Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Kirkpatrick: "The Facebook Effect"

Author: David Kirkpatrick

Title: "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that Is Connecting the World"

Publication: New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-0211-4, 372 pages, hardcover, Prologue and 17 chapters.  Amazon link.

I start this review with repeating an (apparently unrelated) old chestnut from my own political activity: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” To which history answers, “Facebook is incompatible with ‘don’t ask don’t tell’”. Military members do have Facebook pages, and some have outed themselves without consequences. But, innovated largely by a young man whose “personal” life appears to be heterosexual, Facebook may have done more to destroy the DADT policy than any politician, any judge or any advocacy organization (even SLDN). (Oh, well, there’s straight San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome’s support of gay marriage, too.)

Of course, what I’m hitting on goes back to the evolution of the Web, as “average people” starting using in the mid 1990s, before the first dot-com boom and bust, long before social media became fully established, when the Web was more like a self-publication platform (and e-commerce store). Anyone could make himself a celebrity with almost no capital, with the help of search engines, if he or she had something important to say.

With Facebook, as with other social networking sites, there has developed a fundamental dichotomy: is it about meeting and interacting with people, or is it about self-publication? Indeed, the book, as have others, traces the origins of “TheFaceBook” at Harvard, with the idea of facilitating connections with people whom you have a real chance of hooking up with. In time, however, it would go global. It had to, to make money, even as it was popular on campuses as a virtual “speed dating” prompt. It would become an incredibly effective tool for keeping up with people over long times and vast physical distances. As a mathematician puts things, it would create a new measure space for social interaction. It would provide an alternate universe with (as Clive Barker would call it) “Reconciliation”.

But as the Prologue of this book starts us with, Facebook has also provided a facile means of political protest, often in the Third World, overwhelming totalitarian attempts to put people down. Indeed, some governments like Pakistan have tried to disable it.

I take this back to the mid 1990s when I pondered and then wrote my self-published book on issues that concentrically surround the dilemmas posed by the “gays in the military” issue, as these issues related to my own past history. I followed up with a web presence, provocative enough to get involved with the litigation over COPA, and, particularly during my time in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, became a minor celebrity. Self-publication definitely did create desirable social contacts.

But in time an ethical question evolved, something I have called “The Privilege of Being Listened To” on my main “BillBoushka” blog. Should one definitely enter the world of social and family responsibility before being heard from? I had grown up in a culture that had good reasons to believe in that idea as a moral precept. This could have legal consequences. Web content could be seen as gratuitous, making the publisher morally and maybe legally responsible for putting others at risk if he did not have a clear motive from his self-broadcast other than to provoke others. In the COPA trial, this got called the “implicit content” problem. It then becomes possible to say that people in some workplace or familial situations don’t have the right to broadcast themselves under the Web’s “free entry” model at all.

But social media flip this content-driven question upside down, by starting with the precept that people should have an efficient medium (and topology) to initiate and maintain social contacts. Someday this could have a profound test in constitutional law. And Facebook, by growing from the bottom up from a social, almost dating service to a platform that can support self-publication, illustrates the dilemma perfectly.

That brings one to consider the role of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is a creation of “Our Kids”, but in fact it evolved from much more specific social applications envisioned by a number of people, including the Winkelvoss twins and Aaron Greenspan. Accounts of the history of this phenomenal site present Mark Zuckerberg as a kind of “chickenman” – I mean that in the sense of Army barracks jokes at Ft. Eustis around 1969 (even the Colonel watched the Saturday morning cartoons on the character), about “me”-- as an abstract person, “he’s everywhere”, omniscient, ready to drill through all the mannerisms of the world to some kernel of absolute truth and force everyone to see it. Kirkpatrick reports a lot of interviews with Mark, and describes him as somewhat absorbed in his own thoughts, ready to look right through someone until he hears something he connects with. In fact, he tends to behave that way even on the late 2007 CBS 60 Minutes (“toddler CEO”) interview I reported on in my “BillBoushka” blog on Dec. 6, 2009 (the “Is that a question?” moment in the video). Perhaps there was a body image issue at one time; Kirkpatrick, on p 20, describes him as “an intense introvert with curly brown hair whose fresh freckled face made him look closer to fifteen than the nineteen he was.” As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that his thought processes are a lot like mine (although I’m not sure I get his moral dilemma that leaves him in tears in the Accel offer situation). If I could have entered a time machine and become his age and become a student in Kirkland House, I probably would have related well to him and become involved in the project.

