|Digital Social Life: Undersampling - saturday 2009-04-04 2221||last modified 2009-04-14 2339|
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I'm not on Facebook or any other social networking site. Stop, though; this is not a rant about youngsters and their new media coming from an old guard IRC-was-all-we-needed luddite (and I arrived after IRC's dominance; I'm not yet a total fossil). Let's leap away from the potential quagmire of my non-Facebook entity declaration up front: the social philosophy of the evolving web is one I observe with interest but participate in with wariness.
In the last century, each generation has gotten its own technology shift leading to deeper social shifts: cars, radio, planes, telephones, television, email, dial-up, cell phones, broadband, web 2.0+ simultaneously shrinking our world and further dividing us. Each successive technology has taken less and less infrastructure deployment and personal investment as a barrier to participation. Cars needed freeways and fueling stations; Twitter requires access to a network-enabled browser or an SMS-enabled phone (building on prior infrastructure, requiring none of its own to be minted afresh). As the barrier lowers, the amount of consideration drops accordingly. Why not get a Facebook account? It materially costs you nothing up front and takes but a moment.
There lies my first major philosophical issue with such easy access technology. It's just as easy for anybody to build something like Facebook - any idiot Harvard dropout could dupe somebody into it - but there's no reason to believe the founding entity is ethical. For one, I'm willing to participate in media based on some type of standards, de jure or de facto, but I don't believe that the companies behind social networks are ever going to turn themselves into open frameworks. Their only extant revenue stream requires capturing as many eyeballs as possible. This certainly puts me well behind the curve of participation: the day when social networks aren't trying to play king of the hill and actually compete to give users full control of content publication, privacy, and access is internet light years away. And yet they still don't have real business plans... That doesn't bode well for me placing anything about me in their hands. What happens when Facebook gets desperate?
Which leads me to a consideration on privacy. I don't want to leave a tell-tale trail through various corners of the digital world that allows anybody to correlate or deduce anything I wouldn't otherwise voluntarily disclose. If I'm buying a widget, there's only so much a vendor needs to know and no more, and they certainly shouldn't be sharing that with anybody else. As research shows, it's not hard to learn something about somebody using sparse data, and it's really, really tempting for all sorts of entities to pursue. There are enough overwrought media stories about the horrors of young people ruining their futures that should at least inspire some pause in recording life details in full public view. There's never been a medium like the web, where memories are no longer the only matter of record. Google and The Wayback Machine make it permanent, and searchably permanent at that. It's different; behavior must adapt.
Ultimately, though, my philosophical issues have to do with the comparative paucity of digital communication. To be digital is to sample reality; it's the difference between riding a square wave and a perfectly sinusoidal one writ into every corner, an unavoidable cornerstone of the system that enables greater volume and reach but lacks subtleties; much like writing - I could expound on this one point for pages, but to keep your attention I'll only focus on the part that stands out most. We deal with the paucity - happily, often - but the limitations come back and reshape the original intent. We frequently aren't even aware of the process. Want to share a song you bought with your friend? Most often, the technology in place says you can't; so you're forced into a binary choice: either you don't or you find a copy that isn't restricted to pass along.
I was reminded of this watching a group I was part of struggle with the meaning of a Meetup group. The real problem at its core was not complex: whatever buttons and levers Meetup offered were not enough to properly model what this group wanted to do with the service, leaving it either too open or too closed. Technical solutions are perhaps possible, with fine-grained role-based authorization, but the issue never really goes away; we can't capture everybody's minute preferences, settings, needs in a digital system. Usually it's good enough.
It isn't good enough for me when it comes to modeling social interaction. I prefer the analog relationship (don't we all), and I see no value in allowing the limitations of a digital service, particularly one (or all) where friendship is a binary choice to either accept or reject, to affect their exercise. Because the information in the model is so sparse, we're prone to fill in the gaps with our own suppositions and assumptions. Even knowing the diplomatic and relationally healthy thing to do is to go to the source when the meaning of some action is unclear, it's human nature to fill in the space of a reject with angst. We're just not going to infer correctly; we never do, and now we have a hundred systemically enforced interactions to do it with every day. Even when it comes to people we legitimately wouldn't keep in touch with, the practice of shunning / accepting and subsequently ignoring people can't help but write itself back into other arenas of our lives. The supposed benefits don't outweigh the more pernicious drawbacks.
So I'm this close to dropping what little I did with Twitter.