Friday, October 07, 2011

From the academic journals archive - privacy online

Extracted from 'Situating Privacy Online' in the journal Information, Communication and Society Vol 7, issue 1, p100
In August 2000, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released ‘Trust and privacy online: why Americans want to rewrite the rules’, which described the results of a telephone survey. Researchers found that about a quarter of ‘internet users have provided a fake name or personal information in order to avoid giving a Web site real information’ (PEW 2000). Lying came ahead of the two other privacy-protection strategies mentioned in the report, namely email encryption software (9 per cent) and anonymizing software (5 per cent). This report caused quite a stir in the media (e.g. Charny 2000) and even prompted some zealous business executives to argue that lying when releasing personal information should be made illegal and punishable by law.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Facebook to update itself yet again

So apparently there's some huge Facebook revamp happening tonight (Australian time) which is going to absolutely blow our minds. Of course, there's this from the article:
For Facebook, it all boils down to one problem: emotion. Facebook has hundreds of millions of users and spectacular levels of engagement, but it is a platform that has lost its emotional resonance over the years. More and more people visit Facebook out of necessity rather than desire.

Nice PR spin.

As I said in the comments in that article, the issue with Facebook isn't "emotion", it's trust. People don't trust Facebook. And with good reason. Their privacy record is poor, and then there's this stuff, where they diddle about with the interface comfortable in the belief that people are going to learn to like it no matter how much they complain initially (they're certainly not going to leave. Where would they go? Google Plus? Google currently has trust issues of its own...)

I thought I'd give a quick stab at what possible wonderful new features Facebook might roll out that would "make it so you know your friends better than you ever thought you could":

Video chat with friends: this handy feature will automatically make any webcam you have attached to your computer turn on when you start browsing Facebook, and the video feed will automatically be made available to all your friends who are online at the time. It’ll be an always-on feature initially, but there’ll be an option to turn it off (rumour has it the off switch will be under the “account settings->manage friends” option...somewhere...)

Dating suggestor (aka Stalker-Suggest): by simply taking the “interested in” profile setting of a user, checking which profiles of the relevant gender you’ve browsed but haven’t friended, and running a proprietary "face comparison" algorithm over the tagged photos in its huge photo database, Facebook will suggest people that it thinks you might find attractive, and who live nearby, whose profile and photos you might want to check out. Unfortunately a bug in the new feature will mean that any person who clicks the link to browse the suggested profile will find that they can see all the prospective date’s photos, even if they were initially privacy-locked.

I wonder the actual changes will be, if it's just going to be some sort of cloning of Google+'s functionality?

Monday, September 19, 2011

The dubious existence of "do not euthanize me" cards in Holland

From the "rapid response" section of the online portal to the British Medical Journal :
Fitzpatrick argues against legalization of assisted dying. The argument is partly built on quicksand. Particularly when referring to empirical fact, the water becomes turbid.

When he argues that older, disabled people's lives are under threat when a law would permit euthanasia, then he uncritically cites Lord McColl, who apparently has said: "Many elderly people in the Netherlands are so fearful of euthanasia that they carry cards around with them saying that they do not want it." However, an empirical foundation for this claim is not, and cannot be given. To my knowledge, no such anti-euthanasia cards exist in the Netherlands. What does exist is a living will ( the so-called 'levenswensverklaring') which is distributed by the Christian Dutch Patient Association (NPV). In this living will a person can express his or her wishes regarding end-of-life medical and nursing care in case of incompetence. Amongst others, the person may indicate that active life termination by him or her is considered not to be an acceptable option.

It is not known how many people actually have completed such a living-will. Lord McColl's quote is both incorrect and overly suggestive.

Details about sources from this Facebook group do seem to suggest that the so-called "do not euthanize me!" cards are simply the Dutch version of a "living will", and that the talk of "elderly people living in fear" is overwrought, to say the least.

I'm not 100% sure where the "over 10,000" figure from that Facebook group (and other online locations) comes from. Several sources refer to the "Nightingale alliance", but I can't locate any talk of actual figures anywhere on their website.

