Monday, 30 January 2012

"It's not who you're sharing with, it's who you're sharing as"

A few days ago, Ben Goldacre, science writer/doctor and Bad Science columnist for the Guardian, posted an article on his blog expressing his concerns about Spotify's relatively recent integration with Facebook, sharing the music you're listening to, as you listen to it, via your Facebook profile (and since I started writing this, it seems that fellow Guardian contributor Charlie Brooker has taken similar umbrage).

Goldacre's main point is that, rather than Spotify asking you what you'd like to share, it assumes a default position of sharing everything, all the time. Whilst you can turn these features off, he argues, to do so is unnecessarily complicated and once done, resets itself back to sharing again next time you log in. As he points out in his examples, there are certainly circumstances in which you may not want be sharing music, as your choices would tend to reflect your general mood (e.g. publicising the fact you just listened to Michael Bolton's "When I'm Back On My Feet Again" fourteen times because you just got unceremoniously dumped). His examples are useful, but it seems to me there are wider implications to be considered.

Without reading through Spotify's End User Licensing Agrement in detail, I'm making an assumption, but I would have thought that the terms and conditions of the agreement allow you to consume music for personal use, which would therefore entitle you to broadcast Spotify's music (i.e. not through headphones) throughout your home. This would mean that people who were not you, such as your family or housemates, were essentially getting to listen to the music for free, much like they would if you were playing a CD (as you've done the purchasing). One would also assume that your family or housemates would be entitled to control the Spotify application (it would certainly be extremely hard to enforce the opposite) and so they are in effect accessing the music of their choice for free, again much the same as if they changed your CD to a different one.

Now, considering the above, Spotify, unless told specifically otherwise, would now be posting someone else's musical preferences via your Facebook profile, arguably without either yours or their (direct) consent. There are possibly terms within Spotify's EULA covering this but from a practical position, this seems to be the case.

This is clearly a problem, as, depending on who those users are - your children, for example - you probably wouldn't want this information being made publicly available to your Facebook friends (it's probably worth pointing out at this stage that your Facebook "friends" should be more accurately classified as "people you sort of know, including your friends and maybe colleagues"). Fundamentally, this is also breaking the underlying principles of the Spotify/Facebook integration, as you now have a "many to one" (users to profiles) relationship between the two systems.

From Spotify's point of view, this isn't such a bad thing as, while it no doubt does sell on it's user analytics to third parties, having a greater and more diverse range of music posted to (advertised on) Facebook will only increase the chances it will draw in new paying users. For Facebook however, who are only interested in the statistical data to sell onwards, this is a big negative, as this impacts the accuracy of the data it holds on you and hence its commercial value. A useful way of thinking about Facebook's position was summarised rather eloquently (and now somewhat famously) by the MetaFilter user blue_beetle: "if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold".

To me, this kind of "enforced sharing" is inherently a bad thing for social networks, and for privacy in general, and yet is becoming continuously more prevalent as social networks become more dominant in our online lives (not to say this exclusively a problem of social networks, Google has already been doing this for years, but with your IP address rather than profile; social networks just further exposes the issue).

As an example, when recently browsing Facebook, I saw that a friend had read an vaguely interesting article in the Independent, however when I tried to click through to the piece, Facebook demanded I allow the "Independent App" access to my profile first, presumably so it could repost the article under my name. This presented me with a problem - it's not that I thought the article contained anything I wouldn't want others to know I'd read - but why should I post an article to my profile that I only had a passing interest in, in such a manner as to direct others to its attention? Also, why would I want to give the Independent access to the entirety of my profile on the basis of a single article? To me this doesn't feel like sharing, this feels like monitoring.

Consider the difference if, rather than sharing your browsing or purchasing habits of media lke music or news, if yuo were sharing your recent purchases at Amazon, Tesco or Boots. No doubt all of these companies would love for you to be able to advertise for them by posting your transactions automatically online but it's eeasy to see for each why you may not want to: Amazon, perhaps, as you'd be pulicising gifts for others before you got the chance to give them; Tesco because you live off a shameful diet of ready meals and gin; and with Boots I'm sure we can all imagine a number of purchases best left unmentioned. As enforced sharing encroaches further into social networks, perhaps we would all need to be careful as to what we purchase where and how, to prevent unnecessary publication of our activities?

This, however, all comes down to a fundamental problem ingrained in the major social networks; that they all take a single view of you as a user, that all your social interactions are equally weighted and are intended for the same audience, i.e. everyone. This, of course, is not true and 4chan founder (here's a SFW wikipedia link for the un-initiated) Chris Poole sums it up as follows:

"Google and Facebook would have you believe that you're a mirror, but in fact, we're more like diamonds. The portrait of identity online is often painted in black and white, (that) who you are online is who you are offline. But human identity doesn't work like that online or offline. We present ourselves differently in different contexts, and that's key to our creativity and self-expression. It's not 'who you share with,' it's 'who you share as,'. Identity is prismatic."

This multi-faceted approach to online identity can only presently be expressed via the use of different social networks for different purposes. I personally have a Facebook account, a Twitter account and this blog and I tend to use them all for different purposes. This blog is a tool to express longer ideas that tend to be fairly serious and non-personal in nature; my Facebook account is the opposite, a personal feed of random thoughts (banal or otherwise), interactions with friends, invites to parties and so forth, largely not a place I'd feel the need to post up every interesting news article I read and the like; my Twitter account, which I link to this blog, tends to fit somewhere in the middle, intended to semi-serious but with a real-person approach, full of links to content I'd like others to see and fit for worldwide consumption. Of course, there tends to be a little bit of crossover now and then (I'll be posting this blog post everywhere for example) and I've no doubt that it's different for other people, this is just how it seemed to fit in best with me. I'm not picking my audience, I'm choosing how to express myself.

Think about your other online interactions and how they vary - would you want pictures of yourself drunk with friends posted to your professional LinkedIn profile? Probably not. Some fiends of mine are long-time members of a local car forum - would they want everything they post there posted on their Facebook profile as well? Again, unlikely (and would you want to read it if it was?). Of course, the internet is also popular for another, FAR more private purpose - you almost certainly wouldn't want to auto-share your more late-night browsing history or your participation in more adult-themed forums. Our online selves, just like our real selves, have many faces and, increasingly, Facebook, Google+ and the other major social networks don't see it like this.

Without the ability to share what you wish to share in the manner you'd prefer to share it, we are being increasingly forced into the network's view of a person - as a single piece of statisical data around which to sell analytics. In a way, this surprises me as one might think that understanding the way people actually want to share, rather than the way they are forced to would be far more valueable. This, however, likely comes at a cost they're not yet willing to invest in (and why would they? Business is booming!).

For at least the forseeable future, this flattened view of enforced sharing seems to be with us and I for one, where still possible, will be opting out.