Rethinking Facebook: From Zero to Two Accounts

At the end of last year, I decided to delete my Facebook account because I was so angry with how hard it was to delete your account (among various other common complaints about said site). For I while, I had no Facebook account. Now I have two, which I realise is really weird considering my feelings about Facebook. But, it’s complicated, like everything I guess.

At first I was curious to see what it was like to not have a Facebook account. This went on for about a month. I didn’t really miss it, but had to get Fono to look up events for me that were listed on Facebook. Then I decided it was stupid to be doing Facebook research without actually being on Facebook, so I created a fake account under a fake name which I would use just to talk to my close friends. My thinking was that this would maintain my privacy and avoid the context collisions that I had with my real account. I emailed everyone I wanted to add (using real email, not Facebook messages, because I didn’t want anything tying the real me to the fake me) and told them my alias. Some of the people I didn’t warn beforehand were reluctant to add me because they had no idea who I was (which highlights an interesting trend – people aren’t as willing to interact with strangers online as they were back in the days of ICQ random chat). The nice thing about the fake account was that I never had to add anyone I didn’t want. I’d just say that I didn’t have a Facebook account. This caused some problems though for professional contacts who I wanted to add, but if i did it would defeat the purpose of my fake account. But the most unexpected thing was that people didn’t treat me like me, they treated me like a character or a stranger. I think by not being me, I was disrupting a balance of power. People act as themselves on Facebook as long as everyone else does. If I’m cheating, so to speak, by hiding behind an alias, I’m gaining an advantage through anonymity. Thinking it might help, I changed my alias’s first name to my real name, but still maintained a fake last one. To my surprise, Facebook actually let me make this change, even though it was an entirely new name and was pretty obvious one of them wasn’t real. Not forcing people to call me by something other than my name seemed to help. I also started interacting with people again through the site (leaving wallposts, tagging photos etc.) which I had been avoiding doing to maintain my anonymity. I discovered that this increased people’s interaction with me in return. I’m not sure if I was building trust back or getting people used to my new profile or an unspoken rule that people will only interact with you if they think it will be reciprocated, especially in public/performative communication spaces like the wall.

This was all going well until I discovered that Facebook was having friends.get party and a developer’s garage at SXSW that you had to RSVP for on Facebook and they were checking IDs at the door. I needed to get in, but obviously I didn’t have any ID with my alias on it, so I grudgingly created a new account with my real name and added some people to make it look legit. I told myself I would delete the account after SXSW… probably… unless some really awesome people added me… then I’d have to think about it.

And of course they didn’t bother to check my ID, or even my name. Both events had the atmosphere that I imagine was similar to that found at Microsoft in the 90s. The party and the garage were both held at a trendy bar, filled with plasma screens showing a Facebook promo video. There were free unlimited redbull vodkas for all (very dangerous). Robert Scoble was there at the front during the developer presentations, recording everything. Everyone seemed super ra-ra Facebook and the sense of excitement was very contagious. Luke and I both felt the effects of drinking the koolaid (or the redbull vodkas…).

But a turning point in my thinking was this:
Mark Zuckerberg casually hung around after his presentation (still wearing his now famous fleece) so I went over and asked him why Facebook didn’t have multiple profiles that you could show to different people in different contexts, because the problem with limited profile is that people know they are on it – there is no plausable deniability. Zuckerberg replied that he thought it was dishonest (I think he actually used the word lie) to show people different things and that the most happy people, according to an academic study (which I cannot find – anyone know what it’s called?), are the same in all contexts of their lives. I argued that it wasn’t lying, just revealing different parts to different people but he didn’t agree. He told me they were going to have more “organic” controls that allowed for more granular control of who sees what (they’ve now added these. It’s the thing that allows you to make lists of who sees what. I wasn’t that impressed), but was not going to have multiple profiles because he basically thought it was an incorrect way of interacting. This was a fascinating revelation of how Facebook’s design is largely shaped by how Zuckerberg thinks people should act.

Even though I didn’t agree with his take on context management (or lack thereof), talking to Zuckerberg humanized Facebook for me… It was like meeting someone you’ve been having a flamewar with on the internet and seeing they aren’t all that bad. I had forgotten that it’s just people behind Facebook, people who are among the first to be designing the mainstream mechanisms and systems for online social networking… or whatever it is they’re building (I have a sense what we know as SNSes are just the beginning). A big part of my thesis proposal was looking at users and designers (a lot of research thus far has focused just on users and treated the technology as given, as if it could not have been made any other way), and this reminded me of how important it is to see that technology is not just that; there are people and ideologies behind it. They’re just making it up as they go along, and making adjustments based on seeing what happens. But there is still a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders, since they have the data of 70 million people in their care. Don’t worry, I’m not becoming a Facebook fan again, I’m just a bit more forgiving… or at least remembering to see the other side of the coin.

All this humanizing wasn’t enough to make me keep my new real account though. When I started adding new people to my account that I knew, I told them it was a professional profile, which signaled not to post stuff that was NSFW. The rest of the people I add are mostly professional anyway, so it goes without saying. This was what made me feel comfortable… it was clear what the purpose of my new profile was and what was appropriate to write on my wall. With my old profile, it had started out as a secret, guarded thing that only other university/college kids to see. Then it slowly morphed into being for everyone. How can you control expectations and contexts when the purpose and audience of your profile has changed? Different people that I knew from different contexts all had differing expectations of how to interact with my profile. By killing my first Facebook self, and making a new one with an explicitly professional propose, I’ve overcome the context *ahem* fuck (because it really was not just a collision) that was making me crazy. I’m also far more comfortable having professional stuff about me online, which somewhat addresses the privacy concerns I have with Facebook. As for IP issues, I just don’t upload anything I care about. All said, I still have major issues with how Facebook is handling privacy and intellectual property concerns. It really shouldn’t be up to me, the user, to sort all this stuff out.

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