Euthanasia film on Youtube "Euthanasia: False Light"

Between the scaremongering introduction and the blatant pulling of heartstrings about how much these terminally ill people enjoy life, this film does raise one or two interesting issues. It's helped me understand some of the anti-euthanasia framing a little better I think. Unfortunately it also has a few outrageous-sounding claims about how euthanasia is practised in Holland that I can't readily verify.

The framing I see is simply one of mistrust, specifically mistrust of the medical system. This is fair in that no modern system is infallible. But it seems to go further in this film: doctors are presented as inherently unable to judge the question of life and death accurately, and this seems to be at least in part because subjective experiences of life and death are viewed as inherently spiritual, not medical, concerns.

One recurring person in the film was a doctor, and he raised an interesting point in that doctors are trained to be clinical, and that talking to patients about issues of life and death with a patient require an empathetic approach, not a clinical one. Doctors right now aren't really trained to handle euthanasia very well because they see it in clinical, not medical, terms. Is this true?

I ask because several of the claims made about how euthanasia had worked out in Holland seem a tad dubious. One of them was referenced on ABC show QandA tonight. The claims were (1) that handicapped children are being euthanised in Holland, (2) that some people in Holland felt the need to go around carrying cards in their wallets saying "do not euthanise me", and (3) that an un-named 26-year-old ballerina was euthanised after getting arthritis in her toes, and the doctor who euthanised her said "one doesn't enjoy these things, but it's her choice". A garbled version of the last claim appeared on QandA, saying she was 25 rather than 26, and claiming that the doctor was required to perform the euthanasia (something that I don't think was mentioned in the film at all).

I'm going to have a quick hunt to see if these claims can be verified or not, though I don't hold out much hope. The film itself is fairly short, and is on Youtube. It's two parts, each about 7 minutes each:

Part 1
Part 2

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Your name is not your identity


So many of the claims in favour of "real names" online aren't about the benefit of knowing someone's name, but about knowing someone's identity. Western society has been quite good at conflating the two, so that provision of a name is viewed as equivalent to the provision of an identity.

They aren't actually the same. A supporter of using real names online once gave me an example where anyone would supposedly want a "real names" policy in place. Suppose I was seeing a doctor. Obviously I'd want to be able to see that their real name, not a pseudonym, was on a real degree indicating that they were a real doctor, wouldn't I? My response was that as long as I knew they were a real doctor, I didn't need to know their real name. Your name is not your identity.

The obvious question leading off from that is: how do I know they're a real doctor? And can you know this without requiring the doctor to reveal their name in public? I say that public disclosure of real name has historically been part of the process by which such verification of an identity claim has been done. But there is no reason why it has to be. Your name is not your identity.

Nymwars: is Facebook getting too much of a free pass?

After Facebook went public, in 2008 it faced some issues with its requirement for "real names" that seem quite similar to the ones currently faced by Google+. Take the trouble Elmo Keep (that is her real name) had: Banned for keeps on Facebook for odd name. Or the case of V Addeman (also a legal name): Facebook rejects a man named V. There were many others.

Did complaints about this ever reach the level that they have for Google+?I don't know, but I can't find the huge outcry about it in the archives of public conversation that currently exists for Google's actions.

There are some obvious differences in the two situations of course. Facebook started out requiring real names (enforced through requiring a valid college e-mail address initially), and the culture of no pseudonyms meshed with rather than conflicted with its initial userbase.  The norm was well established and accepted among the established userbase when Facebook went public-access. This is a far cry from Google, who have tended to present themselves as sharing the cultural ideals of the early community of the Internet. In that culture pseudonyms weren't just a routine part of online life, but the preferred method of protecting personal privacy while still being able to effectively participate in public communication. Google's situation feels like a betrayal, which Facebook's position, while still problematic, never did.

