Wednesday, May 5, 2010

That's What Friends Do!

The latest news about Facebook that appeared on the BBC News Web site may throw some interesting light on the whole concept of social software:

Facebook has fixed a security flaw that allowed users to eavesdrop on the live chats of their friends and see their pending friend requests.

The exploit used the site's privacy features - intended to protect a user - to expose the personal information.

With just a few clicks users could spy on their friends personal chat messages and see who had requested to join their network.

Facebook has temporarily removed its chat facility while it fixes the flaw.

I found myself reading this in the context of Facebook's origins as a clever piece of software that expanded the scope of communication among Harvard University undergraduates that led to a broad scope of unanticipated consequences, both positive and negative. Thinking back on my own undergraduate life, I realized that there are probably significant differences in the concept of privacy between that of the sheltered world of an elite undergraduate community and the adult world of life in any major urban setting in the United States. (In my own elite world at MIT, incoming freshman were told that the Campus Patrol was there to "protect" them from the Cambridge city Police Force and other potentially dangerous elements of the real world.) This is not to suggest that one concept of privacy is right and the other wrong but to recognize (once again) that those contexts are diverse and that they play a major role in the way we deal with the concepts behind the words we use.

This is not the first time I find myself trying to take Facebook to task for "bumping into" the reality of the world I inhabit with its own socially constructed reality. Indeed, the last time I did so was precisely over this concept of privacy and the extent to which Facebook seems to know so much about me even though I have never registered with the system. However, the problem is broader than that of any specific concept. It has more to do with the fact that, as a piece of software, Facebook technology is confined to the objective world; and, unless that technology is effectively mediated by agents who appreciate the subtleties of the subjective and social worlds and the consequences that can ensue from those subtleties, there is the risk that the consequences of using Facebook itself may venture into the pathological. Thus, while I agree with Symantec's security expert, Candid Wueest, in his praise for Facebook's quick response to this particular problem, I would still argue that, as a business, Facebook has been negligent in not committing qualified staff to the analytical task of anticipating such difficulties and proposing modifications before embarrassing incidents like this one come to the surface.

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