Andrea Forte recently posted a note on Facebook about Facebook’s new privacy settings and how she hoped that they would help her to manage the content she posts there. In particular, (well what I took away) was that she had multiple constituencies of readers, friends, family and professional networks. So, when posting personal content that her family and friends would enjoy and desire, she was also—prior to the new settings—posting it to professional colleagues and wondering whether they wanted to see it in their news feed streams. The new privacy settings allow her to create different groups, reflecting her social networks, and she’s hopeful that this will help her manage the flow of content.
Her note reminded me of something I had written, initially in an email message to my advisor—Jonathan Grudin—about the WWW in the mid 90s (although, from the outset I want to say that what Andrea wrote was not identical, but it recalled memories).
The story begins in the early 90s. Irvine was a good place to be since a number of graduate students were busy not just using the WWW but inventing it. So, not to be completely left behind, I decided that I would create a web page, and it was live by 1994. And it was, in addition to being rather rudimentary in terms of format, a personal webpage in every sense of the word. So, a bit like my blog, it was a mixture of personal and professional items, including what I thought were some fairly strong political statements.
Then I went on the job market, and that’s what I wrote to Jonathan about. I wrote about how I had changed my webpage because suddenly I felt that it needed to be strictly professional because potential employers would view it. I was pretty convinced I did not want them to know my political views, or to potentially have those be in conflict with the people that would hire me. So I removed it and it ceased to be, for a time, a page where I could express my views. (A brief snippet of this discussion was then quoted by Tom Erickson in his Communications of the ACM article).
Andrea’s post, recalled to me a similar situation on facebook. And of course, it has been noted outside of academic communities, particularly with respect to recruiting. In fact you can attend a webinar, if your a recruiter, to figure out how to maximise facebook (and join the facebook group).
She mentioned the job search specifically, and I mean to ask her what has changed since it ended (successfully), but she was largely focused on the longer term use of facebook. She’s already written about the challenges of having multiple networks of friends, family, and colleagues. And so reading her piece and reflecting back I wonder how many technologies present this type of dilemma. I’m also reminded of another phenomena which seems to be related, about how technologies can morph from being very informal in use to quite formal in use. Email, not even originally a part of the Internet design, was a medium that was very informal when I first started using it in the late 1980′s. It was to connect family and friends, mainly those with other email accounts, mainly those in academia (of course it was in use in military networks, maybe it was different there). There was a spate of books, on email etiquette, helping people use emoticons and other things to make humourous comments, to avoid FLAMING, and so forth. I took this as a clue to the types of conversations that people were attempting to have via email, as well as a sign of the help needed to pull those conversations off.
And now I think about how email is used as a medium for people to apply to University, to have conversations with faculty that they might want to work with in graduate school. I look at my own inbox and I can tell you that the balance of informal, chatty conversational emails, is way down in comparison with the number of professional requests (serve on program committees, attend meetings and present, interview etc…). Instant Messaging may also have this feel… it’s not, I should add that all email or all IM’s have become formal, just that its use has expanded to include more formal types of exchanges (recognising that formal is also a little tricky in definition, but thinking of the exchanges I’ll be having with my financial institutions to prepare my tax returns as another type of example).
One more thought on Andrea’s post. She hopes that the new privacy settings and the ability to create groups will help her break apart her single monolithic facebook network into the multiple social networks that it actually represents. But, if usable security teaches me one thing (there are more, but for now…) it is that too many options (particularly if they are written in security ease) doesn’t really seem to solve the problem either. People won’t spend the time to configure the system. The key is to find the sweet spot I suppose, of options and incentives… I wonder whether facebook has found them.