Posts about facebook

One identity or more?

Given the discussion about Facebook enabling other sites to use its comment infrastructure — and what that means for identity and anonymity in discussion — I thought I’d share some of what I’m saying about the question of multiple identities in my book, .

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One tactic to cope with the fear of exposure and overexposure is anonymity. Anonymity has its place. It protects the speech of Chinese dissidents, Iranian protestors, and corporate whistleblowers. It allows Wikileaks to expose secrets. It helps people share, for example, medical data and benefit others without having to reveal themselves. It lets people play with new identities. When the game company Blizzard Entertainment tried to bring real identity into the forums around its massive, multi-player games, including World of WarCraft, players revolted, and no wonder: Who wants everyone to know that in your other life, you see yourself as a level 80 back-stabbing night elf rogue who ganks lowbies at the Crossroads? Taking on identities—pseudonymity—is the fun of it.

But anonymity is often the cloak of cowards. Anonymous trolls—of the human race, not the WarCraft type—attack people online, lobbing snark at Julia Allison, spreading rumors and lies about public figures, sabotaging a politician’s Wikipedia page, or saying stupid stuff in the comments on my blog. I tell commenters there that I will respect what they have to say more if they have the guts to stand behind their own words with their own names, as I do.

Real identity has improved the tone and tenor of interaction online. That was Facebook’s key insight. Twitter’s, too. Tweeters want credit for their cleverness; they are rewarded with followers and retweets, their nanoseconds of microfame. Facebook is built on real relationships with real people in real life. “The whole thing was based on this foundation of reality,” Mark Zuckerberg says in an interview. “That doesn’t mean that every single thing is true. But on balance, I think it’s a lot more real than other things on the internet. In that way, I think, yes, it does create authenticity.”

Zuckerberg believes we have one authentic identity and says it is becoming “less and less true” that people will maintain separate identities. Emily Gould, admitted oversharer, agrees. Julia Allison, on the other hand, sides with those who say we should maintain many identities—one for work, another for school, another for home, another for friends. Those folks say we get in trouble online when these identities mix and blur, when our boss sees our picture from the college beer party (as if bosses never had beer). In a New York Times Magazine piece arguing that “the internet records everything and forgets nothing,” Jeffrey Rosen tells the story of a 25-year-old student-teacher who was deprived of her diploma after posting a MySpace photo of herself drinking over the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” On his blog, Scott Rosenberg counters that “the photo is harmless; the trouble lies with the people who have turned it into a problem.”

What needs to change is not so much our behavior, our rules, or our technology but, again, our norms: how we operate as a society and interact with each other. When presented with someone’s public face, which may differ from our own, is our response to disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and snipe, or is it to try to understand differences, offer empathy, overlook foolishness, offer freedom, and share in kind? When we do the former—and we all have—we are guilty of intolerance, sometimes bigotry. When we do the latter we become open-minded. I suggested in my last book that because we are all more public, we will soon operate under the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation: I’ll spare you making fun of your embarrassing pictures if you’ll do the same for me. “An age of transparency,” says author David Weinberger, “must be an age of forgiveness.”

There are two forces at work here: identity and reputation. Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict. As I was discussing these topics on my blog, Weinberger left a sage comment wondering about what he called the private-public axis:

Marilyn Monroe was a public figure but most of us are private citizens. That used to be pretty easy to compute and, because of the nature of the broadcast medium, it used to tend toward one extreme or another: He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. But there’s another private-public axis: who we really are and how we look to others. We have tended to believe, at least in the West, that our true self is the inner self. The outer, public self may or may not reflect our inner, private self, and we have an entire moral/normative vocabulary to talk about the relation of the two: sincerity, authenticity, integrity, honesty….

Those are the two identities we are trying to manage—not our work selves and our home selves, not our party selves and our serious selves, but our inner, real selves and our outer, show selves. When our inner and outer selves get into conflict and confusion, we look inauthentic and hypocritical. In all our spoken fears about privacy and publicness, I think this is the great unspoken fear: that we’re not who people think we are, and we’ll be found out.

