Posts Tagged ‘online communities’

In the mix…philanthropic entities, who’s online doing what, data brokers, and data portability

Monday, July 5th, 2010

1) Mimi and I are constantly discussing what it means to be a nonprofit organization, whether it’s a legal definition or a philosophical one.  We both agree, though, that our current system is pretty narrow, which is why it’s interesting to see states considering new kinds of entities, like the low-profit LLC.

2) This graphic of who’s online and what they’re doing isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I like the way it breaks down the different ways to be online.  (via FlowingData) At CDP, as we work on creating a community for the datatrust, we want to create avenues for different levels of participation.  I’d be curious to see this updated for 2010, and to see if and how people transition from being passive userd to more active userd of the internet.

3) CDT has filed a complaint against Spokeo, a data broker, alleging, “Consumers have no access to the data underlying Spokeo’s conclusions, are not informed of adverse determinations based on that data, and have no opportunity to learn who has accessed their profiles.” We’ve been wondering when people would start to look at data businesses, which have even less reason to care about individuals’ privacy than businesses with customers like Google and Facebook.  We’re interested to see what happens.

4) The Data Portability Project is advocating for every site to have a Portability Policy that states clearly what data visitors can take in and take out. The organization believes “a lot more economic value could be created if sites realized the opportunity of an Internet whose sites do not put borders around people’s data.” (via Techcrunch)  It definitely makes sense to create standards, though I do wonder how standards and icons like the ones they propose would be useful to the average internet user.

Building a community: who’s in charge?

Friday, May 28th, 2010

From http://xkcd.com/

We’ve seen so far that for a community to be vibrant and healthy, people have to care about the community and the roles they play in it.  A community doesn’t have to be a simple democracy, one member/one vote on all decisions, but members have to feel some sense of agency and power over what happens in the community.

Of course, agency can mean a lot of things.

On one end of the spectrum are membership-based cooperatives, like credit unions and the Park Slope Food Coop, where members, whether or not they exercise it, have decision-making power built into the infrastructure of the organization.

On the other end are most online communities, like Yelp, Facebook, and MySpace.  Because the communities are all about user-generated content, users clearly have a lot of say in how the community develops.

But generally speaking, users of for-profit online services, even ones that revolve around user-generated content don’t have power to actually govern the community or shape policies.

Yelp, for example, allows more or less anyone to write a review.  But the power to monitor and remove reviews for being shills, rants or otherwise violations of its terms of use is centralized in Yelp’s management and staff.  The editing is done behind closed doors, rather than out in the open with community input.  Given its profit model, it’s not surprising that Yelp has been accused repeatedly of using its editing power as a form of extortion when it tries to sell ads to business owners.

Even if Yelp is innocent, it doesn’t help that the process is not transparent, which is why Yelp has responded by at least revealing which reviews have been removed.

(As for Facebook, the hostility between the company and at least some of its users is obvious.  No need to go there again.)

And then there are communities that are somewhere in between, like Wikipedia.  Wikipedia isn’t a member-based organization in a traditional sense.  Community members elect three, not all, of the board members of Wikimedia.  Each community member does not have the same amount of power as another community member – people who gain greater responsibilities and greater status also have more power.  But many who are actively involved in how Wikipedia is run are volunteers, rather than paid staff, who initially got involved the same way everybody does, as writers and editors of entries.

There are some obvious benefits to a community that largely governs itself.

It’s another way for the community to feel that it belongs to its members, not some outside management structure.  The staff that runs Wikipedia can remain relatively small, because many volunteers are out there reading, editing, and monitoring the site.

Perhaps most importantly, power is decentralized and decisions are by necessity transparent.  Although not all Wikipedia users have access to all pages, there’s an ethos of openness and collaboration.

For example, a controversy recently erupted at Wikipedia.  Wikimedia Commons was accused of holding child pornography.  Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, then started deleting images.  A debate ensued within the Wikipedia community about whether this was appropriate, a debate any of us can read.  Ultimately, it was decided that he would no longer have “founder” editing privileges, which had allowed him to delete content without the consent of other editors.  Wikimedia also claims that he never had final editorial control to begin with.  Whether or not Wikimedia is successful, it wants and needs to project a culture of collaboration, rather than personality-driven dictatorship.

