Gaming the Social Networks

Cory Doctorow’s got an interesting article on why social networks like Facebook and MySpace are doomed over time: essentially his argument is that they make it too easy for all the folks you hate to find you:

For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.

I think Cory’s right, but only to the extent that people actually care about the sort of crap. I have profiles on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, et al., and my philosophy is to friend pretty much anyone who asks. As a result, I’ve got about 500 MySpace friends, of whom maybe about 10 percent I actually know or care about (if you’ve friended me there, be assured you’re in that ten percent. I love you, man). Same with Facebook. I don’t dislike most of the people who have friended me; I’m sure they’re nice people I would like. I just don’t know them. But if it makes them happy to have me on their friend list, why not? It’s harmless to me.

More to the point, I don’t actually confuse MySpace friending with actual befriending out in the real world; just because MySpace says we’re friends doesn’t make it so. If the people who annoyed me in seventh grade showed up on MySpace and wanted me to friend them, I would, because what do I care? It doesn’t mean now we have some sort of bond. I’m not obliged to them in any sense. I’ll friend ‘em and then commence to not think about them any further. It’s a pretty simple thing.

Cory points out that one of the problems with Facebook, MySpace, et al., is that all of a person social spheres get dumped into one bin, and suddenly your conservative boss, who you’ve friended to be polite, knows that you hang out with a bunch of polyamorous hippies when you’re off the clock. Aside from my personal inclination to tell any potential boss with hangups about my personal life to just deal with it, dude, there’s no reason one can’t manage one’s online social life as one does one’s offline life, with multiple faces for different people. Use one MySpace account for all your polyfreak pals, another for family and non-polyfreak pals, and another one for your boss and coworkers and random people in the seventh grade what used to beat you up. Think of the latter as the social network equivalent of a spam trap. Don’t tell the people in your social spam trap that, obviously.

No, I don’t have secret MySpace/LiveJournal accounts I’m not telling you about, because, remember, I’ll friend anyone, and most people who I actually know, know to reach me other ways. The only “secret” social networking thing I have is an IM account; there’s the public one (ScalziOnAIM) which anyone can chat with me on, and then there’s a more private one, because unlike a MySpace profile, IMs demand attention and have to be managed. I don’t actually expect the more private IM is secret, but if I’ve not personally given you the account name and you IM me on it, you’ll get to experience Cranky Scalzi, which I don’t think you want, and then I’ll just ban your ass.

Which is the other thing: Cory’s formulation is rooted in the idea that people aren’t willing to be seen as dicks online, so they’ll just friend anyone to avoid conflict. This is not a problem I have; I don’t mind being seen as a dick if people annoy me or presume we have a relationship we don’t have, and won’t take a polite hint. But more to the point, if this sort of stuff mattered to me, I wouldn’t have a problem letting people know they exist in particular social spheres. Because it’s actually not offensive to point it out. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.

29 thoughts on “Gaming the Social Networks

  1. I can see it now, when the next McCarthy rises… There will be the Congressional hearings. “Mr. Scalzi, do you deny you ‘friended’ Joe Schmoe? The very same Joe Schmoe who on his Facebook page is calling for the overthrow of the government? Have you no shame?”

    I’m sure someone is going to use this information for ridiculous purposes, if they haven’t already.

    Dr. Phil

  2. By the time I’d be up for a Senate confirmation hearing, no one will care about this shit. This is one of those generational acclimation issues. Like Clinton felt like he had to say “I didn’t inhale” in ’92, and Obama can say “hell yeah I inhaled” today and no one blinks.

  3. Not yet having read Cory’s post, I don’t know if he discusses it, but another reason his prediction isn’t necessarily based on the premises is that he is who he is, and you are who you are. I’m not either of you. And the guys who beat me up in 7th grade aren’t asking to be on my friends list. Because, really, why would they? And most of the world is more like me than they are like you and Cory.

    Now the issue of your boss being on the same friendslist as your polyfreaks is an issue for everyone. Or at least for every polyfreak. Though your solution is an obvious one. The problem is that people find you by searching for your name or email address. Multiple email addresses are easy to formulate. Multiple names aren’t. Sure…nicknames…but your friends who know you as Boomer are going to want to be on your “Real Name” account as well, because, what “are you embarrassed about them?”

