Actually, having one Identity for yourself is a Breaching Experiment

by Kieran Healy on May 14, 2010

This should really be a comment to Henry’s post, but I have the keys to this car, so I’m going to drive it, too. We have Zuckerberg’s remark:

“You have one identity,”… “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Michael Zimmer and danah boyd comment. As danah says, “This isn’t about liberals vs. libertarians; it’s about monkeys vs. robots”.

“Identity” is a slippery word, and there are ways to read Zuckerberg that makes what he’s saying trivially true. But those would be perverse ways, I think. I could go on at length about that, but I won’t. I’m also (luckily for you) fighting off the urge to write a few thousand words on the sociology of privacy. Instead, I just want to add two things. First, an idea from sociology. Having a single identity on display to everyone seems less like the definition of integrity and more like the procedure for a nasty breaching experiment of the sort that undergrads sometimes propose, and that as a responsible professor you talk them out of, on the grounds that they will get beaten up at some point during their fieldwork. (“Hey, I want to present the same public face to everyone, and see what happens! My hypothesis is that people will freak out and maybe some bad things will happen!”)

Second, an idea from psychology. Having an identity and having a secret are in fact quite closely related, and not just for superheroes. Here’s a piece from the Times from the pre-FB era that makes the point:

“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. … Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother’s birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency with small social lies is associated with good mental health. … The urge to act out an entirely different persona is widely shared across cultures as well, social scientists say, and may be motivated by curiosity, mischief or earnest soul-searching. Certainly, it is a familiar tug in the breast of almost anyone who has stepped out of his or her daily life for a time, whether for vacation, for business or to live in another country. “It used to be you’d go away for the summer and be someone else, go away to camp and be someone else, or maybe to Europe and be someone else” in a spirit of healthy experimentation, said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she said, people regularly assume several aliases on the Internet, without ever leaving their armchair …”

You can still do that, of course. But maybe not from within FaceBook’s walled garden, where a peculiar definition of integrity looks set to rule.

{ 78 comments }

1

BrendanH 05.14.10 at 9:40 pm

Breaching . . .

Oh, psychology. Bummer.

I thought we were going to be talking about China Miéville again.

2

Henry 05.14.10 at 9:49 pm

>I thought we were going to be talking about China Miéville again.

Well, as soon as I get my damn essayon TCATC for Boston Review (if they’ll take it) written, we will be. But that’s a few months away. In the meantime, _Kraken_ is teh awesome – nowhere near as ambitious, but the most sheer fun and exuberant invention of anything he’s written since PSS. Your normal thread will resume shortly …

3

Maria 05.14.10 at 10:00 pm

What do you mean Kraken is awesome, Henry? I have it pre-ordered for your birthday, as it’s not even bloody published in the US yet. Damn you, you ungrateful and miles ahead of me wretch!

4

Patrick 05.14.10 at 10:31 pm

As long as you’re threatening to write thousands of words on the sociology of privacy, I wonder if you could suggest some good reading on the topic. I’m writing a piece on impersonation and trying to get at it from a sociological or psychological angle, but those aren’t really my fields. Any recommendations for where to start?

5

PHB 05.15.10 at 1:08 am

You know, MySpace was pretty popular about four years ago. And before that there was this thing called GeoCities. What goes up can certainly go down. Looks to me as if properties like Facebook may have the dynamics of a pop band rather than a long term business.

I seem to recall the industry discovered ‘identity’ about five years ago. And as with most of our industry fads, 90% of ‘Identity 2.0′ was concepts everyone knew and had understood for twenty years described in a different vocabulary. In the language of the security world, it is ‘authentication’ plus ‘attributes’. I don’t think that the change of vocabulary added a damn thing to the discussion.

There are many different definitions of identity, not all of which make sense. I prefer the view that an identity is a set of assertions about yourself that you may lay claim to. So in a sense everyone only has one identity and has only ever had one ‘identity’. But in practice we expose different sets of claims depending on the circumstances. Nobody puts their membership in Alcoholics Anonymous on their CV.

In the days when slashdot was mostly a Linux fanboy operation, I preferred to post under a pseudonym because I work pretty closely with Microsoft. Many people guessed who I was long before I added my blog to my .sig. I don’t see why the Zuckerbergs of the world have to be allowed to make all the rules and decide who should be allowed to know what.

In fact I have a pretty good idea of a way to stop them. The privacy concerns are not unexpected. Tim Berners-Lee and others were worried about them as they were emerging. But the problem was that most Internet users had not yet realized that having other people manage their identity and own their privacy was a problem. As Frauenfelder pointed out the other day on Boing Boing, the thing about social networks is that their product is you.

6

a.y.mous 05.15.10 at 7:31 am

It looks like the whole lot of you are just starving tramps with not a dime on you to spare for a talkie. Bread and circus. That’s all that matters and for ever will. It is stupid to shout, or for that matter whisper, that it shouldn’t. It just does.

