Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: May 2010 (page 2 of 2)

Change Facebook or Change Ourselves?

As a result of Facebook’s ongoing privacy debacle, a number of conversations have emerged as to whether or not privacy matters in this so-called “new world.”  As the story goes, we (particularly those of us who are members of Gen. Y) have become used to putting our lives online: We tweet about what we ate for breakfast, we share photos from last night’s partying, we rant about our jobs and our children (there’s even a blog to make fun of that).

danah boyd, referencing David Kirkpatrick, refers to this as “radical transparency,” or the notion that we’re better off putting our whole selves out there.  In practice, many of us already do, in part or in whole.  For me, it’s simply easier; I choose to be radically transparent and sometimes too honest, because it’s easier than attempting to protect things online.  If I don’t want it out there, I keep it off the Internet, simple as that.  I’ve lived my offline life that way for years, so it’s a natural extension for me.

But as danah also points out, radical transparency doesn’t, and shouldn’t have to, work for everyone.  And that’s what’s frustrating about Facebook’s stance.  Founder Mark Zuckerberg has made his vision abundantly clear:

“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” – Zuckerberg, 2009

He has a point, of course; my generation and the one after it are proving to be oversharers and so, as Scoble points out, we’ve reached a point where it makes sense to build skills to understand the impact of sharing online.  Graduating seniors looking for job interviews would do well to look over their online profiles and think about whether or not anything available publicly (or for that matter, to a group of friends; it only takes one fight to make a friend an enemy) could embarrass or affect them negatively down the road.

What is most frustrating to me is how incredibly privileged and U.S.-centric Zuckerberg’s viewpoint is.  Certainly Zuckerberg’s statement doesn’t take into account places where it might be dangerous to have a Facebook account.  In many places, where being gay is a dangerous prospect, saying you are or joining a group that outs you on Facebook is too much to bear. In Syria, where Facebook is blocked, simply having an account could potentially (though to be clear, this has not happened yet) leave you open to monitoring by the government.  Not to mention the fact that, while Facebook encourages transparency, it offers neither that nor an appeals process when it deactivates the accounts of activists, many of whom live in places where online activism is easier or safer than its offline counterpart.

But it makes sense that Zuckerberg would think that way: He is a man of serious privilege.  He’s a man with a net worth of $1.5 billion, who is attempting to make decisions for the masses.  And he’s well aware of how global his company’s users have become.  And not even Mark Zuckerberg makes his profile available to all.

zunguzungu has written a beautiful piece analyzing Zuckerberg via DuBois, and then comparing the former to Christopher Hitchens, another man of serious white privilege who feels the urge to dictate to the masses (in this case, usually Muslim women) what is best for them.  Zuckerberg:Facebook users::Hitchens:Muslim women:

Just as Hitchens never has to worry about Muslim women telling him what not to wear, neither need the owner of facebook ever need to worry about being surveilled against his interest or will, or of it mattering much if he is.

Hitchens, of course, views himself as siding with the minority, the oppressed.  It’s apparent in the way he patronizingly speaks of “saving” Muslim women from their evil burqas; he portrays himself as the benevolent feminist, either totally unaware or completely, radically aware of the political purpose he’s serving.  Zuckerberg, I would imagine, views himself as the “every guy,” the average Joe with a Facebook page…after all, he’s what, 26?  He’s Facebook’s original demographic, and so, as founder and early adopter, what’s best for Zuck must be best for the rest of us.

Zuckerberg’s mentality probably isn’t that far off from the reality of many young (particularly American) Facebook users.  The majority does set the reality, and the reality for many of us is that transparency is just easier. Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah admits that he’s probably more privileged than the average user, but says that his take is that we “[had] better embrace this, stop assuming any privacy of any kind, [and] start admitting [we] live in a post privacy world.”

Alaa (who had this entire conversation with me publicly on Twitter) also makes the point that, in some cultures, such a semblance of privacy never existed anyhow, or is secondary to other issues.  Sami Ben Gharbia‘s comment on my last blog post seems to back that up.  His point is that, even if non-western activists want to quit Facebook over privacy concerns, it’s simply not always an option, as Facebook is sometimes the only centralized means of organization.  In Sami’s own words, “For me, and I’m sure for other people, Facebook is an information mining. Most of the citizen media videos and photos are being published there. We cannot afford to quit it as we will make ourselves more isolated from the average users.”

