Web 2.0, Facebook, Government, and Business

challengesforgovernmentFor the past couple of months I’ve been thinking about a post Sean Yo made about Facebook. The post was entitled Facebook and the Man, and looked at how law enforcement uses Facebook to preemptively dissuade illegal activities. In light of these ‘positive’ uses Yo questions whether or not the city of Toronto was justified in banning the social networking service from their networks without considering the technology’s possible beneficial uses. While not asserting that Facebook is necessarily suited towards governmental activities, without critically reflecting on the technology the city has lost a potentially helpful communicative medium that would let officials connect with the public.

Generally, I think that the privacy risks and challenges in establishing appropriate communications policies with Facebook are reason enough to avoid using the service for governmental activities. That said, the question of governments using Facebook has been lurking in my brain for the past little while and I’ve recently come across some posts that help to clarify some of my thoughts surrounding Facebook.

As anyone that’s on Facebook knows, there has been an explosion in add-in applications following the company’s opening up of their API. Dozens of relatively mundane extensions to already existing services, as well as digital gardens, aquariums, rock gardens, music updates, and photo sharing programs are now available, many of which have had a significant uptake. The group that Yo was referring to – government – is intimately involved with business and in their dealings with business are (typically) assumed to maintain a certain level of decorum. While Yo (I believe) was thinking of how government could use Facebook to communicate with the public, I became interested in how it could be used to facilitate business relationships.

While Facebook does offer a way to communicate to large groups of people quickly, and is slightly more closed than other social networking services, it is still a system that was designed for college students to communicate with one another and with their relatively recently departed colleagues. This isn’t to say that other groups didn’t begin to infiltrate Facebook the moment that it was opened to the public – I have many people on my contact list that never finished high school, let alone graduated with a post-secondary degree. This said, I am interested in participating in personal relationships with most of the people on my contact list – I’m not terribly interested in long-term strategic business planning with them, nor am I interested in using it to schedule business meetings with them.

‘Web 2.0′ has been used to classify different conceptual arrangements for the Internet’s structural composition following 1.0’s demise. Roughly, 2.0 identifies the idea that websites should be tailored to particular niche markets rather than try to appeal to the public at large. This isn’t to say that large 1.0 sites won’t continue to exist in the following generations, simply that most businesses that will succeed in the digital marketplace will rely on carefully crafted and targeted products rather than catch-all-type endeavours. Facebook is a reasonably good tool for keeping in contact with college friends, planning events quickly, and being kept aware of each others’ activities. It is attempting to broaden its market share and become 1.0-like, but whether or not it can unseat MySpace.com and orkut, which has captured the 1.0-like market for social networking services, is yet to be seen.

Now, using this general understanding of the Web 2.0 it becomes a little clearer as to why I’m skeptical about Facebook’s ability to effectively facilitate non-personal digital relationships on a wide-scale. This isn’t to suggest that particular businesses, should they sufficiently leverage Facebook, can use Facebook for business communications. I just that I don’t see this being a common phenomena. As Scott Karp notes,

I have no need to “poke” my professional colleagues or specify that our working relationship began when we “hooked up.” I don’t need to know about my professional colleagues what gender they are interested in mating with, or what they are looking for in a relationship, or what their favorite TV shows are — these things may be of voyeuristic quasi-social interest, but they don’t help me connect or collaborate professionally (other than maybe topics for idle — or embarrassing — chit-chat). (Source)

One of Facebook’s most successful features is allowing individuals to know what all of their friends are doing, all of the time. This isn’t necessarily a useful or necessary feature in most people’s professional lives – personally, I usually want to meet with a person, resolve whatever challenge mutually confronts us, and then go our separate ways with (usually) a minimal degree of contact afterwards. While Facebook can have the added effect of drawing in a host of data feeds to a single location, that isn’t necessarily a positive effect; while I may want one person to read my professional blog, I don’t necessarily want to have it displayed to my family and friends, just as I don’t want necessarily want my business colleagues to be reading my personal blog postings. Facebook isn’t sufficiently granular to be used for business communications, whereas existing tools such as (this is an oldie) email and simple RSS feeds do provide what I need.

Steve Spalding makes an interesting point in his post, entitled ‘How to Make a Case Against Facebook.’ Essentially, for a social networking application to be ‘killer’ it has to appeal to grandma. He writes,

The smell test is whether my Grandparents would find any value at all in the product. They would use AOL because it is simple, and they would use Google because it helps them find recipes or search the family tree or whatever it is that they want with the wider Internet. The idea of Facebook to them would be, at best, silly. (Source)

Without Grandma on-board (and, as a result many/most members of the voting population) I don’t know if enough individuals could be reached using Facebook for it to be a useful medium for city workers to communicate with members of the public (though I’m not ruling out the possibility that Facebook is useful for politicians to communicate with their constituents). I also don’t think that Facebook provides the services that would be most helpful for businesses to communicate with the government, ruling out using Facebook for government-business interactions. Facebook excels at what it was intended for – letting students talk to one another about tests, professors, and where to get drunk on the weekend, but I really don’t think that it’s doing a terribly good job at breaking into the wider market that it needs to to become 1.0ish and appeal to grandma.

Christopher Parsons

Managing Director of Telecom Transparency Project at Citizen Lab
I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow and Managing Director of the Telecom Transparency Project at the Citizen Lab in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. I'm also a Principal at Block G Privacy and Security Consulting. My research interests focus on how privacy (particularly informational privacy, expressive privacy and accessibility privacy) is affected by digitally mediated surveillance and the normative implications that such surveillance has in (and on) contemporary Western political systems. I’m currently attending to a particular set of technologies that facilitate digitally mediated surveillance, including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), behavioral advertising, and mobile device security. I try to think through how these technologies influence citizens in their decisions to openly express themselves or to engage in self-censoring behavior on a regular basis.