[from the archives: 27 October 2006]
Vauhini Vara’s piece in the Wall Street Journal about people defecting from MySpace and Facebook struck a real chord with me:
Neither MySpace nor Facebook will disclose the number of people who have deleted their pages, but a MySpace spokeswoman offers that there has been “absolutely no increase in the rate of deletions.”
There’s no question, however, that MySpace’s recent popularity has brought with it a proliferation of spam that has annoyed some users. Many advertisers take advantage of the “friend request” function and send out requests that are really just advertisements. And programs have cropped up that can automatically send mass friend requests to MySpace users — in short, a new generation of email spam. Sites with names like FriendBot.com and FriendAdder.com sell the programs starting at $19.95.
The guerrilla marketing has driven away James Kalyn, a 30-year-old technical writer in Regina, Saskatchewan. He kept receiving friend requests from half-naked female strangers through his MySpace page. Clicking on a request usually led to a profile that turned out to be an ad for a pornography site. At first, Mr. Kalyn was excited that “these hot girls allegedly wanted to be my friend.” But after looking at a few profiles, he realized: “If it’s a picture of someone fairly attractive, they’re probably not my friend in real life.” Last spring, Mr. Kalyn killed his MySpace profile.
MySpace says it has incorporated technology to identify and block spammers.
Facebook has so far avoided a spam problem. But it alienated some longtime users when the site — which was once the exclusive domain of college students — announced last month that anyone can now belong. Nearly 3,000 Facebook users have joined a group called “Official Petition to Keep Facebook Limited to Students.” A note on the group’s page reads, “Facebook just opened its doors to everyone on the internet. That means your mom, your boss, and every stalker in the world can now make an account.”
Meanwhile, another key selling point for Facebook — that it lets people connect online with people they know offline through friend requests — has turned off some users, like 19-year-old Julie Miller. Ms. Miller, a sophomore at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., dropped Facebook earlier this year after a few sketchy experiences left her feeling uneasy.
The invasion of the advertisers, stalkers, and pornographers is a natural consequence of the loss of human scale in these enormous social constructs. Where proximity and connectedness can be subverted through the agency of an omniscient social networking solution, then people will drop out. Let’s call it MySpaceaphobia: the agoraphobic feeling of being a tiny individual roaming around in an enormous social context, being chatted up and chased by shills, sock puppets, and unsavory characters.
I publicly left a long, long list of social networking sites a few years back because of the social spam and general lack of creativity in the interactions. I have now gotten back into using some solutions because they meet the Kaminski Test (after Pater Kaminski): they foster creative interactions with others. But that can be countered by sheer size and population density.
Human-oriented social contexts should allow users to control scale: how many people can access what aspects of my on-line persona, what sorts of communication are available based on what degree of connection, and so on. If I want to limit my profile on Facebook to only current students of my university, I should be able to do so. If I want to restrict access to my music playing habits to only those people that I know, then Last.fm should allow me to.
We need to have these controls to introduce a “neighborhood” feel to online social interaction. In the meat world, I am located at a particular place, for example, the corner bar. Because I choose to be there, other people in the bar have access to me, and could, in principle, strike up a conversation. But I have chosen that experience, and I am willing to be there. If I have situated myself at home, at my desk, I don’t expect people to walk up to the door, knock on it, and start a conversation with me about the weather or some movie. It’s inappropriate. And even while in the bar, I don’t expect people to try to sell me stuff, nor 5000 people to barge in and demand to be my friend.
When social environments balloon to millions of people, new mechanisms to enforce appropriate and user-controlled scale will need to be introduced. Gated communities within the environments may provide some of that, but they have numerous negatives as well. The third place (as Ray Oldenburg styled it) — the corner bar, the barbershop, the cafe — where we could interact with people that we don’t know well, of different backgrounds, and including chance interactions with strangers — provide great benefits to healthy societies. We can’t live locked up in tiny, homogeneous groups. But at the same time, the scale matters: only so many strangers, only so many folks in the bar, and of course, the ability to choose which bar to be in, and the choice to leave and go home, and leave the crowd behind. If these social environments are to serve as a collective third space, then they will need to reintroduce scale, control, and choice to their denizens.