These are new skills for everyone, celebrity and commoner alike. Marilyn Monroe never had to deal with blogs and Twitter, let alone 24-hour TV news. She had press agents to create and manage her identity and big, frightening security people to keep the scary strangers away. Today, stars and pols have to deal with being constantly exposed. When they are caught in a contradiction of words or deeds—not exactly a challenge—they suffer the gotcha. Then again, stars like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Howard Stern are grabbing the opportunity on Twitter to interact directly with their publics without scripts or PR people in-between. Reputation.com, which makes a business out of helping people whose online reputation is being harmed by others, suggests that the solution is not to hide but to publish more about yourself so that will rise in Google’s search about you. The way to improve your reputation is to share more of your identity.

The best solution is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk with your shrink. Better yet, blog about it.

Public Parts: atomize & reform

I’ve been rewriting the introduction to Public Parts — both because it needs it and because of events in Egypt and elsewhere. This segment, from the end of the introduction, is related to the post below. I thought I’d share it with you as it adds some more thinking on the same topics:

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Technology is forcing us to question centuries-old assumptions about the roles of the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy. In recent centuries, being public “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, with our individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom but that freedom is often used to collect into new societies.

Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.

The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not. I mean it’s our tool of disruption, the catalyst that breaks old bonds once again and sets us loose to explore our natures anew. This transformation takes trivial form: we no longer all watch the same, shared news with the same, one-size-fits-all viewpoint. R.I.P. Uncle Walter. Clearly, this transformation also takes earth-shattering form: revolutions, dead industries, economic upheaval. We atomize. We reform. We want to be apart—too far apart, some fear. See the book Bowling Alone, in which Robert Putnam worries that we are becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and society. But then we want to be together. That book inspired entrepreneur Scott Heiferman to found Meetup.com, a platform that lets groups organize meetings in person around whatever interests they have, from dogs to dance, sci-fi to society. Atomize. Reform. We can now find the publics we wish to join based not on the gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us by others—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, hunters, birders, even privacy advocates.

Publicness is an emblem of epochal change. It is profoundly disruptive. Publicness threatens institutions whose power was invested in the control of information and audiences. That’s why we hear the incumbents protest this change and warn of its dangers. Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at their expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say. So if they are to survive and prosper, companies, governments, and institutions must learn to deal with us at eye-level, with respect for us as individuals and respect for the power we can now wield as groups—as publics. Many will not survive and will be replaced by entrepreneurs and insurgents, both good and bad.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable; resistance is futile. But the form our new society will take is by no means predestined. We are at a critical moment with many choices. We who hold the tools of publicness hold keys to the future. We must decide how to use them. Rather than baying at the moon and cursing the tide, we would be wise to find opportunity and advantage, to decide the kind of future we want to build. . . . Now is the moment and we are the people to give shape to our next society. In each of our roles as individuals, parents, employees, employers, citizens, officials, and neighbors, each of us is deciding how private to be (safe, protective, closed, sometimes solitary, often anonymous) and how public (open, collaborative, collective, and vulnerable).

I remember watching the drama of Egypt’s revolution play out on Twitter. Silly little Twitter. It was supposed to be made for nothing more than sharing the narcissistic trivia of our lives as we each answered the simple question: What are you doing now? As if the world should care, right? During the Egyptian revolt, I tweeted how jarring the contrast could be between the very everyday updates of people I knew—meals, dates, travels, shows, complaints, cats—flowing next to the messages of courage, fear, exhilaration, and determination I saw from the brave people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, strangers I was coming to know and respect by the minute.

@ghonim—Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was credited with helping spark this revolution using a Facebook page—had been held prisoner by Hosni Mubarak’s police; his followers and fans would believe he was free only when they saw him say so in a tweet. He used the tool to deliver news, inspiration, and support: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” On the night 17 days into the 18-day revolution when the people of the square believed the dictator Mubarak would leave—but he did not—@ghonim had tweeted, “Heading to Tahrir” and “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” The next morning, Mubarak was not gone. The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness. And then Mubarak did leave. “Welcome back, Egypt,” he tweeted. “They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days.”

At every minute in this momentous story, it was evident how precarious the next minute would be, the one after that only more so. Mubarak might or might not leave sooner or later. The army could shift this way or that. Thugs with rocks could return to the square. Authorities could use the internet themselves to spread misinformation and find and arrest the protestors. Out of habit, I watched the news progress on TV, but most of the time, even Al Jazeera English had only a telephoto shot of the square from a safe distance with commentary that could do little more than repeat itself. TV could hear few voices from the square.