Further, a mistake Google made in their handling that Facebook simply couldn't make is to ban the entire Google account of an alleged violator of the "Real Names" Google+ policy. Facebook only offered social networking. Google offered so much more, and their policy was impacting much more than their social networking site. Worse, it was affecting Google services in which a "real name" wasn't a requirement. Using Google's services have been described by some as essential  plumbing of the Internet, which, it is argued, makes their situation different to Facebook. However, it should be mentioned here that according to Zuckerberg's own claims (The Facebook Effect, p144, 159), he intends Facebook to be a "utility", the essential plumbing for Internet communication just like the way the other services have been historically, only better. So this distinction is less of a distinction than it first appears.

Facebook is also rather lacklustre in enforcing their policy. I need only traverse my "friends of friends" on Facebook a little way to find obvious fake names and identities, including a profile that is quite literally the profile of a dog (it's set up by the dog's owners, but everything, including the status updates, is written as if it was the dog itself maintaining the profile).

And of course, the other difference is Twitter. Many of the people complaining about Google+ are also avid Twitter users, which is an effective and popular platform that explicitly doesn't have a "Real Names" policy. For whatever reason - insufficient overlap between Facebook and Twitter users perhaps, or insufficient uptake of Twitter to reach the necessary critical mass in 2008 - the Facebook situation wasn't as avidly discussed and circulated among the Twitter public (and thereby through the broader Internet) as #nymwars has been (or so it seems to me - I could be wrong about this).

So the discussion of #nymwars has focused on Google+ and demands that they withdraw their "Real Names" policy.  Yet for all these distinctions between the two, isn't the current discussion of #nymwars giving Facebook way too much of a free pass?  Sure, there's some writings that say "Google and Facebook" when discussing anti-pseudonym sentiment generally, but nothing specifically directed at Facebook that I can see. If Google+ should be facing criticism and pressure for its identity policies, why shouldn't Facebook be facing the same amount, not just as an add-on to complaints about Google+?

Facebook has done the same stupid things as Google+ previously and with much less public criticism, they have the same obstinate refusal to countenance pseudonyms as useful tools for protecting privacy, so why should they avoid the level of criticism and pressure currently being applied to Google just because they're not fighting for "Real Names" very publicly right now? Facebook staff still believe in "radical transparency", and it's unlikely they'll just stop believing in it anytime soon

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Facebook and its not so radical transparency

"Facebook is founded on a radical social premise - that an inevitable enveloping transparency will overtake modern life" - The Facebook Effect, p200

The author of The Facebook Effect also makes reference to how he routinely heard Facebook staffers talk about "ultimate transparency" and "radical transparency" as an explicit and desirable social goal. Facebook is an attempt to implement this social vision. The wild popularity of Facebook is seen as a vindication of the view that this social arrangement of radical transparency is a good and desirable thing.

I wonder, then, why there are two things that are quite explicitly NOT "radically transparent" on Facebook as far as I know. The first is defriending someone (or as some people I've talked to call it, "deleting them"). You only find out that someone's deleted you when, or if, you notice that you have one less friend than you used to.

The second is refusing a friend request that's been sent to you. When choosing whether or not to accept a friend request, the dialog box offers the choice between "Confirm" or "Not Now" (itself an interesting choice - no simple option of "Deny"?). The "Not Now" option has mouseover text which says that choosing the "Not now" option will hide the friend request. It also cheerfully promises that you don't need to worry because the person who sent the friend request won't know that you've done this.

So Facebook is not only hiding data from the world about one's social choices in certain situations, but reassuring you that this is a good thing. How does this square with the message of radical transparency?

Certainly, Facebook offers privacy controls on many things that are currently potentially broadcastable to everyone. But these could be seen as a stopgap, a way of getting people comfortable using a service until the wonderful benefits of openness and transparency become so obvious that they no longer bother to keep things private and tucked away. The hiding specifically of a connection breakdown or connection refusal, with NO option to broadcast it publicly at ALL, is slightly different.

