When cultures collide: LiveJournal, Facebook and the privacy chasm

Frank on Facebook

Frank the LJ Goat, selling out.

So.  A few days ago, the blogging site LiveJournal announced a shiny new feature: the ability to cross-post journal entries and comments directly to Twitter and Facebook.   From the tone of the post, LJ staff were clearly expecting to be showered with gratitude.

For those of you who squander spend time on those other social networks, we’ve just made it easier to stay in touch with your grandparents, forgotten acquaintances, and former bosses on Facebook and Twitter without having to leave the comfort of your LiveJournal home.

At the time of writing, there were 142 pages of comments to this News Update (over 10,000 comments) pretty much unanimously condemning this move.   The Twitter part hasn’t disturbed the users, but the Facebook part has completely exploded in LJ’s corporate, er, face.

The main complaint? Cross-posting creates a huge privacy glitch.  Someone who had Facebook Connect enabled could apparently cross-post a comment to their Facebook, even when commenting on someone else’s locked-down journal.  True, Facebook friends wouldn’t be able to see the whole locked journal entry, but they could read the comment title and then poke around.

The thing is, that while Facebook has persuaded most users to adopt real-life identities, Livejournal is very different.   The vast majority of LJ users have usernames, not real names.   It’s very common to have pictorial avatars and icons, rather than a personal photograph.  Many LJ bloggers lock all or some of their entries, in order to emote more precisely about all manner of subjects from My Chemical Romance to how much grief they are  getting from their distant relatives, their boss and their Facebook friends.

Cleolinda Jones, who maintains a popular blog on LJ, has researched the effect of the cross-posting, and yes, it’s a privacy black hole.  Not because it reveals you immediately, but because anyone with a little talent at triangulation could begin to identify the Facebooker’s LJ friend.

Livejournal, like Bebo, Myspace and other journal-style sites, is losing out to Facebook and Facebook-like practices. It’s not trendy, if it ever was, and a search for stories about this particular user backlash gets one hit on Google News.  (In contrast, the story about World of Warcraft’s attempt to get users to adopt real-life names gets 13.5 million hits and a story in The Economist).

What is particularly telling is that while LJ alerted its users 5 days ago, there has been virtually no management comment, other than a short update to the original news item.

Update: Thank you for taking the time to offer your honest feedback. We understand and appreciate your desire for privacy. We share your concerns. Most of us would not want to publish our LiveJournal usernames or FO (friends-only) comments to Facebook or Twitter either (to the extent we even use them). Please give us a little time to address your concerns. We are listening, and we’ll do our best to respond.

What, said the commenters, is the point of launching a feature which you already know your users will hate? Unless it’s a done deal…

Commenters are beginning to move from earnest argument to vitriol and cat macros.

It’s been five days, now. Five days. Fucking irresponsible. Disgusting. Lazy. Careless. Idiot. Fatcat. Bastards.

One of the interesting things about the user feedback is not only the emphatic rejection of moves which would threaten privacy (and we’re talking about a service that users may pay for) but also the visceral dislike and mistrust of Facebook  culture. Facebook is indeed for the public face – but many users want to keep an alternative service like LiveJournal that preserves an odd semi-public, semi-private internet space. Even if such spaces are going the way of the chatroom.

I’m personally sad about the move.  I’ve been on LJ since 2004, happily yakking about books, film and TV to an assorted collection of geek friends.   I am still hoping that the wilder elements will be thrown out (like the persistent tick-boxes under comments that invite you to cross-post to Facebook and Twitter, which still show up, albeit in grayed-out form, even when Facebook Connect is switched off).

If Facebook is the office, Twitter is the cocktail bar and Livejournal is the cosy pub where you talk to old friends about inconsequential stuff and deep feelings.   I’m fearful of anything which continues to roll out Facebook’s monolithic approach to internet culture: there’s enough of it already. Plenty of room for something different; but I’m not sure the site owners see it that way.


Backstage peformances


Backstage by DanielaNob on flickr

I’ve been re-reading Erving Goffman, who wrote a seminal wee book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which Goffman wrote about our daily life as a series of performances – and indeed, a constant shifting between formal performances on the big stage, and informal ‘backstage’ chitchat.