It’s hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg giving up comparable privileges to resolve the current privacy brouhaha at Facebook.

But it’s not all puppies and roses, as anyone who’s actually been a part of such a community knows.

It’s harder to control problems, which is why a blatantly inaccurate entry on Wikipedia once sat around for 123 days.  Some community members tend to get a little too excited telling other members they’re wrong, which can be a problem in any organization, but is multiplied when everyone has the right to monitor.

Some are great at pointing out problems but not so good at taking responsibility for fixing them.

And groups of people together can rathole on insignificant issues (especially on mailing lists), stalling progress because they can’t bring themselves to resolve “What color should we paint the bikeshed?” issues.

Wikipedia has struggled with these challenges over the past ten years.  It now limits access to certain entries in order to control accuracy, but arguably at some cost to the vibrancy of the community.  Wikipedia is trying to open up Wikipedia in new directions, as it tries a redesign in the hope it will encourage more diverse groups to write and edit entries (though personally, it looks a lot like the old one).

Ultimately, someone still has to be in charge.  And when you value democracy over dictatorship, it’s harder but arguably more interesting, to figure out what that looks like.

Building a community: the costs and benefits of a community built on a quid pro quo

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about how Yelp, Slashdot and Wikipedia reward their members for contributing good content with stars, karma points, and increased status, all benefits reserved just for their registered members.  All three communities, however, share the benefits of what they do with the general public.  You don’t have to contribute a single edit to a Wikipedia entry to read all the entries you want.  You don’t have to register to read Yelp reviews, nor to read Slashdot news.  For Wikipedia and Slashdot, you don’t even have to register to edit/make a comment.  You can do it anonymously.

In other communities, however, those who want to benefit from the community must also give back to the community.

Credit unions, for example, have benefits for their members and their members only.  Credit unions and banks offer a lot of the same services – accounts, mortgages, and other loans – but they often do so on better terms than banks do.  However, while a bank will offer a mortgage to a person who does not have an account at that bank, a credit union will provide services only to credit union members.

It is a quid pro quo deal – the credit union member opens an account and the credit union provides services in return.

A more particular example is the Park Slope Food Coop, a cooperative grocery store to which I belong.  Many food coops operate on multiple levels of access and benefits.  Non-members can shop, but may not get as big a discount as members.   Those who want to be members can choose to pay a fee or to volunteer their time.  The Park Slope Food Coop eliminates all those choices – you have to be a member to shop, and you have to work to be a member.  Every member of the Coop is required to work 2 hours and 45 minutes every 4 weeks.  The exact requirement can vary depending on the type of work you sign up for, and the kind of work schedule you have, but that work requirement exists for every single adult member of the Coop.  In return, you get access to the Coop’s very fresh and varied produce and goods, often of higher quality and at lower prices than other local stores.

Again, it’s quid pro quo, members work and they get access to food in return.

This is not to suggest that the arrangement members of credit unions and the Coop are acting in a mercenary way.  Quid pro quo doesn’t just mean “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”  It means you do something and get something of equal value in return.

There are some real advantages to limiting benefits for community members and community members only.

The incentive to join is clear.  The community is often more tight-knit.  Most of all, there is no conflict of interest between what’s good for the community and what’s good for the members.  A bank serves its customers but it has an incentive to make money that goes beyond protecting its customers. Credit unions were not untouched by the financial crisis, but they were certainly not as entangled as commercial banks and are considered good places still to get loans if you have good credit.

There are also real disadvantages.

As both examples make clear, such communities tend to be small and local.  The Coop has more than 12,000 members, a lot for a physically small space, but nowhere close to the numbers that visit large supermarkets.  Credit unions boast that they serve 186 million people worldwide, but any particular credit union is much smaller.  Even the credit union associated with an employer as large as Microsoft is nowhere near as large as a national bank.  It’s difficult to scale the benefits of a credit union up.

