Friday, February 05, 2010

Class, privacy and Facebook

Charles Petersen's engrossing essay in the New York Review of Books on the role class played in Facebook's conception (at Harvard) and early evolution. He also has thoughts on FB and privacy:

The class basis of Facebook's early success is most evident in comparison with its greatest rival: MySpace. To join Facebook, you needed a college e-mail address; for everyone else—once Friendster, for various reasons, became less popular—there was MySpace. The result, as David Brooks observed in 2006, was a "huge class distinction between the people on Facebook and the much larger and less educated population that uses MySpace."

Even after Facebook opened its membership, successively, to high schools, corporations, and the world at large—trying to capitalize on the site's early success, which, Zuckerberg and his inventors hoped, was due to more than mere exclusivity—class distinctions re- mained important. Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society who is one of the best- informed academics studying social networks, wrote a much-discussed essay in 2007 that laid out, in broadly stereotypical terms, the preferred sites of many high school students:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college.... MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks...and other kids ...whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.

One of the most notable examples of class distinction, as Boyd noted, came from the US military, which permitted soldiers to use Facebook but banned MySpace in 2007:

Facebook is extremely popular in the military, but it's not the [social network] of choice for 18-year-old soldiers, a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated communities. They are using MySpace. The officers, many of whom have already received college training, are using Facebook.

MySpace remains banned within the military to this day, while Facebook, despite security concerns, is still available to American troops.


Given the common fatalism about the "death of privacy," I find it encouraging that Facebook's problems have resulted not from a complete lack of privacy, but rather from widespread paranoia about whether the site's privacy system could be trusted. Before the site launched in 2004, an insistence on online privacy had come to seem, at least in cutting-edge quarters, like a kind of snobbery. Facebook, precisely thanks to the elitist nature of its founding, was able to show millions of college students—those who use the Internet most—that excluding the wider world actually expanded what you could do online. As we have known offline for centuries, and as these students learned on the Web, there are many things, from party photos to Marquis de Sade quotes, that one might comfortably pin over a desk or hang on a wall, but that would best not be made visible to just anyone online.


It's true that Facebook can lead to a false sense of connection to faraway friends, since few members post about the true difficulties of their lives. But most of us still know, despite Facebook's abuse of what should be the holiest word in the language, that a News Feed full of constantly updating "friends," like a room full of chattering people, is no substitute for a conversation. Indeed, so much of what has made Facebook worthwhile comes from the site's provisions for both hiding and sharing. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that some things shouldn't be "shared" at all, but rather said, whether through e-mail, instant message, text message, Facebook's own "private message" system, or over the phone, or with a cup of coffee, or beside a pitcher of beer. All of these "technologies," however laconic or verbose, can express an intimacy reserved for one alone.

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