Being Passive Aggressive on Facebook

How do you know when you’ve made a faux pas on a social network? If you let slip a politically incorrect comment in real life you should be able to tell that you have crossed a line by the pained expressions and the nervous squirms – but how do people squirm on social media?

This social squirming is important. It is a way in which we are schooled and taught the social boundaries of our world. Naturally some overly boorish person may actually say “we don’t accept that behavior here” but this is really unnecessary. We are usually good at picking up cues, the squirms are enough.

So how do people squirm on Facebook? Well they do so in the most passive aggressive way. Rarely do you find the boorish reproachful comment. Most often what we are met with is silence. Sure, offscreen it silence is a passive aggressive strategy but online it is the most commonly used.

Try it! Say something incorrect on FB and you will be frozen out of the social circle. Keep it up and people may begin to block you. Of course this means that the time nobody liked your post… it could have been that you crossed a social line.

Names & Identity: Teaser for upcoming talk

This post appeared first on the Center for Global Communication Studies blog as a teaser for my talk Public Platforms and Anonymity: Real Name Policies and Freedom of Speech. The talk will be on Wednesday November 19 between 12:15AM – 01:30PM, more info here.

Life is a series of roles. We behave differently when we are talking to our underage children at home, when we play a game of poker with friends, or when we are having dinner with our parents. For each of these social situations, and for many others, we adopt different roles, mannerisms, speech, and even dress. Social networks struggle to deal with the complexity of human behavior, preferring instead to simplify our existence. When the halting definitions of friends and contacts and the obscurity of privacy settings is coupled with a less than user-friendly design, conflicts unsurprisingly arise. As the largest social network by population, Facebook provides an array of examples where social messages have been transmitted to the “wrong” person.

Among the classic miscommunicated messages are those of employees engaging in criticism of co-workers or of the company itself, teenagers sharing party photos that are later seen by adults, and medical staff posting patient information. The practice of providing different information to different groups is undermined in situations where contacts are binary, and social media technology creates simple “friend/not-friend” binaries where complexities should exist.

In the book The Facebook Effect (2010), Kirkpatrick argues that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, is implementing what is sometimes referred to as “radical transparency,” a form of social engineering that holds that individuals will benefit themselves and society by being more transparent.

In an infamous quote that exemplifies this stance, Zuckerberg goes beyond transparency, arguing that attempting to maintain different identities is disingenuous:

“You have one identity…The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[1]

It is not a coincidence that Facebook’s radical transparency is the foundation of its business model. The users of Facebook, though they have accounts, are not the company’s customers. Facebook’s business model is to collect as much user information as possible in order to market their expertise to their real customers—advertisers.

Radical transparency becomes a social problem when social networks become primary means of mass communication. While those who are at the top of a social hierarchy may indeed believe two identities indicate a lack of integrity, for those who may face social ostracism or physical punishment if certain identities are revealed, multiple identities are necessary. Facebook has caused young gay adults to be outed to, and ostracized by, their families, Ashley Payne was asked to leave her teaching position after posting a picture of herself holding a beer while on holiday, and in the UK, there are several cases of people facing prison sentences for insensitive comments posted on Facebook.

The purpose of the talk “Public Platforms and Anonymity” is to look at questions of identity and anonymity in order to further explore the impact of radical transparency on marginalized groups, to place the minority opinion in relation to freedom of speech and democratic development, and, finally, to put forward an argument in support of a democratic right to anonymity and pseudonymity on social networks and other online platforms.


[1] Kirkpatrick, D. (2011). The Facebook effect: The inside story of the company that is connecting the world. Simon and Schuster.

Is there an inverse Filter Bubble?

