Tag Archives: diaspora

I’m published! – Unlike Us Reader out now

I got notification this morning that the new Unlike Us reader is now available. My essay, ‘None of Your Business? Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design’ appears on pages 200-219.

You can read the release announcement at the networkcultures.org site here. The short trailer for the reader is also available on vimeo.

There are multiple ways you can get a copy of the reader. If you go to this page you can read it online using issuu. (It should be noted, however, that if you try to download it on the issuu site it requires you to register, and registration requires you to choose your gender as being either ‘male’ or ‘female’, displaying a perfect example of what I argue is a terrible practice in my essay. Needless to say, I don’t recommend downloading it through issuu!) You can also read and download it through scribd without having to register, or download it directly from the networkcultures.org site.

Of course, as the reader is shared using the CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license, I can host it on my own server, too! (This is especially convenient because it appears the networkcultures.org site is currently down.) However, if you only want to download my essay, I’ve also uploaded an edited (remixed!) version that cuts out most of the other pages. Links to both versions are below.

Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (3.9MB .pdf)

Andrew McNicol – None of Your Business?: Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design (622kB .pdf)

Special thanks to Miriam Rasch and Geert Lovink who have done an amazing job with this release. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the other contributions once I get some free time.

Please share with anyone you think may be interested. And please feel free to comment or email with any constructive feedback you may have – I haven’t read through this in months, but I think there are a few sections I would change slightly.

Lowering Standards

I love Diaspora. I think it’s a brilliant idea and I hope it catches on. However, I’m concerned that their chosen method of implementing their vision of decentralised social engagement may actually be too limited. My understanding is that, while users are free to create an account that can be hosted anywhere throughout the world, including on their own computers, to participate in this system they specifically need to use Diaspora. That’s all well and good if Diaspora catches on and becomes a global standard of communication, but if it doesn’t, and yet another social media platform comes along later this year that is even better in whatever respect, then we will need to join yet another social media service and again try desperately to migrate our existing friends to a strange and unfamiliar territory.

The ‘Federated Social Web‘ is a brilliant concept. However, it appears that many individual projects are attempting to create their own standards for others to adopt in order to bring such a thing into existence. The Diaspora team have been fairly quiet and I haven’t been able to determine how much they are working with larger organisations to implement an international standard and how much they are simply working to improve their own system that is just currently better than the alternatives, hoping that it will catch on.

(Obligatory link to an xkcd comic that superbly illustrates the problem: http://xkcd.com/927/)

This is a critical point we are at right now. If we mess up, we risk the groans of the general public as we try and persuade them to use yet another system a year or so down the track. If painfully migrating social media profiles and friend groups appears to be a regular, necessary part of catching up with the latest in user control and privacy solutions, it begins to seem easier to just go back to the commercial systems that have a financial interest in staying consistent and reliable. Once users begin to make the calculation of risk – “How likely is it that there will be negative consequences from me allowing a major corporate entity access to my data?” – we have already lost them.

The example I keep returning to is email. Joseph Smarr, a social Web engineer at Google has said,

“If I couldn’t e-mail people who don’t share the same domain as me, that would be pretty stupid […] But that’s exactly the way social networks work today, and that’s broken and should be fixed.” (Ariel Bleicher, The Making of Diaspora)

Why has email been so successful? I need to do some research on the history of its implementation, but it seems to me that introducing this standard may have worked early on in the early days of computing due to a combination of the following: (one) it was a simple, practical solution to the problem of communication that didn’t have major commercial interests forcing it to become a ‘walled garden’ and (two) there were less people working on the problem.

How can we ever aim to introduce something of comparable success now if there are so many competing standards? There needs to be consensus and agreement of adoption from early on, from both users and developers. Some are working hard on this. But I wonder if there’s not another approach we can take, one that increases the chances of general adoption.

A few years ago I got a text message. I couldn’t read it because it was a multimedia message and I had an old phone. I was thinking about this recently in relation to the problem of the Federated Social Web. What if, rather than introducing something new, from scratch, we instead added extra functionality to our email system?

Some have predicted that email will soon be dead (I disagree, but it entirely depends on the individual’s usage), but what if email was just . . . different? What if we added a few additional tags to the messages we send to help our email systems work out what to do with the content? Like my old mobile phone, email readers that are not ready will say, “I don’t know what to do with this”, while others will properly recognise what is to be done.