I mostly agree with Sami’s point, which is that privacy is secondary to the importance of the network, for many.  That same point is evidenced by the sheer amount of attention the privacy debate on Facebook is getting in comparison to the deactivation issue.  At the same time, the fact of privacy remaining secondary might only be possible because radical transparency is a very western, individualistic idea.

Privacy, however, whether a top priority or not, does affect all of us.  Based on conversations I’ve had with an extremely varied group of people, it comes down to this: You are ultimately in charge of your life online.  You choose what you put on the Internet. And while I’d like to think that it’s a priority to push companies into giving us a choice, from experience, I can say that I don’t think Facebook gives a toss. Which brings me to my final point, which is actually less of a point and more of a question: Should we keep spending our time trying to change Facebook or does it make more sense to accept that it’s our responsibility to control our online identity?

Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere

That’s the name of a paper I’m getting ready to publish (hopefully) next week.  As I’ve written before, Facebook has, in numerous cases in various countries, deleted accounts, groups, or content put on their site by activists.  From Hong Kong, where activists have written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg complaining of Facebook’s harassment and deactivation of activists, to Morocco, where some activists have been deleted from the site, asked for identification in order to reinstate their accounts, then received no assistance upon sending said identification, Facebook users are fed up.

Along with moderator Rebecca MacKinnon, Victoria Grand of YouTube, and Oiwan Lam of Global Voices, I addressed these issues at the Global Voices Summit last week. Here’s the video from the panel:

As Rebecca notes on her blog, a number of excellent audience and panelist suggestions arose from the panel:

* Automated moderation and abuse-prevention processes will inevitably result in mistakes that hurt activists. Human judgment – informed by adequate knowledge of cultures, languages, and political events around the world – needs to be brought into the mix.
* Companies need to be as transparent and open as possible about how their takedown, moderation, and suspension procedures work. Otherwise they have nobody but themselves to blame if users cease to trust them.
* Companies should designate staff members to focus on human rights. Their job should be to develop channels for regular communication with the human rights community.
* It’s almost impossible for globally popular social networking and content-sharing services to hire enough staff with enough knowledge of political movements and disputes in all obscure corners of the world in all kinds of languages. But communities like Global Voices and others with large networks of bloggers and online activists all over the world are ready and willing to help companies keep abreast of political hot-button issues and online movements around the world – and even provide help with obscure languages – so that extra care can be taken, and political activism won’t be mistaken for spam or some other form of abusive behavior. We just need to figure out how to set up workable mechanisms through which this kind of feedback, advice, and communication can take place.
* Activists need to pay closer attention the Terms of Service used by social networking platforms, and be more proactive in educating themselves about how moderation, takedown, and abuse-prevention mechanisms work. We probably need a “Guide to avoiding account suspension and takedown for human rights activists.”
* It might also be good to have some kind of respected clearing house organization – or consortium of organizations – which can help mediate and resolve problems between activists and companies.
* People who rely on social networking and content sharing platforms run by companies to do political and social activism should engage more actively with company administrators to improve policies and practices. Anticipate problems and help solve them not only for yourself but for everybody else in the community. Act like a citizen. Not a passive “user.”

These issues are arising at a time when “ordinary” (non-activist) users of Facebook are up in arms about the company’s many affronts to privacy: the ACLU has set up a petition. There’s a Facebook Day of Inaction planned for June 6. The EU is pissed. There’s also a Quit Facebook Day planned for May 31, but as the SF Chronicle points out, it’s not particularly gaining traction.

As many of us in this sphere have noted, there’s a reason for that: You can’t take it with you, and by “it” I mean your network. Facebook has become so embedded in many of our lives that, though there are alternatives (MySpace, orkut, Twitter, etc.), few of them measure up to the network offered by Facebook. Truth be told, Facebook’s services aren’t all that great; it’s photo-uploader crashes Firefox constantly, and I’ve heard nary a positive anecdote about the new Community pages. What Facebook offers is your network, in one, simple, easily-accessed place. Or as Lokman Tsui notes, “Facebook effectively holds our friends as hostages. The ransom is not our privacy, but our freedom.”