The whole concept of Filter Bubbles is fascinating. It’s the idea that services like Google & Facebook (and many more) live on collecting data about us. In order to do this more efficiently they need to make us happy. Happy customers keep using the service ergo more data. To keep us happy they organize and filter information and present it to us in a pleasing way. Pleasing me requires knowing me. Or as Bernard Shaw put it “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different”

Its this organizing that makes creates problems. At its most benign Google attempts to provide me with the right answer for me. So if I search for the word “bar” Google may, based on my previous interests (searches, mail analysis, Youtube views etc), present me with drinking establishments rather than information about pressure. Maybe useful, maybe annoying. The problem occurs when we move on to more difficult concepts. The filter bubble argument is that this organization is in fact a form of censorship as I will not be provided with a full range of information. (Some other terms of interest: echo chamber & daily me & daily you).

Recently I have been experimenting with filter bubbles and have begun to wonder if there is also an “inverse” filter bubble on Facebook. The inverse filter bubble occurs when a social media provider insists on keeping a person or subject in your feed and advertising despite all user attempts to ignore the person or topic.

So far I am working with several hypothesis:

  1. The bubble is not complete
  2. The media provider wants me to include the person/topic into my bubble
  3. The media provider thinks or knows of a connection I do not recognize
  4. The person I am ignoring is associating heavily with me (reading posts, clicking images etc)

This is a fascinating area and I need to set up some ways of testing the ideas. As usual all comments and suggestions appreciated.

Could Facebook be a members only social club?

What is public space? Ok, so it’s important but what is it and how is it defined? The reason I have begun thinking about this again is an attempt to address a question of what government authorities should be allowed to do with publicly available data on social networks such as Facebook.

One of the issues with public space is the way in which we have taken it’s legal status for granted and tend to believe that it will be there when we need it. This is despite the fact that very many of the spaces we see as public are actually private (e.g. shopping malls) and many spaces which were previously public have been privatized.

So why worry about a private public space? Who cares who is responsible for it? The privatization of public space allows for the creation of many local rules which can actually limit our general freedoms. There is, for example, no law against photographing in public. But if the public space is in reality a private space there is nothing stopping the owners from creating a rule against photography. There are unfortunately several examples of this – only last month the company that owns and operates the Glasgow underground prohibited photography.

Another limitation brought about by the privatization of public spaces is the limiting of places where citizens can protest. The occupy London movement did not chose to camp outside St Paul’s for symbolic reasons but because the area land around the church is part of the last remaining public land in the city.

Over the last 20 years, since the corporation quietly began privatising the City, hundreds of public highways, public pathways and rights of way in place for centuries have been closed. The reason why this is so important is that the removal of public rights of way also signals the removal of the right to political protest. (The Guardian)

This is all very interesting but what has it got to do with Facebook?

In Sweden a wide range of authorities from the Tax department to the police have used Facebook as an investigative tool. I don’t mean that they have requested data from Facebook but they have used it by browsing the open profiles and data available on the site. For example the police may go to Facebook to find a photograph, social services may check up if people are working when they are claiming unemployment etc.

What makes this process problematic is that the authorities dipping into the Facebook data stream is not controlled in any manner. If a police officer would like to check the police database for information about me, she must provide good reason to do so. But looking me up on Facebook – in the line of duty – has no such checks.

These actions are commonly legitimized by stating that Facebook is a public space. But is it? Actually it’s a highly regulated private public space. But how should it be viewed? How should authorities be allowed to use the social network data of others? In an article I am writing right now I criticize the view that Facebook is public, and therefore accessible to authorities without limitation. Sure, it’s not a private space, but what about a middle ground – could Facebook be a members only social club? Would this require authorities to respect our privacy online?

Why Google + is doomed

Sorry for the copy paste but I agree with PanGloss that This analysis is so good it’s worth quoting from not just retweeting.