The particular problem for the ideology of radical transparency is that, in the case of un-transparent defriending and refusing of friend requests, what's being hidden is something which actually contradicts the premise on which the ideology of radical transparency is built. We are inevitably moving towards greater transparency no matter what? Well, this transparency depends on trust, which is one reason why Facebook demands people use their real names - knowing who you're communicating with makes you trust them more (The Facebook Effect,p201, and yes, I'm skipping over a lot of what's been hashed out in #nymwars) What does it mean for this belief if you are hiding the existence of those situations where such trust is not being cultivated (refusing a friend request) or is in fact breaking down (defriending a person)? Aren't you hiding the evidence of the ways in which the "inevitable" move towards transparency has actually taken a step backwards?

I doubt that hiding the evidence of the transparency ideology's failures is deliberate. I am curious if Facebook will ever make the act of defriending or refusing a friend request an action that is as potentially public as creating a friend request, even as an option. I strongly suspect that they won't. People won't accept it because it's too radically transparent.

Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, more alike than you might think

I am finally reading "The Facebook Effect" for my thesis way later than I should have done. In it I find the interesting claim that Mark Zuckerberg is indeed trying to change the world. He believes a more "transparent" world (to use his term) is a much better one, and Facebook in part is a way of bringing this transparent world into existence. The book (admittedly written by a rather sympathetic writer) claims that he isn't really interested in profit and was rather grudging about initial attempts to fund thefacebook (as it was originally known) through advertising. The goal of making money is secondary to the goal of pushing his goal of "radical transparency"

If I had more time, it might be interesting to compare and contrast this philosophy with the revolutionary philosophy of radical openness promoted by one Julian Assange. The rockstar CEO of Facebook and the gadfly leader of Wikileaks seem to have some views about access that might overlap more than a little

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Going through some old material as I write up a brief history of social networking sites in Australia, I have come to this old gem of bad reporting from Today Tonight. I felt like sharing my urge to constantly roll my eyes at what they were saying:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Manuel Castells, the Internet Galaxy andcontemporary Internet development

For good writing on the social aspects of new media ubiquity, it's hard to go past Manuel Castells and his writings on what he calls "the Network Society". In his book "The Internet Galaxy", he distinguished four different groups of people whose cultural values were responsible for turning the Internet into the mainstream success that it is today. Each group built upon and to some extent transformed the norms and mores of an earlier group. The groups, in order are:

"Techno-elites": graduates and other academics who applied the scientific culture of openness, peer review, and meritocracy (judged by technical excellence) to the development of computer communication technology. They came up with the idea of a network of computers communicating via packet-switching, and created the initial technology that enabled this.

"Hackers": not the criminal types portrayed in Hollywood movies, but creative problem-solvers. They built on the techno-elite culture, but made "freedom" one of their paramount values as well: freedom to write software, to change it, to explore how machinery worked. They built and improved the technology that made the Internet work as a space for social interaction.

"Virtual Communitarians": less interested in the technical side of things, they embraced the hacker value of "freedom" as a political and cultural ethic for how online communities should work. They and their values seeded the communities which comprised the social space of the early Internet beyond the initial cadre of academics, hackers, and other computer geeks.

"Entrepreneurs": a somewhat problematic and late-arriving group, they are the ones who sold the public on the idea of the Internet. They created the "mainstream" Internet in the 1990s, primarily by selling the public on the idea of what the future would be like with the Internet, then working to try and bring that future about through speculative investment in Internet start-ups.

There is some significant culture clash between the entrepreneurs and the other three groups, yet the entrepreneurs' money is what makes development of the Internet possible now that the original network has been privatised, and it is the techno-elites, hackers and virtual communitarians who do the work of bringing about the entrepreneurs' vision that he sells to the public.

Does this grouping still hold today? There are times when it feels like the entrepreneurs have become the dominant force in Internet development, subsuming the other groups (and their attendant cultural values of open-ness, meritocracy and freedom) to their overarching goal of "selling the future" (and the attendant money to be made from doing so).

Google+ Nymwars controversy: the short version

Supporters of the Real Names policy of Google+ argue that it provides a safe environment for the consumer of their social networking service, who can relax securely and comfortably online talking only to those people they know they can trust (that's the theory as I understand it, anyway).

