Google+ first thoughts

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Google+ is calling its platform “real-life sharing”. It wants to approximate the ways we interact on its platform to our real life behaviors. This would certainly seem to be a good idea, assuming that what people want is to carry on interacting online in ways that are continuous with their offline interactions. A number of points need making at this point. First, the way we interact offline nowadays includes all sorts of computer mediations, such texting. In other words, it is not as if the “real life” part is unambiguous. Whose real life, exactly, is Google+ trying to mimic? This is a great question, because it gives us an insight into the ideal Google+ user.
This then iterates back into real life. First of all, we may want to adopt the lifestyle of the ideal Google+ user. It is an ideal type that we may think we ought to try and approximate ourselves. Second, maybe we will start to conceive of our friendships in the way that we enact them on social network sites – that is, as a collection of discreet acts of information transfer. Google is certainly right that Facebook is off the mark in terms of the nuances of what we share and with whom (and speaking from personal experience, this is certainly the reason that I would not befriend my mother on Facebook, and find it hard to believe that anyone would (befriend their mother, that is, not mine)). But you can’t help think that “real life” is not just sitting in front of your computer screen and sharing your thoughts (and favorite links) about your favorite hobby, but actually going out and doing that hobby (I’m thinking of the Sparks part of the Google+ platform right now). More generally, the interesting question – to me at least – is whether people are starting to understand their own friendships in terms of sharing, and whether this would reflect an adoption of a category from the Internet. After all, we understand ourselves and our lives through social categories and constructs. My hunch is that “sharing” is becoming an increasingly important one.

Facebook’s new facial recognition feature

June 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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The latest privacy furore surrounding Facebook involves its new facial recognition feature. According to Facebook’s own blog entry on the feature, when you upload photos of people who are already tagged in other photos, Facebook will suggest their names, making it quicker for you to tag your photos.

Now I’m just as keen on privacy as the next person, but some of the anti-Facebook responses appear to me to be slightly overblown, especially those that think that this facial recognition gives governments greater access to information about its citizens. First of all, if governments can access our Facebook photos, they don’t need Facebook’s facial recognition technology to identify us. I’m sure they have their own. So the problem would lie with the photos being online, not with their being tagged. Secondly, just because someone has tagged a photo as being a photo of me doesn’t make it a photo of me. It may well be a photo of me, but the person tagging may have made a mistake, or may have tagged someone else as me in order to get my attention. Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge, I cannot prevent myself being tagged by someone else (but I can prevent other people from checking me in with them to places). I can remove the tag if I wish, but it may be too late. And disabling the facial recognition feature doesn’t mean I can’t be tagged anyway, which suggests that the problem, if there is one, is with tagging itself, and not with the new feature.

Most interestingly for me, though, as a sociologist of technology, is the fact that Facebook is offering a technological means for doing something that we can (and do) do anyway: Facebook says that 100m tags are added to photos every day. Actor-network theory analyzes how networks of humans and non-humans are configured so as to successfully perform so-called “programs of action”. It looks at those tasks that are undertaken by humans and those undertaken by non-humans, without privileging one type of “actant” over another. Often, non-humans (computers, say) can carry out out tasks much quicker than humans: a computer will find me someone’s phone number in the phone book much quicker than I can. Sometimes we are happy for non-humans to be involved in programs of action (such as finding someone’s number in the phone book) and sometimes we are less happy (for instance, cameras that photograph us speeding on the motorway).

I think the way to think about this new feature on Facebook is in terms of actor-network theory, and your view on the feature will be determined by whether you think that having a computer do something you could do yourself (and have been doing yourself) makes the action qualitatively different. Is having a machine help you identify your friends’ faces qualitatively different from you identifying them yourself? Does the fact that the machine can do it far quicker make the very task itself different? If it is OK to tag your friends, does having a computer help you tag them faster make it wrong? If so, how come?

And finally a quick “I’m not naive” disclosure. Of course, the reason Facebook wants to “help” us tag our friends is because Facebook makes money from the information it collects. A tag on a photo is information. I’m not so naive to think that Facebook is taking pity on those who have to spend hours tagging their friends in all their photos. There is real economic value in those tags, and so we should always be suspicious of everything Facebook does. Also, I have no doubt that there are serious privacy threats latent in facial recognition software. The state already knows what I look like (there are photos in my passport and on my driving license). If it wants to, it can film me at a political gathering, run facial recognition software, and thereby know I was at that gathering. That, to me, is much more worrying than Facebook’s offering.