Friday, August 31, 2007

Facebook, Social Network Theory, and Playing Scrabble

Rick Bales of Workplace Profs Blog writes in "Facebook, the Workplace, and the Academy":

Several major employers -- in the U.S. and elsewhere, have taken to banning employees from using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace in the workplace. British union TUC says employers should lighten up:

My take: the times are a'changing, and employers should consider how social networking sites can be used to their advantage. Networking sites can be a great way to keep up with an extended network of friends, acquaintances, and -- yes -- workplace colleagues, customers, and fellow-professionals.

This summer, I set up Facebook and MySpace pages as a sort of informal faculty web page....Facebook has proven to be a great way to keep in touch with my students, to make me a little more accessible to them, and occasionally even to discuss matters pertaining to classes and the law school. Check out my page by going to facebook and running a search on "Rick Bales."

One of the interesting things about facebook is how it can blur the line between the personal and the professional. Because my site is designed to be professional rather than personal, I've omitted any references to my dating life or proclivities, and I'vegiven a copy of my password to my dean. I wouldn't expect professors who use facebook for purely personal matters to do the same. Nonetheless, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before a professor gets into trouble for using the social networking sites inappropriately. So, while I'm willing to experiment with the sites as a way to communicate with a generation a few years younger than I am, I'm bending over backwards to keep everything above-board.

Just yesterday, Just A Law Prof asked me:

1. What is the point of Facebook
2. Why would anyone want to broadcast his or her personal details and private information to strangers, and why would we care about someone else's business?
3. What are the rules of etiquette for Facebook? Must you "friend" (v., transitive) someone you've only met once? What about students?

My take:

As Rick Bales says, don't be so quick to knock thes social network power of Facebook. For more on this, read Danah Boyd's work on social networking sites. Danah Boyd is a PhD candidate at the School of Information at Berkeley and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Law & Technology center.

I really don't like certain aspects of exhibitionism on Facebook. But I understand its social network appeal. I've been learning a lot about organizational behavior and social network theory in the context of employment networks, and so to me this is just the division between the real world vs. the virtual world, rather than a generational gap (although that's articulated in other ways on Facebook).

The Milgram Small World Experiment set to demonstrate that we are no more than six degrees separated from anyone else in the world. If I had to get a package to another person in another state, and did not know that person, I would have to think of people I know who might know that person, or extend the chain to add a link. It's that "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a girl who...." joke.

The Small World Experiment is just the tip of the social network theory iceberg. Granovetter postulated the "strength of weak ties" argument, that while strong ties are important (friends, family, mentors), weak ties are what make the world go 'round. In the employment law context, most people hear about job openings not through, but by word of mouth and by some buddy in some other department or some friend in another company. In the war on terror context, this is how we try to ferret out terrorist cells by examining which young men (or women) were trained in the same mosque, etc. In the Hollywood world, this is why my Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon number is 4, because I know Eugene Volokh.

So that's the real world application of social networks. Online social networks take it a step farther by making these connections more apparent and real-time and lively . Blogs and blogrolls are no different from FB or Myspace, really. Personal blogs are extended FB profiles. They announce births, interests, and thoughts and opinions. Even you law profs do that. I now know Ethan Leib's baby's name, and that Miranda Fleischer's favorite Semisonic song is "Singing In My Sleep." That some blog on mostly only about the law elevates their first-person journalism above pfouffy mundanity (but I like that), but really, it's just you talking at the end of the day to those who might be interested.

The role of the public scholar vs. the professor is different only in size of audience. The claim for collegiality in the hallways isn't much different from Larry Solum's suggestion for an association of legal scholars, or for forming an online campus (TNR) or having blog dialogue via comments and response posts. And really, what's the difference between Facebook and an alumni association or listserve or newsletter that announces births and job changes. And it's weird how interconnected the academic world is. It always weirds me out to have the same friends as someone across the country. Facebook just aggregates this better by creating concentric circles of networks. It shows you your network of "friends" at your school, at your alma mater, at other schools....if you actually made a graph-tree of your networks between links and nodes (people), you'd be surprised at how none of your trees are independent. It's kind of fun actually, to see what your former classmates are up to.