I’ve been working on a social media project for the last few weeks, and one thing that strikes me is the loss of backstage in internet-mediated conversation.    It used to be that you had a bad day and you moaned about it to your sympathetic friends over a pint.  Job done, and no (particular) danger that your friends will tell all their other friends.

It’s getting complicated now.  Whether you lead an online life in public, or pseudonymously, or buried under 130 Facebook privacy settings, your online buddies can often check out what you said unguardedly 6 months ago.   I think we’re aware of this, that there is a large audience who may read our artless thoughts on Lady Gaga or Seth Godin and who may not always approve of our critical stance. ^^

Beyond the response of our known online audience, there is the business of large-scale analysing, scraping, searching, mining, and aggregating.     I link to your post (moaning about your unreconstructed opinions), you read your pingbacks and come over to complain.   Perhaps Seth Godin and Lady Gaga get bored one day and hunt down our complaining reviews, and set their internet pack-dogs free.   Someone finds our angry, stupid comment and complains to the police.   Maybe our social network helpfully allows our text to be searched and aggregated, so that the world can know  what we think of our boss.

We know this, I think.   Perhaps we learn it painfully.  We take care of our public performances, even when they look private.  We might look like we’re merely chatting idly to the make-up artist, but we’re also keeping one eye on the mirror.

Our unvarnished opinions aren’t even backstage.  They’re in the interstices, the cloakrooms, the whispered conversations.    And if you’re analysing free-flowing conversation openly available on the internet, you’re looking at a hell of a lot of minor performances.

Wisdom of Mobs: the feedback loop

It’s that eerily calm pause between Christmas and New Year frenzy.  There’s a number of half-formed posts in my head, but we’ll go with a swirling scarcely-formed one about crowds, audiences and mobs. Desirable audiences and undesirable ones.

Thought one: the way that the internet has caused unknown mass audiences to become active participants.  I’m thinking of the people who complained to the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir’s piece on Stephen Gately; and on a lighter note, the people persuaded to download Rage Against the Machine in preference to this year’s reality TV winner.  The public are kicking back, in ways never seen before.   We have become a fine bunch of complainers, in particular.   We’re able to express ourselves easily now, in ways that used to be difficult.

Thought two: TV’s nervous courting of fans while striving to maintain distance and control.   Russell T. Davies’ famous characterisation of diehard Doctor Who fans as ‘ming-mongs’.   On a fresher note, the BBC Three series Being Human has dished up lots of interesting extras for fans of the show; still, if you apply for tickets to a preview screening, the BBC asks you for your age and gender so that it can, errr, shape the studio audience appropriately.  As you move to tick the box for your age, you think: am I the fan this show is actually looking for? Would I be better off presenting as male and twenty-something?

Thought three: danah boyd’s unpleasant experience of presenting against an increasingly hostile Twitter backstream. danah boyd is a greatly-respected internet researcher with a private dread of speaking in public.   She gave her presentation against a large-screen backdrop of live Twitter updates, which the Twittering audience then used to criticise her.  Up front and behind her back, all at the same time.

The internet allows us to feed back our enjoyment, our heartfelt disapproval and even our bitchy private comments. But on the other side, what do we (as receivers of the feedback) do with it?  Is all of it The Truth ™? Do we throw it out because the feedback is not representative (they’re not Daily Mail readers, they’re not true fans)?  Do we congratulate ourselves on the upswing in page views?

The thing about feedback of this kind is that it’s really not a conversation.  It can be a tennis match, or out-and-out war, but there’s typically little conversation.   The danah boyd example shows what happens when feedback is so close and unregulated that it changes the very nature of the act.

Thought four: One of the oddest reactions to the danah boyd was that ‘Live Tweeting is the way of the future, she’d better just get used to it.’   Really?  Really?

I don’t think we yet know what feedback means, or what to do with it.

Early days in online communities: access and social presence

The community staircase

The community staircase

This is a model of research community socialisation that I developed in a white paper for Virtual Surveys a couple of years ago.   I was inspired by two sources: first, the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model of focus group dynamics that all qualitative researchers have drilled into them; and a similar five-step model developed by Gilly Salmon to account for online socialisation in online learning environments.

Most of the chat about community moderation skills focuses on the higher level issues of discussion and debate.   What I wanted to stress in this model was the importance of the two bottom steps, access (getting in) and social presence  (establishing your voice).

