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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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:

To simplify this a bit, users on Facebook cannot have more than one account and creating another account for the purpose of playing this game violates our Terms of Use. We recognize and appreciate that each person uses Facebook based on their own interests and preferences and are happy to see people meeting new friends on Facebook. To ensure users are comfortable on the site and not burdened by unsolicited contact, we encourage users to add people that reflect their real-world connections and create trusted networks.

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.

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12 comments to Facebook and Techcrunch: the costs of technological determinism and configuring users

  • Awesome post!

    I struggle with fake profiles – just as much as I struggle with those who comment and yet do not provide their true online credentials. I am always suspect of those who feel the need to hide their identity when commenting online or being online. This is where I see the power of social profile sites like Facebook and Linkedin – for example if you query my name – Eric Dewhirst on Facebook – you can see that I have friends and you can see the variety of them all. This in a way gives me online validity and thereby online accountability not unlike within a physical social network. I am a strong believer that if you cannot reveal who you are because of possible repercussion then perhaps you should not express your opinion (I know that sounds really harsh and I don’t mean to be). Just as we cannot vote without identification should we be able to comment in a public forum and be taken seriously if we do not say who we are?

    This may in fact be very easy for me to say because I do not live in fear of being outed or work for someone who would fire me because of my views. I may also be naive to say that it is a shame that people cannot really be who they are because they fear who they really are is not acceptable to those that they are trying to interact with. If a teacher at my children’s school thinks that what he/she does after hours is something to be ashamed of I would be more upset that they feel they need to hide who they are from me more than anything else. My point is how much do ones views really count if you cannot stand up and speak them without fear of repercussion.

    I really like reading your work it makes me feel like there is so much more to learn from this new type of social interaction and that someone is doing the heavy lifting trying to figure out and challenge our thinking.

    Cheers – Eric

  • Eric – I’m glad you recognize your privilege. I spend a lot of time with teenagers who must face different ramifications of “true” information about their identity. I asked them why they lie on their profile. They lie because they don’t want to be searched by teachers, parents, college admissions officers. Even if what they put there is no problem, they don’t want to be found or to risk something being read out of context. (I have great examples of innocent material being read out of context.) They lie because they’ve been told that this is the way to be safe from online predators. But more than anything, they lie because true name is not validity in the context in which they are operating. Plenty of them know bullies who’ve created faux profiles for their classmates. They don’t believe that a person’s name is “true” information. In the context in which they are operating (amongst their peers), validity is ascertained through negotiation. They validate phone numbers, IM screennames, and profiles through in-person encounters and conversation that affirms the identity of the person. The name doesn’t matter at all if the interaction makes it clear that this is really who they say they are. This is far more trustworthy than a performed screen name. And far more suited to their purpose.

    As for teachers… It isn’t about shame, it’s about social appropriateness. Teachers are old enough to drink. Teachers date, have sex, and engage in other behaviors that are considered age inappropriate for minors. Teachers know that they must operate differently when around their students than in other contexts, not because of shame, but because of what’s appropriate. Teachers aren’t supposed to express their political views in the classroom. When teachers chaperon school dances with their partners, they aren’t supposed to engage in public displays of affection, even if their partner is opposite sex. The internet collides contexts and while you might be fortunate enough to have a life in which distinct contexts don’t matter, there are plenty of folks who have very legitimate reasons to separate contexts. Plenty of teachers have gotten fired for expressing political views in the classroom. Should teachers’ expression of political viewpoints online be treated as though it is in the classroom? Imagine that teacher is in a school with a large number of helicopter parents who might push the school to fire that teacher should their views be part of public discourse that their kids can access. Wouldn’t the teacher be better off just not putting her or his name to political commentary? Sure, I’m a big fan of people being able to stand behind their words, but shouldn’t that teacher have the right to make a decision that is best for her/him?

  • I’ve never been a fan of Facebook precisely because it is so constrained in so many ways. Also, why fork over what I consider very personal information only to have terms of service changed on me later, or to have a breach, or to be unjustly deleted after all of my investment?