Even if the group is kept small, the costs of monitoring this kind of community are obviously high.  In an organization like the Coop, someone needs to make sure everyone is doing their fair share of the work.  Stories about being suspended, applying for “amnesty,” and trying to hide spouses and partners abound.  The Coop is the grocery store non-members love to hate and a favorite subject in local media, with stories popping up every couple of years with headlines like, “Won’t Work for Food: Horror Stories of the World’s Largest Member-Owned Cooperative Grocery Store” and “Flunking Out at the Coop.”

Personally, I think the Coop functions surprisingly well, proven by its relative longevity among cooperative endeavors, but it’s certainly not a utopian grocery store where people hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” over artichokes.

Notably, both examples are also communities that mainly operate offline.  The Internet with its ethos of openness generally doesn’t favor sites that limit access only to members.  Registered users may need to log on to view their personal accounts, but few sites really limit the benefits of the site to members alone.

So is there any online community that limits the benefits of the community as strictly to members as my two offline examples?

The first example I could come up with was Facebook, and it’s actually a terrible one.  Facebook’s been all over the news for the changes that make its users’ information more publicly available, and new sites like Openbook are making obvious how public that information is.  At the same time, though, that public-ness is still not that obvious to the average Facebook user.  Information is primarily being accessed by third party partners (like Pandora), other sites using Facebook’s Open Graph, and other Facebook users (Community Pages, Like buttons across the Internet).  Facebook profiles can show up in public search results, but when you go to facebook.com, the first thing you see is a wall.  If you register, you can use Facebook.  If not, you can’t.

Facebook is perhaps most accurately an example of a community that looks closed but isn’t.  As danah boyd points out,

If Facebook wanted radical transparency, they could communicate to users every single person and entity who can see their content…When people think “friends-of-friends” they don’t think about all of the types of people that their friends might link to; they think of the people that their friends would bring to a dinner party if they were to host it. When they think of everyone, they think of individual people who might have an interest in them, not 3rd party services who want to monetize or redistribute their data. Users have no sense of how their data is being used and Facebook is not radically transparent about what that data is used for. Quite the opposite. Convolution works. It keeps the press out.

In a way, it shouldn’t surprise us that Facebook is pushing information public.  Its whole economic model is based on information, not on providing a service to its users.

Which leads me to the one good example of an online community where you really have to join to benefit — online dating sites.  Match.com, eHarmony, OKCupid — none of them let you look at other members’ profiles before you join.  OkCupid is free, but the others rely on an economic model of subscriptions, not advertising.

It seems dating is in that narrow realm of things people are willing to pay for on the Internet.

So I’m left wondering, is it possible to set up a free, large-scale, online community where benefits are limited to its members?  What are the other costs and benefits of a community where you have to give to get?  Closed versus open?  And do the benefits outweigh the costs?

In the mix…Linkedin v. Facebook, online identities, and diversity in online communities

Friday, May 14th, 2010

1) Is Linkedin better than Facebook with privacy? I’m not sure this is the right question to ask. I’m also not sure the measures Cline uses to evaluate “better privacy” get to the heart of the problem.  The existence of a privacy seal of approval, the level of detail in the privacy policy, the employment of certified privacy professionals … none of these factors address what users are struggling to understand, that is, what’s happening to their information.  73% of adult Facebook users think they only share content with friends, but only 42% have customized their privacy settings.

Ultimately, Linkedin and Facebook are apples to oranges.  As Cline points out himself, people on Linkedin are in a purely professional setting.  People who share information on Linkedin do so for a specific, limited purpose — to promote themselves professionally.  In contrast, people on Facebook have to navigate being friends with parents, kids, co-workers, college buddies, and acquaintances.  Every decision to share information is much more complicated — who will see it, what will they think, how will it reflect on the user?  Facebook’s constant changes to how user information makes these decisions even more complicated — who can keep track?

In this sense, Linkedin is definitely easier to use.  If privacy is about control, then Linkedin is definitely easier to control.  But does this mean something like Facebook, where people share in a more generally social context, will always be impossible to navigate?