Opponents see it as an issue of ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in public online life, something which is not possible on Google+ with their current policy.

So I think it boils down to the question of whether you view the controversy in terms of online business or online politics.

It's online politics all the way for me. I view the Internet in terms of how it can change the world, not how it can make a few people very rich. The Google+ controversy is about a mega-entity like Google systematically excluding people from participation in a public forum. The free speech and privacy issues aren't solved by the business-oriented perspective of saying "don't use Google+ if you don't like it". That answer take some fundamental ideas about liberty that I hold dear - the incredible importance of privacy and freedom of speech - and makes them sound equivalent to carping about the problems of a brand of toothpaste. The issue is a tad more important than that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bishop to child of same-sex parents: "who are your REAL parents?"

On Compass tonight, the Anglican bishop Rob Forsyth was posed a question about a child of a same-sex couple who was asking why her parents were not allowed to be married. Forsyth, an opponent of same-sex marriage, simply stated that he would tell such a child that the reason that they could not get married was simply because that they were not a man and a woman. When pressed a little on how he would explain to the child why he might suggest this about the child's parents, he outright stated that he would inquire from the child who the "real" parents were.

I find it fascinating that in a world of heterosexual adoption, heterosexual surrogate pregnancies, and heteroxual step-parenting, that the adoption, surrogacy or even step-parenting of a child by a same-sex couple could be so readily assumed to mean that the love, commitment and responsibility that turly defines parenthood should simply be ignored in favour of decreeing that the biological parents MUST be the real parents - regardless of how either the same-sex parents or the biological parents actually feel about the child, and even regardless of how the child feels about the same-sex parents. Please stop assuming you know what's in the best interest of a child that isn't yours either biologically or emotionally, bishop, because insinuating that a child's family isn't really their family is not a way to treat a child well.

Homosexuality, gender and disorderly assumptions

There is a belief often brought up by people convinced that homosexuality is an aberration. This belief is that there is some sort of sexual trauma experienced by gay people in their youth that supposedly creates the "aberrant" same-sex desires. Strangely, the way this is presumed to works changes according to the gender of the purported victim. For a gay male, it is claimed that early sexual contact with another male results in the "victim" then wanting to have more sex with more men. But for lesbians, it's claimed that unwanted sexual contact with a male results in her wanting to not have sex with men anymore. This seems contradictory: why do men get "turned to men" by sex with a man, but women get "turned to women" with a man, as well?

I've long suspected that antipathy towards homosexuality tracks extremely well with misogyny. I wonder if this difference in belief about how sexual contact "creates" homosexuals illustrates a more fundamental distinction between anti-gay beliefs about how sexuality is supposed to work amongst different genders?

The distinction at issue doesn't just hinge on gender. There's also the matter of whether or not the alleged sexual contact is seen as desirable or undesirable. However, this latter distinction is cleaved completely along gender lines: gay men are always presented as finding the sexual contact with a man that supposedly "turned" them as desirable, while lesbians are always presented as find the sexual contact with a man that supposedly "turned" them as undesirable?

What does this say about anti-gay assumptions of how male and female sexuality "innately" function?

Are men - all men - expected to never turn down sex, or to never find sex undesirable? My own informal research has found two contradictory ideas about male on male sexual advances: first, men tend to think that a man examining another man in a sexual way is not as morally problematic as a man examining a woman in the same way; but second, men tend to think that a man sexually examining their own self in a sexual way can be a justification for reacting aggressively or even violently. The difference between the expectation and the personal reality of how men ought to react to sexual advances when the advance is coming from a man seems to create a certain amount of internal tension.

As for women, lesbianism in this case could be taken as a problematic adjustment to the Victorian-era assumption that women find sex unpleasant. However, in terms of "turning" a woman gay, there also seems to be fault laid at the feet of men. The problematic attitude towards which gender is to "blame" for lesbianism can be seen in the contradictory ways of "fixing" it. There's the disturbing concept of "corrective rape", and then there's the concept that women just need a relationship with a man who doesn't hurt them. Obviously the preferred method of "correction" indicates certain attitudes about the proper sexual role of women (although it should be noted that in both cases it is assumed that it is the man's responsibility to provide the "correction").