7

alex 05.15.10 at 8:22 am

In the spirit of #6, I’d just like to say, Moo! Moooo!!! Wibble, blibble, f’tang, f’tang weeee!!!

8

alex 05.15.10 at 8:23 am

Damn you! You ate my multiple exclamation-marks! Give them back, how else can I express my individuality and my commitment to personal freedom?

9

Walt 05.15.10 at 8:34 am

You can send it to me for my birthday, Maria.

10

Earnest O'Nest 05.15.10 at 9:19 am

Everything anybody says about Facebook and Twitter and Bill Gates 2.0 comes out as a boring, and contentless, set of words; so there is justice in this world, after all. Social networking is not less scary than social engineering.

11

rea 05.15.10 at 12:24 pm

WTF is he talking about, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”? Does he think I should strive to project the same image when I am playing with my infant grandson, and when I am arguing a case to the Supreme Court? Don’t be such a silly, your honor–you need a good tickling?

12

Bloix 05.15.10 at 1:05 pm

13

Metatone 05.15.10 at 1:16 pm

Others have noted this on the other thread, but Zuckerberg’s arguments would be a lot more convincing if he didn’t have his own profile locked down tight and indeed if he didn’t spend serious money trying to maintain his own privacy…

I think one sadness in all of this is that we lucky few lived through some historical moments when it was possible to be more than one person on the internet. That era is coming to a close, and with it, likely, an end to a lot of fun discussions for those of us with less than perfectly tolerant corporate overlords.

Yes, there are more serious examples, but for someone as lucky as me, it is like the closing of a favourite pub. No more free conversations – the internet is like being on TV, the mic is live…

14

Metatone 05.15.10 at 1:18 pm

When I say “more serious examples” I mean there are people whose loss of nascent internet freedom will be a much bigger loss to them – from the other thread, the young gay teen in the closet in a hostile environment… etc.

15

Salient 05.15.10 at 1:38 pm

Zuckerberg’s arguments would be a lot more convincing if he didn’t have his own profile locked down tight

Would they, really? They strike me as equivalent to oil industry arguments that yes of course all safety regulation should be voluntary.

16

99 05.15.10 at 4:24 pm

@15 — a better way of saying it is: the CEO of a networking web service should have their privacy controls set to the defaults at all times (note: many have argued this before me, I just can’t remember any sources now)

17

a.y.mous 05.15.10 at 4:44 pm

This is a blessing in disguise. Serious content producers will now have to take the onus of distribution as well. Which is good. Ownership without the responsibility of maintenance should be made a hanging offense. Back to good old days of http://www.anonymous.com and its constituent, /rants, /freestuff, /hireme, etc. sections. It is also a sign that the experiment of distributors trying to generate content has failed. They aren’t able to, hence, ask the consumers to. This too is good.

And in the true Internet spirit of irony before anything else anonymous.com leads to some data mining outfit. But alas! corporatetool.com is with some domain squatter. (copy paste please; I request CT that no link love be given to either of them)

18

PHB 05.15.10 at 7:40 pm

Hmm ‘a lack of integrity’ eh?

Some of his ex-colleagues on a previous startup have been making some pretty stiff accusations against Zuckerberg in the integrity department.

19

ben w 05.15.10 at 7:57 pm

Why is it lucky for us that we don’t get a few thousand words on the sociology of privacy? Isn’t interest in that sort of thing presumed among CT readers?

20

JanieM 05.15.10 at 8:03 pm

@ a.y.mous, 7:21 p.m.: “Does Zuckerberg owe any one of you anything?”

This brings up something I’ve been wondering about as I read/skim these threads.

I have never signed up for Facebook. I’m old enough so that almost no one I know is on it, and the ones who are don’t use it in a way that makes my opting out a loss for me. I’m also more than a little obsessed about privacy, and Facebook has never seemed like the place for someone with those concerns.

But I do spend a lot of time on the web, and I have often mused about how much I would be willing to pay content providers if all the things I get for free had a price tag on them.

I think I’ve seen this idea mentioned here before: what I would want is, in essence, to pay by the page view. I am not going to pay a full subscription price to read maybe 2 articles a month from some magazine; anything on that level of usage I just stop reading when a paywall gets in my way. On the other hand, I would be happy to pay proportionally for the time I spend reading Crooked Timber, Obsidian Wings, The Dish, and Three Quarks Daily (my most frequent spots to visit, plus msnbc.com for headlines and sports scores). My reading habits might change some if I had to pay by the page view, and I might even end up spending less time online, which would be a good thing for my mental health, but in general I would be happy to pay *something* for what I now get for free.

So I’m wondering: how much would people here who use Facebook be willing to pay for something similar that gave you sophisticated control over who could see which portions of your information? Right now Facebook is “free” in that there’s no signup or subscription charge. But it’s not *really* free, it’s just that the price isn’t paid in money, it’s paid in loss of privacy and perhaps other intangibles.

