As Facebook scales up, can it handle identity conflict?

Peter JonesInformation Ecology

The killer business notion behind Facebook, MySpace, and other massively scaled social networking services is based on the assumption that millions of users make for a better experience. That may be true for business, but its arguable on behalf of the users themselves. The Times reports the failure of Beacon, its perverse “collaborative consumption” push service that reveals your buying habits to your friends.

York University’s Sam Ladner posts an insightful interpretation of the roots of this failure as a conflict of identities, the clash of fronts. She cites fellow Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of the front, the individual’s persona expressed in the presentation of self in everyday life. Goffman posits a front stage, back stage, and – he suggests we like to think – a core self. These get mixed together in Facebook, resulting in embarrassing relationship management issues as cited by the Times article. Samantha says designers should pay attention to these issues:

Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon

  • Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
  • Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
  • Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.

Sam’s brief take is a wonderfuly concise, cogent piece of design analysis and a lovely application of classical, cultural theory. It stands up. And it inspired me to post as well, something I’ve been sitting on. When I read about Facebook’s very public debacles, my smarty-pants “core self” snickers knowingly at my avoidance  of Facebook altogether. Like Sam’s analysis suggests, I have many fronts to juggle, and across multiple communities. But for me there’s an overriding issue that also has a theoretical basis.

There’s no activity system in the Facebook ecology for me. There’s nothing for me to DO there. At least with LinkedIn (as Avi responding to Sam;s post also says) there’s a proscribed purpose, a well-defined kind of resume-exchanging business-oriented community. An activity theory perspective shows LinkedIn as a complete system: It mediates my interaction with many others toward business-oriented objectives, following a certain rule base, community values, and fits within an organizational schema of sorts. Faceboo, for me, is a random system that would be useful for invitations, spying on my friends, and keeping up with social drama. But as someone with a life to live, I don’t have that extra time to devote to maintaining such a profile.

“Keeping up with classmates” was its original purpose, and then it grew. It seems to me more feature and tech-driven, making a cool testbed for new ideas. But ultimately a waste of time for someone like me to actually invest in and use with intention.

I’m an established researcher and business person, anyone who wants to find me can without Facebook. My everyday lifeworld social networks are rich, diverse, and within my capacity to be with. When a surprise encounter mixes up my social fronts in the real world, as happens often, I can press my social skills into service and enjoy the impudence of, say, my art world friends bumping into my clients at a club. But in Facebook, the activity is based on exchanging information without your control. I can do without that mashup, and I can do without their ambiguous Terms of Service.

So, there may not be a core self, as the Goffman exchange suggests. Our identities are largely socially-constructed, and therefore remain vulnerable, can be socially deconstructed, in unexpected conflicts. But as a word to designers, what is the core activity system in Facebook? Is it too large to contain a well-defined activity and purpose anymore? I prefer and recommend the creation of activity ecologies using DIY, invitational social networks such as Ning, CrowdVine, GoingOn, or wikis such as Wetpaint. Everyone knows what to do, and why you’re there. And Google’s OpenSocial has only just started to diffuse – I think the purposeful community is the more inviting future of social networking.