On Twitter, a virtuoso of the form, @acarvin—National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin—spent hours and days constantly curating the best he could find from the people who were on the ground. He passed on news and debunked rumors and asked the people who were there what was really happening. He quoted—retweeted, that is—people like @sandmonkey, a brave blogger who six years before began to use these tools to share his ideas and experiences in Egypt with the world. Early in my blogging days, I had learned much from him. After the protestors’ victory he blogged, “Tonight will be the first night where I go to bed and don’t have to worry about state security hunting me down, or about government goons sent to kidnap me; or about government sponsored hackers attacking my website. Tonight, for the first time ever, I feel free … and it is awesome!” Sandmonkey replaced his cartoon avatar on Twitter with a picture of the real him and published his name, Mahmoud Salem.

Even as you read this [the book is coming out in the fall of 2011], months after the revolution began, it is, of course, far too soon to know how this story will turn out. There is no script and not even a dramatis personae of leading actors. @ghonim, who brought many people to Facebook, Twitter, and the square, demurred as a leader, vowing on Twitter that he would return to his normal life at Google when this work was done. What kind of society Egypt can build and maintain post-Mubarak teeters on so many risks, needs, and warring interests, but also on so many new opportunities. Just as Egypt’s society of the future could go many ways, so could ours and other societies yet to emerge.

The new age has its doubters. Young curmudgeon Malcolm Gladwell says, “surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protestors may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Well, I have no doubt that the tools of publicness played a role in helping a true Egypt of the people rise from silence to be heard at last. These tools enabled them to share their information, their frustration, and their dreams. That is why Mubarak shut down the internet and mobile phones completely, because they were a threat—and the fact that any one man could do that must worry us all. But even Mubarak had to turn it back on, because the internet is that vital to life now. Yet in the end, Gladwell is at least right about this: the tools are only tools. The revolution is the people’s. As a blogger reminded us on Al Jazeera English, Twitter did not fight Mubarak’s police. Egyptians did. Facebook will not create the new society. But here’s where Gladwell’s wrong: This new society used Facebook to help shape itself.

“What kind of world would make the values of both publicness and privacy equally accessible to all?” asks Michael Warner. That is our challenge: to find a new balance between us as free individuals and as members of a public who freely join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives. There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocate. That is this book.

The kids are all right

Yesterday, I held a session on privacy and publicness as part of a news literacy event held at Baruch’s journalism school, intending to exploit these young people by interviewing them — rather than lecturing them — for my book on publicness and privacy. I came away greatly heartened about the wisdom and savvy of the NYC teens I heard from there.

I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. “When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?” he demanded. I muttered, “fuck me,” and then had to remind myself of the company I was in. So I muttered on Twitter that I’ve seen countless corrections on blogs since I last saw one on network news. Claiborne was telling the internet to get off these kids’ lawns. I got grumpy. My mood didn’t improve when nobody showed up for my first of two sessions. “Well,” I joked with fellow faculty, “they say kids today don’t care about privacy today. I guess this is the proof.”

But in my second session, the room filled with three or four dozen young people (and a few teachers) and I began interviewing them. Boy, was I impressed. Random notes….

No one in the room uses MySpace. They scrunch their collective noses at the name. Not so very long ago, MySpace was said to be the service for young people, particularly urban young people. Well, no more. Rupert’s Folly has fallen off a cliff. It’s clear this is why he’s giving it two quarters to climb back up or he’s setting it adrift.

Almost none of them uses Twitter. They say it lacks context; it is too fast and fleeting; and they don’t care about much of what they read there (which makes sense when your friends aren’t there). When I tweeted that, the NYTimes’ @zimbalist asked why. I think it’s because they’re not publishers (yet). They’re connecting. Whether this is a matter of the the age or their age, I have no way to know; we’ll have to wait to see the impact on Twitter when they grow older.

But I’ve seen this elsewhere. This summer, as my son and I drove up to Facebook’s headquarters to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the book, Jake said he thought Facebook had invented something entirely new in the Wall. Its inventor disagreed; Mark said people always have, in his word, signalled. But I side with Jake. On his Wall (when I’m permitted in) I see him and his friends holding conversations there, in the open, as if in the hall at school. They use the Wall as a place to communicate. I see the Wall — as I think others my age do — as a place to publish or broadcast; we instinctively see it as media. So Twitter fits our reflex; Facebook theirs. But I think the young people are making use of the internet that is truer to its nature: It is not a medium but is a connector.

