Monday, September 20, 2010

The Multiparty Line (over and again)

Suddenly more and more of my friends and family of the "not-early-adopter" personality type are signing up for Facebook.  They think I am a digital technology early adopter, so I am flooded with "how to" and "why" questions. 

We must have reached the tipping point in social media. In most of he country it is now presumed that you can read and write, watch plenty of TV, own a personal computer and a cell phone AND that you "are on Facebook". If not, you'll feel that you have to explain why not: After all, if you want to hear from your children or get photos of your grandchildren you better be on Facebook.  Furthermore, many of your friends probably have given up email and switched to Facebook, social gatherings will announced there - be there or be square.  The more hip only "do Twitter" and text from smart phones.

As I look at how most people use Facebook and Twitter I see a similarity with past chapters in the evolution of telecommunications: The tolerance for multiparty line communications and loss of privacy swung as follows:

Telephones between 1930 to 1960's and even beyond for outlaying rural communities: Seniors still remember that in those years, presuming to have private telephone conversation in a small town was a joke.  Either your neighbor(s) or a bored switchboard operator was presumed to be listening on. 
Automatic switchboards and sufficient telephone lines brought privacy back.

CB radios became popular, not only with long distance truckers, but also with aunt Mae and cousin George from 1972 (because of the First OPEC Oil Embargo and resultant gasoline shortage) until the early 80's.  With some planning (for a trip in convoy) you might manage to talk to someone you knew, but by en large it was the "first Twitter" where you told strangers what was on your mind or "in the road" - listeners "followed you" and you were "Buddies" only because you had in common the same piece of interstate highway at the same time:  10-4 Good Buddy...
Cell phones eventually brought an end to CB radios and brought privacy back.

Computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) created the first multiparty communications for computer users around 1975, their use exploded with personal computers in the early 80's until supplanted by the internet in the early 90's.  Again you could "talk" (type) on an open line to all those that had a similar interest: computer software,  computer games (text-based, before-video), dating services (professionals or lonely hearts), etc. 
The first user friendly Internet Browser (Netscape) in 1990 opened the Internet to the masses and with email, privacy was back. By 1999 you had better be ready to explain under what rock you lived if you did not have an email address. 

Web2.0 Social Media Arrives
Social Media  could be said to go as far back back to the PLATO system (1973) at University of Illinois, but in its current Web2.0 form it started with Friendster in 2003, followed by the explosion of  MySpace (driven by the high school crowd), Linkedin (the professional crowd), Facebook (the college grads crowd) and Twitter (the short comments crowd). 

All provide a choice of communication channels that vary from open-line to private-line telephone emulation. In Linkedin and Facebook anyone known or unknown can be friends by invitation and mutual agreement. Friends of friends can be more or less shared depending on user choice and the fee paid for one's account. In Twitter anyone can be anyone's friend, just because they are there.  With something valuable to say and consistent effort nurturing the audience one can garner 200,000 followers or more. In Facebook, with a "poke" you can be "friends for 3 days" and show a little tease (A "poke" is intended to get someone's attention allowing them to see your Facebook page for 3 days, so they can know who you are, and hopefully add you as a friend).  

Those who bother to manage their privacy can hide their Facebook friends, but most users are pretty open, by accident or by design.  Some do not know any better (instructions for adding friends are jammed down your throat while those to manage privacy are far from clear), so they have all their friends visible to all friends of friends. Then they write on one friend's wall a private message (trivial or important) only to discover they were shouting on the town's party line.  
We are back to telephone privacy circa 1945, but this time the technology is not to blame. 

The psychology and sociology of multiparty lines
At this point you can go on to something more productive than reading the remainder. Following are my speculations and opinions on the subject, and you know what they say about opinions.

I always interpreted the user's tolerance of a multiparty line as the price to be paid in the early stages of a new technology introduction: When the resource is limited, the price of privacy is high and beyond the budget of most, but eventually mass adoption scales the system to where privacy is affordable to all.  

Today, however I see the commonplace use of open communication channels for private matters, seemingly with little concern, when means to achieve privacy exist.  Why?

Is there a group psychology in play here, similar to that found in American high schools or colleges: The dynamics of wanting to belong, wanting to be heard, wanting to be included, wanting to be popular?  It would surely explain why the first big successes by social media sites were with students in high school  (MySpace) and college (Facebook), whereas the membership process and the chatter in Linkedin (business leads and job hunting professionals) have been far more private and resulted in slower growth.  

Is this why some feel compelled to announce to the world "I at the airport waiting for a flight to London" (as if we would care) or "Stranded in Paris on the way to Moscow" (it happens to everyone that changes planes in Paris), or "traveling from A to B stopping at C to walk the dog" (as if we all were waiting for them), or "standing in line to buy my iPhone tomorrow morning" (so you are one of a million)?

It's easy to say - just stop following them, drop them from your friends lists, etc. But that is not the point. 
First, those same people at times make public announcements of value ("iPhone proven to lose call" - Good to hear, I am not crazy, "X just released a multitasking xPad" - Good to hear, now I can skip the iPad). 
Secondly, the riddle I wish to unravel is why private comments aimed at a single person find instead their way into the chatter of the public town square. Has the need for privacy been abandoned?  If it is evolving we better understand why and how, because the public town square is changing and we cannot stay away from it - it is the new language we must learn to use correctly.

Please, comment with whatever insight or guesses you care to share (BTW, not just with me but with all my followers!).

Marco Messina

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