  4. Zakur at #3: Myspace is hideous. And the ads that make noise are too annoying for words.

    I think part of the problem with Myspace (and Facebook) is the anonymity growing pains. People post things on myspace they wouldn’t want their parents, employers, etc to read because it’s the internet, and they think that even if their name’s on it, no one’s going to find it. That anonymity was an illusion even back when a reasonable person might have assumed it wasn’t. Now, with full names and easily identifiable pictures and friends-of-friends tracking, anonymity isn’t an illusion so much as it’s a kid’s toy magic trick from the dollar store. If you don’t want people you don’t like to find you, take precautions to keep from being found.

  5. @3: Exactly. I thought they all look like a freaked-out teenager’s bedroom wall.

    Facebook needs to separate out friends and acquaintances (and even elderly family members). I also get the people who have replaced email with Facebook messages, or with completely scandalizing messages on the wall.

    And while I’m venting on confusing messaging priorities, I am so frustrated when I send an email* saying “I will not have email/web access for the next X hours/days. If you need me urgently, or have to change a meeting for which I don’t have telephone details, then contact me on 555 5555″.

    Almost always, I find after X period, at least one direct reply saying “And my number is 5555 5556″ followed by “Why didn’t you call/meet me?”

  6. I just wish I had some poly-freak friends. I wouldn’t be ashamed of them, either. In fact, I’d probably spend more time with them than with anyone else…

    Facebook et al. have their uses. I’ll not deny that. But on the whole, it’s just another way to screw around on the internet (and not in a poly-freak way).

  7. Regarding being “friended” by your boss, Annalee has hit the nail on the head: if you put something on the Web, expect that people will view it — this includes (especially) people whom you don’t want to view it. Even if something is supposedly private, it can still probably be hacked, exposed, or simply shared by a confidant with somebody who is not a confidant.

    I guess my attitude seems paranoid, but I really just view my Internet presence as a public one. I behave the same way online as I would at a dinner party. I try to be polite, restrained, and relaxed. I also don’t confuse on-line relationships with anything more than mere acquaintance.

    For things that really need to be private, there’s nothing wrong with a personal journal (not posted online), e-mail, a letter, or a phone call.

  8. Having hit puberty only slightly before the rise of AOL chatrooms, my expectation of privacy regarding MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and LinkedIn accounts is probably lower than older individuals – much as several recent legal articles have pointed out in various contexts.

    Eventually, I see either the development of common sense by users (as a cynic, it’s not likely) or increased usage of features that render profiles invisible, possibly in conjunction with additional public profiles.

  9. I’m glad to know that I’m in the 10% you love, John. ;)

    I have no problem not adding people, as I am a heartless wench, and that applies to my boss. That said, I also don’t put information I don’t want them to find on my myspace profile, so if they find out about my hypothetical polyfreak friends they have no one but themselves to blame.

  10. I think part of this has to do with what you’re using the social network for, though, too. On Facebook, I’ve got a similar policy to yours. I’m just there so old friends can track down my email if they so desire, and if other people want to friend me, hey, whatever. I spend hardly any time on Facebook anyway. Livejournal, by contrast, I actually do participate in — and that’s where I’m much more invested in who I’m “friends” with. I read my friendslist there. I know who’s on it. I pay attention.

    Which is not to say I think people being on my LJ friends list means they’re automatically my friends, but — yeah. Being friended by a creepy former co-worker on Facebook wouldn’t bug me. I’m never there. On LJ? That’d be a problem.

    It could also be that I’m less invested in my Facebook friendslist because I know or have known all of my Facebook friends in real life. I don’t need an electronic friendship to confirm that they’re part of my social network. Maybe that’s part of it.

  11. Zakur and others: To make Myspace pages look sane, just install the Firefox Greasemonkey extension, then add the Myspace Media Remover script and the Myspace Custom Style Remover script. Resets all pages back to their default appearance, no matter how much time someone spent George Lucasing them.

    I assume you’re already running Adblock and NoScript, and with all the junk removed I find Myspace useable. Certainly more so than Facebook, with all the shitty spam-sending bots masquerading as cool new applications.

