Ticker and the Erosion of Identity and Intimacy

I've been paying attention to a lot of the most recent collective freak-out over Facebook's new Timeline and Ticker features as it rolls through my Twitter feed (thanks to @bryce, who's been posting some great stuff).

There are great consequences to this. The more our online lives take place on Facebook, the more we depend on the choices of the people who run the company—what they think about privacy, how they think we should be able to organize our friends, what they tell advertisers (and governments) about what we do and what we buy. We’ll rely on whom they choose as partners to give us news and music. Real issues are at stake, in other words—not just the size of photos and whether you can poke.Nicholas Thompson

Suddenly dates that preceded Facebook’s founding started showing up in the timeline. A picture this users friend had taken and tagged them in was pinned to a date that didn’t exist in the service only hours ago. When we looked to see if the image could be deleted, there was no option to do so. Edit and Hide, no Delete.Bryce Roberts

The funny thing about this to me is, it's not like it was a surprise. As members of the tech community, we've known for a while just how much like a virus Facebook has been across the internet, and how every time we load a "like" button or click "connect," we give Facebook a little more data about ourselves. But something about the reality of this information - whether presented in a compellingly scary package like timeline, that can carry us back years before we even had Facebook, or Ticker, ticking in things from god knows where - really seems to have struck the community for the first time at a large scale. It amazes me how much we can ignore facts we understand objectively, but cannot see/feel them or really understand them emotionally. I'll interrupt with a word from myself and my friend @Heewa on how to stop the insiduousness, if you so desire:

Heewa: @ninakix I logged out, deleted cookies, and now only browse FB in privacy mode. My already low trust in them is completely worn away.

ninakix: @Heewa I've got a plugin that blocks Facebook cookies on any page except the homepage: http://t.co/E20FnysA Been using it for a while.

Meanwhile, there's the apparent attack Facebook is launching on "taste":

Suddenly, my listening experience isn't private. It's public. All my Facebook friends are watching. And judging. Chances are this will affect people's behavior online. If you're a closet fan of Lady Gaga or Bjork or Enya (I'm all three), then you'll just have to stop listening to those potentially mockable artists -- either that, or all your Facebook friends will be chiming in with comments:

"OMG, you're listening to that?!"

In the old world of Facebook, I would have to click that I "liked" a song for it to show up on my Facebook profile page. That's something you have to think about: "OK, I really like this song, and I really want all of my friends to know that I'm listening to it right now." Now, sharing is both passive and automatic. It's a choice you make in advance -- one time -- and never again.John Sutter

My problem with "frictionless sharing" is much more basic: Facebook is killing taste.

...

For as much as he's invested in sharing, though, Zuckerberg seems clueless about the motivation behind the act. Why do you share a story, video, or photo? Because you want your friends to see it. And why do you want your friends to see it? Because you think they'll get a kick out of it. I know this sounds obvious, but it's somehow eluded Zuckerberg that sharing is fundamentally about choosing. You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn't worth mentioning.Farhad Manjoo

The attack on taste is fascinating because of how sharply it's differed from other services - while the rest of the web has been focusing either implicitly or explicitly on curation, Facebook has decided to do away with that completely. That's a pretty shocking divergence from the crowd, if you think about it - curation has basically been viewed as the simple way to get people to contribute content, since you don't have to actually create anything yourself. Curation allowed these users to say something about themselves - the act of sharing a link delivered some sort of social indicator to your friends, and to yourself. Curation helps ordinary users create and build on their identity in the online space. This sort of posturing happens in the online world on Facebook, but also in the offline world - we, as human beings, are incredibly good at helping to create a vision of "self" that we present to the world and to ourselves, and usually incredibly contextual. Of course, Facebook has famously never believed in encouraging this sort of behavior - says Zuckerberg in The Facebook Effect:

“You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

So, this and Zuckerberg's law seem to imply that the social engineering we do in front of others is at odds with Zuck's personal philosophy. If we take this to its logical conclusion, Facebook is stripping away your ability to construct an identity, a narrative about yourself. When everything you do is streamed into the ether, your actions aren't being interpreted and shared through a lens of your making; rather, a lens made by you and your friends drives your actions (I sure as hell won't be indulging my secret love of Justin Bieber on Spotify). There isn't a "private" you anymore. It then makes sense that they would incorporate a new definition of identity, one that I think has best been described so far by Rebekah Cox on Quora:

So, what is identity? I think in its most basic form, your identity is the product of how you manage your attention and others' access to that attention. Those areas where your attention is focused assemble to form a set of experiences that shape and influence where you'll direct future attention. But that attention is interrupted all the time by people, events, things, desires, boredom, weather, etc. and that process of interruption is, largely, contained to physical space because that is a natural gate on access.