Access is probably the most-neglected element of all.  We might invite people.  We might screen them to find certain characteristics.  Whatever we do, participants do not arrive at an online discussion relaxed, chipper and ready to go.   Like the focus group attendee who’s late for a group, they’ve just been on a journey.  It probably involved an invitation and a link; then it may have involved some registration and some screening; then it may have required that they set up a profile.

If we are lucky, then the journey to community entry will have been smooth and enjoyable, like arriving on a clean train at a nice, well organised conference.  If we are unlucky, the whole experience will have been the satanic lovechild of Facebook, MySpace, and the worst online survey you’ve ever taken; and you arrive, bedraggled, twitchy and suspicious, in the online community space.

So, my first memo to community developers: please please put the same amount of effort in designing the entry journey (invitation and screening) as you do into the rest of the community. It will pay off in happy, soothed participants who are reasonably confident that they know who you are and what they’re doing.

Memo number 2 to developers is to think about your conversation feedback loops.   Assuming that your participants won’t be camped on the site 24/7, how are you going to tell them about new content, and how are they going to find out about answers to their own comments?   Emailed comment notification is usually a good idea; if you don’t use this, you need ways of being very sure that participants will visit and revisit regularly.

The last part of access is welcome.   Once you’ve made it in, it’s nice to get a friendly message with a bit of orientation thrown in, maybe a first task.  It makes you feel wanted and valued.

NB Apparently minor things in this journey can be quite important.   If you give no clues at all about the choice of a screen name (and there is another conversation to be had about that in the first place), do not come crying to me later about Bigbottom29’s sense of being bullied.  Think about your audience and their likely online experience.  The under 20s may crop and upload user images at the drop of a hat;  the inexperienced participant in your over-50s life insurance community may panic and flail. Give them some pre-prepared options they can choose from.

The second stage in community development is establishing social presence. For me, a true sense of social presence iss essential for proper discussion to take place.  This rather fluffy phrase means that participants can easily get a sense of what the community itself is like, what other participants are like, and equally are able to communicate themselves reasonably fully within the online setting.

In a community of passion – let’s say a Dr Who community – this will be done at a personal level through username, avatar/signature and point of view.

In a research community, the initial site content that a new recruit finds will be extremely important in helping them develop an understanding of what the community is all about.    How do new recruits create their own presence?  Usernames, avatars and profiles can all be helpful,  but I firmly believe you need to structure the initial online discussions carefully so that you and your participants can get a full sense of each other right from the start.

A good, simple way of doing this is to have a nicely-designed  Introduce Yourself thread.   Model the introduction carefully (model model model I would say) and (1) you’ll get some lovely data right there  (2) the participants will feel a little bit loved and valued and (3) the participants will start to come to life.  (Is this just me?  There is often a golden moment in an online discussion where you truly begin to understand who the other person is.  It usually comes out of authentic exchange, and it’s really what I’m trying to spark in those initial conversations).

What do I mean by model?  Usually there is some important story or introductory background that your participants want to get off their chests.  Let’s say you’re an online retailer.  You’re mostly interested in response to a new design concept; you’re tempted to rush on to that and make early introductions minimal.   If you leave intros entirely up to participants (perhaps in the interests of saving pixels) they will default to name, age, job that’s all 4 now luv u byeee!!!

You will have saved pixels and a bit of effort from the moderator, but your community will have a rather limited sense of itself;  having started out with brief comments and no strokes/feedback, they may never wind up to giving you more heartfelt or difficult comments on the design.   You didn’t appear to care about them, so why bother?   Good introductory experiences pay back tenfold, just as they do in a focus group.

A better self-introduction task would be to ask the participant to introduce themself and say a bit about the last item of clothing they bought, and their personal fashion philosophy.    If the moderator models this by talking about him/herself, or giving a full example, the participant immediately sees what you mean and has a go.    The participant has now contributed fully; add in a couple of replies from the moderator or another participant with similar tastes, and you are on the way to creating a community that will eventually talk without you. The trick is to pick something that is relevant to you and interesting for participants to do; and in the analysis you will probably come back to this thread more than any other.

Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I’m sure.