2) Mark Zuckerberg thinks everyone should have a single identity (via Michael Zimmer).  Well, that would certainly be one way to deal with it.

3) But most people, even the “tell-all” generation, don’t really want to go there.

4) In a not unrelated vein, Sunlight Labs has a new app that allows you to link data on campaign donations to people who email you through Gmail.  At least with regards to government transparency, Sunlight Labs seems to agree with Mark Zuckerberg.  I think information about who I’ve donated money to should be public (go ahead, look me up), but it does unnerve me a little to think that I could email someone on Craigslist about renting an apartment and have this information just pop up.  I don’t know, does the fact that it unnerves me mean that it’s wrong?  Maybe not.

5) Finally, a last bit on the diversity of online communitiesit may be more necessary than I claimed, though with a slightly different slant on diversity.  A new study found that the healthiest communities are “diverse” in that new members are constantly being added.  Although they were looking at chat rooms, which to me seems like the loosest form of community, the finding makes a lot of sense to me.  A breast cancer survivors’ forum may not care whether they have a lot of men, but they do need to attract new participants to stay vibrant.

Building a community: the implications of Facebook’s new features for privacy and community

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

As I described in my last post, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are so stark, they don’t feel like natural competitors to me.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  Rather, one is catering to people who are looking for more of a public, party atmosphere, and the other is catering to people who want to feel like they can go to parties that are more exclusive and/or more intimate, even when they have 1000 friends.

But this difference doesn’t mean that one’s personal information on Facebook is necessarily more “private” than on MySpace.  MySpace can feel more public.  There is no visible wall between the site and the rest of the Internet-browsing community.  But Facebook’s desire to make more of its users’ information public is no secret.  For Facebook to maintain its brand, though, it can’t just make all information public by default.  This is a company that grew by promising Harvard students a network just for them, then Ivy League students a network just for them, and even now, it promises a network just for you and the people you want to connect with.

Facebook needs to remain a space where people feel like they can define their connections, rather than be open to anyone and everyone, even as more information is being shared.

And just in time for this post, Facebook rolled out new features that demonstrate how it is trying to do just that.

Facebook’s new system of Connections, for example, links information from people’s personal profiles to community pages, so that everyone who went to Yale Law School, for example, can link to that page. Although you could see other “Fans” of the school on the school’s own page before, the Community page puts every status update that mentions the school in one place, so that you’re encouraged to interact with others who mention the school.  The Community Pages make your presence on Facebook visible in new ways, but primarily to people who went to the same school as you, who grew up in the same town, who have the same interests.

Thus, even as information is shared beyond current friends, Facebook is trying to reassure you that mini-communities still exist.  You are not being thrown into the open.

Social plug-ins similarly “personalize” a Facebook user’s experience by accessing the user’s friends.  If you go to CNN.com, you’ll see which stories your friends have recommended.  If you “Like” a story on that site, it will appear as an item in your Facebook newsfeed.  The information that is being shared thus maps onto your existing connections.

The “Personalization” feature is a little different in that it’s not so much about your interactions with other Facebook users, but about your interaction with other websites.  Facebook shares the public information on your profile with certain partners.  For example, if you are logged into Facebook and you go to the music site Pandora, Pandora will access public information on your profile and play music based on the your “Likes.”

This experience is significantly different from the way people explore music on MySpace.  MySpace has taken off as a place for bands to promote themselves because people’s musical preferences are public.  MySpace users actively request to be added to their favorite bands’ pages, they click on music their friends like, and thus browse through new music.  All of these actions are overt.

Pandora, on the other hand, recommends new music to you based on music you’ve already indicated you “Like” on your profile.   But it’s not through any obvious activity on your part.  You may have noted publicly that you “Like” Alicia Keys on your Facebook profile page, but you didn’t decide to actively plug that information into Pandora.  Facebook has done it for you.

Depending on how you feel about Facebook, you may think that’s wonderfully convenient or frighteningly intrusive.

And this is ultimately why Facebook’s changes feel so troubling for many people.

