I’m late, I’m lost and on the right track

I haven’t updated to this blog for a while, for many reasons—the main reason is because I’m poorly organised; the subsidiary reason is because I had to seriously revise m life plans too many times for the last two years. I’m working on that, but just to be clear: this blog is trying to discuss the cooperation and competition dynamics between services based on digital social networks; I usually simplify it by saying “Is Facebook a monopoly?” The idea I had five years ago that barely made sense then (the mere idea of Social networking sites left most people puzzled) became the hottest topic around (I expect it to pop up at G8 and G20 summits anytime now), so I know all the efforts I did to understand digital competition, complex graphs and social networks are not vain. In other words: I’m late, I’m lost and I’m on the right track.

I hesitate between many careers right now, from doing on-line videos to explain simply complex things (not unlike Khan Academy or Common Craft), more common academia, working R&D for a Big TelCo, launching a start-up (or at least publish specks of software I’d love to use), learning code, being an independent consultant… I doubt anyone reads this blog, but I’m sure your advice will be dearly appreciated.

For the last two months, I spent every waking hour trying to understand the changes Facebook announced at f8 and the reactions, talking about it to friends and reading on-line. For the first month, none of the expert made sense to me: I craved to take the time to post a blog, but after a month, some opinions came out that were more nuanced like Chris Saad, or respectful of participants talents, like danah boyd (I should provide far more references than those two, next time). For instance, I still don’t understand how making things more public favors Facebook bottom-line. And I still thing that the semantic aspect of it has been overlooked.

One important aspect that I’ve seen, and the key question to me is: what does the majority of users think of all that? I can’t possibly tell, I don’t know them all — but I did mention these issues to friends, and friends of friends, including very active Facebook users with amazing background: diplomats, constitutional scholars, coders, etc. (I have fancy friends, I know, and I’m so proud of their achievements because I saw them struggle through their studies to get there.) Even the best and the brightest just don’t get the point of all this. All assume Facebook changed “The Privacy thingy, Terms of Service or whatever.” They don’t care, and don’t want to; any message from Facebook, even the simplest or most daring is overlooked: it’s a wooden pannel in front of the entrance to their living room, and they want it out. People have changed their privacy settings often after a crisis, depending on a friend’s poorly articulated advice. Even people whose work s about having distinct social conventions agree, managing expectations, merging formal codes don’t get what is Facebook actual job.

That would be a problem, but the reality appeared much worst to me: I spend hours stumping the most basic things, using common metaphors (“Facebook comments are neither private, nor public, they are in-between, like café discussions.” “They do not give away users profile to advertisers, no more than magazines do: they give stats on users and handle the targeting.”) to have the very same person I talked to keep on thinking what I just told was wrong, minutes after I was too tired to keep on — so education won’t help, it seems. The reaction to modal panels and pedagogical efforts that I’ve seen make it grimmer. All this makes these appear a lot like details about how to make car engines to me: if you get it wrong, people will hate you; if you get it right, they don’t care. Which makes my potential readership almost as small as my actual readership.

Finally, and most importantly (and that should be the main element to take from that post): people estimate the service from their direct experience. Usability is key, fast rendering reassuring, and you assume that those you see in your timeline are those who take interest in yours. Users and pundits don’t understand the importance of stalking, but SNS operators —and Facebook in particular— has data on it, and takes their decision based on web traffic; they do it to improve not their bottom line, but what appears to them as users’ experience. Having people show what they saw through ‘Like‘ is the best feedback loop to users, to avoid the massive discrepancy between asymmetric stalkers. From what I’ve seen, I doubt this can be very well used for targeting ads (not as well as click-through and time spend, contamination sustainability, etc.) but I’ll have to come back to that later.

Next up: ‘Open’ alternatives, why Facebook idea of Friendship won, Location based services, collaboration and… many more. Please tell me if you read, enjoyed or disagreed with any of that.


About Bertil

I'm a PhD student in Digital Economics, and I love viennoiserie. Je suis un doctorant en économie (numérique) et j'aime la viennoiserie.
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2 Responses to I’m late, I’m lost and on the right track

  1. Jason Treit says:

    Last paragraph flew over my head. I gather that new modes of long-tail sharing, such as Like buttons, allow for more organic persistence of shallow connections, with the side benefit of reminding everyone who they’re still in contact with. The newsfeed algorithm keeps this pulse alive by putting habitual connections in each other’s line of sight (though I doubt it negates stalking.) You seem to have broader themes in mind, though.

    Could you speak further to this point about visibility and reciprocity of connections, and how they score against asymmetrical, twittery connections?

    And assuming you don’t go the startup route, I’d love to see part of this blog dedicated to sketching out your software ideas.

    • Bertil says:

      Thank you so much for the comment.

      Most people would have a hard time noticing who sees their profile: they are usually surprised at results coming out of applications about who spends time on their page; they are disappointed at who sees what, and are not sure about limiting some stalkers’ access.
      Controls could satisfy those issues if they weren’t so new: there is no common vocabulary to express the options, or common understanding. Showing who sees out would scare anyone away, so that isn’t an option too. Empty-handed, users use cryptic updates for non-dyadic private messages instead of group-filtering, and increasingly change to pseudonyms or disemvowel their last names, instead of opting out of a public, searchable profile. Those options offer a visible solution that appears safer.

      Facebook main challenge is to decide whether they want to stay a symmetric service, with operable privacy controls, and help people make sense of who exactly is their personal audience — but they seem to have opted for being a publication platform. They have the skills and the installed based to be more and better than twitter, but this still demands far more UX then what they have done.

      You see an increasing, rather high rate (~50%) of privacy settings changes, although not as much as what such a revolutionary service would demand (closer to 100%). However, the figure hides that historical users (US students) are disappointed by the increasing user-base, and share advise on how to adress it with controls (see Fred Stutzman’s blog for figures on UNC Chapel Hill), while the new users have far less clue: a steady ratio mixes two distinct disappointments. Users don’t leave because the service is irreplaceable, nor do their try t understand the issue, because no one makes sense, simply. This is why I believe strongly in visual, third party privacy control panels, like the “Scan for Privacy“ bookmarklet.

      About the sketches: I’d love to have a twitter client (desktop & iPhone, synced for ‘read‘ elements) very similar in design to Tweeter for IPhone (formally Tweetie). I use most options on it, so I truly mean: very similar. In addition to the already six interaction types (reply, retweet, star, sender profile, link, send), I’d love to have two more:
      – “buy this“ that would trigger an Evri-powered selection of purshable links, based on the text of the tweet;
      – “don’t see this kind of tweet anymore” that would offer a selection of rare words, commonly annoying phrases (like “checked in“), hashtags, combining with the username and groups the users is a member of to define a keyword-based hiding rule.
      And of course a menu where to see a list of those rules and erase, pause, merge and export them.

      I also would love to be able to subscribe to user’s twits, (official) RTs and starred items separately — because Tim O’Reilly is far more insightful even in his choice of stars than my Feminism-obsessed colleague.

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