Nicole Ellison highlights a new Facebook controversy – whether the site is a social networking site (a place to connect with and make new friends) or a social utility (a site designed to reinforce real world contacts). This is a particularly strange and circular distinction; the idea that one can draw a boundary between types of friendships is particularly useless in our increasingly-mediated social milieu.
The reading of this particular controversy may be misguided – it appears that Facebook users were creating accounts to play a new game that encourages rampant friending. While articulated poorly, it seems the problem is actually fake account creation, not rampant friending (though rampant friending certainly sets off spam alerts). Anyone who has ever run a consumer internet company is going to side with Facebook on this issue.
The wording of Facebook’s response is interesting:
Please note that Facebook accounts are meant for authentic usage only. This means that we expect accounts to reflect mainly “real-world” contacts (i.e. your family, schoolmates, co-workers, etc.), rather than mainly “internet-only” contacts. As stated on our home page, Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you, not a “social networking site”.
I find Facebook’s contestation of definition and purpose to be somewhat superfluous, largely due to the extremely limited agency on both Facebook’s and the individual user’s perspective. Facebook was not shaped by a corporate mantra of utility; it was a simple stroke of luck that Facebook geographically bounded its networks to create “close” networks. Abstracting up a level, the idea that 100 million users can be shepherded into a way of acting through policy is particularly ridiculous. Jonathan Grudin’s (1998) classic CSCW piece would be the first place to stop for those who wish to understand the social shaping of technology. At this scale, programmatic barriers enforce a simple framework, but norms of use are purely shaped in-network – not by edict, not by techno-utopian marketing language.
Grudin, J. (1988). Why CSCW applications fail: problems in the design and evaluation of organization of organizational interfaces. In 1988 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work, New York, NY, USA, 1988 (pp. 85-93). ACM Press.