Two short tales landed in my view this past week that provide lessons on the difficulties of getting computers to take over complex problems in their entirety.
It didn’t take long to do the math as Steve Jobs unveiled Ping, the social music recommendation engine baked into iTunes 10. In one deft move, Apple brought itself into the social networking market with a near-instant enrollment of up to 160 million. And did you catch that they also have credit cards and a history of trusted purchasing with those members?
You could almost hear the gasp in Palo Alto.
Some folks wanting to get the word out about what the privacy changes in Facebook mean have been using its API to show what people are posting. In doing so, they make the point that these people likely don’t realize that what they are posting is being shared beyond their friends.
Openbook, the latest to do so, falls into the same problem as pleaserobme.com, which collected tweets and status updates to indicate who was not at home, and personally identified those people and where they lived. Pleaserobme thankfully shut down the service having ‘made their point’.
It takes a certain measure of cruelty to exploit the people you’re trying to protect in order to make your point, much like a person who wants to show how dangerous handguns are starts to go around shooting at people. The right way to make a point like pleaserobme.com or Openbook is to pull the data but obscure the images and names. We don’t need individual identities to believe that the data is real nor to make the point, which is an important one.
And what we really don’t need is to have the damage that Facebook is inflicting on its members amplified by someone trying to make a point. Remember, it’s the people who don’t understand the technology who are getting hurt here, now by two parties instead of just one.
It’s good to see people talking about Facebook’s dissolution of the privacy walls its members were accustomed to. With any active discussion you get disagreement, but I wasn’t ready to see sentiments suggesting that people deserve embarrassing exposure because they made the mistake of trusting Facebook, or any web service for that matter.
Chris Pirillo, long standing web citizen, really surprised me with this tweet today:
It would be disheartening to watch Facebook’s radical dissolution of privacy walls and their reach into the rest of the web had there not been an outpouring of concern and criticism from many smart people. The best commentary I’ve read so far:
- Liz Gannes wrote an early but spot-on assessment of how Instant Personalization tries to force a new norm onto the web, where you can be known to any website so long as you’re signed into Facebook.
- Thomas Vanderwal captures the problematic situations that Facebook creates by steadily deprecating privacy.
- Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb, the site name I still can’t say quickly, writes about the strong-arm tenor in the privacy options transitioning interfaces.
There’s a lot to chew on with the moves that Facebook is making, but after seeing NewsFeed, Beacon and now the latest in F8, a pattern of behaviour emerges that I don’t think I can live with anymore:
- Establish a norm that people are comfortable with.
- Allow trust to be built on that norm
- Impose without warning a new set of rules that are advantageous to themselves alone.
- Architect the new reality as a labyrinth of vaguely worded options that must be absorbed and understood in real time, as the changes they refer to already happened.
- Wait until the audience reaches a point of comfortable non-awareness or total submission. Unless sponsors complain, like they did with Beacon.
Facebook isn’t the only company to deploy technological changes without warning or consideration of their impact on real lives. But, taking a line from Rush, they’re old enough to know what’s right and weak enough not to choose it.
What happened, Facebook? You used to put on such great parties: at your place we could hang out with the people around us and share in a way that was comfortable and carefree. Our mistake was believing that a respect for privacy, which you used to do well, was inherent to your character. Now we know better, but we still have to ask, what happened?