Opt-Out No Longer An Option For A Social Search Paradigm

I have a friend who is a bit, shall we say, retiring. On Facebook, he goes by his alter ego: an ASCII mouse with a fictional name. He's selective about his buddies in real life and even more selective online; the alter ego gives him the ability to participate in social networking while retaining what little measure of privacy he can.

After all, as he rightly points out, false information is a form of privacy. If I go by the pseudonym Jesse West on all my social networks (ok, it's my stripper name), then people I meet in the real world can't Google the public record of my indiscretions. Until I reveal my online persona, my virtual activities are, for the most part, hidden from you.

And, from the perspective of Facebook, there should be no issue with this. My friend's social network profile is exclusively for personal use. It's his only account and he connects only with people he knows well. Unfortunately for him, he's in violation of Facebook's Terms of Service, which state specifically, "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook."



To make things more difficult, Facebook's new profile settings require you to connect to the Fan Pages they've created for your hometown, your employer, and the rest of your personal information. If you don't connect, those fields will be left blank. This means the ASCII mouse has now become a fan of the TV station listed as its employer, and is no longer allowed to list its residence as "Drain pipe, New York City."

Want to play by your own rules? You can't. Want to disconnect entirely? Possible, but challenging. After reading this post by Marshall Kirkpatrick, I tried to deactivate my own account. "Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?" asked FB solicitously. "Your 374 friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you. Michael will miss you."

That quote is verbatim, and, for the record, Michael is my husband. I'm pretty sure he will still find a way to keep in touch with me.

It's increasingly evident that the multitudes have given up on any semblance of privacy. I concur with Alex Iskold of Read/Write Web, who says, "Personally, I am skeptical that the average Facebook user is going to care all that much. People are notoriously naive about being watched on the Web, and this is likely to be no exception. More likely than not, Facebook users will enjoy the personalization aspects of the new platform and won't think much about it - until Facebook starts openly targeting them." And I don't really see an issue with this. If people don't care enough about their privacy to protect it, then there really isn't much of an issue at all.

What we're seeing, though, is that even people who take their own privacy quite seriously, and who are willing to go to some lengths to protect it, are being forced to comply with a disrespectful system.

Ben Popper on BNet made an apt comparison between the Open Graph and Google's original PageRank system, pointing out that the social connection has effectively replaced the link for relevance -- which is why Google should be scared: "In an Open Graph world, users will turn to their social connections to figure out where to shop, what to watch and when to travel." But given the hundreds of millions of people who are gleefully proffering up their likes and dislikes at Zuckerberg's altar, do we really need to force compliance in order to make this Graph searchable?

3 comments about "Opt-Out No Longer An Option For A Social Search Paradigm".
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  1. Linda Mcisaac from Xyte, Inc., May 11, 2010 at 12:28 p.m.

    Excellent article, is anyone listening?

  2. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., May 11, 2010 at 1:06 p.m.

    Terrific article! Everybody should be listening.

    Facebook has been moving in this direction for some time - trying to create a definitive, and 100% verifiable record of personal data about its users. This should worry us for a lot of reasons, not least because the phenomenon extends well beyond Facebook to many other social paradigms -- some with serious legal and not-inconsequential financial implications.

    Take, for example, the virtual world Second Life, with its (relatively mere) couple-million regular users. Second Life's virtual economy (which consists of users trading convertible virtual currency for virtual land, virtual structures, virtual clothes and hundreds of thousands of other virtual products, all user-created) is the largest in the world -- total capital-in-motion was $567 million USD in 2009, and first-quarter 2010 results suggest no flagging of the economy's roughly 69% annual growth-rate.

    Virtual product designers often (and sensibly) form companies around the 'brand identities' of their personal avatars, and some of these 'personal brands' are quite successful -- representing six and seven figure USD annual revenue, both in virtual products and in real-world products prototyped and test-marketed in the virtual environment.

    Facebook's '100% true' service-terms prevent these avatar brands from playing (at least as individuals) in its space. What's more bizarre, however, is Second Life's own failure to adapt internally to the by-now-well-understood phenomenon of personal-avatar-becoming-brand-icon. For example, by the time a Second Life vendor has built a seven-figure business, they typically own and need to manage many SL regions and land parcels -- all bound to the primary avatar. But the way Second Life has written its terms of service, it's a TOS violation if an avatar-owner shares their 'corporate avatar's' login details with other managers in their own firm (to achieve necessary redundancy, or as means for delegating region management to staff). Likewise, businesses (e.g., IBM and others, who use Second Life for collaboration and other applications) obliged to create 'corporate management avatars' to manage large-scale enterprise presences often find themselves radically at odds with Second Life service terms.

    Clearly, in any dispute (at least at present) a global business like IBM or an inworld vendor earning millions of dollars a year will be treated with kid gloves by Second Life (who, after all, take a cut on revenue by operating the real/virtual money exchanges, and are the ultimate 'owner' of all virtual land, which produces recurring income). But the precedent -- where the most successful innovators (or privacy-seekers) find themselves increasingly at odds with a 'letter of the law' designed for monetizing a flat social network -- is disturbing. I suspect that any sufficiently-complex system is plumbed with enough non-integrated cross-motivations (e.g., we want to monetize our userbase in various ways and limit our liability in various ways but also make a safe home for enterprises) that these conflict situations are natural and will continue to arise spontaneously.

  3. Giles Lewey from TrustWorks, May 12, 2010 at 10:49 a.m.

    It seems that there's a segment of users, "the exhibitionists", that are happy to reduce their privacy to a much greater extent than Facebook is asking. Foursquare has 40 million users signed on, Blippy was funded for almost 20 million, and Swipely is online with its beta today.

    What's worrying is that Facebook has had a meeting with Foursquare, and has code built into its mobile app for a 'places' function (for those of you who don't know, Foursquare tracks your location by GPS so everybody can see where you are).

    So it seems that the rest of us might become hitched to the exhibitionist segment of online users, and what we consider a lack of privacy in social media now might just be a small taste of what's to come.

    Giles, Senior Editor, TrustWorks

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