Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Competing Facebook Architectures

Newsweek's recent article got me thinking...

I still remember the slightly haunting image that greeted me the first time I signed on to Facebook. The ubiquitous literal face of the site (later I learned it was that of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg), filtered through a haze of binary code, gave off the creepy sense that one had entered a secret community maintained by omniscient hands. Facebook’s face has since disappeared from it’s webpages- perhaps many felt as uncomfortable about it as I did- as has some of the site’s mysterious aura. Now one of the hottest and most talked about Internet companies, the online social networking site is a common feature in the lives of many (dare I say most?) of its targeted core demographic, college students. And with the gradual inclusion of high school, company, and now citywide and regional networks (and soon to be multiple languages), it is beginning to take off with others as well.

However, the disappearance of the quirky logo symbolizes a much larger shift, one that has come under greater scrutiny of late as Facebook moves to position itself among other Internet behemoths, such as Google and YouTube. While some view these changes as merely an expansion, in reality the company is altering the underlying architecture of the system, a system that was originally developed to be specifically inclusive as well as exclusive. This shift, whether conscious or not, could threaten to disturb much of the original intent and attractiveness of the site. Only time will tell if the new direction will successfully cope with the consequences incurred.

It’s clear that the Internet revolution we have witnessed over the last decade and a half has had an incredible impact on how the world communicates. This is seen no less in the ways we utilize these new technologies to socialize. E-mail, weblogs, instant messaging, and social networking sites have all greatly increased the access we have to our friends, as well as introduced mediums through which new formulas for interaction have emerged. I remember distinctly how one of my closest college friends became involved with her eventual long-term boyfriend primarily through instant messaging conversations. Who’s to say what would (or wouldn’t) have happened if she had not had this specific mode of communication, at once intimate, informal and un-intimidating, by which she could develop a connection with her crush? As Facebook the company itself claims, the key to its success is building off social networks that exist in the real world. Mark Zuckerberg notes himself in his recent interview with Newsweek that he envisions his creation “not [as] a social-networking site but a ‘utility,’ a tool to facilitate the information flow between users and their compatriots, family members and professional connections.”

Whatever one wants to call it, early on Facebook definitely attempted to conform to a notion of social boundaries, in this case dictated by the college stratum. This sort of architecture allowed for a continuation of the semipublic, semiprivate space in which users could interact freely within their comfortable social nest. The structure worked especially well for the founding college networks, Ivy League and other small, elite private schools that in many ways function as insulated, self-contained social groupings (at my school it was referred to as the Amherst “bubble”).

To be sure, Facebook didn’t merely imitate real social networks, it also influenced and altered them. By taking an existing grouping, that of a college campus, and increasing the transparency of it to its users, it deepened a sense of community within these networks. Facebook “groups” and “events” reflected an insider perspective, and stories and photos fodder for campus news and gossip. At the same time, in some cases the use of the online social-networking tool also maintained and even reinforced social barriers, as I myself realized when I tried to explain to my parents news that was old-hat to anyone with an account.

It’s unsurprising that the creators of Facebook would attempt to expand the network in light of the sensation it created. Indeed, key to the success of such sites is its use by the majority of one’s social network. Soon after its creation olleges across the country began pouring into the network, dozens a week. It’s rare to find a college nowadays that doesn’t have a Facebook presence. However, realizing the potential for growth outside its traditional market, as well as the pressure from both sides of the college-age demographic (both wannabe high schoolers and graduating pioneer Facebookers), Mark Zuckerberg & co. decided to take the network in a new direction. Opening up Facebook first to high schoolers, then companies, and finally to anyone with a valid e-mail address, Facebook suddenly became a much more populist endeavor. And while the initial expansions into high school and corporate networks maintained at some level the inclusive-exclusive feel of the site, in general the company’s policies and innovations have decidedly taken what could be called a Myspace-like route. In fact, it is hard not to surmise that Facebook has attempted to cash in on Myspace’s less hands-on strategy. Although it adamantly maintains control over layout, innovations such as developer tools reflect the growing impression of the need to give users more control (As a side note, this new language has also helped to ensure rapid innovation, a key to maintaining the interest of users. Users no longer having to rely on Facebook itself to create the next new fancy gadget, as a willing army of young college-age students and commercial marketers are chomping at the bit to attain fame or an extra dollar).

The dynamic between the Facebook classic and Myspace architectures essentially comes down to an emphasis on freedom versus security/comfort. With Myspace, the free-spirit of the Internet, embodied in the legality of HTML manipulation on profile pages (the heart and soul of online social networks), allows for a sense of individuality and expression that many crave, as is demonstrated by the shear popularity of the networking site. Facebook, while appealing to individuality, maintains a stricter sense of belonging and privileged access. This more rigid structure succeeds because it is built along real social boundaries, and thus reinforces communities with implicit links of trust. Facebook social networking is less about creating new networks than about deepening already existing networks, as Mark Zuckerberg himself admits in the recent Newsweek article. Myspace, by contrast, abounds with people searching out new professional contacts, consumer markets, or romantic interests.

There are prices to be paid for either type of network architecture. With the Facebook (classic) model, one must adhear to preset aesthetic and format standards, limiting expression. In addition, these networks also attempt to conform to real-life social boundaries, and thus have less flexibility than some would wish in a virtual utopia. However, the benefits of such a system can often outweigh the alternatives, as illustrated in the Myspace model. First, de-emphasis on networks debases their significance. Identities selected within a meaningful set of options, in this case college affiliations, mean more than comparing affiliations between schools, companies, cities and regions. Are the social networks of all but the largest university and a city even comparable? Another consequence is the increasing emptiness in communication. Spamming and commercialization devalue group forums, walls and event invitations (Facebook’s introduction of the News Feed was actually a clever means of maintaining the significance of information and communication transfer in the face of ballooning networks, but imagine the effect when the majority of feeds are advertisements and impersonal notes). A third issue is that less barriers to access means that more people can see how you interact, whether you want them to or not. The growing concern over employers’ use of Facebook highlights this problem.

