Treating my Facebook community as a public
December 23rd, 2007

I just never felt right about refusing friendship to a stranger who claims to have been influenced by my publications. Although for the first year or two my Facebook “social graph” mapped in some not terribly accurate way with personal relationships that I maintained on a face to face basis — or, if virtually, over a long term. For a while, when strangers friended me, I sent a friendly email, asking them to remind me of what our relationship actually is. That way, I figured, I would have an email archive to refer to in the future. It got to be too much work to do that. It got to be too much work to explain how I know the Facebook friends I actually do know. So I’ve been granting Facebook friendship to everybody who seems to be familiar with my work and makes a friend request. Which means, I’ve begun to understand, that I best treat this not as a mapping of my personal social network but as a personal public.

Like all highly connected nodes, the commonalities in my network are diluted — what most of my Facebook friends have in common is me, or, far more likely, the articles, columns, books, I’ve written, courses I’ve taught, public talks I’ve delivered over the years. I’m comfortable about addressing that group of people online. Simply because the advent of online networks was and is a wonderful expansion of potential readership for a writer, I’ve always practiced what Kevin Kelly later advocated: “Feed the Web first.” I’ve found that “feeding my network” was a better mental model of what I was doing than the “message in a bottle” mentality of my apprenticeship in the era of typewriters and stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

So I’m going to address my Facebook network of friends as a public — people who are not only interested in what I might want to put out to them and their networks, but who might respond, contest, add to what I’ve had to say. A public, as I think of it, is also a group of real people who have the potential to join me in collective action — a boycott, mass purchase, investigation, fund-raising, petition, prank, performance, demonstration, Wikipedia article, open source project. A public differs from an audience in this dimension of potential activity — a response, suggestion, debate, affirmation of support — from the recipient of the messages I put out. It feels a lot better, as a writer, to Facebook for my public — or the part of the public who attune to me — than for an amorphous group who might or might not know me on a daily basis. Two observers who have influenced my thinking in this regard are Phil Agre, who has written about “public voice,” and danah boyd, who pointed out the way young people create publics via MySpace.

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Comments

Good stuff Howard.

I blogged today about how nodes have different needs from social networking tools, but still have need to organize their personal social networks.

It’s good to have a public, but that lessens the personal value for the tool.

Do you find that twitter is diluted for you?

[...] Yesterday, I posted that I would start treating my Facebook network of friends as a “public&#8… — a group of people who share my interests, pay attention to me, on occasion communicate with me, and have the potential for joining me in collective action. Some, but not all, are people I have met face-to-face. Some, but not all, are actually friends in my daily life. Most, at this point, are people who have read one of my books (two of which, Tools for Thought and The Virtual Community have been online for over a decade) or heard me speak, or were students in one of my classes. These are not faceless “fans.” I think of them as colleagues. On just about any topic I write about, I’ve grown accustomed to learning that at least one of my readers knows far more about it than I do. All this is mostly a delight to me. I have spent my entire professional career as a communicator. I try to understand something important about the world around me and to communicate that to others in some way — originally, exclusively in the form of the written word, but increasingly as curriculum or videos or interviews or public lectures. I started in this calling — I guess I would have been more financially successful if I had ever thought of it as a “business” — at age 23, and now I’m 60. For the first couple of decades, I sent out query letters with stamped, self-addressed envelopes and never heard from any readers other than editors. Until I plugged a 1200 baud modem into my telephone in 1982 or 83, I never really heard from anyone who had read anything I wrote. In the past twenty years, I’ve communicated with plenty of people via online discussions or email. I try to respond to every email I get from someone who has a sincere interest in my work or a question to ask that is related to my work. Needless to say, this takes up a lot of my time. But as I said, communicating is a calling for me. When I started teaching a few years ago, I joined Facebook. It was so essential to my students’ lives that I felt that I had to learn about it. And then it opened to the world and people I had known in previous phases of my life began showing up, and it became a way to stay in touch with them. And then people who had read my writing or attended a lecture or who follow this blog began making friend requests. Not only did it seem ungracious of me to refuse these requests, Facebook to me to be another natural channel for communicating with people who have things to tell me and teach me as well as hear from me and learn from me. Life online has always involved far more diffuse reciprocity than quid-pro-quo — it doesn’t matter that I am spending my time answering a question from a stranger who has never done anything for me, for I know from experience that ten other strangers are likely to answer my questions when I pose them online. [...]

Twitter is by its nature diluted. People “follow,” not friend. I’ll have to say that I’ve made a couple of friends in the face to face world because they’ve responded to my requests via Twitter.

4 - Charlene

When I first joined Facebook, I experienced a lot of anxiety trying to separate and isolate my “work” and “play” identities, in terms of how I was using the tool. Adding the research context into the mix created even more strains.

Eventually I figured out how to maximize my privacy options and set up a “limited profile” for those who I friended, but do not have a “trust relationship” with yet.

I think that we start using these sites with a false sense of security and privacy… because really, there is no such thing as the “personal” online. It’s all either public or proprietary…

Though originally you did “friend” someone since the originally idea behind twitter was to communicate with your friends.

Though people soon began using it other ways.

I still have this email from April.

Subject: You are Barack Obama’s newest friend!

Hi, Steve Rhodes.

Barack Obama (BarackObama) added you as a friend!

And I wish twitter actually had more levels of privacy. Now everything you write is either public or only can be read by people you follow (which is annoying when someone does an @reply to something and you can’t read what they are replying to).

Is this public akin to a microaudience? It reminds me of the very small worlds formed by Livejournal authors and their whitelisted readers, for example.

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