All the students post photos to Facebook; many post videos there; a few had posted videos to YouTube — interesting that so few do, because some of them come from a school for the performing arts. One young woman says she was going to take down her account because her videos are dumb and pointless, in her view: just her talking. One young man had just put up some impressions and he enjoys the idea of having a public there. Will we see more of that; is it their ambition to make media and audiences? Again, time will tell. I’ll bet we will as they find their public voices.

Every student in the room uses Facebook. They confess to being on it for hours at a time — three or more a day. My son’s was in the first class able to use Facebook in high school four-plus years ago. I thought it might seep down to middle school. So far, not so much. These students say they started using it in high school. I’ll confess relief. I found it fascinating that a few of the students with younger siblings were quite protective of them and did not approve of a 9-year-old using Twitter.

To a young man and woman, the people in this room confirm what I’ve learned from danah boyd: that young people do care about their privacy; that they do protect it; but also that they have to learn this. As danah says — countering Murdoch, btw — young people are not “digital natives” who are born with TOS in their DNA.

These students are very aware that what they tell a few friends on Facebook could end up anywhere, seen also by people they do not know. They post with that fully in mind. Backing up what danah says, many of them seemed to have been burned once and taught the lesson. The biggest challenge to privacy, then, is not so much Facebook or the internet but blabby, gossipy friends. Ever thus.

They are also aware that their parents and other adults are watching. Even if your parents aren’t your “friends” someone else’s may see what you write on their Wall. So they’re careful. Nonetheless they decry classmates doing stupid things (though they also know that folks often exaggerate on Facebook). Like what? Like showing themselves drinking. What could come of this? They could get caught.

Or there’s the college admissions problem. For these kids — bright, active, and mostly college-bound — that’s an issue. I ask whether they think that college admissions officers — and later, employers — should not be allowed to look at their Facebook presences. Surprisingly, none of them seem to object as a matter of principle and right. To them, it seems to make sense to check someone out online.

Almost all these students have changed their privacy settings, restricting their Walls, photos, birthdays, or contact information — even though, again, they know that anything could be repeated. They seem very much in control and like that control. They have other means of control as well: I ask whether they speak in code that they understand and parents don’t; they all laughed and nodded.

Is there, as media would lead us to believe, a sudden explosion of bullying? No, they tell me, there’ve always been bullies; it’s probably just easier to see them now. A teacher complained that fights get bigger crowds because students tweet the location and a mob gathers. “It doesn’t go down like that,” one of her students tells her. “There’s no texting.” Crowds gather the way they always have.

These students are not slavish fans of Facebook. One student argues that Facebook dilutes friendship; he says he doesn’t use it to communicate with his close (real) friends. Another says she unfriends people with some regularity because in reality friendships do change. A few others say they did discover new friends through Facebook. They all expect to use Facebook to stay in touch after they graduate. The point, says one: “Different people have different reasons to be on Facebook.” Some use it to connect with others; some use it just for fun. Which are you? I ask him. A bit of both, he says.

At the end, I ask what I’d missed and one student wants to be sure that I knew about the benefits of using Facebook and the publicness it brings. Oh, yes, I do, I assure her.

The antisocial movie

There’s no “why” there. That’s the problem with The Social Network. It neither explains nor even ascribes motives to Mark Zuckerberg—no vision, no strategy, no goals.

The movie quickly admits that money doesn’t matter to Zuckerberg. So why did he build Facebook? The Social Network offers no answer, except perhaps that an outsider wanted in, but that doesn’t begin to explain what he has accomplished and why; that’s nothing but simplistic prime-time plotting. The script says nothing about him wanting to connect the world or bring communities elegant organization. It doesn’t care. For this is a movie about tactics, not strategy, about people doing hard things to each other. Elsewhere, that’s just called business.

The movie violates privacy, smears reputations, makes shit up—just what the internet is accused of doing, right? Oh, it’s entertaining, in a dark way, as much as watching the pillorying of witches used to be, I suppose. For The Social Network, geeks and entrepreneurs are as mysterious and frightening as witches. Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, admits as much in New York Magazine. “He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as emailing his friends.” Sorkin himself says, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Making shit up.

