[Air-l] Facebook protests

Nancy Baym nbaym at ku.edu
Thu Sep 7 07:02:24 PDT 2006

>While we might call users naive for not understanding how 'privacy'
>works on the internet, we might also call the designers behind Facebook
>naive for not understanding how privacy works in the social world.

This raises a point for me that I have been thinking about a lot in 
the last several months as another social networking site where I 
spend time (last.fm) introduced some fairly large changes that were 
done, apparently, with no systematic understanding of how its users 
use the site, what they do and don't like, etc. (in one thread, one 
of their developers described their process of studying their 
million+ users as reading the emails they get, reading the forums, 
and imagining themselves as new users, all methods which make the 
social scientist in me SCREAM for better data on which to make 
decisions). It's not a question of privacy in this case, and though 
some last.fm users are unhappy, they have not been crying out in 
protest to the same extent that facebook users seem to be, but I find 
my own interest in the site lessened, and see the amount of 
interesting peer-activity on the site dropping since the changes.

What I find interesting, and frankly rather upsetting, and cannot yet 
fully articulate (help fellow listers!) is that we (speaking here as 
a user) get invested in these sites. We use them to build identities, 
to create connections, to network, for whatever purposes. We spend a 
lot of time there and we get invested through time, social 
connections, and affect. And then the developers get a new idea and 
suddenly we all have to live with it or leave. To use the front lawn 
metaphor, it's as though they decide that actually the streets 
shouldn't be on a grid pattern, they should all be cul-de-sacs and if 
you didn't want to live on a cul-de-sac, well, move to a new town. 
Who were you to think you had any say in city planning?

As these sites become more and more integral to everyday experience, 
it seems the developers have more and more of an obligation to 
understand and their users, and to incorporate their concerns into 
the design before making big changes, and to give people options for 
managing problematic elements of the changes they decide to make 
anyhow (in the facebook case, turning off the minifeed for your own 

There seems to be a real difference between the ethical and practical 
obligations to users in these "web2" sites and the way that 
businesses have related to their customers in the past. As I say, 
this is not something I've worked through, but design and 
development, customer service, public relations, and community 
relations all seem to merge in new ways.

Does anyone have more thought-through ways to think about what I'm 
trying to get at here?


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