Saturday, June 05, 2010

Radical Transparency

I recently discovered a cool Facebook game. And when I say I discovered it, I really mean I discovered it--I'm not talking about Farmville, Mafia Wars, or Restaurant City; I'm talking about something that doesn't require an application. When Facebook started linking the items under "likes and interests" to "fan pages" or "community pages," I noticed that each of these pages displays the names of random people who also "like" that band, person, book, or movie. I noticed that by clicking on the first name that came up, and then proceeding to click on that person's first listed friend (which is also randomly listed), and then each subsequent person's first listed friend, before long I would invariably land on someone who I didn't know, but who shared a common Facebook friend with me. So in short, the goal is to see how many clicks it takes to get from a fan page (such as Led Zeppelin's) back to someone who is connected to me. I ran through a couple examples just for the purposes of this blog:

The Bible: The Bible has just over 1.3 millions fans (this number might prove useful to those left behind in the event of The Rapture). The first person displayed was a 19-year-old girl from Huntsville, Alabama. Her first listed friend was a college student who has attended two different Concordia universities. Since I went to a Concordia university, one would expect some connection to be coming along before long, but in this case, the connection was immediate. This person is Facebook friends with my wife's cousin's husband (who also attended a Concordia university). So in total- two clicks!

Shakespeare: This one proved to be challenging, since the first listed person was from India. The next eight clicks were all Indians, as was the ninth, but he is currently living in the UK. The 10th click was another Indian guy who is going to a Swedish university. He connected me to a series of people from Hong Kong. One of those Hong Kong residents, though, connected me to a guy from Indiana who just graduated from Ball State. Three clicks later I was on a woman from Ft. Wayne, who somehow became facebook friends with a guy from Illinois that I went to college with (more specifically, he played on the basketball team, and I broadcast games for our campus TV and radio stations). In total-- 26 clicks

Beatles: This one proved to be even more tedious than Shakespeare. I should stay away from global icons. The first fan was a guy from Indonesia. I found that Indonesians tend to be Facebook friends with other Indonesians, and since I don't have any Indonesian Facebook friends, this became a chore. Finally, on the 46th click, I ended up on the Philippines. This wasn't much better--it took me until click 90 before I ended up with a Filipino expat working as an electrician in California. I stayed in Cali for awhile before my 100th click was a guy in Massachusetts who has written for the Boston Symphony. I then actually ended up with a German composer, before my 103rd click, which was a guy from LA who had earned a degree in music from the University of Louisville in 2005. I was attending grad school at the same university at that time, and though I don't believe our paths crossed directly, we did manage to make not one, but two mutual Facebook friends. Total-- 103 clicks

Alice in Chains-- I start with a guy from Indiana. Fifteen clicks later I am looking at the profile of an Allstate agent from Chicago (the mother of twins for what it is worth). This Allstate agent is Facebook friends with a salesman at the Madison, Wisconsin radio station I worked at from 2003 to 2004. He was from Chicago, too (and all Chicagoans know each other, of course). Total-- 15 clicks

The Trial
by Franz Kafka-- I begin with an audiobook narrator and theater director from New York. Ten clicks later I am on the profile page of a TV anchor from Denver. He is somehow connected to a student that was in an English 101 class I taught at the University of Louisville in 2005. Total-- 10 clicks.

So what did I learn from this game? I don't know. I suppose one could use Facebook to research the six degrees theory, or to explore Malcolm Gladwell's theory of "connectors."

Or not. One thing I left out of the above summary: many times I had to click the back arrow and go back to a different friend because the one that I clicked on had hidden his or her own friend list from public display (I didn't count these in the totals). Other times I found myself looking at very spartan profile pages, with the vast majority of the content hidden from strangers. And this has become more noticeable in the last couple of weeks, as Facebook, under pressure, has enabled people to more easily make information private.

There has been a lot of media attention recently about the issue of "Facebook privacy." And I suppose this is not surprising. This is a classic example of the type of "scary" news item that media outlets so often use to drive up ratings. "Who is looking at your Facebook page?" ranks right up there with "Are your kids sexting?" and "Are there bears in your backyard?" Many people, terrified of the ramifications of leaving their profile pages public, are shifting over to private settings. But what exactly are the ramifications of public pages?

The classic ramification: you post a drunken photograph on your social networking page, a potential employer sees it, and you are not hired for a job. This scenario probably played out a lot five years ago (with Myspace in particular). But as Facebook has now expanded beyond its roots as a playground for college kids, all people are a lot more savvy about what they put on-line. When your grandma and your Aunt Myrtle are your Facebook friends, you are already censoring the potentially embarrassing stuff, so is there any need to worry about what your boss might see?

Meanwhile, there is also a nebulous fear of "marketers." What might marketers do if they get ahold of your private data? Well, what can they do? Aren't you on the "Do Not Call" list? Is it really so bad that Pandora can personalize your experience?

On the other hand, what are the potential benefits of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supposedly calls "radical transparency"? Perhaps one could make an argument about the need for society to realize its own interconnectedness, how we should learn to appreciate the term "social network" in its truest sense, or how we can come to a better understanding of how we do connect with one another. But I would simply assert that my Facebook game would be a lot more fun if people would open up a little bit more.


Blogger Kay said...

Sounds like way more than six degrees of separation. Loved the experiment though.

2:49 PM  

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