My pay-per-page-view scheme would require some entity to be tracking my clicks, so there would be privacy concerns there too. But my understanding is that someone is tracking my clicks all the time anyhow…so maybe it’s just a losing battle.

21

Doctor Science 05.15.10 at 9:16 pm

how much would people here who use Facebook be willing to pay for something similar that gave you sophisticated control over who could see which portions of your information?

Oddly enough, I already know both what I would pay and what it would cost.

I’m gradually moving my social networking over to Dreamwidth, where I can get a *permanently ad-free* account for $30/year, or $50 if I want to be livin’ large. If I knew that all or most of my relatives were on it, too, I’d be willing to pay up to $60/year ($5/month) for the service of contacting all of my extended family under conditions of reasonable* privacy.

*using the “reasonable teenage girl” standard, not the “reasonable man” standard.

22

JanieM 05.15.10 at 10:25 pm

Doctor Science — thanks. Dreamwidth looks like something I’d go to if I wanted to get more involved in social networking online.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out, whether Facebook is just another 5-year wonder, whether enough people care about the privacy issue to create palpable pressure on Facebook to make a difference, etc.

23

Robin Datta 05.16.10 at 12:46 am

Just don’t put in FaceBook anything that you don’t want the whole world to know. Use other channels to communicate selecitvely. That way you select against FaceBook. To the extent that FaceBook loses in the selection process as a social medium, its role will be diminished!

24

John 05.16.10 at 2:38 am

The problem with having one identity is not because of secrets, but because identity is closely related to identification, and different contexts call for different identifications. A related reason which is longer to elaborate on, but which Eyal Peretz brilliantly describes in a post about identification and thought, http://www.pandalous.com/topic/identification , is the need for a lack of identity, for a becoming, when thinking.

25

Salient 05.16.10 at 6:33 am

“Just don’t put in FaceBook anything that you don’t want the whole world to know.”

Ahh yes, and for that matter, don’t do anything in a rented apartment that you don’t want the whole world to know about; it doesn’t expressly state in your lease that recording cameras will not be hooked up and running…

26

Guido Nius 05.16.10 at 8:37 am

Or: make sure the world doesn’t want to know what you do.

27

Jerry Vinokurov 05.16.10 at 2:13 pm

Hey, you know what really is a lack of integrity is trying to conceal very obvious monetary motives behind a veneer of moralizing. How much more honest would it be if Zuckerberg just came out and said, yeah, we don’t give a damn about your privacy, this is how we’re going to make money. Then we could all know where we stand. The worst aspect of all of this is the pretense that anyone on Facebook’s corporate end cares about this and their projection of their own moral deficiencies onto people with legitimate privacy concerns. Not that I’m, like, surprised or anything.

28

Jerry Vinokurov 05.16.10 at 2:16 pm

Ironically this very duplicity on Zuckerberg’s part is a great example of having multiple identities. Hoist by his own virtual petard.

29

Guido Nius 05.16.10 at 5:07 pm

Just say Suckermountain and enjoy imagining the face he would make on reading that. I’m sure it will be different from the disinterested one he would show in public ;-)

30

Adam MacDonald 05.16.10 at 5:09 pm

While I largely agree with everyone about these remarks, and I’m not a great fan of FB for several reasons, there is an alternative interpretation to Zuckerberg’s remark.

“Integrity” in software engineering refers to an “internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data”. It means a set of data is coherent within itself and coherent for its application(s). Z. could as easily be referring to the idea that one’s profile needs to belong FB’s applications solely in order to be as widely accessible as possible. In other words, he could claim this is only an engineering problem. Remove the intentionality from his use of “integrity” and all you have is the same proposition AOL used in ’96.

That said, I think he meant to use the term in both senses.

31

Salient 05.16.10 at 6:38 pm

“Or: make sure the world doesn’t want to know what you do.”

This option is precluded by the corollary to Internet’s rule 34: no matter what you do, someone on the Earth with Internet access is liable to find it arousing

32

Guido Nius 05.16.10 at 7:50 pm

Whoa, so this is arousing to someone?

Of course, there are many things I would find arousing that I don’t want to know about (because I know it’s not my business & that it’s impolite to go where one isn’t invited & all that good stuff) so there is still some hope.

33

Salient 05.16.10 at 8:09 pm

…so there is still some hope.

No, there’s not — the sign hanging over the entrance to the Internet reads “Abandon all hope (and all spare leisure time), ye who enter here”

34

kid bitzer 05.17.10 at 1:38 am

so when can we start the count-down to mr. z’s sprezzatura moment, when it is revealed that he has been cultivating multiple pseuds all over the web?

i mean: come on. this guy talks about transparency and integrity the way that evangelicals talk about hetero marriage and straight sex–right before it comes out that their boy-toy was helping them lift luggage in europe.

35

Guido Nius 05.17.10 at 7:10 am

33- Damned, missed that, and now I don’t know how to get back out.