The book does not spend a lot of space on the legal controversies over the ownership of Facebook. I do know that ownership of software copyright can be a difficult subject, and a particular incident at NBC where I worked in a mainframe environment back in 1977 comes to mind. While companies guard their code and design even for inhouse applications, in fact programmers take what they learn and write similar code in other companies. The issue may be more testy with object oriented programming than older procedural programming. But to a reasonable person, Facebook sounds like it is quite different from the earlier services Mark had worked on, sometimes without pay. That's one thing about Internet innovation: underlying paradigms of consumer use keep shifting.

There’s another thing about the OOP: when teenagers (or preteens) learn it, they can get very fluent at it, which explains in part the ability of kids to make the intellectual connections it takes to come up with a Napster or a Facebook. It’s much harder for older people, trained in other thought patterns, to make the switch, just as it is harder to learn foreign languages at later ages. In the book, Kirkpatrick documents Facebook’s rather brazen preference for youth.

Zuckerberg’s “ideology” seemed to develop over time, inductively. It seems to me he would have become aware of Dean Elena Kagan’s opposition to the military gay ban while at Harvard in 2003, it must have occurred to him in time that his innovation was the antithesis of a social “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality in society that had tempered older generations and led to the current policy for gays in the military. Facebook insists that a person has only one “identity”, and denies the value of anonymity. Whether that “identity” should always be searchable for “everyone” is a major piece of the privacy debate.) Zuckerberg’s idea of radical social networking denies the idea that work identity and personal identity can any longer be kept apart (so much for “don’t ask don’t tell” indeed).

Mark's evolution of thought shows in the gradual evolution of Facebook from a campus-specific service to a facility for almost everyone. There was a period in late 2005 where high schools could become separate "facebooks". It was about the same time that the controversy over the public implications of my own website erupted when I was substitute teaching. In retrospect, I wonder if the schools were concerned about the sudden effect of social media on the security of their environment and then connected the dots incorrectly.

Along with “radical social networking” (and probably “radical self-publication” as in my own 1997-or-so “innovation”), comes all the new problems of online reputation (enough to inspire Michael Fertik and others to start companies defending online reputations). Kirkpatrick documents numerous cases of lost jobs and broken relationships because of unexpected anomalies that can occur with Facebook use (including the entire photo tagging facility). But many of these had started happening before with convention Internet blogging and forum posting (again, my “BillBoushka” blog July 27, 2007 documents my own mishap with this). But Kirkpatrick’s chapter on Privacy is a valuable addition to the literature on the problem by other authors like law professor Daniel Solove. Facebook is becoming particularly a trove for divorce lawyers.

The other “ideological innovation” is Zuckerberg’s particular idea of a “gift economy” although it’s rather like the thinking of Bill Gates. Sometimes “pay it forward” really does make economic sense. Since the company is privately held (so far), with Zuckerberg having a lot of control, it has been able to approach monetization (such as advertising based on the visitor's profile and subsequent cross-sharing) based on philosophical ideas as well as short-tern results. That in turn would raise interesting legal questions were it a publicly traded company and does raise questions with investors.

Here is a YouTube interview with author David Kirkpatrick from Thomas Crampton.  Note that he says that Facebook doesn't see itself as a website, but as a paradigm for the structure of the Internet. It is almost like a "government."  We might use a Facebook ID as a social security number some day.

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