New York’s Mark Harris knows, in an aside at least, what this movie is really about. “The Social Network can be seen as a well-aimed spitball thrown at new media by old media.” Except it’s not really old media that’s spitting but neonew media. Sorkin is a member of the Young Curmudgeons’ Guild, joining Gladwell, Carr, Anderson, Rowan, Morozov, and Lanier. Old media resists change. These guys want to deny the internet credit for it.

The Social Network understands obnoxious old-money (the cartoon-colored, Zuckerberg-suing Winklevoss twins), obnoxious new-money (Sean Parker, though David Kirkpatrick says in Vanity Fair that he is “both more complex and more interesting”), and the pretentious intellectual (a fantasy of Harvard’s then-President, Larry Summers). And it thinks it understands victims (Facebook cofounder and former Zuckerberg friend Eduardo Saverin). I met Saverin once, in a panel put on by an ad network, which Saverin patronized on Facebook’s behalf and which served just the kinds of tacky ads Zuckerberg didn’t want for his company because he knew the value of cool and he had a much bigger vision than Saverin had. That’s likely why Saverin had to go; whether The Social Network knows it or not, it makes that clear. It’s just business. And as for the Winklevii, they didn’t invent crap. Ideas, especially obvious ones, are worthless; every entrepreneur and geek knows that execution is everything. Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard drop-out Bill Gates didn’t invent crap, either, but he did execute. That’s business.

The Social Network doesn’t understand entrepreneurs and geeks, or at least not the one here. So it turns him into an other. It makes him weird. It portrays Zuckerberg as—let’s be blunt—Aspergery: blinkless, humorless, heartless, incapable of being *cough* social or of having *cough* friends. I’ve met Zuckerberg four or five times, most lately interviewing him for Public Parts. I don’t know him. Maybe nobody does. But I can testify at least that he has charm. He does smile. He tells jokes. And he has a vision.

Zuckerberg understands the structure and motives of friendship even though The Social Network calls him friendless. In a flash during the deposition scenes that make up its narrative spine (perhaps because only lawyering could make coding look exciting), the movie gives us an anecdote—based on a true story, as it turns out—about the Harvard art class Zuckerberg didn’t attend in his sophomore year as he was inventing Facebook. Here is Zuckerberg telling the story in 2007: He posted to a web page the images of the art he should have studied, sent an email to his classmates offering a “study guide,” and watched as they distilled the essence of each piece. The punchline: Not only did Zuckerberg ace the final but the prof said the class as a whole did better than usual. I saw that as a perfect tale of social collaboration, a lesson in wikithink. The Social Network called it cheating. And right there lies the movie’s disconnect—not between Zuckerberg and friendship but between the movie and the new world it can’t comprehend but pretends to portray.

The Social Network is the anti-social movie. It distrusts and makes no effort to understand the phenomenon right in front of its nose. It disapproves—as media people, old and neonew, do—of rabblerous (or drunk or drugged-up or oversexed) masses doing what they do. Ah, but its fans will say, it’s really just a drama about a man. But that’s where it fails most. It can’t begin to explain this man because it doesn’t grok what he made—what he’s still making (“We don’t even know what it is yet,” Zuckerberg says in the movie, “It’s never finished”).

The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.

I know my risk here. I’m putting myself again in the position of defending the internet, just as David Kirkpatrick is making himself Facebook’s apologist. Maybe we’re both hypnotized by the Zuckerberg charisma Sorkin cannot see. Maybe we’ve been hanging out with business people so long we cannot see the Greek tragedy in it. Maybe. Though if all you want is a tale of hard-nosed business leading to human drama among geeks, you could film the story of Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or—coming soon to a theater near you—Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

In Zuckerberg and Facebook—and the internet—I see a far bigger and better story than the one Sorkin delivers. As research for Public Parts, I happen to be reading the wonderful book, The Gutenberg Revolution, by John Man, which digs through scant records to try to understand what drove the man who used technology to disrupt an old world and enable people to create a new one. Gutenberg was a technologist, secretive and controlling. He was a businessman (one of the early capitalists who created one of the early industries, really). He drove tough bargains. He was competitive. He was accused by the Dutch of stealing someone else‘s idea. Oh, and he apparently broke up badly with at least one woman, Man says. In the hand of a Sorkin scribe of the day, I imagine Gutenberg would only be a weirdo: We don’t trust what he’s doing to our world, we don’t understand it, so we don’t like him.