  12. I’m much more intrigued by the false intimacy created online, and wonder if you (meaning John, but I guess anybody) have experienced the weirdness of this?

    I’m not a blogger or a published novelist, but I used to do a brief segment on the 11 o’clock news about what big stories were going to be in the morning’s paper. And strangers started approaching me on the street, using my first name, and were far more comfortable and familiar with me than I obviously was with them.

    Rationally, I recognize that this was because I was coming into their homes, in stereo and color, and at that time of night, likely into their bedrooms, so hey, they were entitled to feel a little intimate. It still made me feel weird and was one of my least favorite parts of that experience.

    So, John, ever find yourself at a con or a signing, and people treat you like they know you, because you’re online and in some weird way they do? [See how I called you John, even though we've met once and briefly? I'm as guilty as everybody else, I guess.]

  13. LinkedIn isn’t bad in this respect. There are some mutants on there who have a zillion connections, but that’s pretty rare. And it looks pathetic in context.

    I suppose the other sites hold forth the promise that if you click through enough peoples’ connections you might find someone cute and nekkid. LinkedIn lacks this, so there’s not much point clicking through to strangers.

    I only have 3 fanboy links (You, a guy at Pixar, and one of the guys who did the Action Philosophers comics). The other 84 are people I actually know in meatspace.

  14. There are multiple strategies for this. Just yesterday someone asked why he saw only my limited profile (that’s right, privacy management settings are your friend; so is ruthlessly refusing all “application” requests). To mollify him I told I’d double check what he got set to, but I’m not going to change it. I also flat out told him that I’ve been evolving my usage and privacy towards increasingly cutting things off from the public and that not everyone gets to see everything. It’s an open, fairly honest treatment that is reasonably fair. If he doesn’t like it, well, then he’ll get migrated on to the “look, I now only friend people I am really friends with and deal with a lot”. He’s not one of them, and if he needs a clue, I’ll provide it.

    Myspace — corresponding with people who live elsewhere and don’t care to give out email. Nothing more, nothing less. And total lockdown since it’s google-able.

  15. Without commenting on the impending demise or lack thereof of the social-networking sites, I have to say that Doctorow’s point is rather blunted by the simple fact that he’s IN THE FRIGGIN’ PHONE BOOK (as are you–or, at least, you guys were recently enough to be found on 411 or Zabasearch …).

  16. I find that Facebook seems to be a more comfortable place for much of my family/social circle who just don’t “get” email or other interweb connection options e.g. after years of having my email, posting off-topic personal messages on my blog as a way of contacting me.

    Facebook allows me to corral a lot of the friend-spam (baby photos, funny videos etc) so that my email inbox has less clutter. It’s also good for keeping “alive” friend ships with people you don’t get to see that often. With friends smeared across 3 continents you can be a little more personal in your communications than sending out big emails (and getting personal replies as a Reply-all).

  17. Alex Jay Berman:

    “I have to say that Doctorow’s point is rather blunted by the simple fact that he’s IN THE FRIGGIN’ PHONE BOOK”

    I don’t think it occurs to most people that phone books are still a valid way to find people, particularly people of any level of notoriety. This of course suits me fine; I don’t want people just calling me out of the blue.

    Angelle:

    “So, John, ever find yourself at a con or a signing, and people treat you like they know you, because you’re online and in some weird way they do?”

    Well, I think most people recognize that just reading someone’s blog doesn’t mean someone’s your pal. I do get a lot of “I read your blog” or people asking questions of me that clearly indicate blog reading was going on.

    The dynamic is somewhat different with people who are regular commenters; they actually interact with me, so they feel, and not unreasonably so, that we have some sort of relationship. And we do, although and to put this as neutrally as possible, just because people have friendly banter online doesn’t automatically mean that in the real world people are going to be friends. That said, at least some people I consider friends are people I first “met” through the comments here, and in a general sense I think most people who comment here regularly are pretty cool, even the ones I argue with a lot.

  18. It’s an interesting topic. I think these new social sites turn the world into a small town. If you’ve ever lived in a truly small town, you know that everyone knows your business. Neither you nor they can really help it. If there are only two bars, one motel, and six restaraunts (okay nine if you include Mickey D’s, Sonic, and DQ) you can’t really segment your life. There are obviously pluses and minuses to this setup, but it does lead to an integrated life where your boss knows about your crazy friends.