I don't think condemnation of homosexuality can be properly addressed until it's understood as a symptom of a much deeper social issue: that of crisis and uncertainty about contemporary gender roles. Even if much of the above turns out to be totally wrong (and it very easily could be), I would hope that it at least indicates that there are a lot of underlying issues around gender and sex that need to be addressed if the lives and welfare of LGBT people are to effectively protected.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Invite-only a good thing for Google+?

My complaint yesterday about Google making their new social networking site invite-only got some flak elsewhere about being too dismissive of the usefulness of the invite-only beta-testing phase of Google+. It does make sense for a software product of any kind to be thoroughly tested for bugs before being released to the general public, and I could very well have been quite wrong about an initial closed-off phase being bad for social networking sites. The obvious counter-example is the most popular social networking site now in existence, namely Facebook. It started out being closed off to everyone except college/university students.

But that comparison points out the fundamental difference in the approach between Facebook and Google. Facebook limited its initial clientele according to social characteristics of the potential clientele: whether they were in school or not. Google's invites are being targeted, initially, at web developers, not because of any social characteristics of the web developer population but because of technical considerations: so they can debug the technical mechanics of the platform. This may mean that an initial, inter-connected and identifiable social segment of the larger population will indeed populate Google+ and thereby make it useful, so that Google+ becomes the social network of choice for tech-heads, but I still think it will be the success or failure of that initial population seeding, not any considerations of technical polish, that will set the trajectory for whether Google+ succeeds or fails.

As for the importance of debugging: it's probably not a pleasant thing for a tech developer to hear that the quality of their technical work is not actually all that important in people's decisions about what technology to use, but the entire history of technology for the masses seems to suggest that crappy-but-accessible eventually beats out polished-but-inaccessible most times: PC beat out Mac, DOS beat out OS/2, Microsoft Windows beat out everything else. This is just as true for social networking sites as for anything else. After all, nobody used Myspace because it was so well designed and so unlikely to error out. True, the much more cleanly laid out Facebook eventually superseded it, but Facebook's rise coincided with the rolling out of Facebook apps, which were still quite an attractive draw for the masses even when they (a) messed up the formerly clean layout of Facebook profiles, and (b)would initially error out as often as not. Unless there are parts of the Google+ site that currently flat out fail to function at all, then I think the potential bugginess of the platform isn't nearly as big an issue for the masses as the average tech developer might think it is.

So I could well be wrong about why I think being invite-only is a bad idea for Google+ as it currently stands, but as yet I'm not fully convinced.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Software Engineering vs the Sociotechnical: a Google Plus Post

I have not been able to get my hands on an invite to Google Plus, Google's latest attempt to create a viable Facebook competitor. My only perspective to date has been from the video reviews that are now popping up on Youtube. This one, for example:.
From what I can see, Google has basically copied almost of all of Facebook's functionality, page layout and all, then added some of its own distinguishing features. These features are "circles", "hangouts" and "sparks". Looking at what they're trying to do, I'm uncertain if Google is fully understanding what they are trying to build: not just a technological platform for social communication, but a social world in itself.

The obvious first problem is making the thing invite-only. Part of Facebook's current appeal is that everybody is on there. In fact, part of the appeal of any social networking site is that other people are on there. According to Metcalfe's Law, the growth of value on a communication network grows exponentially in relation to the growth in the number of people who are on the network. Sure, Gogle Plus is in beta, and from an engineering perspective, it makes sense to only let potential debuggers on there first. But the engineering perspective is the wrong perspective to have.

In my area of study, the terminology for an approach that regards things in terms of both their social and technological factors is "sociotechnical". And I think in this case, the sociotechnical approach says: don't create an online social platform that depends on having as many people on it as possible in order for it to work most effectively, and then tell the vast majority of people that potentially want in on it that they're not invited.