You’re going to see The Social Network. You should. It’s well-crafted. But as you watch, I urge you to look at what it says not just about Mark Zuckerberg but about us, us geeks. I look forward to the discussion.

: LATER: Aaron Sorkin’s worldview, 2007: “Everybody’s voice oughtn’t be equal.”

: AND: I’m amazed by the meme I see in comments here but especially in those at HuffingtonPost: It’s not a documentary, so it’s ok to make shit up. An odd defense. Sorkin et al don’t put a caveat up at the start of the film. They make a movie about a man named Mark Zuckerberg starting a service called Facebook. They didn’t film it at Schmarvard. I don’t buy that.

The real Facebook burglaries story

I did a little reporting to get the real story behind the reports of a Facebook burglary spree that supposedly used the service — right after its launch of Places — to find victims who were away on vacation. I emailed Nashua, NH detective Dan Archambault, who told me that only two of the cases involved Facebook and in each case, “one or two of the suspects were Facebook friends with the respective homeowners. They basically had access to the walls and could read that the families were away on vacation. The information was only available to friends and the Facebook Places feature was NOT a part of this. And finally my advice to Facebook users is carefully pick your friends and watch what you post.”

And my advice is don’t believe everything you read. So this was not a case of a criminal using Facebook to find any old random victim. The implication of the coverage is that we were all — all 500 million of us — at risk for being so foolish to make ourselves public on Facebook and make ourselves vulnerable to every criminal out there. No, it’s foolish to make the wrong friends. Always has been. Still is.

I also contacted Facebook, and a PR person there sent back suggestions for how to wisely use the service: “I would recommend creating friend lists to separate people you really trust from others. Then, use the publisher privacy control to
send status updates to appropriate groups (and only them). I actually think it may make sense to tell people you really trust that you are gone through Facebook just as you would in person. Then, they can watch your place for you, feed your cat, etc… As for everyone else, if you wouldn’t tell them in person you were leaving town, you probably shouldn’t use Facebook to tell them. As always, we also recommend people only accept friend requests from others they actually know.”

All sensible.

If only things were so simple for Google, where, according to Gawker, an engineer used his high-level access to the company’s data bases to stalk teenagers. Google fired him. But the damage is done. We spoke about the case on today’s This Week in Google and as Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani said, to keep systems running, someone will always have access to data. Of course, that someone should be trusted. But as this case reveals, you never know whom to trust. So the company must come up with systems to assure trust. Should there be teams that must operate together in failsafe mode to get access to data? You tell me what would work.

The bottom line for both companies is that trust is essential and cases such as these can ruin trust and eventually ruin companies if we cannot depend on them. In the first case, media blew up a story for effect. In the second case, a dangerous vulnerability is revealed.

: AND: Being a journalism professor, I suppose I should point out the journalistic lesson here about reporting.

When this story first came out, it was marked by sloppy reporting that was only repeated and diluted. I read a number of the reports and backed up the line to the Nashua paper trying to find answers to basic questions. Nothing.

For anyone who knows the slightest thing about Facebook — that is, any reporter who uses it — the reporting raised obvious questions. So I contacted Facebook, who gave me the email of the detective, and I asked him: How did the accused use Facebook? In how many cases? Were they friends — that is, connected on Facebook — with any of the victims? Facebook tells me that its Places feature was not involved; true? Finally, what advice do you have for people using Facebook? Plus a few, more-detailed questions about the specifics of how these victims used Facebook.

The detective said this is an ongoing investigation, so he was limited in what he could tell me. But, as you can see, he answered the essential and obvious questions reporters and editors should have asked before. And if they didn’t have answers, they should have said so. I say lately that the key skill of journalists is going to be less saying what we know than saying what we don’t know. That is the essential skill in process journalism.

But all along the chain, nobody wanted to ruin a good story: USE FACEBOOK AND YOU’LL BE ROBBED! Much more fun, isn’t it? Reporting takes all the fun out of it.