One final comment on the model: each step has participant views and moderator views.  The moderator just as much as the participant has to create a sense of genuine personality and social presence in the content that they write, the questions that they ask and the replies that they make.   Personally, I like moderators to be able to establish authentic contact, and that may mean disclosing more about themselves verbally than they would do in a face-to-face setting.

Still relevant? Do I need to tweak this now?  What else do you think needs to be in place during the first stages of community formation?

Adding beauty to market research

go on, do something different!

I’ve been reading various posts about market research and social media, which tend to focus on the usual self-hating stuff about the market research industry’s vulnerability.  I agree, pretty much:  some of the space that research took up is now being eaten away by other specialisms (data mining,  search engine optimisation, and web analytics), while the rest of what’s rightfully ours is taken by DIY tools such as SurveyMonkey.  (Can QualMonkey be far behind?)

Personally, I would argue that MR agencies have neglected to develop certain 21st-century skills in-house.   Market researchers tend to focus on data collection and analysis technology like Confirmit or SPSS  (if you’re lucky).

Things market researchers don’t bother with:  design.  Graphic design, web design, information design, whatever.   Design is right down at the bottom of the pile.   You buy it in, or you manage without it.

Researchers writing presentations huff over the latest critique of death-by-Powerpoint and insert a couple more company-approved clipart images into the 80-page deck.    Somewhere, a designer is weeping.

So.  If it were up to me,  I would not only run shedloads of training on statistics and experimental design, but I’d include these:

  • Essentials of graphic design
  • Digital photography
  • Photoshop
  • Using stock image libraries
  • Web design and an introduction to CSS

And if I were running a big research agency, I’d invest in some graphic designers and programmers to create some nifty and beautiful interfaces for running surveys and online communities.

Why shouldn’t people expect loveliness in a survey?

What skills would you like to see?

Understanding online cultures: Motrin moms and international online motherhood

As a Brit, I hadn’t come across the controversy about the Motrin Moms TV advertising, although I’ve seen it referenced in lots of social media blogs.

I’m confused at some of the coverage which seems to focus on the corporate response rather than the terrifying lack of imagination involved in creating the advertising itself.

i just did a little homework, looking at the advertising, the initial response and some of the follow-up and I have to hope that if I had been anywhere near Motrin and their advertisers, I would have pointed out that they were inadvertently creating all the conditions for a Perfect Storm:

1. Talk about baby slings irreverently

I can’t believe they went there.  The Continuum Concept – it’s not just a book, it is practically a religion.   You would not believe the number of fervent baby-sling makers out there.   They are young, they use organic cotton, they are online and they are, well, a bit militant.

2. Use hipster talk and graphics to try to address a young, net-literate audience

The advertisers might not have intended to target online types with a heavy Twitter habit, but the style certainly looks as though it’s trying to engage their ironic geek attention.

3. Fundamentally, be in the business of flogging painkillers to the masses

If there is one thing that committed baby-sling wearers hate more than disposable nappies and powdered formula, it is Big Pharma.     You spend your entire pregnancy attempting to be as organic as possible, eschewing all painkillers as potential toxins;  and you carry that mindset right through the early breastfeeding days.   Taking a painkiller for your backache?  Are you serious?!!!  You might as well drink neat gin and be done with it.

Anyway.  Selling drugs to desperately health-conscious internet-savvy corporate-suspicious slightly-militant new mothers =starting from a bad place.

I don’t know about the general attitude to painkillers in the US, I have no idea about Motrin’s brand image, and there are aspects of the culture that I no doubt miss, but…I’ve been an online mum.    Still am, obviously, but rather past the baby stage.    I can sketch out the online mum subcultures of the UK and USA in a giant geek map if required to do so.    I can’t think of a mum subculture where this approach would have resonated.

I’ve seen commenters say (in comments) that as there were only 1,000 complaints on Twitter and Twitter mums were not the target audience, the company shouldn’t have worried.  I think they’re dead wrong about that, in this case.

Here’s where it gets difficult: online firestorms do not always match genuine outrage in the community of relevance.  Sometimes it can be a very bad guide to popular response.  In this case, I think it’s simple:  the attempt to engage through advertising backfired badly.     It could have resonated, I suppose, with the baby-sling sceptics, but the tone was off, and in any case the core proposition (sort out your baby-sling backache by necking pills) clangs horribly any way you try to deconstruct it.

