Thursday, September 29, 2011

Social Networking Sites: Change, Privacy and Controversy.

In the course of an average day, I spend quite a bit of time using social media. This site, in a way, falls into that category. Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit and StumbleUpon form a part of my daily computing that is just as important as blogging, gaming or email online. Whenever there is a controversy with one or more of these sites, it is usually as a result of something changing. Facebook changes privacy options or redesigns the user interface, a site has trouble maintaining uptime, makes inappropriate use of user information, or policies are adopted that the public objects to, sometimes very vocally. In the past weeks, there have been a lot of angry social media users and a lot of controversy happening at a few of the most popular sites and services. I'd like to summarize a few of those and talk about what the issues are, and what, in my opinion, they mean (if anything.)

Google+ and Real Names:
Google has dodged the wrath of the rich and powerful by not really requiring
"real names", just the "name you are best known by in daily life."

This controversy is the oldest of the ones I want to talk about, but since it is ongoing, it remains as relevant as the others. When the new social networking site was launched, it was embraced by many of the standard early adopters. Among the tech-savvy people who got in early were many bloggers, myself included. This highlighted one of the drawbacks to Google's answer to Facebook: No pseudonyms. Many bloggers prefer to only be known by the name given their internet identity, and with Google+ giving people the ability to add people whose opinions they'd like to hear without worrying if they'd get an add back, it seemed to be a good platform for online celebrities. If someone is only known by their online identity to a large audience, a profile tied to their real name isn't much use.

The debate over online anonymity goes beyond whether I'd rather have my Google Plus account under "Docstout" or not. There are many people online who cannot express their opinions without danger to themselves and those dear to them. Political dissenters, whistleblowers, victims of abuse or harassment, or anyone with an unpopular opinion are all the sort of people silenced in the name of "People are nicer without anonymity." These people cannot protect themselves, but 50 Cent is allowed a profile under that name in a disgusting display of inequality. Google+ finds itself in the position of protecting the wrong people and things. This is likely because their strategy for integration of services across Gmail, Google + and the rest of their online presence hinges on virtual "ownership" of people's online identities, and that product isn't as valuable if you aren't who you say you are. Unless you are wealthy and/or famous, of course.

Facebook Rolls Out Changes, Affects User Privacy (Again.):

Facebook has done stuff like this so much, it is hardly news anymore.

Google isn't the only company attempting to stake a claim in the online presence of its users, and their attempts to use that information has, over the years, resulted in many privacy scandals. User's names and photos in targeted advertising, how and when you use the social network, and even where you are physically present are all related to ever-changing privacy settings. The least private settings are set as defaults, with users constantly needing to "opt out" of having personal information shared with acquaintances, strangers and large companies. The latest round of changes put a mini-newsfeed showing virtually every action your friends perform on the site, including comments on pictures or the status of people you may not even know.

The anger over these changes seemed for the most part directed at things being visually different, which isn't anything new. Missed in the outcry is a simple fact that most people don't understand about Facebook. The reason the site is able to remain free to use, well maintained and with new features constantly being added is that Facebook users aren't the customer. Facebook users are the product being sold. I find the small amounts of personal information I allow the site and its partners to use is a fair trade for what I get out of the deal, but I recognize the arrangement for what it is. Wherever possible, I limit sharing of what I don't want shared, opt out where I can, and recognize that the many people who won't go through the steps to do that make the scheme profitable, so it is unlikely to change or go in another direction.

StumbleUpon Removes Blogging and Theme Features:

Et tu, StumbleUpon?

This is the newest of the controversies in Social Media, and one likely to impact me personally, if indirectly. I was a StumbleUpon early adopter, I've clicked the Stumble button over 76,000 times, and quite a bit of my traffic to this site comes from the service. I've never really used StumbleUpon's themes or blogging features, however, and these specific services will soon no longer be offered. Profile Pages will be limited to text and an avatar image, comments will be text-only instead of allowing HTML, and overall functionality beyond sharing sites with the network will be diminished. Most of the services that put StumbleUpon in the Social Networking category at all will be severely limited or cut completely, and many people are moving on. For every person that stops using the network, it gets a tiny bit weaker.

Why would a company do that? It seems that these features require time and money to continue to support through maintenance and helpdesk issues, and there aren't enough people using them to justify an expense. The style of blogging on StumbleUpon has mostly been replaced by Tumblr, with reblogging/sharing content and posting photos with brief thoughts about them. Removing these features means less time patching the security vulnerabilities their existence creates, and more time focusing on the core concept of StumbleUpon, which is delivering sites based on what someone likes at the press of a button. I don't like the idea of a mass exodus from the network, as the content is fresher and more varied in scale with how many people participate, but I understand the reasons behind this controversy in general.

Yeah, it is pretty much like that.

What these three stories have in common is, of course, money. Things that make users upset or angry are being changed anyway because even with those who leave over the situation, there is a profit to be made in going a certain direction. Every person needs to decide for themselves where their personal line is between what they get from a free online service and what is done with that service in order to make it a profitable business. In the next few years, whichever site can best balance its need to be profitable with keeping a large base of users happy will likely be the most successful in the long run.
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Jay said...

no love for friendster? ;)

neatfit said...

I agree with most of your points, and yes, SU seems to be dying. Maybe it is so because more and more people are using adblock, we can't know, but as you mentioned, money looks like a real problem, they're not adding to the site, they're taking away.

Alpha said...

Looks like I won't be using Google+.

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