Recently I logged into Facebook and saw a notification on my news feed that someone who'd I'd met at Microsoft under professional circumstances had uploaded some pictures. I clicked on the link and saw what looked like a college prank. There was a picture of a person being led down a hall way while entirely nude by a member of the opposite sex while others watched nonchalantly. Another picture had multiple naked people of the same sex in the aforementioned hall way, one of them in a suggestive position. After those two pictures I'd seen enough and clicked away.

The problem here is the one I've blogged about previously in posts like Facebook's Achilles Heel: Handling Multiple Social Contexts and that Cory Doctorow recently wrote about in his article How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook. The person who uploaded the photos [who happens to be a college student] didn't consider that although the pictures may have been fine to share with college buddies, they probably aren't OK to share with people who you've only met in a professional context. Facebook's poor handling of multiple social contexts (professional acquaintances vs. college buddies) caused an embarrassing situation for both of us. Cory Doctorow's article tells of a similar story which is excerpted below

Here's one of boyd's examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn't like her boss doesn't really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it's perfectly valid to demand to be "friended" in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend's buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.

Thus I was quite pleased to look at the list of upcoming Facebook features and notice the following item which indicates that similar occurrences will be mitigated in the future.

Sort out your friends.

We’ll let you organize that long list of friends into groups so you can decide more specifically who sees what.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. Given that I have been disappointed by Facebook's recent attempts to fix flaws in their user experience such as the thumbs up, thumbs down in the News feed and Facebook Beacon 2.0, it isn't a given that the ability to Sort out your friends described above will reduce the number of awkward social situations that occur when one's different social contexts are forced to blend together due to the existence of a single, unified "friends" list.

Cory Doctorow seems to think it is inevitable that no one will get this right when he writes

It's not just Facebook and it's not just me. Every "social networking service" has had this problem and every user I've spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that's why these services are so volatile: why we're so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace's loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It's socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list -- but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who'll groan and wonder why we're dumb enough to think that we're pals).

That's why I don't worry about Facebook taking over the net. As more users flock to it, the chances that the person who precipitates your exodus will find you increases. Once that happens, poof, away you go -- and Facebook joins SixDegrees, Friendster and their pals on the scrapheap of net.history.

I agree with the sentiment but disagree with the conclusion that seems to imply that no one is going to figure out how to get this right. I suspect Facebook will give it a good shot because the future of the company will eventually depend on it as the site's users grows older and have a longer history with the service. In the real world, we often reboot our social networks by switching jobs, graduating from school, getting married, etc. Unfortunately, social networking sites don't really account for that which leads to the jumping around that Cory describes.

If Facebook doesn't want its users to start "graduating" to the next hot social networking site as some users are doing by "graduating" from MySpace to Facebook, then they will have to figure out how to deal with multiple social contexts and people's need to reboot their social network as they experience life changes.


Friday, November 30, 2007 4:36:29 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Great post. In my case, my most organized 'social graph' is in my Live Messenger. Friends, professional relationships, family all nicely organized. Now if Live Spaces would build out social network features along that graph, that would great.
That said, even then there can be a need for more dimensions. Think about family members under and above 18 (or whatever age typically applies in your culture).
I guess the respecting the categories one has in Live Messenger would be a great start. Beyond that people probably will need to use point to point messaging.
Friday, November 30, 2007 9:54:03 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It's too bad that pictures of naked people make you so uncomfortable. How long have you been using the internet?
Friday, November 30, 2007 11:34:33 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Now, if only Live Messenger would follow suit and offer a "Sort out your friends" option for Messenger, I would not need different ids for my different social groups (personal friends, family, work, work related friends, etc.). But, I think you already have that on your wish list.
Saturday, December 1, 2007 1:45:19 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
My "number of days until Dare quits Facebook" clock is still running.

And time is on my side.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 6:33:45 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Naked pictures on facebook? Isnt that illegal? :S
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