Monthly Archives: May 2010

Facebook, Network Externalities, Regulation

There is a growing debate about whether people should leave Facebook and whether there should be government regulation. I’d like to argue that it is very difficult for most people to leave Facebook three reasons: network externalities, social norms and technical competence. Network externalities, which I discuss below, means that the first to become a standard has an enormous advantage that can make it very hard for competitors. Plus, I believe that users of sites such as Facebook, Google, and even Ebay, Amazon, Craigslist and Wikipedia (a non-profit), have solid  reasons they can make moral, legal and perhaps even regulatory claims on these companies. Such companies exist by the virtue of the work their users have put in without monetary compensation. Also, they deal with often intimate personal information that deserves protection irrespective of claims about ownership.

Network externalities is economist-speak for the tendency of the value of certain types of products or services to increase as more people use them. The more people own fax machines, for example, the more useful each one becomes. That is also why there is a single standard for fax machines — would you switch to a brand new, faster fax machine standard if there was nobody else you could fax with your machine? Research shows that the presence of network externalities trumps product preference or quality; many people will chose a service that has more users compared to the one that is otherwise better for them. Such platforms, such as Facebook, tend to quickly dominate their market and become near-monopolies. This is also why everyone lists their wares on Ebay, where all the buyers are, and advertises on Google, where all the eyeballs go. The fact that a lot of people already have Facebook accounts means that considerations of network externalities will result in existing people staying put, or new people joining in anyway, even if they have qualms about the privacy issues.

People understand this. In my research, I asked many young adults why they are on Facebook if it causes so much trouble. “Because everyone else is.” Many people have laboriously constructed networks of far-flung friends, family, school-mates and colleagues and can count on others to find them on Facebook.

Facebook is a social norm in many settings, especially among young adults and increasingly among other groups. On a typical college campus not having a Facebook profile is tantamount to going around with a bag over your face; it can be done, but at significant social cost.

Also, while the tech-elite don’t have any problems up-and-moving to a new social network or tool, for many people, there are steep investment costs to mastering one more application. I don’t think that most people in the chattering classes who tend to be tech-savvy understand how little competence most people have in navigating their computer or the web. I am not blaming them; it is not a user-friendly environment. It takes time, effort and familiarity and most people don’t have either. This contributes to the issue of network externalities. Plus, I think most people are not aware of the implications of the privacy settings and how visible their information may be. And, really, why should they? For most people, the  privacy settings are not that relevant (or easy to understand) until something goes wrong — and then it is too late.

Network externalities mean that whoever becomes established first has a huge advantage, as a critical mass of users pull in others in a positive-feedback loop. Early users often choose sites that offer a solid product and reasonable terms, and so the initial “terms-of-service acts” as an implicit social contract. It is this social contract that is being broken, and that is not okay.

Initially, Facebook had a reasonable, and transparent, privacy policy. But the frequent unilateral changes have forced a great deal of information to be visible and created tedious and difficult-to-use privacy controls. This bait-and-switch tactic is one reason many are so upset.

Exposure online has real costs; more than half the subjects in my research on online sociality report negative consequences, including job loss and stalking, from social-network profile information finding its way to unintended audiences. And that is the tip of the iceberg as my respondents were reporting only on what they knew. Some describe spending an hour a day to make sure that nothing untoward –an unwelcome photo, an explicit comment on a wall — is seen by the wrong pair of eyes.

In a nutshell, Facebook is the new social commons, at least as important for fostering social interaction as the office water-cooler or the neighborhood park. This controversy reminds us that we must deal as a society with the fact that our commons has moved online and into privately-owned domains.

It is time to stop telling people “don’t share anything online if you don’t want the world to see it” or dismiss all concerns by reminding people that having an account is voluntary, as Facebook recently did. That simply won’t do as it is unfair, unrealistic and misses the larger point about human sociality. Sociality is a core human need not easily abandoned. Being able to socialize is both a need and a right. And the larger point is that increasingly, we socialize online.

People do want to share information online, but not necessarily with the whole world but with their own chosen audiences of friends, family, and acquaintances. Given that ample research shows the importance of robust social networks to health, well-being, longevity, economic achievement, civic life and a healthy democracy, it is time to stop treating the infrastructure of sociality as a mere commodity controlled by the whims, and profit motives, of large corporations.

Users of sites like Facebook (Google and YouTube are other examples) provide valuable infrastructure that captures and monetizes work its users put in, be it in terms of rich social data or search keywords or auction items or video production. Users of these sites are “prosumers,” who produce as well as consume; as co-creators of these sites, they have a strong moral claim to treatment with respect and to a role in determining the rules by which they operate.

Finally, ownership does not provide a blank check to freely do what one wants with personal and often quite intimate information. The European Union already has regulation, and other countries may follow suit. In other spheres, U.S. law also recognizes that dignity trumps property rights; in most states, tenants in rented dwellings have a right to privacy which landlords are not allowed to violate at will. Why can’t we have such rights in our online dwellings?

For now, Facebook should follow the lead of Google and roll back all its changes, offering them as options to be chosen freely. But even if companies do the right thing, it’s past time for a broader social discussion about our rights in the new digital commons.

Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town

Do people have any grounds to complain about the latest changes to the rules of publicness of various elements of a Facebook profile? Or is the only legitimate response “love-it or leave-it?”

Lately, Facebook has been pushing a dual strategy of “public-or-nothing” with some profile elements and “public-by-default and good-luck-figuring-out-the-settings” with others.  Some influential industry analysts and Facebook’s own publicity officer have taken a “nobody is twisting your arm to use Facebook; leave if you don’t like it” approach.

The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service.

At face value, it seems like a fair point. Nobody is forcing anyone to use Facebook or any other online social network service. At most, it seems, we have a right to complain about obscure terms-of-service and demand for better language and better heads-up of changes. At most, the strongest demand that is seen as legitimate seems to be that we should be allowed to opt-in.

I argue that this is too limited a view. We have to stop looking at the “Facebook – lone individual” transaction and look at what’s going on at the systemic level. This isn’t just about Facebook, either. This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately-owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out.

The latest developments appear to be the next stage to the historical trend of privatization of our publics. Examples of those include the dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere, outsourcing of many government functions to less-accountable contractors including some aspects of war, increasing reduction of our public spaces to malls and privately-owned town-squares, such as downtown Silver Spring, MD where first-amendment does not apply, etc.

What is currently happening is the privatization of our privates, not just our publics. And this is not a mere question of legality but a lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. In some sense, this parallels the lack of carrying of wiretap protections on the phone to the Internet – the social relations did not change but the medium changed allowing for a gap in legal protections.

The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service. No more closed doors! You had locks last week but we don’t allow them as of this week. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Further, it is as if all the housing in the major city with the jobs was owned by a single company so the choice was either leave that town or surrender control over your private life. “Don’t like it, leave!” the bosses of the company town (and other people in positions of privilege would say.) And shake their heads over the inability of people to read the terms-of-service on their ever-changing lease. The value of Facebook is that people have created their networks through its infrastructure, and they have done so with the understanding that the network would be under their control because that is what Facebook said initially. Instead, all of a sudden, they’ve found themselves in a company town. This cannot be a viable strategy, ethically or commercially.

There is a reason the law recognizes the right of the tenant to privacy within her home regardless of ownership. People are not businesses, sociality is not a mere transaction, and our social interactions are more than opportunities for monetization.

There are four key points to the infrastructure of sociality:

1- Being social is not optional. It is a core human need and a requirement for being a part of society. It is legitimate to argue that the infrastructure of sociality cannot be just about priorities of businesses and intricacies of ownership.

2- Every society has “commons” – shared infrastructure that makes it possible for the society as a whole to function. Internet is now a part of that commons in general and many social applications such as Facebook are part of the “social commons.” That is why Facebook, the corporation, is so valuable and people who own it are very rich. It would not be wise of them to ignore that fact.

3- These commons function to the degree that they do because they are shared. You cannot merely withdraw because the value is in the network. Thus, claims of ownership of the network cause tension because of the dual-nature of this network: it is created by the people and consists of the people while the infrastructure is privately controlled. Currently, the infrastructure-owners want to claim primary control. That is the tension we are witnessing.

4- The “transaction between parties” approach is not illuminating because first, the transaction is not between equals. Power has to enter into this analysis. Further, people do have a claim to the network because they created it. Facebook wants all the control because it owns the infrastructure.

Historically, the private sphere tended to be intimate/hidden/personal while the public sphere was civic/visible/impersonal. The internet has shuffled those distinctions quite radically in ways that are too long to explore in one already-too-long blog post. Our cultural toolkit, the ways we know how to act, regulate, maintain and explore those boundaries, has not caught up to the new reality. Sociologists talk about primary (intimate, core, face-to-face) and secondary (larger groups) social relations. While the second may involve a larger audience, they are both still delimited. Facebook is forcing elements of that sociality to be effectively globally-public.

As a society, we understand that ownership of infrastructure does not constitute a blank check to publicize and monetize private interactions. We should carry over that principle to new technologies because what matters is our social contract, not whether the interaction now takes place over silicon and wire instead of through sound and air.

Should shopping malls have the right to surreptitiously record every word you say to the person you are with and sell it to whomever? Do they have a right to put cameras in the lavatories? Do tenants have a right to privacy? If I am on a bus, or a train, or business, or anywhere that I do not own, have I forfeited all rights and expectations of control over my words and interactions? Indeed, law recognizes that the fundamental dignity of the person means that we do not just surrender those rights in privately-owned spaces. Facebook should recognize and honor those principles.

Can Facebook still make money? Sure. I believe there are many ways that Facebook could monetize the work that its 400 millions have put into its system without trampling over the basic social contract.

Ultimately, I think they are the biggest threat to themselves because affordances of the Internet do mean that people could self-organize and take the network elsewhere with a lot more ease than Facebook seems to think. I suspect Facebook is betting that people have too much invested in their profiles. It may well be true at the moment but Facebook would be wise, commercially and ethically, to keep in mind the ease with which cascades can self-organize in networks.