thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spam and Governance in Facebook

Facebook recently had a porn chain letter from Slide, who are running the Facebook "fun wall" application. Mary Hodder explains how it worked:
[I]magine you get some sort of email message from a friend in Facebook. This is a real friend, someone you do business with and/or socialize with and maybe have known for a long time (...). The message asks you to click into Facebook, at which point, you are asked to "install an app" (...). Then, once installed, you are taken to Slide's Fun Wall App, which shows you some porn, and says, "Click Foward to see what happen."(...) Turns out, if i'd clicked the "forward" button, Slide would have forwarded that spam to EVERYONE I KNOW in Facebook. All 500+ of them.
This event is interesting from the governance side of social networks: How do you establish and enforce norms in these new environments?

Mary sent complaints to Facebook and Slide, and after not hearing back, she called people in both companies she knew. She was
appalled at the responses I got. Now, these are people I know socially, and they gave me the real answers, but with the expectation that I would not attribute to them. However, I am confident that their answers reflect the culture and real value sets within these companies.

Facebook pointed the finger at Slide (the app maker in this case), and said, "There is nothing we can do. We have no control over the apps people make or the stuff they send." Oh, and if I wanted Facebook to change the rules for apps makers? I'd have to get say, 80k of my closest Facebook friends to sign on a petition or group, and then they might look at the way they have allowed porn spam to trick people into forwarding, but until then, there would be no feature review. (...)

Also both companies told me that blogging doesn't affect them, because they don't read blogs. The only thing they pay attention to are Facebook groups. Because they don't look at problems that a single person discovers.

Somehow, this reminds me of real existing democracy: If you don't get enough people on the streets or as participants in a class action law suit, politicians just won't listen. But apart from democratic considerations, in real government arrangements, you should also have the right to legal redress. Remember, in history, rule of law and democracy were not necessarily connected.

Slide, on the other hand, replied, according to Mary:

Facebook was the problem, because as the "governing" body, Facebook makes the rules and "Slide wouldn't be competitive if they changed what they do, and their competitors weren't forced to as well." In other words, Slides competitors use the same features to get more users (or trick more users as the case may be) and Slide didn't want to lose out on getting more users with similar features, regardless of the effect the features have on us and our relationships.
This sounds like real existing free market with a lack of regulatory oversight. For dealing with these kinds of problems, you normally need some authority that does not have a vested interest and at the same time has the power to regulate market failures and externalities. Facebook clearly has the power, as they control the technology and can decide what applications can and cannot do. If you conceive of Facebook as the government of the relationship space, Facebook does not have this division of powers and arms-length agencies governments normally have. And at the same time, as mentioned above, they lack a legal system the would enable individual users to claim their rights.

So, how do you change Facebook's attitude towards application providers? You develop a loud voice, which seems to be a large Facebook group. Or you leave. These are the textbook examples of Albert O. Hirschman's "Exit, Voice, Loalty" trias.

Leaving is what Mary Hodder and a lot of other people did:
For now, the answer for me is to use Facebook minimally and Slide not at all. Interestingly, at recent social gatherings I've mentioned these issues. At almost every one, people have said they are getting off Facebook and not going back, for precisely the reasons I mention above.
But the voice option also had some effect:
Facebook did recently force apps makers to default turn "off" the checked names in forward (as far as I can tell from my own analysis of Facebook and via other blogs explanations). But I have yet to receive replies to my original support notes to these companies, and feel confused about an unspoken, barely there response. It's as though after barely changing one thing aspect of a feature, in order to mitigate the problem, they want to sweep it all under the rug.
Maybe Facebook finally has started reading blogs? Remember, another important feature of modern democracy, beyond the rule of law and the division of power, is the existence of a public sphere.

Note that my argument has been an institutional one. There is also the cultural-sociological aspect, which is mentioned in Mary's post. In this view, the hope is that younger generations (here: including Marc Zuckerberg and the Slide guys) learn from older people about how to behave:
[I]t seems logical (and has happened in cultures around the world for millennia) that older, wiser men would advise young, clueless hormone driven boys how to act in the community.
Which approach would you take?

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