Although they aren’t ripping down the walls of its convention center and declaring an open party. As Farhad Manjoo at Slate says, Facebook is not tearing down its walls but “expanding them.”

Facebook is making peepholes in certain walls, or letting some people (though not everyone) into the parties users thought were private.

This reinforces the feeling that mini-communities continue to exist within Facebook, something the company should try to do as it’s a major draw for many of its users.

Yet the multiplication of controls on Facebook for adjusting your privacy settings makes clear how difficult it is to share information and maintain this sense of mini-communities.  There are some who suspect Facebook is purposefully making it difficult to opt-out.  But even if we give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, it’s undeniable that the controls as they were, plus the controls that now exist for all the new features, are bewildering.  Just because users have choices doesn’t mean they feel confident about exercising them.

On MySpace, the prevailing ethos of being more public has its own pitfalls.  A teenager posting suggestive photos of herself may not fully appreciate what she’s doing.  At the least, though, she knows her profile is public to the world.

On Facebook, users are increasingly unsure of what information is public and to whom.  That arguably is more unsettling than total disclosure.

Building a community: Are we all at the same party?

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

In my last post, I described the ways in which Yelp and Facebook are different animals, despite Yelp’s social network-like qualities. Yelp feels like a community in which its members share the goal of writing good reviews for Yelp; Facebook contains communities, none of which particularly feel any affinity for doing anything for Facebook.

You would think, then, that Facebook isn’t a community simply because its members aren’t invested in a shared mission. But when you look at MySpace, a site that is also a social network and nothing else, the question of what makes a community a community becomes more complicated.

MySpace, first off, is not exactly a community either. Its members aren’t invested in MySpace any more than Facebook members are invested in Facebook. But it does feel very different from Facebook in a couple of obvious ways.

MySpace feels crazier, looser, and less professional, and thus also more personal and individualistic.

One of the most obvious and immediate visual differences between MySpace and Facebook is the way users design their profile pages. MySpace allows its users to customize their pages, which means MySpace is a riot of colors, animated gifs, and backgrounds. There’s a basic template with neat boxes, similar to what Ashton Kutcher has here:

But there are many more users who have so much animation and graphics, sometimes even their names are obscured.

The aesthetic reminds me a bit of my teenage bedroom, how much I was interested in making sure that the the posters I hung, art and music and what have you, expressed exactly who I was. A lot has already been said about the racial and socioeconomic differences between MySpace and Facebook, so I won’t go into them here, but it’s worth noting that this flexible aesthetic, as danah boyd points out, doesn’t only attract kids who are poor or don’t plan to go to college, but “the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.”

Facebook, on the other hand, has uniform blue and white boxes. You might choose to upload a quirky or weird profile photo, or even make up a profile like Peowtie del Toro, but your aesthetic choices are severely limited.

Facebook provides a more corporate, professional framework on which people are neatly displayed, like a telephone book or directory (aka, a college facebook).

MySpace’s design gets made fun of all the time, at least by the kind of people who tend to write for tech blogs, but it’s a draw for people who want to be able to individualize their profiles. Facebook’s design, in contrast, doesn’t promote a particular aesthetic. There are people who are drawn to Facebook’s clean professional look and repelled by MySpace’s free-for-all.

But the reason people praise Facebook’s design is because they value the way it’s a clean slate, bland and able to absorb almost anything and anyone.

Facebook is growing faster than MySpace, and although that may be in part due to its design, but it’s less because Facebook’s design is so compelling and more because it’s inoffensive.

MySpace feels like one big party.

The free-for-all of MySpace, compared to the clean, blank slate of Facebook results in very different atmospheres on both sites. MySpace feels like one big party. There are definitely subgroups within MySpace, but there is an openness to the site that is completely missing from Facebook.

From the moment you go to MySpace, you see content that’s available to you. With a few clicks, you can find videos, band pages with music, and individual profiles that have been made publicly accessible to anyone, even those who are not registered members of MySpace. Although there are MySpace users who don’t make their profiles public, you can browse the profiles of those who are public, and there’s a sense that any of these strangers might connect with each other. (It helps that so many of the photos are aggressively flirty.) Everyone’s at the same party.