Social media helps critics and sceptics to argue back with big corporations, and to mobilise support from their networks.  As well as sales figures and bland market research presentations, you get the direct, irritated voice of the complainer.  That’s not something everyone is ready for.   How to distinguish genuine complaint from issue-annexing?   Know your audience, both on- and off-line.

ETA One  thing that does bother me:  place-of-response bias.  Did the Twitter complaints get executives’ attention precisely because it took place on Twitter (nicely searchable and beloved geek-den) rather than deep in the comments on the message boards of parenting sites?

Are we allowed to talk about downloading?

A few months ago I ran some groups with the usual warm-up of discussing mobile and internet use.  The one difference between this and normal practice was that for this project, we rang up the attendees a few days before the groups and had a short conversation with them.

The intention was merely to check that the attendees were using the specific services we were researching, but it had some interesting effects in the subsequent sessions.

In the focus group, we started off with a nice conversation about Internet habits.   I gradually began to notice that people I’d interviewed earlier weren’t sharing parts of their internet use.    That woman wasn’t talking about her Ebay addiction.  That young man wasn’t talking about his use of dating sites.  As we got on to talking about music and film, one man leaned forward, threw a quick glance at the client who was sitting in, and said, ‘Are we allowed to talk about downloading?’

It was an interesting one.   The observers, I think, thought he was referring to iTunes or the BBC iplayer or Channel 4 on demand.   From the conversation we’d already had on the phone, I knew he was talking about torrenting and Limewire.   Our focus in the research was rather different, so we had a brief  and somewhat coded chat about music downloading and then moved on.

Talking about internet habits in a focus group poses some interesting challenges.  Most people use the internet – YouTube apart – when they’re by themselves.  Ask about internet habits these days and you may be prying into some very private territory indeed.   And that’s well before we get onto s*x.

What are the reasons for not sharing habits in a group?

Websurfing is solitary and private Sharing one’s favourite sites may be like sharing favourite books or TV programmes.   The amount of time spent checking celebrity gossip sites may not be something that the respondent wants to share.

Respondents fear being judged for their interests Both the Ebayer and the internet dater didn’t want to talk about these specifics.     Things might have been very different if the group were composed of like-minded people, but it wasn’t.   These people stayed quiet.  They joined in the discussion of Facebook, because Facebook was something that everyone could share, but they didn’t want to discuss some of the sites that actually meant a great deal to them.   The internet dater was a big user of gay dating sites like Gaydar: talking about that site to a mostly straight group would be a step too far.

Some habits are grey in terms of their legality An in-depth discussion of someone’s torrenting habits may be possible one-to-one, but in a viewing studio with cameras, microphone and three people behind a mirror taking notes, it’s easy to decide not to mention it.

Researchers aren’t aware of what’s out there The researcher who has only ever used Facebook or perhaps read the occasional technology blog does not have a good feel for the myriad of ways in which people connect online.    While some researcher naivety can be helpful, lack of awareness can mean that certain questions never get asked.

Clients may be even less aware (and in any case, are tightly focused on their own organisation’s interests) The typical research client is heavily overworked and either has little time for personal exploration of say, social media, or is in the wrong demographic for it to be second nature.    There are some very web-savvy exceptions, of course.

Research (especially market research) is heavily normative Market research tends to be commissioned by rich white business people who want to sell things to a relatively quiescent audience.   People working in large companies would probably agree that internet privacy is really only a concern for people who have something to hide.

I would argue that the effect of all these forces is to downplay the discussion of messy or problematic habits, especially in group discussions.   The problem then is that the research user ends up with, at times, a heavily edited and skewed version of reality, which may leave out some important yet uncomfortable truths.

The practical implications of the shadow web is that researchers should be aware of group pressures when talking about internet habits, and should, where possible, be digital natives themselves.

Researchers also need to use mixed methods.  Telephone interviews and web-enabled interviews can be far more revealing than a one-and-a-half hour focus group, for some subjects.  Message boards may encourage quiet people to speak their minds.

Researcher openness also helps.  Although it may go against the grain, it can be very helpful to share some of one’s own messy habits.    It sets the right kind of non-judgemental atmosphere.  Once the group knows about your addiction to websites about Jennifer Aniston, they may relax and become more open.

The research client may secretly pity you, but that’s how it goes.