Monday, January 14, 2008

Busted: Facebook bans my sexy virtual friend

Update: Anyone who wants a more in-depth discussion on the current privacy debate should read Alec Saunder's "Privacy Manifesto for the Web 2.0 Era".

Blog pundit Robert Scoble is not the only one to have been banned from Facebook of late – it happened to me too!

For those who missed it, Scoble had his Facebook account disabled because he tried a test feature being developed by Plaxo (the online address book) that allowed him to “scrape” details from his Facebook friends to use in other programs: names, email addresses and birthdays. Apparently that’s against the terms of service. For my part, I created a “virtual friend” for test purposes to check out some features as well as some theories anonymously. Also against the terms of service, it turns out.

Actually, I initially thought my virtual friend would be a bit too obvious, given that I’d named her Maya V. Freund, but she quickly – very quickly – attracted her own set of friends. Perhaps people are naturally drawn to someone who grew up in Columbia, studied in Australia and had recently relocated to Thailand thanks to parents in the diplomatic corps (she even joined the Third-Culture Kids group on Facebook). Then again, it could be the attractive photos I’d chosen to represent her. Either way, she was befriended, poked, messaged and invited to partake in all sorts of Facebook activities.

The experiment proved a couple of things that many will not be surprised about. Firstly, a lot of people use social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace as a virtual pick-up place. We’d all like to point to the higher social functions of this type of networking, but let’s not get too carried away at the same time. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with mindless fun and flirting.

The second point is that if you wanted to collect personal details from a lot of people, it’s very, very easy to do. And it really is quite scary how much information you can get with very little effort. In the end, I killed off Maya V. Freund by announcing what I’d done in a status message, which led to the account being disabled. The experiment did make me think about what I reveal on social networks in future though.

For Scoble, the question was one of data ownership and why Facebook can take information from say your Gmail account, but then you can’t re-use it in another application. And that issue is going to become a huge one. There are many proposals floating around for social networking sites where the user has more control over their own data, and it will be such features that will encourage users to move away from Facebook and on to new social networking platforms in the future.

Of course Facebook is also introducing new features that allow users to control more of the information they make visible, so called “granular control”, but it still doesn’t give them ownership of their data so they can transport it to whatever platform they wish.

I also predict that users are going to move away from the “monolithic” social networks into more fragmented but like-minded communities. One example is Ning, which was co-founded by Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame. It’s a platform that allows users or communities to create their own social networks. In fact, there are already more than 100,000 such social networks that have been created on Ning.

So that’s my first prediction for 2008: waning interest in Facebook and a move to smaller, specialised social networks that give you ownership of your data. And if you happen to create one, perhaps you can invite me and Maya V. Freund. – Geoff Long

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maya V! Very funny!
But you do raise a moot point - on the dark under belly of social networking.
I also agree with your read on Facebook - they will loose the cool factor and niche communities powered by the likes of Ning will grow. I dare say - Microsoft may have made another wrong bet with investing in Facebook!!