36

novakant 05.17.10 at 10:57 am

They’re a company making money, they have personalized ads, people will know that I’m into gardening.

Oh cry me a river…

Considering the fact that a simple google name search on any of the CT contributors reveals more than I ever wanted to know about them, I find all these complaints a bit silly.

37

Kaveh 05.17.10 at 4:01 pm

@13 I think one sadness in all of this is that we lucky few lived through some historical moments when it was possible to be more than one person on the internet. That era is coming to a close, and with it, likely, an end to a lot of fun discussions for those of us with less than perfectly tolerant corporate overlords.

I don’t understand the pessimism here. Is it getting harder for people to subscribe to internet services or participate in discussion forums using a “fake” email address? I started doing this years ago mainly to avoid spam. I always thought of posting anything on facebook as making it available to at least a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Nothing like being videotaped in your apartment.

@36 I have to agree, and google (combined with various internet forums) reveals way more than facebook.

38

Salient 05.17.10 at 4:54 pm

Tellingly, the folks who are dismissive of complaints are all male.

39

VV 05.17.10 at 5:15 pm

They are not dismissive. They just observed that that boat has long sailed, and FB is not a big worry compared to search engines. In this they might be right.

40

sanbikinoraion 05.17.10 at 5:28 pm

JanieM – see also flattr.

41

Guido Nius 05.17.10 at 5:37 pm

Hey Salient, give us a break … facebook sucks mountains, but omitting that fact whilst mentioning another is – if at all dismissive – not quite enough to qualify as sexist. & if it is the alternative to go all neurotic Japanese social interactiony, yes, maybe we should be a bit dismissive.

42

Salient 05.17.10 at 6:22 pm

“Oh cry me a river” is not dismissive?

43

Salient 05.17.10 at 6:39 pm

And it’s not an accusation of sexism — it’s an observation that gee, individuals who haven’t had the lovely experience of being online-stalked and harassed at age 15 by horny male 30+ year olds have a different and more pshaw-relaxed attitude toward who is allowed access to everything they post online. Which is of course what this “identity” crap is really all about to Zuckerman — whether or not it’s appropriate to withhold, e.g. drunken pictures of oneself, amongst one’s close relations, or whether the rule ought to be ‘either nobody sees it or everyone does.’

Zuckerman isn’t making any kind of statement about identity; he’s making the statement that for whatever reason, he feels privacy expectations on Facebook are inappropriate and does not acknowledge their legitimacy. He can use the word ‘identity’ for privacy if he so chooses. And we can call him out on it as transparent crap.

44

novakant 05.17.10 at 7:17 pm

I’m looking forward to Salient decrying the search engines, blogs and online forums, email and telephones, high schools and colleges as facilitators of bullying and harassment – else I might be forced to conclude that she is dismissive of the problems involved.

The point is not that FB cannot be used by @ssholes to make other people’s lives miserable (and believe it or not, there also female @ssholes and male victims), the point is that zeroing in on a platform that gives the user a comparatively high amount of control over their privacy, is silly.

45

Guido Nius 05.17.10 at 7:47 pm

43- you could have fooled me – in fact, you did fool me.

46

JanieM 05.17.10 at 9:13 pm

sanbikinoraion — thanks, I’ll put it on my list of things to explore.

I’ll repeat my main question, because even more than whether anything like that is available, I was wondering was what people who are so unhappy with Facebook/Zuckerberg would be willing to pay for something like Facebook that allowed them more of the kind of control they want. Only Doctor Science has answered that question. Does that mean that everyone else wants to be able to have Facebook be more like what they want, but still for free?

47

novakant 05.17.10 at 9:35 pm

The problem is: how would you get 400m+ people to agree on what they want. I doubt we could even get all CT users to agree on what they want …

48

JanieM 05.17.10 at 9:46 pm

There’s no need to have 400m+ people agree on what they want. The problem would be solved by allowing users to have relatively (compared to now) complete and transparent control over the ways in which their information was revealed.

How many gazillion ways is it possible to set user-controlled features in (let’s say) Word? There’s surely no technical reason why Facebook couldn’t be just as flexible. The reason it isn’t, and the reason Z doesn’t want it to be (I suppose), is that too many people would clamp down on their information so that a non-negligible portion of Facebook’s income would go away, the income that now comes from gathering, compiling, massaging, and selling data on users.

If people don’t like paying that price, and especially paying it opaquely, what would they be willing to pay? Again, they don’t all have to agree on the same set of settings, there just has to be a much greater range of settings than there is now. At least that’s how I’m reading the concerns on this thread. (Again, I’m not a Facebook user, so I don’t have a clue about the details.)

