Tag Archives: communication

What the Facebook debacle says about sharing

Allow me to take a few more swings at this dead horse.

Sharing - it used to be so easy

Sharing - it used to be so easy - via clappstar

Mark Zuckerberg, Head Honcho of Facebook, posted a blog entry yesterday about the uproar that followed the Consumerist’s comparison of FB’s old Terms of Service with the new. Luke over at Cac.ophony calls Zuckerberg’s response “totally inadequate”. I think I agree, but I want to take a closer look at the argument that Zuckerberg provides for the TOS being the way they are, as I think that it draws attention to a lot of unanswered questions about one’s relationship with content – and, in particular, the somewhat ill-formed concept of sharing – as it takes place in social spaces.

The first part of Zuckerberg’s argument:

When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with.

So far so good, I think. The act of uploading a photo or writing a Facebook blog entry is, I think, clearly an intentional act by the poster, a way of saying, more or less explicitly, “I want others to see/hear this content via Facebook”. If we posit a correlation between Facebook’s rights (I guess I mean moral rights here – I don’t know much about legal issues) and the extent to which the user’s action demonstrates an explicit desire to use Facebook for sharing content, Zuckerberg’s first point seems right enough.

Zuckerberg’s next point:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox.

He draws a parallel with the way that email works: when you send a message, the recipient gets her own copy, and you don’t get to take that copy back later, even if you wanted to. By extention, this is “the right way for Facebook to work”, Zuckerberg says. I don’t think it’s that easy, though.

If Zuckerberg is trying to legitimatize FB’s behavior in this regard by comparing it to email, then we should be able to establish that it’s OK for email to behave this way too. Is it? I have often (sad to say) wanted to take an email back within seconds of pressing the Send button. Sometimes it takes more time: there are emails I sent in college that seemed fine at the time, but now I would prefer that the recipient never again have the chance to go back and reread them. How obvious is it, from a moral point of view, that an email, once sent, should be irretrievable? Are we allowing the fact that it’s technologically difficult/impossible to retrieve a sent email to shade our moral judgment? Imagine that it’s the 18th century, and I’ve just sent a letter that I decided I want back. The only way to get it back would be to break into the person’s house and take away a physical object that I had given to the recipient. It seems to me that these circumstantial facts about retrieving a physical letter are at least part of what makes the act of retrieval wrong. But the circumstantial facts are far different with email, or at least they could be with the right software design. Thus, while I might have a gut feeling that a sent letter no longer belongs to me, the gut feeling really ought to be reassessed in light of the new circumstances presented by electronic communication.

In truth, my temptation is to say that there is something morally wrong with taking back an email that you’ve sent, above and beyond the technological considerations. It has to do with the fact that sending email is an explicit transfer of rights to the recipient. Considering just this point, Facebook’s claim that it – the medium, the messenger, rather than the recipient – has rights is dubious – Gmail (see section 9.4) claims no such thing.

Zuckerberg’s choice of words in this regard is peculiar, and telling: he talks about a person “sharing” a message with someone else, instead of “sending” it. My guess is that this is to make it more plausible that the posting of an item – let’s say, of a picture I took – is the same thing as sending a message. But this is far from obvious. If I ask you over to my house to look at my photo albums – certainly a legitimate sense of “sharing” my photos with you – it does not follow from my invitation that you are permitted to take copies of the photos home with you. You can look at them until I decide I want to put them back in the cabinet. This feels quite different from what happens when I send you a letter, whether electronic or otherwise.

It is this idea – that I get to decide when you stop looking at my photos – that Facebook is taking away in its new TOS. It might be true that, as a matter of practical, Internet fact, if you’ve shared content on a single occasion then you have ipso facto shared it unlimitedly for the rest of time. But just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be. Part of the justification for FB’s position is technical: when you post an image on a friend’s wall, another copy is created, so that deleting the “original” on your account does not automatically delete all other copies. Surely this technical limitation is easily overcome, though, through the association of all copies derived from the same original.

You might argue that actively posting a picture on someone else’s wall is essentially the same thing as sending them a message, and thus the same moral considerations should apply. Maybe that’s right. But not all “sharing” on Facebook is done through the explicit actions of the sender. If you look at a friend’s photo on Facebook, for example, there is a link underneath it to Share with others or to post on your own profile. It might be said that a person who uploads to Facebook has thereby implicitly shared with all potential viewers of the picture, but you need some argument to show that this kind of “sharing” is equally irrevocable, from a moral point of view, as the more explicit kind.

I guess all this is to say that we are going to have to figure out what happens to content ownership when the concept of sharing takes on these kinds of massive proportions. One radical approach is to do away altogether with ownership and to be totally open, dude. I like openness, despite the fact that I seem to be arguing on behalf of ownership in this post. But to make this move merely because we are stymied about how to solve the problem of massive sharing is rather defeatist – openness should be something we choose, not a last resort.

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.