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Introducing Facebook Nation

September 27, 2011

Facebook has, as usual, been riling feathers with its latest round of change. Dave Winer argued Facebook is now scaring him, and the LA Times questioned whether they have finally gone too far. At issue (this week) is “frictionless sharing” in which things people read, listen to, or otherwise engage online are sent from partner sites to Facebook, announced to their Facebook friends, and incorporated into their forthcoming Timelines (formerly known as “profiles”). Now it is true that people can opt out of this sharing, although, as Mike Masnick of Techdirt points out, doing so may be far less than transparent.

All this is disturbing, for the reasons outlined in the articles above. More concerning, however, is a likely end game, as just enacted by Spotify, in which access to partner sites requires having a Facebook account. Spotify, a music streaming service whose US launch had been eagerly anticipated for more than a year before it finally happened, has just announced that all new Spotify accounts – worldwide – will require a Facebook login.

As they told  Evolver, in a tone-deaf response meant to quell unrest:

From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember.

Think about that language: “like a virtual ‘passport’”

Who issues passports?

Do we really want to think of Facebook as a nation?

In 2010, with danah boyd and Alex Leavitt, I read through hundreds of English language news articles about Facebook’s privacy issues with an eye toward the metaphors reporters used as they described the site and its implications. Facebook as a land, or nation, was a prominent one. Among the terms used to describe Facebook were homeland and cyberland. It was referred to as the third largest country, an island nation. The site’s owners in this metaphorical scheme were totalitarian secret police, Zuckerberg their King (or sometimes, their Boy King). The users? Reporters referred to them as citizens or migrants. When they left Facebook, it was called an exodus as people sought asylum offline. Privacy in this metaphoral scheme is a regime.  For his part, Zuckerberg has been quoted lately as saying that your profile on Facebook should “feel like your home.” It is not a coincidence that the open source response to Facebook called itself Diaspora.

Educational theorists have argued that metaphors are fundamental to learning. We grab on to the new and make it make sense by understanding it in terms of something we already know. When Spotify tells us to think of Facebook logins as “passports,” they are invoking a metaphor to trigger a set of ideas with which we are all familiar and comfortable.

But we should think long and hard about its implications. Except for nations that block the internet or some of its sites (hello, China!), the internet has thrived on being a set of domains across which we could travel without passports. Do we really want Facebook citizenship to become a requirement for accessing other domains? Do we really want an internet where we not only need a passport, but a passport from a nation – any nation – owned by a privately-held corporation? Either social network “citizens” need rights beyond emigration or we need to push back hard. We must be the builders of our own futures, not subjects in a nation motivated by profit.

Addendum: John Carter helpfully points out that Microsoft’s attempt to create a “passport” didn’t work out all that well for them.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 3:08 pm

    Very well reasoned Nancy and so true.
    I have always rebelled against any type of exclusion and facebook to me has always been a slightly sinister organisation, aspiring to be a privatised internet where you would need to go nowhere else. The willingness of people to naively go along with the game I still find frightening.
    The Spotify decision only confirms this and I can easily do without both. I hope that this choice is allowed to continue.

  2. September 27, 2011 4:07 pm

    These sparkling metaphors of traversing virtual nations and borders also insidiously replace or overwrite the actual global material conditions of networked computers: from the distribution of obsolete computers into toxic dumps in Ghana to poor working conditions in computer part manifacturing plants in China and Taiwan and the nation-specific digital divides caused by Internet availability.

    • September 27, 2011 4:13 pm

      A fantastic point. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for adding it to the conversation.

  3. Texadan permalink
    September 27, 2011 9:54 pm

    I was upset when YouTube login required me to have a Google password.

  4. September 28, 2011 12:49 am

    Facebook is the penultimate pseudo-omnipresent reality. The parallels between Facebook and The Matrix are ever-increasing. It’s “God-like” in a way. The integration of rich media applications (Spotfiy, Netflix, etc) complete the transition to tighten its grasp around users.

    Auth logins are virtual passports. Facebook now dictates access to formerly open services, even commercial ones like Spotify.

    You don’t need to be a researcher to see users shift into a semi-conscious consumption state as they use Facebook. It feeds them data. Not at random, but heavily curated by algorithms and advertisers.

    Facebook sums us the Cyborgian perspective precisely: It is both liberating and enslaving. As CPUs become powerful enough to actually do something with the kind of mass data FB is collecting (think Google’s “Predicted Future” tool), FB will begin to pre-empt your wants, your decisions, and ultimately your behaviour.

    Scary is that you can’t even delete your FB account from within the app. Most users are trapped. Those that are determined Google “how to delete Facebook account” and access through search result links.

    It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the consequence of unforeseen results when culture, innovation and technology collide.

  5. September 28, 2011 12:10 pm

    Excellent concern. This all just keeps creeping along, no matter how often we raise alarm bells. Some benign-seeming CEO or (more likely) pleasant UI puts its hand on our arm, looks us in the eye, and says, “C’mon. It’s OK. Trust us. We will empower you.”

    While the only rational action increasingly is to surrender, the only ethical action is to reject their offers of “citizenship.”

  6. September 28, 2011 10:05 pm

    The most decentralized form of identity on the internet so far has been OpenID. It was somewhat successful among geeks. But, like others, it also failed to gain the popularity among the masses. I often wonder if usability must mean centralization.

  7. Mark permalink
    September 30, 2011 12:11 pm

    Roll on Diaspora*, which I hope will usher in a new paradigm in social media – a network made up of distributed, commoditised nodes; owned and operated by diverse individuals, organisations and businesses; all talking freely to each other on their own terms. In short, we need web apps to start behaving like our hardware. Then our apps will be truly *of* the internet, not just *on* the internet. The Facebooks and Twitters only rule the roost because they were the first on the scene. I’m sure the Real Future isn’t far away.

  8. Kal permalink
    October 17, 2011 9:17 am

    I have to say…
    It is kind of weird to read an article like this, and then see the Facebook icon at the bottom of the article. :P You have to admit, the irony is rather hilarious… ^_^
    But seriously, why so bothered? The only people that would truly be affected by this are those who “live” on the internet. Or those who tend to be “over-thinkers: I’m a user, and I don’t really mind it, but I don’t depend on it either. And this coming from a person who still does not like booking airline tickets and hotels online – fear of identity theft and all that. In the end, the person is the one who will decide how such things would affect them. Saying that Facebook is causing all that is like saying a knife is evil because it made itself available to a killer.

  9. October 18, 2011 10:50 am

    @Kal – I agree that people have power here, but disagree that it’s entirely up to users to determine how Facebook affects them – especially if we are talking about not even being able to use other services without a Facebook account as I am here. I’ll agree with the knife metaphor when Facebook’s staff have no agency of their own, but as of now, they use the information we put there in ways we don’t control or even know, unlike the knife which does nothing when we don’t touch it. Our only option to opt out is not to use these sites (and even then they collect information on us via our friends’ contact lists, etc – and see Alice Marwick’s response to “if you don’t like it don’t use it” in an earlier post on this blog). Users have a lot of power, but so too do infrastructures and code, and it’s important to think through their implications. If I’m an “over-thinker” I embrace it. When a site has 800,000,000 users, there need to be some people thinking hard about it.

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  1. Proud citizen of Facebook Nation? | Avery Dame

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