Privacy and Social Networks

ATM Privacy Area, by Cackhanded. CC via FlickrMark Ury has a great post on Privacy at his blog The Restless Mind. As I said in my comment on his Blog, I’d like to make an observation about why managing privacy (and other rules of social etiquette) is even harder than it seems.

Real social networks have actual humans as the end points in the graph. Complicated, technology independent humans. I have dozens, perhaps even hundreds of social networks I participate in, and each one has its own complex rules of etiquette and privacy, even when the membership of the network is mostly or even completely the same. In fact, it’s those rules that really define the network itself: the people I trust with my kids, the people I gossip with at work, or the group of cousins in my family that happen to be around the same age. Each of these is defined as much or more by what we do together (the “social grooming” as Robin Dunbar calls it), as by the membership, which may be mostly or even entirely the same. One reason for why these rules especially difficult to express in software is that these networks (especially the ones most established in my life) are typically multi-modal by nature. Take the network of “the people who love and care for my kids”, as an example: some are in FB, some are email-only, and some (like my Gramma) offline entirely. We humans are very typically very good at picking up on and managing these social “rules”, but often have difficulty migrating those rules to a new or unfamiliar modality of communication. As the number ways in which we can communicate with each other increases (more rapidly all the time, it seems), the harder it becomes to manage the complex social rules that govern human interactions.

Kinzin’s approach to this problem is to build what we call “Virtual Private Social Networks”. You decide on the rules and membership of the network, independent of the communications technology. This is obviously easier with smaller networks, and where the level of trust and familiarity is high, so that’s where we’ve focused ourselves. These Are My Kids lets a network of close friends and family share information about the family’s kids. The rules for privacy are set by the parents, and the invited members of the network can use (nearly) any medium they like to access the network: Facebook, email, postal mail, etc. This way, busy parents can spend their time thinking about what it is they want to say, and not worrying about how or where to say it.

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Michael on TV


Pretty lame to post this a couple of weeks late, but I’ve been busy, then I was on vacation, then I was busy again, then I forgot… you know the drill. Anyways, I was interviewed on CBC television for a story on internet privacy. Here’s a link (thanks, Frank): http://gallery.mac.com/flee1#100129.

lab logoSticking with TV Fame, Episode 140 of The Lab With Leo Laporte on G4 Tech TV in Canada includes me doing a segment with Leo, talking about designing and building applications in the era of social networking. That interview will be made available on The Lab website after it airs on television.

You can’t have small without the big


Robert Scoble, in response to comments made by Evan Williams, creator of Twitter, at Web 2.0 asked the question: “why would anybody want a social network with only 10 friends? Seriously, don’t we already have this? It’s called a family.” Williams was talking about creative constraints. Limiting the scope of a social network (TuDiabetes), or limiting the size of a message (Twitter/SMS). I’m surprised, frankly, that Scoble would make such an obtuse comment. That I have lots of friends isn’t a reason to not use Facebook, and that my family exists says nothing about the modalities of communication I use to “groom” my relationships with them (to borrow a term from Robin Dunbar).

TuDiabetes for example is a small network (recently passing 1100 enthusiastic users), constrained in scope to the issues related to living with Diabetes. That it is small and constrained makes it more valuable, not less.

On the opposite end of the scale, The Economist recently published an article called “Social Graph-iti – There’s less to Facebook and other social networks than meets the eye“. I think it’s intended to be a cautionary article about “irrational exuberance” in the social networking space, along the lines of the recent New York Times article. There’s a lot that’s right in the Economist’s article, but I disagree with a few things. I think the author doesn’t understand the nature of social networks in this respect: we can and do belong to many at one time (as we have since before there were “humans” at all). Many of our social networks, in fact, are built on top of other, existing networks. For example, the management team I work with at Kinzin is a small network built out of my larger “business associates” network, which is part of my “everybody I know” network. It overlaps with my “close friends network” and my “co-workers” network, and so forth.

But unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. “The value of a social network is defined not only by who’s on it, but by who’s excluded,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect.

Mr. Saffo is both sucking and blowing, though, using “Social Network” to mean two things at the same time: the sum of all the users who are members of a particular social networking application, and all of the connections that each individual member has on that network.

My personal network doesn’t scale for all the reasons that I’ve written about previously in my commentary on Dunbar’s Number , but Facebook’s network doesn’t have the problem in the same way. It can contain every human in the world, and it doesn’t lose value for me (at least not the same rate or in the same way), because I only need it to be able to find everyone in the world who potentially could be my contact, I don’t need everyone to actually be my contact. It seems to me the Economist doesn’t account for the fact that we all have multiple overlapping networks, containing people that in the end all are drawn from the same pool, namely all the humans in the world. If I’m trying to maintain 10 different social networks (friends, family, business, acquaintances, etc.), it’s helpful to have the underlying system contain all the people in all the networks. So Facebook having 6B members helps me to better create the 10 person network that represents my geographically dispersed family.