We can add app-like add-ons to our mailing system that will give us more functionality. I can add invitations to your integrated calendar, regardless of platform, just by using an improved email signal. If you don’t have calendar functionality, you will be prompted to install it. I can comment on a recent message you have made public, and decide who will have access to viewing my own words. This could all be a separate system (think Thunderbird or Outlook with much more functionality), or it could be a browser plug-in that checks for these updates so your whole social system is integrated right into, say, Firefox, based around a single email++ address rather than the myriad services you are independently logged into at any one time. This can all be stored locally, or hosted anywhere throughout the world of your choosing. You will have control over your own data and you will be able to communicate with others in a space not bombarded with advertising.

Of course, existing services like gmail will survive because people may want the security of storing their data in the cloud, or because they can’t afford or don’t have the technical expertise to manage their own email++ service. The point is, we will have a choice and, regardless of that choice, we will be able to connect with others.

Am I onto something here? Or is this simply just another proposal for a new standard that will be lost in the sea of ideas, looking so chaotic that nobody will be willing to commit to trying something new?

I guess I have a lot of work to do if I want to test the feasibility of such a proposal.

Reviwgle+

I begged for an invite and have thus sacrificed part of my dignity to become one of the (temporarily) exclusive group of people with Google+ accounts!

I had read a bit about the service already so much of it wasn’t new to me. I was more interested in the privacy side of things so once I had access I dove straight into reading the privacy policy and playing around with user settings. What follows are a few initial reactions.

Circles

People have written a lot about how this feature is either confusing or a breakthrough in social networking. I actually think it’s neither. I’ve been using a similar feature in livejournal for years (functionality to define and choose groups who can read individual posts has been around for almost a decade now – or more than that, as I’m not sure when livejournal first implemented it) and perhaps because of this experience I view such features to be a minimum standard of user empowerment and privacy. If I can’t define my audience on a post-by-post basis, I may fall into the habit of either censoring myself or not being as careful with my message content as I should.

In short, Circles are great and everyone should get in the habit of using them. I feel it’s important for this kind of thing to become a standard feature of social networking sites.

The ‘Gender’ field

Gender identity in a social media context is a strong interest of mine. I’ve written on this previously, but to put it simply, I don’t feel comfortable with the focus technological systems tend to put on gender (or sex) and hate it even more when they are restrictive and prescriptive.

Google+ earns a few points with me because, unlike Facebook, users have the option of choosing ‘Other’ rather than being limited to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. However, Google+ loses a lot of points because users only have the option of choosing ‘Other’ if they don’t wish to pick ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.

Both services make this choice a mandatory one. All users must define themselves in relation to an out-of-date – and in many cases offensive – gender binary. Yes, I am aware that gender is viewed as a highly important field for marketing purposes, and that companies such as Google and Facebook find this information valuable, but for many users on social networking sites gender is either irrelevant or, at least, of no more importance than other, optional fields.

Of course, it can also be argued that gender status is important from a technical perspective, making it possible to use gendered pronouns throughout the system. However, Google+ appears to handle the ‘Other’ option’s syntax quite well. If this is a major reason, it should be clear to users so they can make an informed choice about their user experience. If they prefer gendered pronouns to be associated with their alerts, their profiles can be altered.

It’s about this point in conversations surrounding gender status in social media that I usually link to two great discussions from last year, on this topic in relation to Diaspora.

Sarah Dopp “‘Gender is a Text Field’ (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

Sarah Mei “Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

Gender and privacy

Perhaps helped by my interest in both gender and privacy, I immediately recognised an issue with the Google+ profiles that conflicted with the Google+ Privacy Policy (28 June 2011 version) which states,

In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.

As I was playing around with the privacy settings in my profile, I noticed that I could not change the visibility of my Gender status. This meant that my Google Profile, at minimum, includes my stated gender as well as the name I chose for my profile. Not only does this conflict with the statement that “You can control the privacy of the content that appears in your profile tabs”; it also directly conflicts with Google+’s Privacy Policy.

One great feature of Google+ is that it has a ‘Send feedback’ button in the bottom right-hand corner of the interface. I was sure to send off some feedback about this conflict – but not before I had a chance to post about it on Google+ and Twitter. To my surprise, on Friday Morning (~8am, +10 GMT), less than 48 hours since I sent my feedback, I noticed that it was now possible to hide Gender from public profiles! I received no reply (hey, they’re probably quite busy this week!) so I can’t be certain this is a result of my work, but I like to think it could have been.

(EDIT: Apparently this change may more likely be a result of a previous campaign, helped by a widely discussed post from Randall Monroe.  Though there is no mention of the Privacy Policy conflict.)

Another issue here is that, because Gender is mandatory – there is no ‘opt-out’ – and, by default, profiles are optimised for search engine results, all users give permission for their stated Gender to be associated with their chosen profile name – at least at the initial stage – and for this to be accessed and archived by searched engines. I can’t test for certain without creating a new account, but I suspect Gender is likely set to public by default. If so, despite them making its visibility alterable, I still feel this is a potential privacy issue.