What I find so myopic about this particular definition of identity is the way that it focuses on a simple set of things - "you are what you do." It is not about how you interpret the actions you've done, how you've prescribed an emotional weight to each of these actions, or who or what you've performed them for. The act of doing is the act of building an identity, and identities go into public spaces. Facebook misses the real interesting thing from a product perspective: how we frame the stories of our actions to ourselves and those around us.

All activities in the Open Graph are funneled into the bare-bones syntax of "X (user) Y (verb of action) Z (object of action)." Stitching together these simple declarative statements into an autobiographical timeline creates a pale simulacrum of personal story-telling, no matter how much Facebook presents it as a way to "tell your story."Ben Zimmer and Alexis Madrigal

Furthermore, I think there's an interesting question on what "social" really means. I get along well with this definiton of social, helpfully supplied by Google: "Relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure." For pleasure. This doesn't imply a distinct outcome or benefit to a user beyond the pleasure of enjoying your friends. But I'm not really sure that Facebook facilitates this, or the ability to turn pleasurable interactions into meaningful moments (see: Making Meaning With Web Products). To me, this product feels like a product optimized for discovery - a product that Facebook feels like can finally bring it to a place where people think of Facebook as a place to find things they want to buy and consume and read, the feature that turns a Facebook user from a communicator to a consumer.

There's an argument to be made about the value of ambient intimacy:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.Leisa Reichelt

But even Reichelt admits that it's not really about creating meaning: "It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch." Creating meaning might be the creation of some sort of shared moment across time and space - but that implies that (a) the experience I'm sharing has some sort of emotional value for me and my partner, and (b) that there is some synchronicity that enables that shared moment. And when you're creating this data, you're not opening yourself up to a social experience, you're just pushing information out, leaving a kind of clickstream that you might return to later to find someone else has commented or joined you. But by then, the moment has already passed. And Joe Moon points out that the open nature of the ticker isn't then an opportunity to grow your relationship with others by revealing yourself delicately:

But, by being public, the Ticker fails at achieving intimacy. Because if being in the same room with someone creates intimacy, being in the same room as everyone creates the opposite. It turns all of your activity into performance.

The way that we arrived here is funny. I can't imagine any service that originally launched with this functionality - a product that monitors everything you do, sitting there quietly collecting and sharing out a large majority of your web activity - would be something we'd embrace openly. And yet, here we are, all on the cusp of sharing all of this, willingly, with a service that for most of us is so interconnected, we are essentially annoucing each of our actions to a room full of everybody we know.

@ninakix: SRSLY, I just saw someone listening to Lady Antebellum. Shit's getting awkward.

But really, creating personalization and intimacy in a public sphere like the internet is hard, as Facebook found out with lists, and as Google%2B may or may not be finding out. Through one lens this looks like a privacy feature, and through another it's about the way that we've always exchanged information in the context of intimacy - information is power in its scarcity, and things like Ticker kind of chip away at that sense of intimacy.

Facebook, in short, is losing its luster as an easy place to mingle with friends online, because users have to spend so much time tailoring its filters to manage their social interactions.

...

To make Facebook useful for me, I am forced to undergo hours of bother, tuning settings to get the inflow of information correct. I'm not sure I have that patience.Matt Asay

Privacy of course, is just one issue when it comes to this product, but rather, what that privacy seems to want to imply and the behavior it wants to force among its users is more concerning to me: while the somewhat fractal nature of the web and real life has supported the creation of separate identities, this product marks a real departure. The Internet and its behaviors are being repurposed to support the Zuckerbergian ideal of a singular identity. Facebook will continue to try for this, whether or whether not its userbase manages to kill this particular incarnation or not.