49

Nick Caldwell 05.17.10 at 11:00 pm

Facebook does give you an enormous amount of granularity in terms of being able to control your privacy, but there are a few problems:

1. the default settings aren’t sensible
2. most people aren’t sufficiently literate in UI conventions to interpret the controls
3. there are SO MANY controls that even a UI expert (such as myself, ahem!) has a hard time sorting out what to change
4. any time that that an aspect of privacy conflicts with Facebook’s business model (basically, “Soylent Green is people!”), the privacy controls are mysteriously absent.

50

Doctor Science 05.18.10 at 1:40 am

novakant:

I’m looking forward to Salient decrying the search engines, blogs and online forums, email and telephones, high schools and colleges as facilitators of bullying and harassment – else I might be forced to conclude that she is dismissive of the problems involved.

the point is that zeroing in on a platform that gives the user a comparatively high amount of control over their privacy, is silly.

Hi, I’m here to be your ass-kicking stone-cold bitch of the day.

Listen, you … person. Yes, lots of other vehicles are in fact “facilitators of bullying and harrassment” — and one of the things that makes them so is that they’re designed and administered to the “reasonable man” standard. And as long as *you* insist on thinking of the “reasonable man” as the default, *you* are part of the problem.

For instance, the telephone book. The default display in the phone book is “FamilyName, FirstName” — but single women are taught to use “FamilyName, FirstInitial”, because that’s what a *reasonable woman* has to do to avoid harrassing phone calls. If you think the default phone book display is normal and acceptable *as a default*, you are part of the problem, because you’re thinking of half (or more) of the population as a special case of human, not the real thing.

This uproar over FB isn’t despite their “comparatively high” privacy standards, it’s because those standards have been eroding and there is absolutely ZERO evidence that the people in charge are have even considered the “reasonable teenage girl” standard. And here you are, not considering it either, not imagining that teenage girls (or former teenage girls) might have serious needs that *should* be the baseline for decent behavior.

51

gavinf 05.18.10 at 2:43 am

There is a facebook related murder case being tried here in Australia at present, in which are 19 year old girl met up with two young men after developing a friendship online and was subsequently found dead. Police in that jurisdiction are now urging young people and these parents not to make any photos publicly available on facebook. Given how it operates in practice (and hearing that the girl originally met one of the men through a dating site anyway) this is not very useful advice.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/17/2901537.htm

52

Witt 05.18.10 at 3:30 am

I appreciate Doctor Science’s comments at 50. The more so because I’ve been online since (precisely) my 15th birthday, and the “default” for an awful lot of things in the decades since then has continued to skew towards an adult man.

53

Kaveh 05.18.10 at 3:31 am

Okay, I think the problem is we’re talking about very different kinds of data with very different privacy risks.

@48 too many people would clamp down on their information so that a non-negligible portion of Facebook’s income would go away, the income that now comes from gathering, compiling, massaging, and selling data on users.

@51 There is a facebook related murder case being tried here in Australia at present, in which are 19 year old girl met up with two young men after developing a friendship online

I would think that my pictures have almost nothing to do with the data on me that facebook wants to sell. They’re interested in whether I “liked” Dances With Wolves and The Wire and whether I also “liked” the Harry Potter books. That kind of info is almost all in parts of your facebook profile that do not include pictures (your ‘info’ and ‘wall’). I guess they could be trying to make the privacy controls confusing on purpose to keep you from hiding data they want, but couldn’t they also collect it without making it available to anyone who wants to browse it?

For that matter, if they make so much of your info available to everybody, how do they stop just anyone from mining all that data off of facebook and not paying them a cent? If info in our facebook pages is all available on the web, how would facebook make money off of selling info? Is that not how gathering data for marketing works?

54

novakant 05.18.10 at 10:57 am

@50

ooooh, scary … ok, ok, I’m a middle-aged male and as such sexist and ignorant, incapable of empathizing with or even imagining the plight of others (and to make matters worse, I’m also white, heterosexual and affluent – have at it)

You may think what you want, I really don’t care.

But the fact of the matter is that FB does offer control over one’s privacy, while there is little or no such control in other areas. Anybody who has a website by default reveals their full name, address, telephone number and email to everybody who wants to look it up via whois – that is the internet. So why don’t you take it up with ICANN ?

The only solution is to foster media competency.

55

alex 05.18.10 at 11:09 am

Dear novakant, allowe me to charitably hope that, if you ever find yourself in a situation where your white, affluent, middle-aged, heterosexual maleness does not shield you successfully from life’s adversities, you find someone to take your side more sympathetically than you are doing here.

56

novakant 05.18.10 at 1:15 pm

#55 – just too be clear:

“ooooh, scary” was referring to the “ass-kicking stone-cold bitch of the day”, not to anybody’s concerns about privacy

57

Earnest O'Nest 05.18.10 at 1:28 pm

So not only white and male and driving around on a Harley Davidson (oh, the virtues of google!)but also angry! It’s a regular meeting of stereotypes, it is.

58

Bruce Baugh 05.18.10 at 2:07 pm

When I need an advocate, I want Doctor Science to do it.

