Blogger: Bob Blakley
Imagine you’re a divorced mother of two small children with an ex-husband with whom you share joint custody of those children. On one of your custodial days, you drop the kids off at daycare and go to work. At lunchtime you drive back to the daycare center to have lunch with the kids. As you drive up, you notice your children playing in the street in front of the center. After collecting the children and breathing for a few minutes into a paper bag, you go into the center and ask some questions. You learn that that your ex-husband came into the center, picked up the children, and (apparently) left them to play in the middle of the street.
You are, of course, not happy with your ex. But you are also not happy with the daycare center, and it’s worth spending a moment to talk about why. When you enrolled your children in the daycare center, you informed them of your custody agreement. You also discussed with them the rules - including the rule that, except in emergencies in which the custodial parent was unreachable, only the custodial parent could pick the children up. Since it was your custodial day (you had of course informed the center of your custody schedules well in advance), the center should not have allowed your husband to take the children out of the center. They violated their agreement to respect the rules of your relationship with your ex-husband. You’ll probably withdraw your children from this daycare center, because they’ve demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to live up to their obligations to respect your relationship rules (of course, your ex-husband’s custody will probably be revoked for letting the kids play in the street, so the relationship rules may be less of an issue...)
OK, now let’s get back to being geeks. Why are we talking about this scenario? We’re talking about it because it illustrates perfectly why “opening the social graph” is a bad idea - bad for individuals and bad for social networking sites.
Last week, Robert Scoble’s Facebook account was suspended, reportedly because he was running a Plaxo script which exported his contact information from Facebook via the Facebook API.
Michael Arrington notes that Plaxo’s script was deliberabtely circumventing Facebook’s terms and conditions, which forbid exporting the email addresses of your contacts from Facebook.
Mathew Ingram thinks this is fine because Scoble’s contact information belongs to Scoble. He’s wrong.
Ed Felten correctly notes that it’s not about ownership, and he explains somewhat less clearly that what it’s really about is relationships.
So let’s examine the matter. When you accepted Scoble’s friend request in Facebook, you did it in the context both of a relationship with Scoble and in the context of the rules of a particular social environment (Facebook).
Even the fact of your relationship with Scoble is not Scoble’s property, it is common property, like the kids in a joint custody arrangement. Both you and Scoble are obligated by the laws of relation here and here to treat the fact that you have a relationship, and also the details of the relationship, according to certain understandings and social conventions. If you don’t believe this, meditate on whether you think it would be OK for adultfriendfinder.com, match.com, and linkedin to share friend lists. The information Scoble tried to take out of Facebook is NOT Scoble’s property; it is relationship information. Scoble is not free to do whatever he pleases with relationship information; if he violates social understandings and conventions by disclosing the existence of or certain information about his relationship with you in the wrong context, he may embarrass or endanger you, and he will certainly endanger the relationship.
If Facebook does not live up to its obligations to prevent exfiltration of your data into the public, it will cease to be a social environment and become merely another public space on the public internet - like USENET with a prettier interface.
My Burton Group colleague Mike Neuenschwander is fond of saying that our generation is using computer geeks - the least social people on the planet - to design social systems. This is the kind of thing he’s talking about.
Opening the social graph will destroy social networks, and turn them into sterile public spaces in which formation of meaningful and intimate relationships is not possible. Opening the social graph is a bad idea. Relationship information is not the property of individuals - it held in joint custody among all parties in a relationship, and it cannot be used or disclosed in violation of the rules under which it was brought into the relationship - or else the relationship will die and the individuals in it will be harmed. If you don’t understand this, or come to understand it, you will never have any real relationships, and neither will the software you write.