(It should probably be noted that Facebook is worse in dealing with new user data. Names, gender, birthday and email addresses are public by default, and thus allowable to be used by third-party entities. All the information you provide Facebook during registration is ‘post-opt-out’, a term I plan to write about soon.)

I feel systems such as this should be privacy by default. I feel all publication of personal details should be opt-in. I don’t know if this would be considered a good business model, though, so I’m not holding my breath for corporate players to adopt better practices in this regard. Privacy is still not a large enough issue for that to happen.

Google+ good – Privacy Policy

Google certainly wins points when it comes to simply explaining what it does with user data, and in making it simple to understand how to customise privacy settings. (Though I’m an experienced ‘power user’, so not everyone would feel this is as clear as I do.) However, as Google+ is in very early days, it’s unfair to compare this to Facebook and the regular changes made to its privacy settings. Still, the Google+ package doesn’t have to deal with third-party applications and advertisers (at least ones not already part of Google) so it has a much easier job in this regard.

For now, at least. There is already speculation that Google+ may incorporate other features such as third-party games and applications.

Google – the bad and the ugly

I trust Google to use my data in a way I have consented to. I trust them not to change privacy settings in a way that leaves my personal information temporarily vulnerable. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that the system is there to collect information about me that will be used for marketing purposes. Though I recognise that I’ve registered for a ‘free’ service from a company that needs to make money, reminders about the business relationship we have make me feel uncomfortable.

I was surprised to see recently that pseudonyms are not allowed on Google+ profiles. Facebook does something similar and Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated it is because accountability guides people to act nicer on the Internet. When people hide behind an anonymous identity they are more likely to act like arseholes to each other. While this may be a correct (though simplistic) observation, there is a strong privacy case for using pseudonyms.

Again, livejournal is a great example here. The system allows users to create an identity that links back to their meatspace identity as much or as little as they like – technical experience permitting. Users may also create multiple identities to better hide interests and, say, membership to support communities from other online friends. When a user loses interest in the content discussed in particular communities, they may leave at any time without their actions being easily attributable back to them in meatspace. My five years as a Sailor Moon fan*, taking part in public discussion with a secret identity can be safely ignored, believed never to come back and haunt me when I run for president.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, rely on ‘real’ names. This has obvious marketing potential. But it also has not-quite-as-obvious ramifications for identity. Jacob Appelbaum has stated, “Everything you do on the Internet paints a picture that tells a story about you tomorrow.” This is a great quote I keep coming back to because it helps highlight the relation between contemporary action and future ramifications. While it can be argued that all online actions can be tracked back to their source, Facebook and Google make this simple. If I used Facebook rather than livejournal when I expressed my love for the world of Sailor Moon, I’d have that associated with my real name forever. Now imagine how much more concerning this situation is when we start discussing mental health support groups or discussions about illegal actions.

Eric Schmidt once suggested teenagers change their names when they turn eighteen to distance themselves from their youthful hijinks. Realistically, though, a name change is not enough to bury your online activities from anyone if you used your real name to begin with.

But perhaps my biggest issue with Google+ is that it’s ‘like Facebook, but better!’ It’s a step forward in terms of user privacy, but it’s not actually a big step. We’re still being asked to allow a walled garden to mediate our social interaction so they can make money from our personal details through advertising. On the one hand, Google could have done much better and released something revolutionary. On the other hand, this could never have happened if it needed to consider the profitability of such a system. It doesn’t make good business sense to allow Google+ users to easily communicate with other social media platforms.

And this is where we stand. No closer to seeing the mass adoption of a federated social media system that grants users complete control over who holds their data, “just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.” (Ariel Bleicher, “The Making of Diaspora”)

Also, Google+ does not (yet?) use nested comments. So that’s an automatic minus fifty points from Googfyndor!

Summary

Google+ is better than Facebook for various reasons, mostly to do with user privacy. Facebook is still better in practice because Google+ doesn’t have the large user adoption – yet.

But I still don’t like the shared, basic premise of either system. I’ll definitely play around with Google+ for a while longer, and keep submitting feedback every five minutes when I have an idea for improvement (sorry, extremely busy Google developers – it’s just that you’ve got a button right there and it tempts me so!), but I’m going to continue using email to have conversations and organise social engagements because it’s easier, safer, and (among the people I associate with) email raises fewer problems of accessibility.

Until I can use a service to communicate with everyone without requiring them to join a new, commercial service that may not be around forever, it is a broken social networking system.

* I’m only kidding**.

** . . . Or am I? Perhaps that is the point!