Facebook certainly isn’t private, and as its many new developments indicate, the company is aggressively trying to make more of its users’ information public. (More on that to come.)

But Facebook isn’t one big open party. It’s a convention hall where you’re supposed to find your group and join whichever cocktail party, networking event, or shindig is being hosted by your group.

Your first view of Facebook is a virtual wall. The first page consists mainly of a blue and white graphic with abstract images of people connected all over the world. The login for members is the only visibly interactive part of the page, other than the sign up for new members. There isn’t even a search box for existing members. The impression is that until you log in or sign up, you don’t really have access to the site.

There’s definitely no “Browse” function. Even after you log in, you can only search for specific people. At best, you can browse your friends’ friends, but even that is based on the connections you already have. Although people increasingly have Facebook friends they don’t actually know, the connections most people have to each other aren’t based on the fact that they’re both on Facebook. Rather, people friend each other because they went to the same school, work at the same place, or have friends in common. To some extent, I really don’t know the full range of people who are on Facebook because I can only see the people I’m friends with.

It’s not surprising MySpace is the place to hear new music.

Despite Facebook’s rapid growth, MySpace is still the most popular site for bands. Part of that has to do with the ease with which tracks can be uploaded, but it also has to with the one party atmosphere of MySpace. You’ve come to have a good time, you’re open to hearing new music, you might just end up talking to the drummer after a set.

For example, when you look at the MySpace page for The National, the band’s 63,798 friends write messages that are directed to the band like,

THANX SO MUCH FOR THE ADD!! LUV UR MUZIK!! DIGGIN UR ENTIRE PLAYLIST!!
MUCH RESPECT!! MAD LUV!!
Angela Marie 😉
HAVE A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND ALWAYZ REMEMBER TO ROCK IT WITH A SMILE LIKE ME, UR KICK ASS FRIEND MISS A TO THE G!! 😉

Whereas on Facebook, the people who “like” The National don’t seem to necessarily have a sense of personal connection to the band. Some of them write direct appeals, like please come play in my town, but there are just as many comments that are directed to other fans as to the band itself, like,

just purchased tickets for the seattle show in sept!! can not wait to see them live..what an amazing follow-up to Boxer.”

Although The National is a relatively famous band, anyone can upload music on MySpace and hope to make it big, the way Lily Allen did. Many of the comments on The National page are from people in their own bands asking them to check out their music. They don’t have to already know each other to comment or become friends, whereas the social expectations are very different on Facebook.

Even as Facebook tries to make more of its users’ information public, it will never feel like MySpace.

Recently, Facebook rolled out several changes that either encourage or push its users to make more of their information public, depending on how you feel about Facebook.

These new developments — Personalization, Community Pages, and Like buttons across the Internet — are changing the way Facebook users’ information is available. Yet these changes are still in line with the “many communities” model, rather than the one-big tent feel of MySpace, with some interesting consequences for individual privacy.

More to come in a follow-up post…

Building a community — will the real Mrs. Del Toro please stand up?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

As I discussed in my last post, having real profiles can really change the dynamic in an online community.  Yelp, which has more or less encourages Yelpers to use real identities, has created a community where people really care what other Yelpers think of them.  In contrast, Wikipedians care about the work others are doing, but they’re not so invested impressing other Wikipedians with their taste in music or food.  Yelp and Wikipedia have some similar incentives for people to create good stuff, like increased status and privileges, but Yelp feels like a social network while Wikipedia does not.

So how does the power of real profiles play out within Facebook, which is a social network and nothing else?  How do people’s concerns about their reputations play out when there are no reviews to write or encyclopedia entries to edit?  And how does Facebook in this context encourage people to create content?

(MySpace is a social network as well, but it’s so different from Facebook that I’m going to address it in a separate post.)

Facebook cares even more than Yelp about having real people.

Poor Peowtie, her Facebook account's been disabled.

