07 July 2011

Does anybody ‘own’ the social graph?

With the launch of Google+, an older point of contention between the leader and the challenger in the social arena has again rolled into focus: should users be able to freely and easily export their friends emails for use in another network? Somebody built an extension to export friends to contacts and it took Facebook a couple of days to block it – seriously, who didn’t see that coming? Leaving all the possible workarounds and exceptions aside – like importing through the Yahoo! address book, the question arises: “Who owns your social graph — you or Facebook?

Personally, I think the issue of ‘ownership’ is completely misplaced here. We’re not talking about physical property here; email addresses, phone numbers, contact details in general are not economic goods, but information. Think about the meaning of “giving away your email address” as compared to “giving away a pen”: if you give the pen to someone you can’t use anymore until they return it; but the email address is still yours after you give it away. You can turn around, give it to someone else and still get the benefit of contacting the first person. The more you share it around, the more return you get. It’s the foundation of all social media, including Facebook. This is also how information works and what made the Internet so big and powerful: publishing information does not take it away from the author, it enriches instead the community.

So what can “owning” mean in this context? You could say I own my email address because I am the only one with the password, the only one who can read the emails and send out my own messages – well, most of the times. But as long as I don’t share this address with at least one other person, it’s completely useless, since nobody will know where to find me. The email and all other means of communications are social by nature and their value is only defined by the relations they enable. As a single person, it doesn’t make much sense to claim ownership of something that basically doesn’t exist until you interact with someone else. One could say both the owner of the address and the receiver have the right to use it and the issue is more about trust than about ownership. The contact details are part of our social identity and ultimately that’s what you want to “own” – or at least have some degree of control over.

Facebook is a communication medium trying to take control of the data and identities flowing thorough it – should you ask the post office for permission to write down your friend’s home address because you previously sent him a letter? And as such it’s acting against it’s very nature and the nature of the Internet as a whole: to enable sharing and communication between people. Of course, it can get away with it for now, given it’s massive size and near-monopoly and because most users don’t see a major issue here.

What I find even more odd is that some people actually support this decision by Facebook. So if I get your email address from your business card of website it’s OK to use it and to add it to my own address book, but if I obtain it through Facebook it’s suddenly forbidden? The only explanation I see is that you don’t trust your Facebook connections will act within some common sense; but if that’s the case, why did you friend them in the first place? Why I am allowed to use one part of your social identity – your name – but not the other – emails and phone numbers? It’s a double standard, no matter how you look at it. The email export problem is something that can be fixed relatively easy: a privacy setting to determine if your friends can export your contact data or not. But in the long run Facebook will have to settle on a clear position on this matter: are they open like the rest of the web or closed like – well – Facebook?

Facebook relationships visualized
image via Mashable

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