The three highly-marketed new features of Google Plus (circles, hangouts and sparks) can be interpreted as new sociotechnical processes for communication. Before going into analysis of those new processes, I need to do a brief foray into some communication theory and how it relates to Facebook. Communication can be categorised in a number of ways. The divides I'm going to use are (1) "discursive" versus "presentational" forms of communication, and (2) "phatic" versus "informational" forms of communication.

Discursive communication generally refers to written and spoken language, usually thought of as privileging logic and rationality. Presentational communication generally refers to visual and aural pictures and sounds, usually thought of as privileging emotion and feeling. Presentational communication can generally be absorbed much faster and more fully than discursive communication (you can literally take it all in with a glance), but discursive communication tends to be more complete and more detailed.

Phatic communication refers to communication that cements social bonds: the actual content of the communication is irrelevant to the purpose of publicly creating and reinforcing the social bonds between individuals. danah boyd has called this kind of communication "social grooming". Informational communication refers, obviously, to communication that has informational content. These two categories are not mutually exclusive. However, phatic communication with little informational content is very efficient compared to any kind of communication with a great deal of informational content.

In a world where less and less time is available to communicate with more and more people, the speed and efficiency of presentational and phatic communication are preferable to the slower forms of discursive and informational communication. This can be seen in the evolution of Internet technologies, from Usenet groups to blogging to social networking to microblogging: each one enables more and more communication to be done with less and less discursive and informational content. Social networking in general, and Facebook in particular, maintain their continuing appeal due to their privileging of presentational and phatic communication. For the average user, Facebook status updates, comments, and especially "likes", are a quick way to use phatic communication to efficiently maintain social bonds with their hundreds to thousands of online "friends". But probably more important is the time and effort that's been put into making the Facebook website as oriented to presentational communication as possible: everything is highly visually-oriented rather than text-oriented (with certain obvious exceptions; more on that later). Indeed, the "killer app" of Facebook is most likely the photo gallery facility. It is here that friends can share visual representations of times and events spent together, ostensibly with a great deal of privacy as well.

Which brings us to Google Plus and its new features. With their first feature, "circles", Google has taken an obvious swipe at Facebook's...shall we say, "un-nuanced" approach to privacy. In Facebook, the ability to create and maintain different groups with different sharing settings is present, but not particularly pleasant: you create the group and, one by one, type in the names of friends you want to add to it. Assigning the correct permissions to the correct groups is also a chore, I've been told. Google Plus' approach has made the process much more visually oriented: group assignment is drag-and-drop over a visual map of all available circles, not just manual assignment to one group at a time. This process will make group maintenance much easier.

Whether the circles feature will make discrete group sharing more useful is another qeustion altogether. Part of the problem with all attempts to do this sort of thing online is that the attempt to mimic contextual sharing as it exists offline (where you're willing to share some things with some people, but not others) is by its very nature very difficult to replicate online: offline, the separation of context exists by default; online, the separation is something that must be actively created and constantly maintained. This constant requirement to expend effort to keep the contexts separate online is the true obstacle to effective implementation of conextual privacy online, not just an easier ability to create and maintain the existence of different sharing groups. Does Google Plus make this effort easier somehow? I don't see how it does.

Moving on, "hangouts" isn't a particularly revolutionary breakthrough. It's Facebook chat, but video chat instead of text chat. Facebook in fact is going this way too, with Skype soon to supply such chat on Facebook. What is different, but doesn't yet seem to be implemented, is apparently the ability to have multiple people chatting over video simultaneously.

Facebook chat is probably the most glaring exception to the preference for presentational over discursive communication on the Facebook platform. Chat is text-based. It conceals a lot of the emotive content that would occur over a video-type chat. Some people actually prefer this, as it allows them to exert much greater control over their online persona and online communications: there is no requirement to be always and immediately emotionally available to the people that they're chattting with, and there is the opportunity to take time to think about and consciously craft their communication with others. Video chat would eliminate these perceived advantages. Of course, for people who find text chat distasteful precisely because it lacks the emotive content of face to face communication, they would most likely prefer the video option (assuming they have the technology to make use of it: many people still don't have cameras connected to computers). From an engineering perspective, Google has the nous and framework to easily implement video chat thanks to their work on Google Talk. From a sociotechnical perpsective, it's not a bad thing either, but only if text chat is still available alongside video chat. Is it? I'm honestly not sure.

