March 23rd, 2010
Social Networks, Privacy and The New Obscurity
Very briefly here are a few things I learned at this year’s SXSWi Conference – 1. SXSWi may have already jumped the shark. This year the conference appeared to be packed with people who felt that they had to be there or that the idea of a once-a-year party was too much to pass up. No other reason. 2. Many panelists forgot that being on a panel requires being prepared and that they are there to share their wisdom, or at the very least entertain us. [The NYT columnist David Carr also mentioned this lack of sparkle.] 3. The biggest buzz was which new platform would be this year’s Twitter. I mean c’mon people… 4. Geeks live in a bubble and SXSWi provides the biggest bubble of all. 5. Judging by the overuse of Foursquare and Gowalla, conference attendees do not have any privacy concerns, or perhaps they are happy with the idea that “privacy is dead.”
I’ve written often of our anthropological need to stay in touch with friends and family, and that technology merely shortens the distance between us. What I am now interested in is how to handle living in public while attempting to hold on to my privacy. And while I’m at it, I thought I’d take a look at the numbers game that occurs in social networking and how that relates to the quality of friends and followers, versus quantity.
Let’s start with privacy. During SXSWi Foursquare use was rampant, I was getting literally hundreds of Foursquare updates a day from people I follow on Twitter. It became incredibly annoying because a message like this – “I’m at Mohawk, 722 Red River, Austin TX with 171 others” – is of no importance to me as it lacks context. Ok, so it could be argued that the message conveys a trending topic of where SXSWi attendees are gathering, which may be useful to some, but I expected that everyone would be at the Mohawk at some time during the conference. Why wouldn’t they? Free food and drink always succeeds in creating lines around blocks.
But, all sarcasm aside, I like what Chris Conrey has to say about the phenomenon of sharing our whereabouts. In his post titled, Why I Deleted Foursquare and Gowalla After SXSW, he says: “I don’t see the value to the end user in these things. What I do see is a huge data mine for marketers, advertisers and stalkers to glean for information.” As for worrying about stalkers, thankfully there’s always PleaseRobMe.com to help folks begin to understand that privacy is, on the whole, a good thing.
As Chris points out, our real friends would let us know their whereabouts via Twitter, text or IM if they wanted to really share that info with people they care about. And they would also supply context, as in its definition – the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event. In other words, “I’m down at the Coach and Horses having a drink with Charlie, and Anne and Pete will join us later…” That’s a little more personal than “with 171 others..” It’s also a private message.
“In life, private by default, public by effort is normal. In social media its the opposite.” #SXSW #danahboyd
That sentence, posted to Twitter by Simon Mainwaring, is an excerpt from a keynote speech that danah boyd, [she uses only lowercase letters in her name,] a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, gave at the 2010 SXSWi Conference.
DEAR ERIC SCHMIDT, PRIVACY IS NOT DEAD. KTHXBY.
And she continues: “No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.
Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It’s about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.”
Privacy foul? Google Buzz anyone..?
The Quantity of Your Friends and Followers Versus the Quality; It’s A Numbers Game.
So, if the idea of social networks is to further conversation, then the problem is in the numbers game. I mean, how often do we see this on Twitter? – “hey tweeps, I’m almost at 9,950 followers help me get to 10k by end of day.” The first question I would ask would be, why do you want to achieve a certain number of followers? The second would be, how on earth will you have a true conversation with 10k+ followers? Arguably the answer to the first question is “look at me, aren’t I so special” and to the second, there is no way one can have a meaningful relationship or conversation with that many people.
Which brings us to Dunbar’s Number. From Wikipedia: “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.”
That’s 150 people. As in your family, kin and all other close friends. Dunbar points out that it’s difficult to compare the quality of relationships versus the outcome of the relationship, but he says the time invested in relationships is directly related to the improvement of quality in those relationships. As you add more friends beyond the 150 he says that its akin to dropping a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples fan out across the surface. Each ripple represents a layer of relationships that are of a significantly lower quality than the initial 150. Oddly the layers scale in a consistent pattern of 10, 20, 100 etc, so when it comes to social networks he argues that any messaging or traffic really only speaks to the inner core [those 150] just like in offline relationships.
[Robin Dunbar is working on a study of Facebook and MySpace to be published later in 2010.] Watch a video of Dunbar’s talk to the RSC in London – How Many Friends Does One Person Need?
Clive Thompson’s article in the February 2010 edition of Wired Magazine, In Praise of Obscurity, also discusses social network users and their followers, where he wrote of the problem of follower scale – “…at a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun – but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old fashioned broadcasting.“
So much for “earned media” then, we’ve unwittingly come full circle back to mass messaging. And the lesson?
He suggests: “There’s value in obscurity. After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away from the spotlight — in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. [It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel.]“
Which brings me back to SXSWi – the most interesting conversations that I had were either in the back channel, at dinner, or over drinks well away from the conference centre and often well away from downtown Austin and the party action. Here in Portland, at a recent dinner hosted by Intel’s Bryan Rhoads, I had a great discussion with him, W+K’s Renny Gleeson, China expert, Sam Flemming, Webtrends’ Justin Kistner and others, where, to use danah boyd’s phrase “context in environment,” the people in the room and the architecture defined the setting and therefore the conversation. The evening was a true social networking event. Context in these situations is when you can look someone in the eye and note their body language, things that help you interact and converse.
So, when do we back out of the Social Web, dump most of our Facebook “friends,” and relegate ourselves to one really good and useful Tweet a day, or one insightful blog post? Or should I say, when do we stop airing our dirty laundry while living in public..? As danah boyd said at SXSWi “In life, private by default, public by effort is normal. In social media its the opposite.”
As of the time of writing this post I currently have 6312 followers of @Pampelmoose and 842 followers of @DaveAtFight on Twitter. On Facebook I have 2,376 “friends.” My blog gets more than 250k unique visits a month. That’s a lot of “friends..”
WIll you continue using social networks and building up your friends and followers numbers? Are you happy sharing your personal data with 3rd party corporations? Or is 150 friends quite enough and does relative obscurity sound appealing?