But a social network isn’t a product; it’s a place. Like a bar or a club, a social network needs a critical mass of people to be successful—the more people it attracts, the more people it attracts. Google couldn’t have possibly built every one of Facebook’s features into its new service when it launched, but to make up for its deficits, it ought to have let users experiment more freely with the site. That freewheeling attitude is precisely how Twitter—the only other social network to successfully take on Facebook in the last few years—got so big. When Twitter users invented ways to reply to one another or echo other people’s tweets, the service didn’t stop them—it embraced and extended their creativity. This attitude marked Twitter as a place whose hosts appreciated its users, and that attitude—and all the fun people were having—pushed people to stick with the site despite its many flaws (Twitter’s frequent downtime, for example). Google+, by contrast, never managed to translate its initial surge into lasting enthusiasm. And for that reason, it’s surely doomed.

Social Networks & Law

Ryan Calo over at the Standford Center for Internet and Society (is this the new Berkman?) is asking some very interesting questions about the legal issues of web2.0

An Australian court rules that a mortgage company can issue notice of a lien over Facebook. A court in the UK permits an injunction to be served via Twitter. A woman is arrested in Tennessee for “poking” someone over Facebook in violation of a protective order. Meanwhile, a 1978 provision of the Bankruptcy Code still provides that notice shall “be published at least once a week for three successive weeks in at least one newspaper of general circulation.” New forms (and norms) of communication are both expanding and contracting the avenues for legally meaningful notice. Just how do we know, in this uncharted new landscape, when notice is enough?

  1. Is the communication sufficiently engaging to reflect the gravity and context of the relevant legal process?
  2. Where’s the Miranda warning page?

In our joy of technology we must ensure that we do not forget to transfer the civil liberties developed over the course of our legal cultural history. To his list of examples I just want to add two more headlines New York man accused of using Twitter to direct protesters during G20 summit and Fraud Fugitive in Facebook Trap.

Also I want to mention the early work of Caroline Wilson who presented “Twit or Tweet? Legal Issues Associated with Twitter and other Micro-Blogging Sites” at GikII Amsterdam. (Jordan Hatcher’s liveblog of the event) for some additional questions.

Twitter, when narcissism is good

To tweet is narcissistic! Found this via ComputerWorld

A Rutgers University study shows that 80% of Twitterers are largely tweeting about themselves – what they’re doing, their feelings, their opinions and other personal information. Only 20% of the 350 Twitter users surveyed are sharing non-personal information and they tend to have larger social networks and interact more with their followers.

Kind of obvious but interesting to have it based in a rigourous study. The insight that twitter is a narcissistic tool is hardly new. Back in February Times Online had an article A Load of Twitter which discussed the phenomenon. Those negative to the technology want to see it based in insecurity and lack of self esteem:

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

But then there are those who understand the tech better and see that it is not (only) about that. Its a dialogue, a conversation and like most conversations it is banal and shallow

Is that why tweets are often so breathtakingly mundane? Recently, the rock star John Mayer posted a tweet that read: “Looking for my Mosely Tribes sunglasses.” Who wants to tell the world that? “The primary fantasy for most people is that we can be as connected as we were in the womb, a situation of total closeness,” says de Botton. “When people who are very close are talking, they ‘twitter away’: ‘It’s a bit dusty here’ or ‘There’s a squirrel in the garden.’ They don’t say, ‘What do you think of Descartes’s second treatise?’ It doesn’t matter what people say on their tweets — it’s not the point.”

And these views are fine if this is what you want to focus on. But twitter is much more. What is missed is the great use of twitter as a tool of social coordination and information spreading. It only seems like narcissism since people don’t “get” what twitter is about.

Social coordination: When someone tweets that they are attending a conference, sitting on a train or in an airport it could be seen as narcissism since the focus is on the twitterer. But this is one dimensional and forgets that the act of tweeting where you are fills an important second function. It lets others find you. Talking from my own experience I (narcissistic, moi?) regularly coordinate physical meetings via twitter on trains or at conferences. Emailing an acquaintance places a social burden on the recipient – a tweet announcing where I am is an open invitation.

Information spreading: A large amount of tweets contain links to and information about web pages, pictures, articles and books. Of course a tweet stating that the user is reading this or that book is narcissistic but the very fact that a user I follow mentions the information is a recommendation. It is valuable information that often is too short to be spread in other ways (via blogs for example) or too banal to merit direct contact via email or telephone. In addition to which the tweet can be ignored without breaking any social norms.