    @Mr. Dewhirst, I obviously disagree about the use of online pseudonyms. While its possible to have abuses, it it also possible for there to be no practical difference between someone who uses a pen name and someone who does not. I have years worth of reputation built up with this sobriquet in various pockets of the ‘net, but see no need to tie it to my real person in a public way. I could just as easily have chosen a real-sounding name that is not too rare but not too common, blended in with millions of other search results, and had everyone thinking it was my real name. Facebook is the only major socially-oriented service that requires actual personal data in practice. Google does not. Yahoo does not. Microsoft does not. Nor do virtually any of the other “2.0” sites to come along in the last couple of years. They all find a way to weed out abusers, and people who value their privacy are happy.

  • @zephoria and @Logical Extremes

    Thank you for taking the time to shed light on the other side of this argument. I think what started me off on the tangent was more than likely due to reference to Techcrunch and for me it is a place/blog where some great points are made by thoughtful commentators and then cheap shots are made from the anonymous.

    I can see how based on your examples there is a need to operate with the cloak of a fake identity so that you can leverage the power of the tools that are out there but keep it to your own chosen group. The Techcrunch article however was arguing that SNS’s and Facebook specifically is not for finding new friends but to connect with existing friends. I think this is a fallacy based on a narrow view of who is using the site and its infancy. If a site like LinkedIn had a lax policy on people creating bogus profiles the implicit trust would break down in a hurry. The same goes for Facebook as it moves from young early adopters to an older demographic using it to re-connect and find new friends the need for valid profiles exist. Over 30% of my friends on Facebook are people I have never met in person – however we connected online – validated each other based on profile and cues of authenticity. I have been friended by people who are clearly not who they say they are – usually women who I don’t know, we have no friends in common, no interests in common and all of their friends are men. Spotting a fake is not that tough because it is done by validating based on cues not unlike cues one uses when you first meet someone.

    However your point is well taken – if I was to take myself back to being a high school student I would be challenged to be as free and open as I am now for fear of the downstream repercussions. The reason why I am fascinated by your research is one of the things that always stands out for me is a piece that you wrote, (dannah), on the changing landscape for today’s teens. They socialize online because they cannot as easily socialize offline – not allowed to hang out at the mall in person because we keep them indoors for their own safety so they hang out online (this is what I took away from one of your articles – that may not have been the message and if it is not sorry about that). My children, (11,10,8) interact online with their friends from school and I do not see them acting online that differently than they do offline. They create bogus profiles for the purpose of getting around the age restrictions – I see the logic and don’t care because if you are not online you are not socially interacting. Perhaps there is the need for a SNS that has the features of Facebook but the anonymity of Club Penguin – you validate offline and hookup only via a known screen name. The problem is you can’t have it both ways because it is in practical terms it is way too much to manage. The reality is that there are those that create profiles on Facebook for the sole purpose of spamming others and the time and effort it takes to weed through all of them is something that Facebook does not want to do nor do they have the resources to do. You contact to many people you get a warning and maybe banned. Add too many friends too quickly you get a warning and then maybe banned. Why do they do this because that is the pattern of those that abuse the system. On our site we have just over 100K members and it is a lot of work to support and remove those that abuse. I cannot fathom having 80 million profiles and having to weed through all of them – it is way too time consuming – so you build tools that do it for you. Sure some get busted having not done any real crime – however the amount of effort to verify if you have done a real crime or not is a real challenge.

    Fake profiles for privacy reasons or fear of repercussions have their place without a doubt. Fake profiles for the purpose of hiding your identity so that you may act in an inappropriate ways is not, in my opinion, worth protecting.

    The line is blurry – however a line needs to be made and the rules need to be clear. Just as comments on this blog can be deleted due to abuse so to can profiles that are used with the intent to mislead with and eye to cause harm – figuring out which one is which is tough.

