I was reading the always thoughtful and reflective Alex H’s post Facebook retreats where he talks about the privacy issues floating about there, and how the people running Facebook have responded…
…designers failed to predict the potential privacy implications of their systems. It’s worth contrasting these with another rollout over the last few weeks: Flickr’s addition of photo geotagging capabilities. …they made clear when you started geotagging that it would affect your privacy, and gave you a reasonably fine-grained control over who would see what.
I’m not suggesting that more participatory design and evolution, particularly for social systems, isn’t a good thing or a necessary thing. But I think a more pressing issue may be preparing our designers—both on the CS/application coding side and on the designerly user experience side—to think more about the moral impact of their code.
This led me to muse on thin vs thick social networking technologies:
I wonder if this sort of problem isn’t in itself embedded in the architecture itself… this has to be a question, as I’m not as versed in Facebook as I might… mostly because I wrote it off as uninteresting to me as an educator, though recognizing its interest to IS and sociology people. FB is one of the thin social technologies; linking people and building social networks, but never plumbing the depths of the individuals or social relationships. It is always the event, the happening, the cocktail party, the rave perhaps, (insert current social activity). It is not the kitchen conversation at a party, the dinner with Andre, tuesdays with Morrie. It may be a funeral, but never a wake. With thin social technologies, one can build a community, but never actually have a community, thinking back to Rheingold. It got me thinking of some of Wellman’s stuff… it is not what we do with a technology that is important, it is what we say with a technology. I always rant that computers are tools for putting people in touch with people (and the personal products that they create). And I guess that this stands but with thin social technologies the connection is all that is there. Just a link, a line, contact information, event planner… what we’re doing, and to a lesser extent what we did.
Of course it is thin, because we only show our good sides. Social networking technologies never have a slot for morning breath, inability to finish a thought, non-standard sexual orientation, or bad hair. Thin social communication technologies are also thin because they do not allow or afford the opportunity to look beyond the surface.
So what is a thick social technology? Example-wise I would say that Flickr! and LiveJournal.com (or Vox) are prime and very different examples. Flickr! is very hot in people’s minds… sharing and tagging photos. Livejournal is often derided on the other hand. But both through photography and text, provide the possibility for generating thick descriptions… deep and rich visual or textual narratives about an individual and her/his way of seeing and interacting with others in the world. When you look back over 5 years of someone’s blog or someone’s photo-stream you can see development and growth, where it is happening. Or the potential is there; in a way that it never is with thin technologies. If someone reads on my blog, they can see 6 years of my life, such that I’ve chosen to make public, and they can tell if they think that I’m a good person or not, interesting or not, thoughtful or shallow. Try doing that with a thin technology where all you get is a business card, likes and dislikes and an event calendar.
Both flickr! and LJ have rather well developed privacy tools for tagging personal and private content in a public space, as well as public. This is key.
When someone sees my ‘thick description’ I am also able to see theirs. And if I don’t like what I see, I can block them from seeing me. That’s what it is like when we open our hearts and minds to others in face to face social situations. A statement or comment on a post or photo can be read back into the commenter’s own work or thoughts… you have context and reciprocity.
I never engage with an LJ or flickr! user who has not posted images, thoughts or information about themselves (except my students who use these technologies under duress). I can’t see why I would bother communicating with someone who is themselves a closed book. And when the book is open and full, I feel that I am able to have a good sense of who I am talking to.
This speaks to the problems of MySpace that came up this year, and how children were running into problems. MySpace is another thin social technology that in my own mind I thought of as MyHype. It seemed to be used as a tool for self-promotion, even when the promotion was a fantasy fiction of yourself. As the dominant discourse of the space is a “fantasy fiction of yourself” it is easy to see how children (children covers up to 18 in Canada when it relates to these sort of issues) who are not yet the most sophisticated in their social dealings with others can be so easily manipulated.
I should wrap this up, as it is too long for most people’s online attention span, and aside from Clevergirl few people seem to read this. Suffice it to say that when social communication technologies provide a two-way dialogue with narrative descriptions of self over a sustained period of time you are left with a rich and complex model of the individual (in terms of what they want to share online), and it is much easier to have a sense of who you are talking to, who their social network is (and what those people are like). You can never trust someone online any more than you can in real life… but when in both situations you ‘know’ someone’s family and friends over a period of time you have a deeper sense of who they are and you can made rather valid social decisions based on this information.
Some people get picked up at bars. Some people meet when attending the reunion of their best friend’s extended family.