After reading two of the complete answers from this debate by Jeff Jarvis and Danah Boyd respectively, I’ve gathered some thoughts on relationships on the Internet and why I believe the simplest solution might be the best.
The case I am making is that of how Twitter’s “open-endedness” might be the sanest way of tackling the cruxes of online privacy. If we begin with a bit of background, I recently linked to the excellent post The Social Graph is Neither, by Maciej Ceglowski on the Pinboard Blog.
In that post he talks about the labeling problem of social relationships in a computer environment, and how they don’t take into account how these relationsships develop, or degrade, over time — unless you manage them.
Google, for example, uses XFN as part of their Social Graph API. This defines a set of about twenty allowed relationships. (Facebook has a much more austere set:
restricted, and the weaselly
But these common relationships turn out to be kind of slippery. To use XFN as my example, how do I decide if my cubicle mate is a
acquaintanceor just a
contact? And if I call him my
friend, should I interpret that in the northern California sense, or in in some kind of universal sense of friendship?
Danah Boyd goes on to answer the question “Question: How much should people care about privacy?” with great insight, writing:
Social media has prompted a radical shift. We’ve moved from a world that is “private-by-default, public-through-effort” to one that is “public-by-default, private-with-effort.” Most of our conversations in a face-to-face setting are too mundane for anyone to bother recording and publicizing. They stay relatively private simply because there’s no need or desire to make them public.
So we have these two specific things. The problem of labeling social relationships, and the problem of being public-by-default, private-with-effort. Combined they create a situation where you need to meta-manage your relationship with a person, and by doing so you are publicly declaring what and how your relationship is. The former does, as Ceglowski writes, not degrade with time, and once set you need to actively meta-manage that relationship again, if it transgresses into another type of relationship—as real world relationships often do.
These two things become a connection where the content between to persons is connected through the previously set personal connection, and registered, archived and fully accessible for the foreseeable future.
I, for one, have discovered old conversations in my Facebook timeline I’ve had with people I now don’t have any contact with anymore (which is a shame) because the relationship transgressed into a deteriorated state. This could be considered being just fine, since it applies to all (that has an account on facebook) just the same. Though it’s really not fine—as all of that data, sometimes private information, is actually being used to define me as a advertising target group.
Meaning that not only does Facebook/Google+ associate my own content, interests and behavior as part of my identity, but also what type of relationship I have with my particular “friends”, their content, interests and behaviors and how that relationships might reflect on me (as I am probably more likely to be influenced by an intimate relationship rather than an acquaintance).
This relationship model has apparently spawned its own risk reduction strategies. Danah Boyd writes, on this topic:
Mikalah uses Facebook but when she goes to log out, she deactivates her Facebook account. She knows that this doesn’t delete the account – that’s the point. She knows that when she logs back in, she’ll be able to reactivate the account and have all of her friend connections back. But when she’s not logged in, no one can post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content.
This is a very sane strategy if one wants to control the content associated with oneself. But it’s clearly insane that you have to resort to this type of actions in order to control your online presence.
This is the point where I present the exception that proves the rule. That exception is spelled Twitter. Specifically: their lack of relationship labels. You just follow or get followed (you know this already).
Not only does the lack of relationship labels circumvent the problems associated with it, the lack of a consolidated identity allows Twitter users to act through a persona. Something that we usually do in real life as well, according to context.
A persona allows you to make mistakes. A fixed/consolidated identity does not. Whatever you do and say as your fixed identity is equally fixed to your actual person, regardless of the context of the situation—whether that is a drunk status update, a joke, or a poorly constructed comment.
These two features of Twitter, or rather lack thereof, is why Twitter is “doing identity right”, as Chris Poole states in his Web Summit 2.0 Talk. However, the latest update to the official Twitter client enforces the real name field to be shown next to the tweets, instead of the Twitter handle. On the plus side, they don’t have a name policy like certain other networks do.
Now, I am not the right person to judge how this has affected Twitter’s success or not, but what I want to point out with this is that their model is on the better side of how you should handle digital identity. But it seems to be right, if one were to follow the thoughts of Clay Shirky on the matter.
Although, even with a persona, a mistake could haunt you, as one should always remember the difference between a fleeting conversation and the fixedness of text in a digital environment.