So that's why Facebook exists. So what should you be doing with Facebook? Whatever you want. I play Scrabble and Chess on Facebook with Hipster Law Prof. I'll be deleting my profile when I go on the market and re-emerge with nothing. Mine's fairly tame as it is. I just list my interests and books as a matter of course, but my blog does that in more verbose ways. I don't put up salacious content, and I don't write weird emo notes or announce my romantic status. I blog enough weirdness, but here at least I'm pseudonymous and people seem to derive some utility from it (or so my correspondence suggests).

I think what some object to is the generational divide between what young people would post these days and their seeming lack of privacy. My blog is rather personal to be sure, but it's usually framed in the context of how some aspect of my upbringing or personality affects my path to academia: family -care issues, growing up in poverty and wanting a real job rather than being an MFA, being a scholarship kid, growing up in a strict Asian household, etc. But I try keep it above being an online diary, or livejournal. Even I don't really get the Livejournal culture. I like personal reflections, but I really think they ought to speak to somethign others would care about. Interesting mundanity to me is a book review that someone might find useful, or a movie review that may be different than the NYT. Prettier Than Napoleon is one of my favorites for this reason. It's personal, interesting, and very stimulating intellectual and legal food for thought.

I've made some good friends via the blog, so I don't discount the relative strenght of the online world to the "real world." The online world and the real world arne't so divided now. Think of Putnam's "Bowling Alone," and how (sociologists complain about this) he didn't account for the internet. Most of my friends are long-distance. Email is the best way to keep in touch with many of them, as is the phone. So the fact that I "meet' someone online or via my blog (where a lot of my personality is, so if you like reading me, you'll probably like me in person) can carry over to the real world. Hanging out helps of course, but epistolary friendships count for much, and visiting happens pretty frequently if you live in the academic capitals.

So you can make strong-tie relationships online as well as you can in the real world. But for very weak ties in either realm, Facebook steps in so that you can have a way of staying in contact with former classmates or people you don't care about much. It's like trying to keep up a geographic social network (Putnam) after you've moved away. Rather than someone you talk to regularly or send individual correspondence to, the types of people on the Christmas newsletter mailing list or mass-email list. It's a blog roll for the younger crowd.

Who act very stupid sometimes. Facebook etiquette is a mess. I think "pokes" are passive-aggressive and pseudo-sexual. It is improper to post pictures of me and tag me in them unless they are very flattering. Rejection of friend requests is supposedly rude, but you shouldn't feel obligated if you don't really know that person. Once or twice encounters don't count for me, although I have accepted such requests. Sustained blog dialogue to me counts more than one face-to-face encounter. I have tight privacy controls restricting who can see my information, profile, and pictures. And I don't put up contact information other than my email--some people put up their addresses, phone numbers, and course schedules! (the better to help the stalkers) Removal of a friend indicates you want to sever ties, which is the punitive side of social networks. Online snubbing is easy to do. What's worse is when you know you're being ignored online, because you can see someone's online status and that yes, they're just not responding to your email.

Facebook's communication methodology is interesting. Wall posts are harmless fun, for the most part. Although some write terrible things on others' walls. I delete anything inappropriate, and write something I wouldn't take the time to do in an email. I have epistolary standards. The thing that Danah Boyd should research is how plugged in the young are, and how much they substitute stupid wall posting or instant messaging for true sustained dialogue that they could otherwise communicate through phone or email. That's the generational divide. I can't believe how much people communicate in a wall post. It's like reading someone else's mail.

I think that Facebook modeled itself on the Livejournal/Xanga communities, which skew younger. I think the early days of Facebook were very limited, more like LinkedIn (which is what i'm talking about re social networks and employment). Facebook just recently added all of these applications like "status updates," "mini-feeds," and all those ways of using FB as a portal for socializing and communication. Like how Google is now a portal for all your internet needs.

And this is where I become old school. I disprefer that. I like email, phone, letter writing on real stationary. Plus most of my friends are not on Facebook. Facebook came out after I had graduated from college and law school, so it's not as integral to me for maintaining connections and communication as it might be for some freshman at State U.

I think that many professors are too private for the Facebook world, and much of the personal blogging world. But there's nothing wrong with that. Just like there's nothing inhernently wrong with those with more lax privacy standards. To each his own, and to each his own audience. There are those who will care, and those who don't won't read such blogs or engage Facebook with the same alacrity. So you may be bewildered by your students' online activity, but that is why you have fingers--so that you may scratch your head in bemusement.

And if you add students as your "friends," be prepared to read a lot of crap in the mini-feed, some of it very embarassing.