    In any event I am merely a spectator and admittedly out of my league when it comes to all of this and I appreciate you both taking the time to comment. Your comments educate and for that I am grateful.

    Cheers – Eric

  • I agree that attempting to configure one’s users is generally a losing proposition, but sometimes there are real benefits to having a vision and not prematurely abandoning it before users have had a chance to discover the benefits. I am thinking here of the Facebook News Feed which was originally the focus of quite vocal protests but is now probably the reason the site continues to thrive and keep users engaged.

    Similarly, the requirement that profiles correspond to real, named individuals goes a long way towards cutting down on the annoying and irresponsible behavior that so often clogs more anonymous sites.

    There are some good arguments above for why not everyone can afford the luxury of exposing their real-world identity on-line, but for me the utility of dealing with real people outweighs any privacy concerns I might have. I suspect this is the case for most people as they age out of the experimental period in their life and establish careers that benefit from building a reputation on and off-line. Danah makes an interesting point about how each user can perform their own process of authenticating other contacts, but I don’t have the patience to execute that protocol for each person that friends me on a SNS. If they have a real name and photograph there are, as Eric points out, a few simple tests, such as “friends in common” that I can execute quickly and almost subconsciously. I just don’t have the time or patience to maintain the mapping between screen names and real-world identities. Facebook seems to be designed with the above attitudes at its center. That won’t make it suitable for everyone but I think it does account for a lot of its current success.

  • Kevin Cantu

    There is, as Eric points out above, a significant utility in cultivating an identity that people recognize, in almost any social context. If people know you, your actions are attributed to you, and you can earn a reputation — good, or bad — that people will know and remember.

    Such an earned reputation, however, does not have to be tied to your true name.

    In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for–the stories go–once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer’s true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again… [Vernor Vinge, True Names]

    In most parts of our social lives, we do not make a point of sharing everything with everyone. My boss doesn’t know which magazines I subscribe to. I do not know which boys my sister had a crush on in high school. My best friend didn’t tell me which jobs he was interviewing for. My parents don’t know who I am dating.

    It is simply not proper or polite to expect that on the internet, everyone will share every detail with every person. The simplest way to hide these things is often to use an alias.

  • @Kevin you make a very valid point.

    I should have been clear – I see the need to have a private profile on Facebook and LinkedIn, however the basic forms of identity validation such as a showing you have a profile and have friends provides some value. As an extension I see social profiles as an opportunity for Federated Identity – for example: I know Frank, you know Frank – I don’t know you, however because you know Frank I can increase my trust that you are who you say you are and that if I need to validate who you are I can always ask Frank. Note (Frank is fictitious but it is better than Person X and Y to use as an example).

    If we can leverage our collective social maps so that we can get to know more people and realize that really we are not that many degrees of separation apart, perhaps we can build stronger online communities. That may sound very Utopian – however I am a student of Jane Jacobs and as more physical communities go online we need to get to know each other and trust one another.

    Cheers – Eric

  • The use of the term “Fake” seems a little pejorative – why is Logical Extremes any less authentic (that’s the implication of ‘fake’) as an identity than ‘Eric Dewhurst’?

  • I wrestle with the multiple account issue and think it should be permitted. With all the attention on people’s online personas, they can conceivably come back to haunt you. Plus, I like keeping my personal and professional lives separate, even on the internet. I may have a personal account where I engage in more frivolous activities. On my business account, I wouldn’t do that. Also, my network of friends is different for each, one tracks my professional contacts; the other, family and friends. I have multiple Twitter accounts and multiple MySpace accounts. I should be able to have multiple Facebook accounts too. It’s not a matter of “hiding” my identity, but separating personal from professional, just as I do in real life. If FB wants to claim it mirrors real life, then it should permit dual accounts. OR it should allow “business” accounts the same free range as “regular” FB accounts. I really don’t understand why FB treats business accounts this way, basically cutting their contacts off — which is one of the main reasons to join such a “social networking site,” no?

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