Twitter is a tool that supports social contacts and much of what we do in social interaction is focused on the self, but it is seen as an acceptable narcissism and therefore not defined as such. The only difference is that twitter is “new” and therefore can be seen as a bad form of self reflection… narcissism. In time the social norms may change in this area and twitter may become an acceptable form of self referencing. Maybe it won’t.

But if it is narcissistic to be sociable then I am a happy narcissist. Follow me (klang67) on Twitter!

Update: More on the pointlessness of Twitter

From Pearanalytics research shows that 40% of twitter is pointless babble, read their whitepaper here.

Seth Finkelstein in The Guardian Twitter is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite.

Sysomos Inside Twitter study with in-depth data found, amongst other things, that 24% of Tweets are created by bots.

And in defense of twitter from BLDG BLOG comes How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter

Disruption in Uppsala, Memory in Barcelona

Despite needing sleep the presentation in disruptive technology presentation in Uppsala went well. The discussion focused on integrity and social networks and presented some of the early early results of the emerging research project. Now its onwards to Barcelona for the 6th Communia Workshop Memory Institutions and the Public Domain… This is going to be really good.

Should you be friends

Micheal Zimmer reports that a Milwaukee-area school district has enacted a policy banning communication between school staff and students on social networking Web sites and instant messaging services.

According to this report, the school board seems to be concerned over the fact they can’t provide “adequate oversight” for these communication methods. Since communication between school staff and students are generally considered to be public records and are subject to public inspection, the district apparently wants faculty to only use district-sponsored applications/devices, which presumably provide better archiving and auditing of communciations.

Micheal raises the interesting question of whether faculty and students should be “friends” on social networks and wonders how this friendship affects the traditional teacher-student relationship?

This is a very interesting area since it brings into question the concept of “friendship” both in the on and offline varieties (but the focus here is online). It is also interesting to see how social networking affects the areas or zones of offline friendship. Previously your workfriends, golf buddies, neighbors, ex-university friends did not need to be in the same circles. They were all your friends but they were not necessarily friends with each other. With social networking “all” your friends can see each other. Indeed one may ask if parents should be “friends” with their children on social networking sites.

Add the teacher/student relationship into the mix and this gets interesting. Micheal asks: “Should teachers have access to personal details, photos, news feeds, etc that come with “friending” on Facebook? Should a student have access to a teacher’s profile?” It is easy to see that there are a large number of situations where it is better for these groups not to mix.

But then again the format of social networking is flawed since it is two-dimensional: we are friends or we are not. There is no casual acquaintance, no higher or lower orders of friendships. Cory Doctorow wrote a theory of why Facebook would eventually fail

You’d think that Facebook would be the perfect tool for handling all this. It’s not. For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.

So when it comes to teachers/students the problem is what to do when a student asks to be a friend? When it is the teacher who asks it seems just creepy – but what about when the student asks? Maybe a Milwaukee policy isn’t such a bad idea. That social networks in general are not uncontroversial is well known.

Some education related scandals:  In 2006 a scandal emerged when a university professor posted a topless image of herself on Flickr & an art teacher was forced to resign for topless art photos of herself on flickr. In 2007 the president of Salisbury University removed her profile on the Facebook social networking site after news reporters asked her about apparently unprofessional pictures on her site. This year a member of York University’s Council has been accused of racism after posting a picture on his Facebook profile.

Disclaimer: I have been trying to figure out the point of Facebook since I joined in 2007 (yeah, I was a late entry) in the begining I felt more popular when I added friends. Then it became strange. I currently have more friends “online” than I do offline. In addition to this I am unsure who some of my friends are. On the other hand I have several students and ex-students among them and I have never felt threatened by there access to my information. This could of course be due to the fact that as a blogger and a user of flickr/facebook/twitter user I have already but my life online.