    OTOH, the level of unreasonable intimacy and inherent editing of the instantaneous but delayed communication medium really messes with our hard-wiring. We tend to think of conversation speed communication (such as IM & texting) as “authentic” and “spontaneous”. It can be, but often isn’t. And all sorts of strangeness takes place because the instinctive expectation does not jibe with reality.

    [Giant foot comes down across page]
    And now for something completely different.

    Isn’t it just like the arrogant jerks who’d beat up a guy in 7th grade to come sucking around to him now that he’s famous? Glory hounds and sycophants don’t often change their stripes. As they say on another blog I read ‘The real WTF’ is that anyone expected different of them.

  19. Brett L:

    Well, I think you also have to consider the possibility that someone who was a dick to you in 7th grade might have grown out of it since then. I remember at my 10th high school reunion that one guy spent most of it going around to various people and apologizing for being a dick while we were in high school. Which was nice of him. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to comparing them as grownups to who they were when they were 13.

  20. Valid point. I was being a bit hyperbolic, but didn’t signpost change from serious to joking very well. God knows I owe a bunch of “I’m sorry for being a dick” apologies from age 18-22.

  21. “I remember at my 10th high school reunion that one guy spent most of it going around to various people and apologizing for being a dick while we were in high school.”

    Josh Marshall?

    I kid, I kid.

  22. Despite our host’s kind invitation, I’ll not be “friending” him on Facebook anytime soon. Call me old-fashioned, but my friends on Facebook really are friends.

    Not that John and I might not hit it off were we ever to meet. After all, he seems like an interesting and affable guy :) But I’m not a friend, I’m a fan. And as a fan of an author, I do the best thing: I buy his books (OK, and list him as a favorite author on Facebook, along with Cory Doctorow…)

    So John, and I mean this in the most friendly way, please get back to work – I got book money burnin’ a hole in my pocket :D

  23. Today I had lunch with a Facebook friend, one of a few that I’m converting to “meatspace” friends. On the way I was sitting on the tube between a guy who was calling everyone in his address book to tell them he was going through a tunnel and wouldn’t be able to talk to them until he was he was out of the tunnel, and a guy getting some sort of voice instructions from the phone over its loudspeaker. I felt like I was in some parody of Special Forces where everyone had alpha versions of v0.0001 of BrainPal.

    I happened to have finished reading The Ghost Brigadesyesterday. I haven’t had many “oh I must get back to the book” reads lately. Sincere thanks.

  24. Drew @9: I’m definitely on the same page as far as viewing my online identity as innately public. That’s why I attach my whole name to comments I leave on blogs: it’s a reminder to myself not to say anything I don’t want someone to be able to find when they google the name on my job application. That, by extension, generally leads to me not saying anything terribly personal, incriminating*, or just plain rude (though there’s a vaguely risque bumper sticker I mentioned on Making Light once that now comes up all over the internet with my name attached to it… oops).

    If it would mortify me for people to know a particular thing about me, I don’t put it on the internet. Because yeah, email can be hacked, or a livejournal error can make a locked post public, or law enforcement can take an interest in someone’s affairs and obtain a warrant for access to their MySpace registration information*. I’ve got plenty of personal emails stored and a few locked posts that I wouldn’t go out of my way to show to an employer, but certainly nothing that could get me or anyone I care about into any kind of trouble.

    *I’ve never had so much of a speeding ticket, but I’ve heard waaay too many stories about people posting their idiotic exploits to MySpace or YouTube and being shocked–shocked–to discover that law enforcement can trace it back to them. Uh… duh.

  25. Annalee,

    Your approach sounds most sensible. It amazes me that people upload, type, or otherwise place “information on a worldwide network used by billions of people, and expect it to stay private. :-)

  26. My sister is a prosecutor and has been known to troll MySpace and LiveJournal when preparing cases. She says there’s nothing quite like the look on a defendant’s face when you pull out their blog in open court and start reading from it. (To say nothing of the defense attorneys, whose next line is usually, “You idiot, you BLOGGED about this?”)

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