Everyone’s trying to make it simple: “Irrational Exuberance!”, or “Everything’s Really Different!” The reality, as it usually is with humans, is much more subtle.

What’s "Normal" anyway?

The Normal Theatre, by K2D2vaca

Our Facebook adventure sure has been interesting. In the week since we launched, we’ve had over 15,000 people do our surveys (Update: three days later, and we’re now over 22,000…) and discover just how (ab)normal they are. One curious thing I’ve noticed while discussing “Are You Normal?” with people is that, at least among the people I talk to, most people assume that their normalcy rating will be very low. In fact, being “abnormal” seems to be what they’re hoping for. The thing is, the system only calculates your rating based on what everybody else said, so if everybody’s a bit strange, well… that’s what’s normal. It’s what I really like about this application – the community decides what’s normal, not us. We could have used some standard psychological test and given a stock answer, but everybody deserved to be judged by a jury of their peers, don’t you think?

In case you’re wondering: I’m 23% normal (and falling).

Normal, by Binderboy

Which brings up the other interesting side-effect of the way we calculate the answers: that your rating can and does change over time. As more people answer, the most common set of answers changes slightly, effecting your rating against that “standard”. To take advantage of this interesting side-effect of our rating system, a new feature we’re planning is the ability to check your rating against specific groups – your own friends, for example. And when Facebook launches their new “contact grouping” feature, you may be able to compare yourself against particular sets of people – work, family, whatever. Let me know if you think this feature would be really interesting to you – if enough people call for it, I’ll get the development team to move it up the schedule.

Some tidbits, gleaned from the results so far:

  • 68% of people answering the surveys are very concerned about the environment, or are taking action to do something about climate change. 9% say they’re not concerned, and a full 23% don’t take either position, which is interesting.
  • 9% describe themselves as conservative, 25% as liberal and the rest (65% or so) describe themselves as non-partisan or none of the above.
  • 25% think that a family should have only a mommy and a daddy.
  • 41% of parents lied, saying that having children hasn’t effected their sex life ;-), the rest need to get away for the weekend.
  • 45% wish that their kids knew more about their family history and culture

Stomen
There will be a new survey in the next day or so (Are you a normal Facebook user?), and some UI improvements, so stay tuned.

Cross-posted at the Kinzin Blog.

An equitable arrangement

Home Economics
Thanks to Springwise for bringing this to my attention: Home Equity Share. An interesting twist on P2P lending, illustrating yet again how stale the mainstream financial industry has become, and how a little creative thinking can go a long way in that space. Here’s how it works:

It matches investors, who want to get into the real estate market, but don’t want monthly payments or tenants, with buyers who have cash flow to make mortgage payments, but don’t have a downpayment. The buyer can acquire the investor’s share at a later date, or they can agree to sell the property and share the appreciation. Simple, really.

It's a Cozy Home in My NeighborhoodNot that it doesn’t have it’s challenges (the mid-2007 subprime mortgage meltdown), but it has the advantage that this sort of arrangement is really quite common. Parents helping their kids buy their first house, for example. If you don’t have parents who can help you financially in this way, Home Equity Share will find you a “surrogate”. So far, the company doesn’t seem to be leveraging existing social networking applications to connect people together who are likely to have a higher degree of trust due to smaller “degrees of separation”, but that’s an obvious extension.

How do you say Peer-to-peer in Mandarin?


One more update on P2P lending: here is a Chinese P2P lending project called PPDAI. It turns out that most lending in China (not much of a surprise) is P2P (the old-school, IRL type), usually between relatives. Most Chinese don’t have access to bank financing, apparently. This could be amazing to watch: 1.3 Billion peers… wow.

On a personal note

Jill AlexanderFor the most part, I’ve been focusing this blog on my professional interests, but today I make an exception. I’ve lost a young cousin, an Aunt, and an Uncle to cancer, and an older cousinMy cousin Ruth is fighting hard today. This is not a sad story though, but a story of empowerment and inspiration: My mother, Jill Alexander (turning 70 on her next birthday), is training hard to run a marathon in October to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma research (the cancer that took little Tommy and Aunt Arlene from us). She has a website where she’s keeping a training log, and accepting donations. I hope you will visit, and consider making a donation.

I should say a little about my Mom: My Mother is the great inspiration of my life. With all the challenges that come with being a single mother of two small boys, she grew a business from nothing into a beautiful day spa and health centre. She worked hard so we never felt that we lacked for anything that truly mattered. I remember her greeting customers and employees alike with a hug and loving kindness. Losing her brother and sister-in-law, whom she dearly loved, and burying baby Tommy would be a terrible burden for anybody, but she has turned the pain of her loss into a positive will to do good. Those who know my mother well will tell you that this is how she lives her life: with love, and to the fullest she knows how.