#FacebookFail: Diversify Your Networking

by on January 3, 2012 · 3 comments

Here’s the notice I’ve been getting the last few days when, logged into Facebook from a computer, I try to post a comment or update my status.

Clever observers will note that the recommendation to log in from a computer is misplaced, as I get it when I’m logged in from a computer. Facebook gives me no instructions when I log in (or when I log out and log in again), though it did once ask me to change my password, which I did.

Most likely, Facebook’s algorithms believe I’ve violated some part of the Terms of Service, such as by repetitive posting or other spammy behavior. My exclusion from the site began contemporaneous with my attempt to post a single comment that failed for reasons I couldn’t discern in several tries.

Undoubtedly, my friends at Facebook will leap to my aid and clear this up for me in short order, feeling slightly stung that I “went public” with the problem rather than going to them. But I wanted to experience this as an ordinary consumer, not as a member of the digerati with insider access to people at important companies. In the past, I’ve used insider access with services like PayPal and (the now defunct) Bitcoin7 to get help that an ordinary user couldn’t have gotten. Bully for me that I can do that, but my experience is atypical and no basis for observing how the world works.

Some observations:

I’ve been reading a lot about data mining lately, and I have a lifelong love of mental error (not only as a practitioner!). My best guess is that the folks at Facebook have come up with an algorithmic way to recognize and exclude bad behavior (which they see in droves and endless variety). Keenly focused on excluding baddies, they’ve kind-of forgotten to double-check about making sure not to exclude good people. The sources of error here are many. It could be that my behavior as a user of the site produced a false positive for spamming or similar behavior. It could be that a computer of mine has a virus that is seeking to abuse my access to Facebook (though I do practice good computer hygiene). Other things might be happening that I don’t know about.

But Facebook’s folk haven’t successfully produced a way for me to signal to them, “I am here. I’m a human, and I’m a user of your site whose behavior is ordinary and within your terms.”

Thus, I can log in to Facebook, I can see what my friends are doing, and I can see what they are posting and saying about me. I just can’t post any comments or update my own status. It’s kind of like being locked out of your house and watching your friends have a good time inside, unable to bang on the doors or windows loud enough to get anyone’s attention.

[While I think of it, would someone please post a link to this blog post on my wall? Thanks.]

It’s all a little strange, but this is exactly what one can expect from a company with a customer base as large as Facebook’s, enjoying continuing growth and working to add new features: imperfection.

Which brings me to my second observation: I really don’t think social networks ought to scale like we’re trying to make them scale. Having come to rely on one a little too much, I’m now being forced to reconsider whether I want to rely on one—and I don’t. Giving the bulk of my interaction to any one platform is a risk to my ability to interact. Here, it’s mistake, but any number of risks could manifest themselves, with individuals or society as a whole, if we lean too heavily on any one way of interacting.

As a basic privacy protection, for example, don’t put everything you do in one place. Think of your Internet access and your social networks (and lots of other things) the way you would your stock portfolio. You’re a fool of you don’t diversify.

So it sure is great we have markets and competition!

I’m a Twitter user, of course. You can get an odd blend of public policy comment and quirky personal observations there at @Jim_Harper. I also have Twitter account(s) you don’t get to know about.

And I’ll be ramping up my use of Google+, which I did not really want to do—but, yes, I should. And I’ll use it for stuff that’s more work oriented. Because I’m a stickler for the meanings of words, Facebook will be for actual friends. (Meeting once is not a friendship, friends. Nor is me referring to you as part of the collective “friends” in that last sentence.)

I’ll also do more on Diaspora, which is still nascent, but I think a very important network because nobody owns it. Kinda like the meatspace social network, it has no central controller, and that’s a very important protection for a lot of our human and political interests—even if Diaspora is not yet hitting on all cylinders.

So there you have it! Companies are imperfect, and if you’re part of the infinitesimal fraction of their customers who they fail to serve, you do get some hassles and annoyances. This counsels diversification—not only in social networks, but in all things under innovation—as a security against hassle and worse.

And finally: Ain’t it cool we got options!

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