I went to a panel this morning run by my department at NYU. The panelists were all social networking bigwigs, and the general topic was how social software is changing social norms.
The panelists were:
- Matt Cohler: Facebook
- Scott Heiferman: Meetup.com
- Jessi Hempel: BusinessWeek, author of The MySpace Generation
- John Hiler: Xanga.com
Some thematic highlights:
Is Cyberspace a place? The Online/Offline divide
- The panelists made a significant distinction between two types of social software: the traditional ideas of online community as meeting people you don’t know, and the idea that social software is a tool that augments your offline, “real world” community.
- LiveJournal, Xanga, and Meetup fall into the former category; Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook fall into the latter category. Note that the first category also assumes that you are interacting with these people to a certain extent offline: certainly Meetup is predicated on the idea of meatspace interactions, but Xanga/LiveJournal give rise to offline friendships as well.
- Generally, the idea of cyberspace being its “own place” seems quaint and out of date.
(It seems to me that this view really devalues “virtual communities”, seeing them as somehow less important or less worthy than online communities; this view was espoused by all the panelists. I definitely agree that the online/offline dichotomy is outdated. And I also agree that the shift to replicate one’s offline networks online is significant. But I do think that there are still enormous numbers of people using social software to create “virtual” communities (just look at fandom), and that this shouldn’t be discounted or looked at disparagingly.)
Many of the panelists talked about the culture of fear around online communication fueled by Dateline NBC’s Predators series and the recent upsurge in MySpace scare stories. The overall feeling was that these concerns (and to my dismay, they lumped privacy, identity flexibility, and micromarketing in this category) were due to the technology being new, and therefore unfamiliar. Many analogies were drawn between the introduction of the automobile and how social practices had to emerge and become institutionalized (crosswalks, stoplights, etc.) to respond to problems and fear of the new. Matt said (paraphrased):
“Do we need education around potential risks of internet? Sure. But those risks are no different from the risks of other communication technologies and the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. People need to be educated.”
Jessi pointed out that every website that exists will eventually go out of favor or be replaced by something else, and it makes more sense to educate users rather than depending on the sites to police themselves. When the user base moves to a different site, they will retain their skill set, rather than having to again depend on a different site’s mechanisms for enforcement.
(I tend to agree with this. I don’t think websites should be responsible for patrolling for underage drinking, risque pictures, etc. But I do think that websites have to include features that make privacy and security a priority. MySpace, for example, is flat out refusing to let people make their profiles private because it dilutes the value of the network. Right now, only younger users are “allowed” to make their profiles private, which means that lots of users who want to have private profiles are changing their ages in order to protect their privacy. MySpace is now threatening to kick them all off.
This is ridiculous and I’m sure MySpace will have to change this policy soon since they’re currently in the middle of a PR nightmare over teenagers, pedophiles, etc. Privacy should be built into every system, it should be recognized as a basic right online, and people shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to kludge it together. The answer to this, of course, is “If you don’t want to reveal your personal information, don’t join MySpace,” but MySpace does afford certain types of social capital that are important to teenagers. In some social circles, if you’re not on MySpace, you really are missing out on a significant part of social interaction. The tradeoff should not be giving up your personal information.)
Identity and Marketing
The panelists debated over advertising. Scott (Meetup) was very critical of including advertising, and Matt was obviously less critical (since that’s where Facebook is making its money). Jessi pointed out that micro-targeted advertising is better for users, because they are given information about products they actually want.
My response to this is something I heard Joseph Turow (Annenberg School of Communication at University of Pennsylvania) say at AOIR: What’s good for the individual (getting a discount on something, finding out about a new product) is not good forthe collective, in terms of both our overall privacy rights, and in terms of which people are then constructed as valued consumers and which are left out completely.
Overall, I found the panel to be very squirrelly about marketing. I pointed out that microtargeted advertising is dependent on singular, “authentic” profiles – you know, my MA thesis – and that these networks don’t build in provisions for people to present themselves differently precisely because they are dependent on advertising. I talked about my students finding my MySpace profile and having to neuter it as a result, but I could have given a thousand examples of people being fired for their blogs, or the NYU undergrad who was fired from her job at an IP law firm for being a member of NYU’s Free Culture group, or of a gay guy being outed to his Christian, conservative family through his Friendster profile. Significant stuff.
Well, the answer to that was a softball to be sure. Matt (Facebook) said that he thinks we’re moving towards a world that is more socially transparent, where there will be less of a divide between your work self and your play self, and so these issues won’t be a problem. I think this is really shortsighted. Just because we can now wear jeans to work and call people by their first names does not mean that our desire to vary self-presentation has decreased. There need to be spaces where I can express myself in ways that my employer, my parents, or my ex-boyfriend won’t find out about. It’s really patronizing to users to basically say “society will change, so we’re not going to do anything about it”, it assumes these issue aren’t significant, and it totally takes the onus of responsibility off the company and on to society.
These are issues that social software HAS TO address. Increased transparency won’t result in everyone being about to be their “true selves” 24/7, it’ll mean people have to hide who they are so they won’t get fired, and employers will be monitoring everyone’s online and offline selves. It’s one thing to work for a liberal social networking dot com, it’s another thing to work for Wal-Mart. Personal transparency needs to be a choice, not a requirement of use, and it must be respected.
I’m working through my notes and might post more if anyone’s interested, but I think these are the generally main points of the talk. It was really fascinating to hear many of the issues I obsess about all day being addressed from the business standpoint, which is completely different from the academic viewpoint, in that it’s generally much less critical and can’t, by definition, critique the profit orientation of the enterprise.