I’ve watched over the past few months as a number of privacy-minded friends have abandoned Facebook for greener pastures. Some, like Lokman, have decided to stick with Twitter and the old-fashioned keeping-in-touch method known as e-mail. Others have sought alternatives, like the up-and-coming Diaspora. Still others have no alternative in mind, and just want out.

Though I think Lokman and others have great points, I’m not sure I’m ready to leave Facebook. Though I wouldn’t miss its services (or privacy violations) at all, I tend to think that this is one area where engagement (vs. sanctions, to use Rebecca’s analogy) makes sense. The Quit Facebook Day is a nice idea, but its implementation doesn’t come with principled demands (or transparency, for that matter–we don’t know who’s behind the campaign).

From the numerous examples of account deactivations I’ve received in my inbox over the course of the past few weeks, here’s what I’m noticing: All of these activists still want to use Facebook. Why? I don’t have all the answers, but I would surmise that it’s because Facebook is where the people are. Facebook is blocked by the Syrian government, yet a quick search by location for “Syria” tells me there are more than 500 users based there (and I’m willing to bet it’s actually many more). People are, for whatever reason (be it cute cats or life-or-death issues) climbing over walls to get to Facebook.

I’ve been involved in a number of Facebook-based campaigns myself, many of which were not based in the U.S.  I’m not one to argue that Facebook is the be-all end-all activism tool, or that it’s changing the world, but the fact of the matter is, activists use Facebook for successful organizing. Whether it’s simply to bring a group of like-minded people together to discuss potential campaigns, or to raise money for a shared goal, or otherwise, it’s happening.  If I leave Facebook, can I still support these people?  If I ditch my 1,000+ Facebook network, can I still reach the same contacts?

And so, while it’s all well and good to have a Quit Facebook Day, that doesn’t begin to address the myriad issues that Facebook users are facing globally, be they activists or otherwise. Instead, perhaps the solution is to talk to Facebook users and find out what it is that’s keeping them there, then do the best we can to encourage those changes within Facebook.

Reflections on Santiago

I’ve just returned from 12 days in Santiago, Chile, for the Global Voices Summit 2010, and while I know that it’s technically impossible to have jet lag whilst traveling within one’s home time zone, my body is ignoring that fact…I’m exhausted.

I remember having the same feeling two years ago as I arrived home from Budapest and proceeded to collapse somewhat depressed into my bed for three days, missing even Boston’s fantastic 4th of July celebrations.  This time, there’s no melancholia–frankly, I was kind of excited to get home and see my “people”–but certainly the same sense of changedness.  Each time I return from a conference like this one (you know, the meaningful, heartfelt conferences, not the businesslike, lectury ones) I have this sense of rechargedness, a desire to start fresh, change my habits, and reflect…get down with my om.

When I joined GV in April 2007, I had no idea the path it would lead me on…and even when I attended the 2008 Summit, having just been hired at Berkman, little did I know that two years later, I’d be invited to speak on a panel with YouTube’s head of policy, or to the Al Jazeera Forum, where I’ll be speaking next weekend.  Despite my occasional complaints, mostly related to jet lag or people plagiarizing my shit, I feel truly thrilled every single day, which is more than I could ever possibly ask for.

Two years ago, upon returning from Budapest, I wrote about a sense of unbelonging and a desire to see so much more of the world.  While the sense of unbelonging still creeps up now and again, I feel that in Cambridge, I’ve made my home, at least for awhile.

That day, I also wrote: “My passport expires in 2012 and has 25 stamps and 27 free spaces. Will you help me fill them?

Since then, I’ve made it to Syria, Japan, Malaysia, Lebanon, Chile, and Canada a few times,  filling up nearly 20 of those 27 free spaces.  After my next two trips, I’ll be forced to fill in my passport with a second set of pages.  For that, I say thank you.

And to my GV friends reading (GVers?  Geevers?), I am once again so thrilled to have met so many of you.  You guys are my global family.  Until next time!

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