The physics of social spaces are not like the physics of physical spaces

Image: please respect my privacyOver the last week I peripherally participated in an interesting exchange of views on Twitter between Jesse Stommel and Stephen Downes that raises some fascinating issues about the nature of online social spaces. It started with a plea from Jesse:

“Dear [insert company name], searching every mention of your company and jumping into conversations where you haven’t been tagged or invited is invasive. Stop doing that.”

Stephen took exception to this, pointing out that:

“If I use a company name in a public forum, I expect they will take interest and maybe even reply. It’s a *public* forum. That’s how they work.”

What followed explored some fascinating territory, but the essence of the main arguments are (I skim the nuances), on Jesse’s side, that we have a reasonable expectation of being left alone during a private conversation in any public space and, on Stephen’s side, that there should be no expectation of privacy in a public digital space like Twitter, and that any claims to it tread on extremely dangerous ground.  The central question is thus whether there are such things as private conversations on Twitter.

Stephen’s big concern is that, taken to its logical conclusion, laying claim to privacy on Twitter opens the door for outrages like the Proctorio vs Linkletter case, in which Proctorio claimed that “Mr. Linkletter infringed its copyright, circumvented technological protection measures, and breached confidence” by sharing one of its fully public (though not publicized) YouTube videos with students. YouTube quite closely resembles Twitter in its social structure (though little else), so it is a good analogy. Stephen is, I think rightly, concerned at ‘calling out’ individuals or organizations for invading ‘private’ conversations in public spaces because it implies the unilateral imposition of norms, rules of behaviour, and expectations by one individual or group on another, in a space that neither owns.

Jesse’s counter-arguments are interesting, and subtle. He strongly rejects Stephen’s analogy with the Proctorio case because all he is doing is asserting his right to privacy, not abusing his market position or trying to cause harm. It’s just a request to be let alone, calling on what he sees as norms of politeness, not a demand that this should be enshrined in rules or legislation. He observes that, though Twitter is a public space, it has variegation that emerges because of (often tacit, seldom explicit) ways that many (not all) people use it, which in turn is supported by the ways that Twitter’s algorithms push some kinds of tweet more than others. For this particular case in point, he notes that the algorithm tends to broadcast initial tweets more than it does replies, so what follows in a set of replies could be assumed by its participants to be a less public conversation. In fact, as I understand his argument, Jesse thinks of it as a private conversation in a public space, analogous to having a private conversation in a public park where one might be inadvertently overheard, but it would be rude to deliberately listen in or contribute unless invited. If this were a true analogy then I might support it. But, if it is true, then so are quite a few other things, and that’s where it starts to get interesting.

I’ve been a Twitter user for approaching 15 years now and it has never occurred to me till now that any of my conversations might in any way be construed as private. They are sometimes personal, for sure, but definitely not private. Conversations are soft technologies that are flexible, mutable, and situated, and (without further clues like people quietly conversing in a corner) you need to read them in order to know whether you would be intruding on them, which means that they are simply not private. Without further reasons to assume privacy, it is just a conversation in public between two people to which other people are not invited.

So the crux of Jesse’s argument seems to be the notion that a happenstance of Twitter’s current implementation that makes some tweets less likely to be seen than others, combined with a set of norms relating to that, that may or may not be shared by others, allows one to claim that a conversation is not just personal but private.

The physics of online social spaces

Twitter is, as Stephen says and Jesse agrees, for the most part a completely public space (not counting direct messaging or constraints on tweets to only those you follow/are following) but, as the example of the relative prominence given to initial tweets compared with replies to them amply demonstrates, it does have a structure. It is just one that does not obey anything like the same physics as a physical space. You can achieve a measure of privacy in a public physical space because there has to be proximity in space and time in order to communicate at all, and there are limits to human voice projection, ability to hear, and ability to attend to multiple conversations at once. There are also visual clues that people are talking privately. Though there is variegation in structure, none of those limits apply in Twitter or, for that matter, most online social spaces.

Early in the conversation I chipped in to observe that one of the many differences between private conversations in physical space and Twitter exchanges is that tweets are persistent. They are a little like graffiti left in public spaces that continues to communicate long after the initial intent has passed, and may be happened upon at any time in the future in quite different contexts than those imagined by the graffiti artist. Jesse’s response to that was that there’s a difference between graffiti on a public building in five foot high letters and graffiti on a shady tree or in a tunnel. Again, his point is that there are parts of Twitter where there might be a reasonable expectation of relative privacy, where it would be rude to join the conversation. Though I agree that it is often possible to tell from reading a conversation whether you might be welcome or not (and yes, social norms apply to that), my big problem with Jesse’s argument is that proximity in Twitter-space is not just defined by relative position in a dialogue or likelihood of appearance in a Twitter feed, as he seems to imply.

