Etiquette, Transparency and Defaults

I’ve been having a retro-private, offline discussion with John on Girls Around Me, which has now erupted into the blogosphere. John summarizes the setup and pushes public data. 

These sorts of apps are part of the future, and it’s not all bad. Stross is also right, but he’s right in a science-fictional way – no doubt a professional hazard. Public data can be a good but I can’t get away from an ethical intuition that this data is the wrong shape. It’s a glass building that bakes its occupants at midday.

I’m really glad that at least some people using this are making a deliberate, empowered choice to make their data public because they like the benefits and are comfortable with the risks. That’s tops. You go, young gendered person.

One aspect bugging me is the discounting of defaults that has gone with the transparent school of responses. As we know, pretty much everyone follows the defaults except a few unusually committed users. This is what libertarian paternalism is all about. It’s a well recognized phenomenon in usability.

Facebook and foursquare certainly have ethical obligations around their default settings, and they are systematically failing to think through them. Their model is too crude and it invites blowback. If it really is generational, as John suggests, they should cue based on age. If it’s geographic, by place. That doesn’t even start to address the one identity aspect. Walt Whitman wouldn’t have been welcome on Facebook. He contained multitudes.

Lastly, the app itself is a problem. The transparent society is well and good but the Girls Around Me app violated a key part of it. Its asymmetry was rude. The etiquette of a transparent society as Brin envisages it is tilted against the voyeur. It’s far more embarrassing to be spying on your neighbour’s bedroom than anything he may be doing in there. The crassness of this app is its fatal flaw, precisely because the social norms are new and not well established. It’s the loser at the topless beach ogling breasts with his tongue hanging out. If the app had required you to be signed in and broadcasting your identity on Facebook and foursquare – and perhaps had more variety in its objectification of women – it would rightly not have been seen as so threatening. ((All avatars are objectifications.)) 

Even by new, transparent, social conventions, Facebook, Foursquare and especially the app are cads, sir. Cads.

15 thoughts on “Etiquette, Transparency and Defaults

  1. That Facebook, Foursquare and their ilk ought to offer different defaults by age or geography is an interesting idea. I wonder how difficult it would be to implement?

    No doubt I’m being hopelessly naive, but I don’t really see the single-identity problem. A world of open transparency is, by necessity, a world of tolerance, where nobody cares if you spend your Saturday nights as a furry. I guess you could turn it around and say that it’d be a world of strict conformity to chosen norms so that a diverse personality wouldn’t “fit” in anywhere. To that I can’t help but appeal to the broad principle that sharing builds understanding.

    As for the crassness of the app, well … let me paraphrase Matthew 26:11 : The sex-starved ogglers you will always have with you.

    • I’m not sure if I can get across the multiple identities aspect clearly; maybe I should ask one of my other selves. It seems in one way like an over eager database programmer imposing a convenient primary key on a world that doesn’t quite map. In some senses Facebook doesn’t even need to know that the Saturday night furry and the weekday corporate lawyer share the same meatbag. They just need to know each has money to spend when advertisers call.

      As for the oglers, they may be with us, but we don’t need to encourage them.

    • Also – I reckon a more refined defaulting system would be piss easy, especially given the data facebook already solicits. It would have limits and probably never get beyond a certain level of accuracy, but would be better than today, when combined with actual clear acking of policy changes.

  2. I bookmarked a post from a long time ago that touches on some of what you’re talking about here:

    I may be on the wrong side of the line dividing people who think it’s cool to share passwords from those who don’t, but it’s still self-evident to me that people have different social circles, and it’s not always useful to merge them. (I haven’t experimented much with G+ where this is made explicit, mostly because of social media fatigue.)

    • Only caffeine intolerance and flu have me up at this time so this may be robbed of sense.

      It seems like the post and yourself are making he point (which I agree with) in a writerly way: using different characters for different audiences; rather than a political way: saying the same thing to different audiences with the assumption someone will compare notes.

      Insomnia reading suggests a link to Young Werther

      If Goethe was now surrounded by a buzz of scandal in which art was hopelessly confused with life, he had only himself to blame. He had meant to maintain an ironic distance between himself as author and Werther as character; but for most readers the irony was too subtle. As a text ostensibly assembled from writings the dead man had left behind, Werther lacks a guiding authorial voice. Readers naturally identified with the point of view of Werther himself, the sole narrator until the late appearance of his “editor” (Wilhelm’s responses to Werther’s letters are not reproduced). The excesses of Werther’s language, the discrepancies between his idealized view of Lotte and Lotte’s often coquettish behavior, were passed over by all but the most attentive readers. Werther was read not only as a roman à clef about Goethe and the Kestners, but as an endorsement of Romantic suicide.

      Werther, Goethe’s busted sockpuppet. If the last genius of the Enlightenment can’t manage the consequences of forced single identity, how the heck can I?

  3. Hmmm. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the multiple-identities-are-not-allowed problem is distinct from the information-is-public-by-default problem. Public information would certainly exacerbate the multiple-identities problem, but they are not the same thing.

    So … on the multiple-identities thing: What is the problem?

    Can you not already create multiple Facebook accounts?

    Or do you want to be able to manage multiple identities through a single Facebook account?

  4. Presumably you like the idea of of *some* websites enacting a policy of one identity per user (e.g. your bank). So what’s the threshold? Why should company X permit multiple identities and company Y not?

    As far as I can tell, there is only one workable answer: it’s up to the companies to decide for themselves what services they offer and up to potential users to decide which websites to frequent.

    But that puts me back to my original question: What’s the problem with Facebook?

    • A bank does the very opposite of presenting my personal data, though; it’s a choice about whether to trust one specific organization.

      The problem with Facebook is it makes people’s lives into a shop window commodity with merely on technical legal consent.

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