Can It Still Be Facebook if Your Mom's On It?

Can It Still Be Facebook if Your Mom's On It?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 27 2006

Facebook launched in February 2004, four years or so from when I finished undergrad, so I'm part of the post-Facebook generation. Still, I'm big into Facebook because the PAC I work for was included when they recently broadened the network to include selected businesses and organizations. We can all be big into Facebook now -- they threw open the doors earlier today, making it a more ore less open network.

It's worth understanding just how this expansion is gonna work. (Sorry, links are only good if you're logged in to Facebook. Of course, now that it's open to everybody, they're good if you want 'em to be.) Facebook started by limiting profiles to the small playground of the university they were tied to. Thus, information on the site was corralled according to .edu email addresses and the user's Facebook universe was limited to his or her college, as well as the few students at other schools that they had chosen to connect with. At some point, Facebook expanded out first to high schools and then to a select few companies and organizations. But they all worked the same way Facebook always had -- they were in Facebook parlance "authenticated networks," where the fact that you belonged to the group was proven by the domain in your email address.

What Facebook did today is to open up the system so that anyone with any old email address at all can join, create a profile, "poke" other users (an innocuous term today that the college kids I know don't seem to find funny), and the like. Identity is only proven on the basis of email address ownership -- meaning that all I have to do to join up is to enter in and then respond back to an email sent to that address. This process, Facebook says, guarantees that profiles are created only by "a real person."

A real person, maybe, but not necessarily the real person I'm going to represent myself as on Facebook. There's little (as far as I can tell) to stop me from creating multiple profiles and picking from a Chinese menu of characteristics for each. That may sound simple, but it's a complete upending of the "one person, one profile" idea of identity that has carried Facebook this far.

Under the new system, one thing these unauthenticated-but-"real person" users get to tell to Facebook is where they live. And where that is is important, because new users aren't assigned to an authenticated network but are instead shunted into a "regional network." Regional network have long been a part of Facebook. I, for example, belong to the "New York, NY" network, an identity that is pretty powerful. It gives me rights and privileges to interact with the profiles of the one or two other New Yorkers on Facebook.

So with the expansion, Facebook has been ripped from the context that nurtured it this far. In the Facebook 1.0 days the core Facebook user could be sure that his or her likes and dislikes, the latest news on breakups and makeups, was mostly going to his or her friends and possibly to other college kids like themselves. Then came high schoolers and then staffers on some high-profile organizations. Each change exposed them a bit more beyond the core comfort zone of their campus, but the situation was still tolerable. Facebook was still a comfortable playground for the college and college-ish set.

That's what Facebook is, really -- a playground in which you can create your most perfect, most fun, most dapper and daring self. I'm a grown-up of a certain age, and yet I spent several minutes yesterday agonizing over which books to list as my favorites in my Facebook profile. Agony, yes, but still a great deal of fun! It was a chance to decide exactly how to my present myself to my wider social circle. That's a chance you don't get in the same way in real life. Still, no matter how daring I want to be, there's only one real "Nancy Scola" in the system, because that's how early Facebook was architected.

That's because Facebook 1.0 was built to be a walled garden, a protected space, an online Princeton (the school). Facebook 2.0 is more like boundless and boundaryless New York City. And the company knows it. With today's "expansion," Facebook made a point of detailing for folks the added security and privacy features in place to protect them from prying eyes. They've added additional "report" links throughout the site; one click and Facebook sees that you've flagged inappropriate behavior. More important however, is the great emphasis that Facebook is placing on the idea that it's the job of users to protect themselves online. See this, from the notice posted by the company to announce the expansion:

You can prevent new users from seeing you, and you can control what they can see about you on the site...
[I]f you see something suspicious, offensive, or inappropriate, please report it.

We are putting as many controls in as possible and are always looking for new ways to protect our users from spam and inappropriate behavior. Remember that you control what you do on the site, including whom you add as a friend, and what information you make visible to the people around you. (emphasis in the original)

In other words, you're on your own so lock your doors and don't talk to strange strangers. That last bit is, I think, important. Facebook, it seems, is of the mind that we should be most concerned about inappropriate uses of the site -- stalking and the like. But I'd argue that with that sort of thinking they're missing the point.

It's not that I don't want scary people looking at my Facebook profile. It's that I don't want my mom looking at my Facebook profile. (Love you ma, nothing personal.) Take this for example. Facebook has a feature which, while I'm not sure it's part of this new expansion, is so un-early-Facebook as to make it a stand-in for the recent changes. Enter in your login name and password for your Gmail, AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail accounts and Facebook will spider through your address book to tell you who you know already has a profile. And with one click, a note is sent to your contact asking if you might be Facebook friends.

If they happen to be in my same regional network -- so for me, the one for little old New York City -- then bam!, they've got instant access to my profile.

With that, Facebook me is the me I am to my entire real world address book. (And with Gmail, that's everyone I've ever emailed.) I'm no longer protected by the narrow confines of the organization I work for. It's almost too much for me to take, to open myself to inspection by every possible future employer/professor/friend/enemy in the world. I have to imagine that that's how a lot of college kids are going to feel, too.

Of course, a good question to ask at this point is, what's the alternative for Facebook? Once they started expanding out to businesses and organizations, did they really want to be in the business of picking and choosing who gets to be on the site and who is excluded from the fun? But my name's not Mark Zuckerberg and so I don't have to answer the question.

What does all this mean for politics? That's a question for another post. But there's a lot of folks working in electoral politics who see social networks/networking as the next wave, the new way that we'll bring people back into the political process. Facebook 2.0 shows how difficult it's going to be to not screw it up.

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