS), we have a term for this foolish worldview – it’s called “technological determinism” and calling someone a “technological determinist” is an insult. Unfortunately, far too often, companies take on this reductionist role and expect that the technology will determine practice.
A different approach is the “social construction of technology” (see: Bijker, Hughes & Pinch). SCOT argues that technologies shape people and people shape technologies. Practices are not determined by technology, but are driven by how people incorporate technology into their lives. Technologies are then shaped and reshaped to meet people’s needs and desires. In essence, technologies and people evolve together.
When companies and users fail to hold the same worldview, companies typically make one of two moves. Either they roll with user practice and try to encourage the good and shape the bad. In other words, they adopt principles that connect with SCOT. Or they try to demand that users behave exactly as they think they should. This latter approach is often labeled “configuring the users” (see: Grint & Woolgar). Needless to say, configuring users has a bad rap. This means that the companies are trying to demand that users fit into their box and punish them when they construct the technology in ways other than designed.
I dealt with these issues before with Friendster. [See Etech 2004 talk and None of this is Real article.] I also talked about how Friendster made an ass of themselves by acting like arrogant dictators of practice and how other companies could learn from this [See: Friendster vs. MySpace essay and Etech 2006 talk].
So how does this apply to this situation? Facebook is undoubtedly first and foremost about pre-existing networks. As a company, Facebook has every right to stop whatever behaviors it does or does not like. Banning applications that promote collecting is fair game. That said, there are costs to placing restrictions on desired practice, particularly if it results in stopping a large number (or influential group) of people from using the system in ways that they think are best. In other words, if their “intention behind the site” and what others “expected as legitimate Facebook usage” are in great conflict, there’s a problem. What is particularly interesting is that they then move on to say that “accounts that are used solely for the purpose of applications are in violation of their TOS” as if this automatically implies non-authentic usage. This is quite fascinating because I’m sure that plenty of legitimate users created accounts for this. I know people who created accounts for Causes or to play Scrabulous (RIP). Upon clarification, they take a different tactic to say that users “cannot have more than one account.” It’s not clear if the person deleted indeed had multiple accounts or not, but there are plenty of people with only one account who for all intents and purposes engage in the practice of collecting.
Of course, I’ve always found the TOS restriction against multiple accounts quite dubious. Back in the day, when I was obsessed with structural holes, I did a lot of research on people who held multiple accounts. I was fascinated when I started meeting gay men in Europe who had different SIM cards so that they could decide whether to answer their phone as “gay” or “straight.” I know soooo many people who break this TOS for very legitimate reasons involving the potential cost of context collisions. Teachers who have a teacher-friendly profile and a personal one, local politicians and micro-celebrities who have a public profile (not page) and one for their close friends, professionals who have a profile for their college buddies and one for their more presentable side, etc. Still, it is a TOS item.
Yet, the idea that gameplay amongst collecting only occurs through a game is preposterous. I know many folks who collect… micro-celebrities who feel awkward saying no to fans, teenage boys who are hoping to get as many cute girls to notice them as possible, college students running for student government who want to get the attention of as many peers as possible, etc. Hell, as I talk about in Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8, there are all sorts of reasons why people engage in collecting, not the least of which has to do with status.
OK, so they don’t like collecting and multiple accounts and Apps that encourage them. That’s their right and they can boot folks. But I find it interesting that there’s no room for dialogue or recourse: “Unfortunately, I will not be able to reactivate your account… this decision is final.” That’s where things get very very nasty. People put time and effort into creating a profile in a walled garden and then with the click of a few keys, the company can disappear you in a matter of moments with no opportunity for recourse for failing to abide by its terms and, more significantly, the “intention behind the site.” That’s where Friendster got itself into MASSIVE trouble in their games of whack-a-mole during the “Fakester genocide.” Configuring users, pointing to the TOS to justify deletion, and going after anyone who sees the site differently is a recipe for uh-oh.
Of course, lots of folks have been disappeared from Facebook already. You can piss off a lot of people who lack connections and power, but when you piss off the wrong people, you’ve got a PR nightmare on your hands. And, like it or not, with a blog read by millions, Michael Arrington and his connections are the wrong folks to piss off.