I think Facebook’s problem lately with its disliked like button (and Google’s problem with the start of Buzz) is that they confuse the notion of the public sphere—that is, all of us—with the idea of making a public—that is, the small societies we create on Facebook or join on Twitter. Private v. public is not a binary decision; there is a vast middle inbetween that is about the control of our own publics. Allow me to explain….
But why is the reaction to Facebook’s latest move—the like button—so swift and so fierce, so last-straw-on-the-camel’s-back to some? Gizmodo dyspeptically listed 10 reasons to quit Facebook. Gizmodo and Engadget founding editor Peter Rojas quit Facebook, as did Google’s Matt Cutts, and my This Week in Google boss Leo Laporte disabled his account for awhile. Three heavier heavyweights in our world it’s hard to find and when they lose trust—which is what happened—that’s a big deal, bigger than Facebook seems to realize.
Clearly, there’s something more going on here, something fundamental. Facebook overstepped a line and so I want to try to find that line. I think it may lay here:
Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?
Facebook has been playing this tension since its early days. Remember the hubbub over News Feed: When Facebook aggregated our updates into feeds, it freaked users, even though Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that all these updates were already visible to us among our friends on their pages. Zuckerberg’s vision was right in the end; the News Feed is critical to Facebook’s utility, value, and growth and it presaged the appeal of Twitter. But even in the public Twitter, even though we are publishing to the world, we still have a measure of control; we decide whom to follow—that is, which publics to join.
So let me repeat: In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics. That, I think, is the line it crossed.
The irony in all this is that I think Facebook has been profoundly redefining our notion of a public in ways that—judging by its actions—even it does not fully grasp. I am listening to a fascinating radio series (and podcast) on the CBC based on the work of a project called Making Publics. This group of academics began five years ago with Jürgen Habermas’ belief that the public sphere—the counterweight to the state as heard through public discussion and opinion—did not emerge until the 19th century. They also agreed that prior to the Renaissance and the 16th century, “public” referred to people with public standing in the social hierarchy—the elite—rather than to all of us. But then the Making Public team saw that during the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press, theater, art—that is, the means to publish and present—as well as markets enabled people to create and join their own publics.
I am struck with how similar that moment of change is to the internet’s upheaval today. Gutenberg’s press—and the arts of painting and theatre and the skill of map-making—enabled a still-small elite to create publics; indeed, their hold on the public stayed in place until only a decade ago. Today, the web enables all of us to publish and thus to make publics and also to join new publics (and destroy the old, elite definition and control of the public). The three key inventions of the early-modern era that enabled this change were the compass, gunpowder, and the press. Our equivalents are—what?—the net, the web, and blogs. Berners-Lee is our Gutenberg. Or is it Ev?
Facebook refined the gross sense of publicness that blogs put in the hands of us all: everyone publishing to everyone. Its social network gave us the tools to create and join our own publics and gain control over what we make public and who can join it. That was a powerful gift that shifted the basis of interaction online from flaming to friendship, built on real identity and real relationships. Facebook helped civilize the internet. Yet I don’t think Facebook understands the value of that control because it continues to try to make us entirely public.
See once more Matt McKeon’s visualization of Facebook’s public evolution. Hear, too, Zuckerberg’s Law: “I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.”
People accuse Zuckerberg of killing privacy and of wanting it dead. I think that’s likely unfair. I think instead he does see a profound cultural shift, one that existed before him but one that he took advantage of and then served and refined: We connect by sharing. In his view, I’ll bet, he’s not killing privacy; we are. He’s fine with that. And to an extent, so am I, as I argue the value of publicness. But both of us miss this subtle but profound distinction between the public and a public at our peril. That’s the lesson I’m trying to learn here as I start to write a book about publicness (more on that later).
I will argue that we face choices today about keeping something private or sharing it with our public or with the public at large and that we need to see the benefits of sharing—the benefits of publicness—as we make that calculation. I will argue that if we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections we can make today. I will argue that we need institutions—companies and governments—to default to public. And I will argue that the more we live in public, the more we share, the more we create collective wisdom and value. I will defend publicness. But I will also defend privacy—that is, control over this decision.
I would not be surprised to hear that Zuckerberg shares this gospel. I think he’s sincere when he says he sees Facebook as a tool to enable us all to change our world through connections. I think that’s why he’s pushing us to be public; it’s more than just a cynical commercial motive. Yet I think he gets in trouble when he doesn’t see these distinctions, which I’m trying to discern in our new definitions of private, public, publics, and identity. And so he risks blowing it. But I still think it’s not too late.
I don’t believe Facebook has gone evil—or gone rogue, as Wired insists. The problem for Facebook is more likely that it never defined evil—as in “don’t be evil.” Google is aware of its line, which is about losing value if it loses trust. Facebook seems almost unaware of its line and perhaps that’s because its is harder to find. I suggest they study 16th century history and the origins of the public as they reinvent the public.
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Flickr: Matthew Burpee
All this is related to the question of identity online—related but different. What I publish can add up to my identity and with different publics I have different identities. So identity is a key component of our notions of publicness.
The admirable Diaspora Project is trying to build an open and distributed version of Facebook to let us publish, aggregate, and control our own stuff to make up our own identities. That’s great, but I think that, too, conflates the ideas of a public and the public; it does what Zuckerberg is doing by having us publish everything to all, except it gives us ownership of that. I’m not criticizing the effort at all; I think it’s great. I’m just saying that this isn’t a substitute for Facebook; it’s something different, something more public.
Having captured what it thinks is our identities online, Facebook now wants to be the enabler and controller of our identities. But because we don’t want our stuff on Facebook to be completely public, Facebook cannot be that hub of public identity. The Diaspora Project can. But I wonder whether the Diaspora Project—like ClaimID and OpenID—can succeed because I wonder what our motivation is to keep our identities updated. I have a reason to update Facebook for my friends there or this blog for you all or LinkedIn for my professional contacts or Twitter for my instant ego gratification. But I haven’t had a reason to keep ClaimID (on this page) up to date. That’s the trap the Diaspora Project needs to avoid.
And this is where I think that Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani collaboratively stumbled on a big idea related to identity on the latest This Week in Google. Gina talked about our motive to update Facebook and Leo said the equivalent for identity would come if Google put our profile pages on the top of the search results for our names. If the first result for Leo Laporte in search were Leo Laporte’s profile page, he’d be motivated to keep it up to date, to make it the canonical Leo page. Brilliant, I think. Google, are you listening? Facebook?
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Other notes…. The problem with the launch of Google’s Buzz was related but not so subtle: By mixing our email with its Twitteresque platform, Buzz, Google mixed our private and public. It not only mixed our email connections with the idea of publishing to the world, it also robbed us of the chance to create and control our own publics. In another of its Snuffaluffagus moments, I imagine that Google thought it was doing us a favor by making a public for us: our readymade society. But that was precisely the wrong move, for we want to make and join publics on our own. That is the essence of controlling our worlds.