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