59

Mr_ Punch 05.18.10 at 2:09 pm

Facebook, built on the principle that all relationships can be combined into one giant network, is not the only way to go (even for purely social purposes — hard to use to plan a surprise party!). Compare to, for example, Wiggio, which aggregates but keeps separate the multiple groups (“circles”) to which we all belong.

60

roac 05.18.10 at 6:41 pm

Sometimes these days it seems like there is no functional difference between “guy in his sixties” and “man from Mars.” In all humility, may I ask someone with a high level of patience to answer two questions:

1. Twenty years ago, there was a consensus list of Basic Universal Human Needs: food, drink, shelter, clothing, sex, whatever. When and how did “Having all kinds of personal information about yourself available on the Internet” get added to the list? Why are the options under discussion “Having your information available to a closed group” v. “Having your information available to the whole world, including stalkers, people wanting to sell you stuff, et al.“? Why is “Not making any information about yourself available online” not a possible choice?

2. Besides the issue of privacy, I gather from some posts here and on the other thread — and I have seen similar suggestions elsewhere — that it is harmless fun, if not positively liberating and praiseworthy, to go on line and lay claim to personal characteristics and accomplishments you don’t actually possess. I don’t get this: How is it different from padding your resume with phony degrees, or living beyond your income to try and convince people you are rich, or pretending to have fought in a war you never went near in order to get elected to office? I would be prepared to argue rationally that all of these activities are morally wrong, but as a matter of overwhelming visceral intuition, if find them pathetic and contemptible. So how is the Internet different from the real world?

(I really want to be educated about both of these issues; I’m not trying to start any fights.)

61

Vance Maverick 05.18.10 at 8:34 pm

roac, your #1 is not a claimed need but an observed desire. Thus comparing it to basic needs is a red herring. Compare, for example, cars. Having a car is not a basic need for most people, but it is a widespread desire. When Ralph Nader raised concerns about auto safety, it would have been unhelpful in the extreme to respond by saying that people shouldn’t drive.

As for #2, I don’t see anyone doing this. Consider the young gay man in a conservative state who has an online gay identity, while under his real name, in his work or school life, he is closeted. Which of these two identities are you complaining about? Maybe you’re attacking his “day” identity, in which he claims (implicitly, but falsely) to be straight?

And just out of curiosity, why did you post your comment under a pseudonym?

62

Salient 05.18.10 at 8:58 pm

roac #1. Compare to the idea that phone conversations should be recorded and posted publicly. People use facebook as a communications device among friends. What’s the difference between making information available to a few friends over the Internet versus over a phone line?

Plenty of people, including many vulnerable people, have developed an expectation of privacy corresponding to Facebook’s old standards. Nowadays, Facebook is quietly relaxing those standards, seemingly in the hopes that individuals will continue to behave as though the established standards that made them comfortable will be maintained. As we can see from Zuckerberg’s remarks, he does not acknowledge those expectations as legitimate — but neither is there a full-page banner on the Facebook home page alerting people to this.

roac #2. I don’t understand the accusation. If anything, I go by “salient” precisely so that nobody takes seriously any claim to qualifications I might assert, and instead just listens to whatever I have to say (or ignores it) on its own merits. The opposite of an appeal to authority. I think that’s an Internet norm for anonymous folks; claims to expertise, if not made self-evidently true by subsequent commentary, are generally dismissed and rebuked.

What I’d like to be able to do on Facebook, for example, is post a picture of me playing video games with friends, such that only my friends can see the photo, as if I’d sent it in a group email. I don’t want “things I would openly share in a Christmas letter” to become “things I openly share with everyone who wants to come snooping by.”

And if Facebook’s privacy settings are counterintuitive or opaque, in part becuase Zuckerberg apparently doesn’t respect privacy desires, then we have every reasonable right to call it/him out on it.

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Salient 05.18.10 at 9:02 pm

I’m looking forward to Salient decrying the search engines, blogs and online forums, email and telephones, high schools and colleges as facilitators of bullying and harassment

Eh. Where and when appropriate and sensible to do so, I do so. This is a thread about Facebook.

I forget who asked upthread, but I currently pay $60/year for an account on a social networking site which provides really good standard security and privacy features. (The defaults are set to maximally private.) I won’t say which site, as I get accused of being an advertising bot on CT from time to time. :)

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roac 05.18.10 at 9:52 pm

Answering the question first, why do I post under a pseudonym? Conformity that turned into habit. I got started online 10 years ago on a Tolkien forum (which was a wonderful place to be for a few years, but withered and died after the movie-excitement faded). Everyone there posted under a pseudonym. I have kept the same one (actually a variant) for all purposes since.

Would I change over and use my real name if everybody else did? Probably. My hesitation is that I have been a federal bureaucrat for 40 years, and occasionally I post about my area of professional expertise. The theoretical possibility exists that I could get called on the carpet for not saying “The views expressed are not those of the Department of X.” Certain self-protective reflexes get ingrained.