These issues go beyond a sense of lost innocence in the network. If there is any doubt about the perceived difference between these two systems, one need not look further than the online protests that rocked Facebook in response to the decision to open up the site. Groups against the increased access abounded, with many threatening to discontinue use if the status quo was not maintained. In response, Facebook has taken great steps to increase options concerning access and distribution of information, which admittedly did much to calm discontented users. Still, this is only a partial solution since it doesn’t address the underlying reasons for a need for increased security. No longer contained within relatively trusted networks, the freedom of the Internet becomes a dangerously foggy place, where understanding over who does and doesn’t have access is clouded.

The interesting dilemma of Facebook’s evolution brings about paradoxical questions of elitism and hierarchy in these online networks: How to maintain the inclusiveness and community of a Facebook model while also encompassing a more individualistic, less exclusionary system similar to Myspace. It is a difficult question, but I believe one would do well to address it by going back to Zuckerberg’s claim about Facebook as a tool meant to facilitate existing networks. As Bowling Alone’s Robert Putnam notes, sites such as Facebook may be the most useful as a socializing ‘alloy’ that maintains strong links to real-world networks. Creating these distinctions, or at least creating room to define them, may be a way of reinforcing such real-world connections.

Saying all this, I’ll no doubt continue using my Facebook account to stay in touch with friends, to chat, snoop and gossip. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that I must make a decision about how I use Facebook: whether to connect with friends, update parents and older relatives, facilitate my professional/academic future, etc.. Of course some of this decision-making has already been done for me (Facebook’s popularity discourages posting every detail about my personal life in my photo albums for instance), but to an extent I still have some choice. It is difficult, however, for me to choose all of the above and have my account maintain its usefulness, since I can’t (or won’t) interact with friends and censor myself at the same time. I don’t know which path I will eventually choose, but rest assured, as it now stands it will be a decision I will have to make.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Blackfacing Still Around??

Wow. I can't believe that UNICEF actually went along with this advertisement campaign. I guess I could see someone thinking it was a clever idea if they were really oblivious to the deeper implications of such depictions and unaware of the racist history of "blackfacing," but really, there's no excuse for it.

I think that critics are right when they state that many in the US and Europe can't get away from a narrow, blunted view of Africa. Unfortunately, even good intentions suffer from these problems. I can only speak as an American, but living in a racialized society with a history of prejudice creates a regretful reality where such "mistakes" (we hope) perpetuate ignorance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dirty Fingerprints All Over Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia pretty regularly for all sorts of things, and despite all the criticism about its open-source nature (which I whole-heartedly agree has some drawbacks), I think that it generally can be a good source of information.

But especially interesting is the transparency of the site. You can look up discussions about edits, and apparently also locate the sources of edits. Of course, as this article points out, this doesn't mean we know exactly who is responsible for the changes. I'm sure too that organizations such as the CIA and the Vatican will be more discreet with their edits, or at least more explicit with their Internet AUPs. But it's nice to know that the Internet is still a relatively transparent place.

UPDATE: Hilarious. Apparently BBC is not above its own criticisms, although it is above reporting about them. At least they've come out and admitted their mistake. But leave it up to bloggers to leave no stone unturned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Registering Iranian Blogs

It's a little old, but I was struck by this article that I happened across recently. The government's actions are perfectly in line with their other attempts to censor the net, but trying to get 100,000+ active bloggers to register? How are they planning on doing that I ask? It would have been much simpler to start off with a registering system, but of course that is part of the systemic problem with Internet censorship in Iran. Like satellite tv before it, the regime has been slow to pick up on the dangers of the Internet, and without a comprehensive strategy for dealing with it, their uncoordinated tactics seem sloppy. Of course part of that has to do with the necessary impression of democratic legitimacy that the regime must feign. Still, I think the underlying problem is one of disunity. Of course, this doesn't mean that their actions are impotent. Iranian bloggers still have to deal with the consequences.

Oh, and the article mentions Ahmadinejad's own blog as well. Pretty funny stuff.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Malaria Mondays and a Blast From the Past

Today is "Malaria Monday" for me. For the next three weeks I'll be taking the antimalarial drug Lariam for a test drive to see if I have any negative side-effects. As the nurse who proscribed me the pills said, "if you start seeing pink elephants and no one else is, we'll need to talk." Apparently the drug can cause a small percentage of people to have "night terrors" and other hallucinations. Depressed people aren't supposed to take it. Only happy thoughts for me this month!

This weekend I came across the Internet Archive, a site that archives old and extinct websites. I ran a search and guess what, I found my old blog! Unfortunately not all of the posts were saved, which means that my very first posts are gone forever as far as I can tell. But it was still nice to see that I could have some access to it, especially the links that I collected during my project.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Live BBC Interview

I just came upon this BBC interview of a group of Congolese from the Katanga. It's interesting because it's a group interview conducted in real-time with questions coming in via the Internet from all over the world. Similarly to the much hyped YouTube US presidential debate, it brings a new perspective to the issue at hand, the then upcoming DRC national elections, by presenting questions not normally asked by reporters. However, I think the most significant aspect is the real interaction between interviewers and the interviewees. I liked the realization by the Congolese interviewees that they were able to address the entire world, and that the world was concerned with their problems. I'd like to set something up during my trip with locals and friends and family back home. It'd be a real kick to find out the similarities and differences between sides.