While Yelp encourages people to use real first names and last initials and a real photo, Facebook requires it.  The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states, along with other rules:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not use your personal profile for your own commercial gain (such as selling your status update to an advertiser).
  3. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.
  4. You will not use Facebook if you are a convicted sex offender.
  5. You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
  6. You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.
  7. You will not transfer your account to anyone without first getting our written permission.
  8. If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user’s actual name).

Although we all know people who’ve sneaked through with a profile based on the name of a pet or a nickname, Facebook is diligent enough that it was very difficult for Caitlin Batman, Tim Six, Becky Super, and others with unusual names to sign up for an account.  My friend’s Peowtie Del Toro account, which she opened in October 2007, was disabled just this year.  (The above is a mock-up as it is completely inaccessible to her now.)

Facebook doesn’t create a product, like business reviews or an encyclopedia, separate from its social network.  Its product is essentially human relationships, to the extent that they can be captured through status updates, photos uploaded, articles linked, and virtual gifts/pokes sent.  For all the personal detail Yelpers put into their reviews, it doesn’t compare to how personal content is on Facebook.

As real people, Facebook members are hyper-aware of their reputations.

The fact that they are creating content that is solely about their lives means that Facebook users care even more about the way that content affects their reputations.  It’s not just about whether they write witty Yelp reviews or edit correctly on Wikipedia — it’s about who they are. As much as they horrify middle-aged adults, the kids who post drunken photos of themselves on Facebook do care about their reputations.  It’s just that at that moment in their lives, it’s more important that they project that image than a more staid, responsible one. Some people want to be the kind of people who have 900 Facebook friends; other people want equally strongly to be the kind of people who have 50.  Some people want their friends to know they made pickles with seasonal ramps that weekend; other people want their friends to know they were watching football.

And despite the fact that Facebook has become a symbol of our over-sharing culture, Facebook wants us to share even more.  The more we share, the more it can make in advertising.  The more we share, the more valuable its data becomes.

But Facebook can’t give you a gold star for being a cool person…

Because people on Facebook are creating content about themselves, Facebook can’t use the same incentive systems used by Yelp or Wikipedia.  Yelp can promote good reviewers to the Yelp Elite Squad, Wikipedia can give privileges to reliable editors, but it would be laughable for Facebook to create a Facebook Elite Squad.  Imagine if Facebook deemed some users’ vacation photos better than others, or gave karma points like Slashdot to those whose status updates were wittiest.

Facebook, however, can use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate and promote activity.  There are ways for users to give each other the Facebook equivalent of badges, stars, and compliments: virtual gifts and “pokes.”

Facebook’s ways of motivating activity are generally more subtle.  Facebook doesn’t just ask people to share — it asks people to respond.  I once had a friend ask me why I never commented on her status updates.  She clearly cares whether people respond to what she says.  It’s part of why she uses Facebook.  If Facebook didn’t allow people to comment on each other’s status updates and posts, I imagine the level of activity would rapidly decrease.

Facebook’s “like” button serves an interesting purpose in this context.  Like Yelp’s “useful, funny or cool,” it lets people respond to their friends without having to write out an actual sentence.  It’s equivalent to a nod or sympathetic “uh-huh” offline — it’s a way to show you’re paying attention.

But of course, Facebook isn’t really satisfied with the level of activity currently happening.  Everyday, I’m given suggestions, not only for new friends but ways in which I could interact with existing ones.

I’m curious how many people actually see this and then go out and write on the wall of that elementary school friend who they haven’t communicated with since they accepted the friend request.  (In my case, I feel like it’s always telling me to reach out to Alex Selkirk, who I see almost everyday.)

It’ll be interesting to see what else Facebook tries as it works to monetize itself.  I don’t see how it can ever give out gold stars or badges or create elite classes within Facebook.  Not only would it be weird to rate a person for being a person, it would be difficult to come up with an incentive structure that appeals to its 400 million registered users.  Being a member of some Elite Squad, having karma points, being the Mayor of a local business as FourSquare does, might be appealing to some people.  It definitely won’t be appealing to all of them.


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