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.


James Polley said...

Z said...

Thanks for that. None of that functionality was at all obvious just from looking at Facebook.