Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Privacy and the Social Identity Crisis

If there has anything I have learned from the few weeks in my Intro Psychology class, it's that people like to be in groups, and they like to be organized in those groups. As the age of technology finds its way deeper into the roots of our lives, the problem of social capital, and one's social identity comes into question. We have Twitter for public tweeting to the world, Facebook for your personal friend circle (and beyond), email for general communication, and instant messaging for one-on-one conversations. All of these electronic communications, and more, have sparked an attempt by companies across the nation, and even the globe, to organize these services into a social model that an individual can mold to, and come to use efficiently.

Without going too in-depth to each and every service, I hope to convince you that creating your social identity should not be as hard as it is. Once you press the Go button in your browser, you are a completely different person. When it comes to online, communication tends to spread itself among many different trust circles. Would you post the latest gossip about somebody in a public context where they can see it? Or would you advertise for a concert you're hosting to only a restricted set of people, without allowing them to invite others? In other words, the domain of society you are trying to reach becomes vital in such a setting, much like in real life. This is what social networking attempts to tackle.

Let me make it plain and simple: you need email. People can argue for ages that the latest Facebook messaging system, or some other "revolutionary" website can replace email, but that is a load of crap. Email is currently the only communication method that is compatible across all programs and companies, and delivers messages to only the people you specify. It is the paradigm of private communication. In fact, the privacy and selectiveness of email might even be its flaw. The reason why people freaked over the Google Buzz privacy fiasco is because email has always been regarded as more confined and private than Facebook or Twitter or whatever other social networking site you can think of. Put simply, email is extremely important in the social model, and it might just be the single most used tool in a proper and efficient social network. Now just to clear everything up before anybody comments, yes something like Google Wave has the ability to replace email, and I compliment Google on their creativity with the service, but for now let's stick to the more widely-used technologies.

Getting back to the flaw with email: selectiveness and formality. So you want to post something to the public, can't do it with email. So you want to write something quickly to your friend, or write something to your friend that anybody else can see. These and more are the flaws with email. Though email can be the central mode of communication for that discussion with your co-worker, it is way too private, and way to formal a method of communication to suit everybody's needs. It comes down to this: direct privacy, indirect privacy, formality, and topic.
  • Direct privacy: Who do you want to see the post? Direct privacy is concerned with exactly who the message is directed at. One person, two people, fifty people, everybody? Keep in mind this does not have anything to do with who sees the message, only who you, the author, intends to write the message to.
  • Indirect privacy: Who can see the message? Indirect privacy is a confusing topic. Let me put it this way: you write on somebody's wall on Facebook. Yes, you really meant for only that one person to read the message, but in reality anybody who has permission can see the post, and anybody can comment. This is usually the intended effect. If you are talking with a friend about an issue, sometimes you want somebody else to jump in and help out. Sometimes you don't. So while direct privacy is concerned with who you direct the message to, indirect privacy is the entire domain of who can read the message.
  • Formality: Are you sending the latest joke or riddle to a friend, or submitting a project proposal to your boss? Formality is how formal your post is. This can sometimes be used synonymously with the term intent. What is your message intended to do? This aspect of social networking is purely psychological. It means what should the recipient be thinking when they read the message.
  • Topic: What is your post about? It can be work, school, or something less formal, like drinking, sex, etc.
Because of these four aspects of social networking, there needs to be a way to cover the extremes of each and every factor, as well as everything in between. In a common model, email is for the directly private, indirectly private, and formal. Facebook wall posts would be directly private, indirectly public (to a certain extent), and informal. Twitter is directly public, indirectly public, and both formal and informal, depending on how you use it. The most important concept to understand is that should any domain of privacy cross another co-domain, the consequences will not be desirable. The ever infamous "Reply to All" button is a perfect example. A message that was supposed to be indirectly private just became indirectly public. It is still directly private since you directed the message at one person, but now anybody can read it.

Now what is my point in this mess of information? Well, I believe that people should adopt a centralized system and stick with it. My proposal is that people stop wandering around thinking about what to do, and sit down and organize themselves. I have been looking at myself for a while, and still have not become fully settled, but I am in a much better position than before. For direct private, indirect private, and formal, I use email. For the same, except informal, Facebook direct messaging. For direct private, indirect public, and informal, I use Facebook wall posts. For direct and indirect public, both formal and informal: Twitter. I use this blog for direct and indirect public, but with a different topic. LinkedIn is the same except for a different topic.

Here are my instructions to whoever might be reading this: pick your services and write them down. Make a list of everything you are currently using, and set them down on paper, noting the privacy, formality, and topic. As you write this down, take note as to which service cross paths. Your public Google Reader feed might cross paths with Twitter, and your blog may in turn cross paths with your Reader feed. Facebook might cross with email, and vice versa. The point is to be able to have a flow chart. Have a way where if you want something directly and indirectly public, it will be propagated to any other service that matches those specifications. Hook up Twitter to Facebook, and your blog feed to Twitter. Get it down to an art, where you can efficiently organize a portal that will post everything to all the right people.

Well, the last part got kind of confusing, but I hope that the social model I put before you really enlightened somebody about how your social network is working, and how it might not be working. So for now, Parent5446 out.

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