Finally, "sparks" are a new idea to apply to social networking sites. The idea seems to be to try and use interests and the like to try and stimulate conversation among friends who want to talk about that interest (or event, or person, or object). It actually seems to be an idea from Google's business department: try to leverage Google Plus' "plus one" feature (their answer to the Facebook "like" button) to improve the search results in their core product by recording how many people "plus one" the various interests (and potential search terms) that they are exposed to through sparks. The sociotechnical question in this case is whether anyone is going to use it. The default assumption of sparks even being a good idea is that all communication is informational: it's about something. This is wrong. In fact, to date "informational" communication has actually been deprivileged on social networking sites in favour of communication that is purely phatic. As someone who has the time and inclination to talk in detail online (just look at the size of this blogpost, and I'm not even done yet :P), I would probably like this. For many people, particularly the target market of people who use social networking sites (i.e Facebook users), this feature doesn't really offer much to the user, as most of them only really use Facebook to "keep in touch" rather than to have deep and meaningful exchanges about stuff. Unfortunately, the perceived business advantage to Google, through exploitation of the "plus one" feature for search optimisation, may blind them to the reality of how communication on social networking sites actually works (i.e. it is phatic far more than it is informational).

So, Google Plus offers some new things. But does it offer enough to encourage people to switch from Facebook, where all their friends and contacts are still set up, and have been for some time? Well, the obvious answer is that people can't switch anyway while the whole thing is still invite-only. Once Google Plus goes public, the answer may change. My tentative answer right now is that it will appeal to some people, namely those who have friends there already (which means friends of web-developers and other people currently entitled to Google Plus invites will move across), those who have the desire and available technology to use video chat (which means people in the upper half of the Western world's income bracket), and those who have both the time and inclination to make talk online. This means Google Plus would be the preferred location for people who are comfortably well-off, employed in white-collar jobs that are not too time-consuming, and who are comfortable with communicating online about things that they're interested in, in detail.

Hmm. If Google Plus takes off, and that becomes its expected demographic, what then becomes the expected demographic of Facebook?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Is being gay a choice?" Why the question matters

The reason that it matters whether or not homosexuality is a choice is because of the homosexual recruitment myth. If you believe people can choose to be gay, you believe people can be recruited into homosexuality. From that belief, it's only a short step to believing that homosexuals do recruit people into homosexuality.

Check how much anti-gay rhetoric either implicitly or explicitly rests on the assumption that homosexuality is something that is taught to people, children in particular. The worst of it even goes so far as to claim that this teaching is intentional on the part of the "homosexual agenda".

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A bad prediction from the dot-com bust

I'm reading some historical research on the growth of new media. In the wake of the dot-com bust in 2000, critics of the more grandiose claims made about the Internet got a lot more prominent. A financial writer for the New Yorker, one John Cassidy, had this to say not long after the crash:
"[the Internet} was not a disruptive technology that would destroy any company locked into the old way of doing things, such as selling books in stores, printing news on paper, or using people to sell stocks. The bookstores, newspaper companies, and brokerage houses are still in business, and most of them are doing fine"

Given what's happened to all three of those industries in recent times, I find this amusing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Random writing

Back at uni, and I currently feel that my writing is painfully lacking in necessary clarity for what I am being asked to do this year. So I may as well reactivate this blog for practice at writing. Mostly I'll just be tossing ideas as they come out, not to argue for them, but mostly at this stage just to publicly express them. I feel I need to improve at that. I feel I need to improve at it a lot

Today, my understanding of the Enlightenment in the view of Michel Foucault:
The Enlightenment is the first era of knowledge in which the people constructing the knowledge of the era consciously asked themselves what their purpose was in constructing the knowledge of the era (asking themselves and trying to answer the question "What is the Enlightenment?").