As for my second question, maybe nobody here said what I thought I heard (though I have heard it elsewhere), and I just wasted some electrons. There was a regular participant on the old TOC messageboard who salted his posts with references to his occupation (law student, then associate with a Wall Street firm), his beautiful girlfriend, etc. It became increasingly obvious to me that the law career was a fraud (and probably the girlfriend too), but some people who had not caught on continued to take a deferential stance toward his opinions on the basis of his claimed status. I found him contemptible — fortunately his manners and his opinions were equally so, so no disillusionment was entailed,.

As for the closeted gay man, he is entirely welcome, as far as I am concerned, to be in where he wants to be in and out where he wants to be out. But is he just not mentioning his orientation on the one site, or is he bragging about nonexistent experiences with women? The latter would be inconsistent with my personal ideas about integrity. (With the caveat that we are talking about the Internet. I’m sure that there are still lots of gay people in situations where failure to maintain a front by whatever means are necessary would expose them to actual danger.)

As for my first question, OK, it was just dumb. Maybe I’ll have more to say later, this is getting too long. (But I have to add that if in fact Facebook is not to be trusted, then it seems to me that the only rational thing to do is quit using it, now, and find or invent an alternative. No amount of bitching is going to fix it.)

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Vance Maverick 05.18.10 at 10:06 pm

Hmm, sounds like we don’t have much to disagree on. Have you ever run across the Mall Ninja?

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novakant 05.18.10 at 10:44 pm

What I’d like to be able to do on Facebook, for example, is post a picture of me playing video games with friends, such that only my friends can see the photo, as if I’d sent it in a group email.

Why don’t you just do it then?

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jack lecou 05.18.10 at 11:20 pm

But I have to add that if in fact Facebook is not to be trusted, then it seems to me that the only rational thing to do is quit using it, now, and find or invent an alternative. No amount of bitching is going to fix it.

I’m going to call things like this the A.E. van Vogt solution from now on: “If everyone were perfectly rational, there’d be no problems. So what are y’all bitching about?”

Sure, there are lots of superior alternatives already out there (or that could be hacked together in a long weekend). The problem is that, unlike a search engine or a shopping site, YOU, as an individual, can’t just take your ball and go play somewhere else. You also have to convince a critical mass of friends, family, co-workers, professional contacts, etc., to go with you.

Bitching and trash-talking actually seems like a vital part of making that happen.

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roac 05.19.10 at 12:24 am

But don’t you have e-mail addresses for the people you need to convince? Wouldn’t it be much more effective to send them all a message making your get-off-Facebook pitch, rather than posting it as a comment on a blog which they may or may not read?

I was thinking about the car analogy. The thing about people who were my age in 1910, who had come to maturity before cars started to become common, is that they saw cars as they went about their lives, so it was easy for them to apprehend what a car was and what it was good for. Whereas Facebook, if you’re not using it, is something you read and hear about, but don’t see in action.

I know about networking. I have friends, I have family, I have co-workers, I have professional contacts. I like to think they are all interested in things I have to say, but not the same things. I would think it presumptuous and a waste of time to call up lawyer X in Illinois and tell him about my niece’s wedding, and likewise to e-mail my brother and say “Did you see this (attached) very stupid decision from that judge in Arizona?” So I contact individuals and small groups directly about things I know they are interested in. Posting it all on the Internet would take up less of my time, no doubt, but this way I know everybody is getting the message. Targeted marketing, if you like.

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gavinf 05.19.10 at 3:06 am

@51 Kaveh, I do agree that protecting minors etc is a different kind of privacy question, just thought the story timely to point out.

A lot of people I know on FB have been selective about what they put up there, and many of them use an alias or name variant to hinder stalkers or coworkers/employers or family from finding them. I did also maintain a mypsace page for a long time for my alter ego/dance party producer identity, in order to compartmentalise from my work and family identity.

The problem for Z boils down to that a compartmentalised or aliased identity means its “integrity” for the purposes of selling advertising or data mining is compromised. He’s pushing the boundaries to see what he can get away with (and sell) before a viable alternative emerges and he loses market share.

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Vance Maverick 05.19.10 at 3:43 am

roac: yes, the car analogy is not perfect and complete. That’s in the nature of analogies.

Similarly, your comments about targeted marketing describe exactly what many people would like to be able to do with an easy, popular online service such as Facebook, and which Zuckerberg wants to prevent. In other words, you’re agreeing with the criticisms of the service. And while I agree that people who think so should abstain, that doesn’t get us very far: to indulge in another analogy, which again I warn you will not be complete, it’s not merely individual self-interested abstention that has reduced overall Western smoking in the last four decades.