Beyond its support for conversations between individuals, Twitter embodies two distinct but overlapping social forms: the network and the set. @mentions in Twitter combined with its ‘following’ functionality are the main drivers for the network form. If you follow someone or they mention you then your message becomes proximal to them. That’s a big part of Twitter’s physics, and it has no analogue in physical space. Thus, your conversation is very likely to be overheard by others because you are (metaphorically) standing right next to them and chipping your words in five foot letters in stone where they can and will be found, now and in the future. If you wanted to have a private conversation in a park then you wouldn’t stand less than a metre away from someone that you didn’t want to listen in and shout in their face. But that’s not all.

Hashtags and search terms are the main drivers for the set social form, which at least closely competes with if not exceeds the value of social networks in Twitter. When you use a hashtag or even a distinctive word (say, the name of a company or person) then your message becomes proximal to those who follow that hashtag or who have saved a search for that keyword. So you are not just standing right next to everyone in your social network, but to the potentially much larger social set of people who are interested in keywords that you use in your conversation. Again, you might not intend it, you might not even be able to see them, but you are shouting in their faces.

Maybe you do have a right to privacy in any public space, but that right does not overrule simple physics. You have to know  the physics of that space in order to know what ‘private’ means within it. And the simple physics of Twitter means that ‘next to’ and ‘within hearing distance’ extends to anyone with an interest in you or what you are saying in the sentences you write. If you want different social physics that support privacy, then you need to take your conversation to a different space, because Twitter doesn’t work that way. You can ask for non-interference in a personal conversation, but not for privacy.

Designing better social physics

Retrato cubista del escritor español Ramón Gómez De la Sena por el pintor mexicano Diego RiveraAs it happens, we grappled a lot with issues of context and privacy exactly like this when we designed the social physics of the Landing.  Its social physics are deliberately designed to make precisely those nooks and niches that Jesse wants to find in Twitter.  The Landing starts with discretionary access control for every post and every profile field (we chose to build it using the Elgg framework because of its support for this). Like the much missed (and never hit) Google+ it also allows you to create circles, that are not just useful for following but, more significantly, for limiting access to particular individuals. Again, that came for free with Elgg, though we added some enhancements to forefront it, and to make it usable.

It’s not just about the content, though; it’s about presentation of self (we were influenced in this by Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis). We also therefore built a range of context-switching tools – notably tabbed profiles and pinboards (known internally as ‘sets’) – that allow you to present a completely different facade to different circles, groups, and sets of people. This is not just concerned with showing or hiding different fields and content, but with looking completely different and showing completely different stuff to different people. The public facade of my profile is not the same as the one displayed to my friends and, if I wished, I could present different facades to all the different circles or groups of people I follow or belong to. We’ve still not solved the temporal issue – like most social sites, the fundamental unit of communication is still persistent graffiti. In fact, to a large extent we wanted it that way, because it’s a site for collective learning, and so it has to have a collective memory though, like memories in brains, it would be useful to have short-term memories too. However, simply letting posts expire is not the solution, in part due to the many ways that digital content can be copied and archived but, more importantly, because forgetting is and must be an active process that cannot and should not be automated. My earlier CoFIND system did have a way to deal with that (memories had to be actively maintained by active interest and use by members or, though they would never be fully lost, they would be far less likely to be recalled) but we didn’t make much use of that idea on the Landing, save in isolated pockets, because it would have really irritated the many people or groups that engage intermittently (e.g. in iterations of paced courses).

Unfortunately, most of the Landing’s context-switching features are not even slightly intuitive (especially to those already familiar with the cruder social physics of popular social media) so most are very rarely used. Google+, with its massively simplified version of the same idea, probably failed at least in part for this reason. Such complexity can work, with the right membership. Slashdot, for instance, has an extraordinarily rich and ever-evolving social physics, and it has thrived for about 25 years, but the reasons for its success probably lie at least in part in its tagline ‘News for Nerds’. Its members are not phased by complex interfaces, and it is well-enough designed to work reasonably well if you don’t engage with all the features.

Perhaps a bigger issue, though, is that the richer social physics of both Slashdot and the Landing only work if you happen to be a member. For public posts, like this one, the physics are very much like those of Twitter or Facebook.

For now, the best bet is to use different social spaces for different aspects of your life but, thanks largely to Facebook’s single-minded and highly effective undermining of OpenSocial, there’s not a lot of ways to seamlessly move between them right now while retaining a rich and faceted identity. At least there’s still RSS, which is how come you might be reading this on the Landing (where it is originally posted) or at https://jondron.ca/ (which will automagically then push it to Twitter), but it’s not ideal.

It’s very challenging to design a digital space that is both richly supportive of human social needs and easy to use. The Landing is definitely not the solution, but the underlying idea – that people are richly faceted social beings who interact and present themselves differently to different people at different times –  still makes sense to me. As the conversation between Jesse and Stephen shows, there is a need for support for that more than ever.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the former Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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