Tag Archives: social networking

The meat of Facebook

danah boyd wrote a blog post arguing that Facebook ought to be regulated like a utility. What exactly it means to be a utility, and why utilities ought to be regulated in general, is not the main focus of her piece, and she adds in an addendum that the issue is not so much that FB is a utility as that it is trying to be one. But, in any case, I want to push against the utility analogy with one of my own.

I take it that the reason why utilities ought to be regulated is that they are monopolies, and in a single-provider market, people can’t realistically use the threat of leaving for a competitor as leverage for bargaining with the monopolistic company. To claim this is the case for Facebook is surely an overstatement: people can and do opt out of using Facebook, and certainly there are enough other social options out there to block the analogy between them and “people who are building cabins in the woods” (an analogy suggested by boyd). Even if Facebook is dominant, it’s not a monopoly in the way that utility companies are, so the same arguments for regulation don’t really work.

The government sees fit to regulate in other sorts of cases, though. Take the meat industry. The government regulates certain aspects of the meat industry (however lax or ill-conceived USDA oversight might be). The justification here is not that the meat industry is monopolistic (though I’m sure it is mostly controlled by a couple conglomerates, and insofar as this is true it should be additionally regulated as a monopoly). Instead, the justification seems to be: 1) this kind of industry has the potential to do great harm if left to its own devices (E. coli and stuff like that), and 2) it is unlikely that many (or any) consumers of this industry’s goods are in a position to verify independently the claims of the industry (not many have access to labs where they can test for bacteria, etc). The government is justified in protecting its citizens at their most vulnerable (you might even say this is the primary reason for government). So they’re justified in regulating the meat industry.

The case of Facebook is parallel. 1) Because people keep a lot of their most important stuff in Facebook, a large amount of harm could be done if Zuck decided to start selling it to advertisers or something more nefarious still. 2) It’s difficult, if not impossible, for most people to verify the claims of FB with respect to how FB claims to store and use data. For one thing, the “privacy” settings are arcane to the point of incomprehensibility. And even if you figure out the settings, without access to FB’s software and servers, you can’t really know whether they’re living up to their word. Thus, government regulation might be justified.

Someone needs to write The Jungle, Part II: Zuckerpunched.

Importing Ning users into WP

Today Ning announced that it would be ending its free social networking service. I tweeted something to the effect that this event is a wake-up call: When you use closed-source, third-party hosted solutions for something as valuable as community connections, you are leaving yourself open to the whims and sways of corporate boards. It’s not that Ning is evil or anything – it goes without saying that they need to make a profit – but their priorities are importantly different from those of their users. In the same way that Ning moves from a freemium model to a paid model, Facebook could start selling your crap, Twitter could crash, Tumblr could go out of business, etc.

All this is a good argument to be using software solutions that are more under your control. Like – drumroll – WordPress and BuddyPress.

Enough moralizing. I whipped together a plugin this afternoon called Import From Ning that will allow you to get a CSV export of your Ning community’s member list (the only content that Ning has a handy export feature for, alas) and use it to import members into a WordPress installation.

As of right now, it does not have any BuddyPress-specific functionality. But the data that it does import – display name, username, email address – are enough to populate at least the beginnings of a BuddyPress profile. The next thing to add is the auto-import of certain profile fields. I might try to do this tomorrow. The plugin is based on DDImportUsers – thanks!


  • Download the zip file and unzip into your WP plugins directory
  • Look for the Import from Ning menu under Dashboard > Users (unless you’re running a recent trunk version of BuddyPress, in which case it will be under the BuddyPress menu)
  • Follow the instructions on that page

Download the plugin here.

Hard work and distraction: together at last

I just read this piece by Mike Elgan. Elgan’s argument is that hard work is dead in an age where we have Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. to constantly and effortlessly distract us.

There seems to be a mistake in this reasoning. If all that’s changed from now and the golden age of hard work (whenever that might have been) is that we have more media for distraction at hand, what follows immediately is that people were less distracted in the good old days. But to say that someone is less distracted doesn’t suggest anything about their “work ethic” without some meaty assumptions.

The lack of distractions (or, to put it in more neutral terms, the lack of alternative avenues for your attention!): this sounds like the very definition of boredom. But boredom – a state you find yourself in – isn’t directly related to how hard you work – a choice you make. It’s true that boredom might drive you to devote your energies to something in the way that exemplifies a good work ethic, but on the other hand it might not, and you might end up staring at the wall as I so often do. On the flip side, someone who is never bored (i.e. is constantly distracted) might well be working very hard all the time. Anyone who tries to keep up with their feed reader knows how hard you have to work to maintain a respectably high level of distraction.

More importantly, though, the assumption that there is something holy about the work ethic of our grandparents is off. Work ethics are not inherently valuable; they only derive value from their products. Thus, for example, a writer’s work ethic is valuable because of the things that she writes, or even the kind of person she becomes as a result of this work ethic. But things like good writing and being a good person are, as philosophers are wont to say, multiply realizable, and while it’s true that the supposed tunnel vision of our forebears sometimes resulted in the kind of work that is independently valuable, it doesn’t mean that equally good or better work can’t come out of more distributed, “distracted” processes.

Isn’t it at least conceivable that, for instance, an obsessed Twitter user might write a poem that is not only as good as a more “focused” poet, but one that would be impossible without something like Twitter?

This is not to say that I don’t think total focus is not valuable. I do think, however, that distraction can have value too, or at least that the question is an empirical one.

Does Facebook promote bad rhetorical skills?

I had an interesting conversation last night regarding using Facebook to communicate with students. There are lots of interesting aspects of this question, many of them of a practical type (how can I keep my students from seeing pictures of me getting drunk?) with practical answers (learn to use privacy settings). My sense is that if you could survey professors who are uneasy with the idea of Facebooking with their students, this would be the most prevalent cause for concern.

Much more interesting to me, though, is a different kind of worry, this one tied to the educational goals of the academy. The communication that happens in Facebook, the argument goes, is brief (think status updates), unnuanced, unsensitive to audience, overly informal. The communicative style that we want to teach our students, on the other hand, is nuanced and professional, both because this kind of communication is intrinsically better (whatever that might mean) and because it’s the kind of communication that they will have to be fluent in in order to flourish in the real world.

The motivation here seems right: we want to teach our students to be communicators who are sensitive to voice and audience and thus more likely to be successful. That said, there’s nothing inherent to Facebook that precludes this kind of conduct. I might even argue that the fact that students typically use the medium in non-academic ways makes it even more valuable as a teaching tool. In the “real world”, the division between professional and non-professional communication does not fall neatly along the lines that delineate media; telephone calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions are all used both for talking shop and for informal purposes. What students need to learn is not that certain media are appropriate for certain kinds of exchanges, but rather how to adapt to different kinds of exchanges regardless of the medium. Using Facebook to communicate with students is a potentially fertile ground for these lessons.

The distinction between “professional” and “non-professional” exchanges is bunk anyway. Even the idea that there is a continuum from totally formal communication to totally informal communication oversimplifies the matter. Relationships differ along all sorts of various dimensions, and to paint a caricature of this to students is both dishonest and self-defeating.

This isn’t to say that spaces like Facebook don’t provide any new rhetorical challenges. It’s hard to find a non-web-2.0 analog for status updates: brief, frequent messages that are sent to an entire network of individuals with whom you have different kinds of relationships. But this too is a teaching opportunity. Students should understand the quasi-public nature of these messages, and the technological means of making them less public if they wish.

It’s an open question whether it’s a good idea for any given professor to use this medium to communicate with students. But to rule it out across the board doesn’t seem right either, at least not for the reasons I talk about here.