Saturday, March 7, 2009

Conquering the blogosphere, one blogger at a time (and revisiting the Facebook fracas)

I recently learned that sleeping alone has a follower in the Spanish-speaking world. Over at Castor ex Machina, a blog run by a Peruvian college student named Eduardo, a big chunk of my recent post on the battle over Facebook's terms of service agreement got translated and discussed in a post titled "El affaire Facebook y sus posibles interpretaciones" ("The Facebook affair and its possible interpretations").

I don't speak Spanish, so I'm relying on my years of studying other languages, along with a variety of incredibly bad website translators (about which more soon) and, I hope, the reading public of sleeping alone to help. Eduardo writes:
Pero uno de los problemas que me viene a la mente, también, es uno muy básico: Facebook no es un espacio público, es un espacio no sólo privado, sino cuyo sentido de fondo es, también, un sentido económico/comercial. No es que esto, de plano, sea un problema: pero, ¿cómo transforma esto nuestra idea de lo que es un espacio público? Si mañana Facebook quebrara, toda la información, toda la creación, todas las interacciones que existen en el sitio, desaparecerían. ¿El Estado benefactor, entonces, debería preservar este espacio? ¿Es un patrimonio compartido? Y por otro lado, ¿es acaso posible concebir un esfuerzo similar llevado adelante de un modo y por una motivación que no fueran privados?

I believe the (very loose) translation of this paragraph is something like:
But one problem that comes to mind is a very basic one: Facebook is not a public space. It's a privately owned space, one with economic/commercial motives. This isn't on the face of things a problem, but it does give rise to the question: How does Facebook transform our vision of what a public space is? If Facebook failed tomorrow, all the information, all the creations, all the interactions that exist on the site would disappear. Should the government, then, preserve this space? Or is it a shared heritage? And on the other hand, is it possible to conceive of a similar effort carried out in a manner and for reasons that are not commercial?

I do suspect this is a relatively poor translation, and I hope that if Eduardo or other Spanish speakers read this they will help me adhere more closely to the spirit of the passage.

As it is, though, I do think I get a good general sense of what Eduardo is arguing here: Facebook may feel public, but it's run by private interests whose values and motives do not always necessarily align with those of the population of the space. Because Facebook feels like it's ours, tension arises when we're notified that we don't have quite as much agency within the Facebook environment as we had believed. It makes us angry; it leads us to action.

If my interpretation of the rest of Eduardo's post is accurate, he also argues that the action we took in the case of the Facebook battle was in large part conducted by people who had no idea what they were even fighting, and how they were fighting it. Even the response from Facebook during and including the struggle indicated a misunderstanding.

I've been quoting Clay Shirky a lot lately, and I'll just go ahead and do it again. Shirky argues that for a new group to be successful, it must meet three requirements: Promise, tool, and bargain. As he explains,
The promise is the basic "why" for anyone to join or contribute to a group. The tool helps with the "how"—how will the difficulties of coordination be overcome, or at least be held to manageable levels? And the bargain sets the rules of the road: if you are interested in the promise an adopt the tools, what can you expert, and what will be expected of you?

The bargain, Shirky explains, is the hardest to get right because it's so complex and often unspoken. Shirky gives the example of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales moving the project from a .com site to a .org to indicate his intention not to profit off of the work of contributors. The bargain, then, was this: Wikipedians contribute to the work of Wikipedia, and nobody will exploit that work for monetary gain. Encarta, Microsoft's effort at getting an online encyclopedia going, failed because its bargain didn't seem like a bargain:
users had to grant Microsoft permission to "use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat your Submission" for a product Microsoft was going to charge money for.

Shirky explains that "this was hardly a bargain at all, as all the power lay with Microsoft, a fact that made the option for user contribution largely irrelevant."

For Facebook, we might say the bargain is something like this: Users get a space where they can manage a wide network of friends, family, and professional and personal acquaintances. They get to keep up with the details of the personal and professional lives of their Facebook friends. They have the option of joining groups, playing games, taking public or semi-public stands on issues that matter to them, and gaining access to photos, links, and other online information that is of deep personal interest to them. In return, Facebook gets to ply users with ads and, to a largely unknown extent (at least by most users), gain access to private and often quite personal information.

This does feel like a bargain to us, especially for younger Facebook members whose entire lives have been lived deep in the morass of corporate-sponsored environments. What's the difference, after all, between attending a sporting event at Coors Field, Invesco Stadium, or Banknorth Gardens and playing Mafia Wars surrounded by ads for whiter teeth and online graduate programs?

Facebook changed the bargain when it suggested that everything users did to contribute to the site was subject to corporate exploitation—even if this was, as posts from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested, a misinterpretation of the revised terms of service, this was how it felt to angry users. Interestingly, Facebook caved to public pressure. They didn't have to; by now, most Facebook users are hooked and will not leave, no matter how angry they get or how loudly they threaten their mutinies. Presumably, then, Zuckerberg et al. had a sense that users felt that the bargain had been violated, and that resentment over this could have resulted in a public relations nightmare.

It doesn't matter, then, whether the users were correct in their interpretation of the terms of service change. What matters is how a change in the terms of service changes the perceived bargain, the agreement between the owners and the users of a space that is represented, in theory if not necessarily in practice, as a public one owned by the people who live there. (Now Zuckerberg and his gang are soliciting users to help collaborate on a "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities," intended to replace the terms of service agreement altogether. You can learn more here.)

Early in this post I promised to elaborate on the issue of ridiculously poor website translators. I don't have the space in this post to do this, so expect to hear more from me on this issue soon.


Eduardo said...

Thanks for visiting and linking back! Your translation is pretty good, actually, it's basically what I wanted to say.

I'd like to comment on a couple things I may come back to later (in Spanish, though - sorry!). First, how this process is giving us a sort of new-capitalism-with-meaning-thing. For brands/products to stick, they have to go way beyond their face value and actually attach themselves emotionally to us as consumers. However, when doing so, they inevitably have to relinquish some control for that attachment to be authentic - the way Facebook has responded to this mess would be an example of this. The line separating public and private looks quite blurry now, as consumers begin to take ownership upon what products and services mean for them.

Secondly, how this is all made possible by a restructuring of the costs of collective/public action. It is not only easier to take "action" upon something that affects us, but it is also easier to aggregate actions that would have once been isolated, into a huge snowball-like social force. And it's already tied into everyday living. "You mean all I have to do is blog/twitter about it to have it changed? That's cool, I was going to do that anyway." Something along those lines.

Just a couple things to keep thinking about. I'll try to blog about it in some more detail in the next few days - hope you come visit again!

Anonymous said...

Well said to both of you!! I agree with you both as it is a privately owned site. Good work!


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