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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