(Incidentally, Z’s very name seems to hold forth a specious promise of ease and abundance:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there’s a land that’s fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

)

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roac 05.19.10 at 2:33 pm

Of course I’m agreeing with the criticism of Facebook. What did I say that would suggest otherwise? What I don’t “understand” is why “Stop using it” is not the simple answer to the problem, just as I don’t “understand” why “Quit smoking” is not the simple answer to smoking, because I have never done or been tempted to do either. (“Understand” being used in a restricted sense. There is overwhelming evidence the difficulties are real in both cases, so I have to accept the fact.)

The reduction in smoking has of course been accomplished by Intrusive Government Regulation. Which I am in favor of in the case of privacy and the Internet, but that looks like a long uphill struggle to me, given the forces arrayed against it.

A full ten out of ten, BTW, for the excellent Zuckerberg/Big Rock Candy Mountain bit. There’s a lake of stew, and of whiskey too, and you paddle all around in a big canoe.

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jack lecou 05.19.10 at 3:30 pm

But don’t you have e-mail addresses for the people you need to convince? Wouldn’t it be much more effective to send them all a message making your get-off-Facebook pitch, rather than posting it as a comment on a blog which they may or may not read?

Obviously direct communication and word of mouth is important too. I’m just questioning your implication that things like blog posts SHOULDN’T be part of the process. There isn’t any “more effective” about it. Just “effective” and “also effective”. (Also note that you need more then just your small circle of e-mailable contacts to move with you. You also need THEIR contacts, and their contacts’ contacts, and people you don’t know YET but might meet later online, etc., etc.)

Posting it all on the Internet would take up less of my time, no doubt, but this way I know everybody is getting the message. Targeted marketing, if you like.

FWIW, I’ve never used Facebook either. Still, it’s pretty obvious that these services have something that people find useful in a different way than e-mail. Saying people can just use email instead comes off an awful lot like saying people could just use the telephone or send letters to keep in touch.

It’s technically true, but you’re probably overlooking something.

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Vance Maverick 05.19.10 at 4:05 pm

@72: Intrusive government regulation, and lots of speech. It wasn’t the government, for example, that got my older brother (aged about 10, in the mid-1960s) to start telling my mother to stop smoking.

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Vance Maverick 05.19.10 at 4:06 pm

sorry, that was a response to roac @71.

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roac 05.19.10 at 4:15 pm

I keep conceding that I must be overlooking something. I’m waiting for somebody to tell me what it is.

I have to admit to a certain irrational prejudice. The name “Facebook” suggests to me that this is a place for kids and that I would feel uncomfortable and silly-looking there. So does the terminology about “friending and “unfriending”,* because it suggests a fixation on the minute-by-minute monitoring of social alliances and hierarchies, which is something I am happy to have left behind with acne. Maybe I would be readier to sign onto a social-networking site marketed to grownups.

* Also I refuse to admit that “friend” can be a verb. Like “gift.”**

** Whenever I insist that “gift” is not a verb, somebody tells me that Shakespeare, or Austen, or Gibbon, or somebody used it that way. To which I say, I can’t help it if those people had low standards.

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jack lecou 05.19.10 at 4:33 pm

I keep conceding that I must be overlooking something. I’m waiting for somebody to tell me what it is.

Well, I might not be the best to answer this, since I think I share most of your irrational prejudices on this one, and it’s kept me from joining despite nagging from friends.

Still, I don’t think it’s that hard. The idiom of posting status updates, and maintaining a list of followers/followees/”friends”/whatever is clearly somewhat different from the idiom of an email thread. And it’s different in ways that subtly change boundaries and social interactions. To pick one example among many, I imagine you might not regularly send emails out to your entire address book (or even just those you count as friends) when you get back from, say, a night out. But you might very well post a blurb and picture or two to a social network site, and the social interactions that ensue from that sort of habit might be rewarding.

That may or may not be something that appeals to you (or me), but to say that the experience isn’t real or novel is plainly wrong.

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Vance Maverick 05.20.10 at 5:15 am

roac, one reason people haven’t responded is that you haven’t made your claims clear. Now you seem to be saying that Facebook is bad, for a variety of reasons, and people should walk away. Assuming I’ve got that right, do you mean that they should replace it with something else? If so, consider network effects — I joined FB because a critical mass of my acquaintances were already there, and there’s noplace else of which that’s true.

(Except for LinkedIn, which is specialized for professional contacts. You won’t be surprised that it uses a stodgier vocabulary — one “connects,” or “adds connections”, rather than friending. And it’s really not suitable for wideranging chitchat; I have only a very few contacts there who are not in my own professional world.)

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roac 05.20.10 at 8:24 pm

I’m going to politely decline to engage further on this, because I have looked back at what I said already, and although I really really tried not to sound like goddamn Andy Rooney, I hear myself sounding like goddamn Andy Rooney anyway.

(A word of portent to the under-40: You probably think now that you will never become an out-of-touch old fart. But at a certain point, keeping up becomes too much trouble. It starts in the bookstore (old-fart indicator there already, I guess), when you heft Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest or J.R. or Underworld, and you say, I’m not up to tackling this, I’m just going to hope it’s a flash in the pan.)

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