Archive for August, 2010

Strategies for Facebook Friends

August 30, 2010 6 comments

People have different strategies for which Facebook friend requests to accept. Some people consider themselves “public figures” and accept all friend requests. For example, I believe Larry Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and Howard Rheingold fall into this category.  Other people, like my grad students, keep their group of Facebook friends relatively small. Some admit to saying yes to friend requests from people they don’t know well, but then a few times a year going through their friends list and unfriending everyone they don’t know well. (The unfriended person probably won’t even notice.)

My own strategy has shifted over time. I have generally tried sending unfamiliar people a message that says:

Hi!  Thanks for the add! Sorry to be forgetful, but can you remind me how we know eachother?

Most of the time, those messages aren’t answered and I ignore the request a few days later. Sometimes the reply will be, “I just admire your work,” “we were at summer camp together in 1979,” or (my favorite) “I hired you for some consulting work ten years ago.”  That last one was real, and makes me hesitate to say no to these things!

Another common case is someone who  appears to be a legitimate researcher in my field who I don’t know well. I vaguely recognize the name, their profile seems to have a legit institutional affiliation.  Case in point, some time ago Sheila Cotten added me as a friend on Facebook. I didn’t know Sheila, but she seemed really to be a sociologist, who was friends with lots of sociologists I know. I said yes. I saw a bit of her on Facebook. A few weeks ago, the annual sociology meeting was held in Atlanta, and I went. Sheila was there, and she immediately mentioned Facebook when we met in person.  I heard three for four talks by Sheila and her students, and they were so cool!  And they are only a 90-minute drive away in Birmingham.   I’m going to invite them to come give a talk some time. This is the positive side of being relatively open to new Facebook friends.

But the negative side of being open is growing. Lots of people just say yes to all friend requests (which is a legitimate strategy), so sometimes lately I’ve looked at a request,  seen that the person is friends with 13 people in my field I know, and said yes. And it’s turned out to be a fake.  It just happens that lots of my colleagues just say yes to all requests. I wasn’t sure why a fakester would want to friend me. Identity theft is always a risk, though I keep personal info like my birthday hidden on Facebook. Beyond that, I’ve seen two Facebook friend scams recently. One was someone who added me and later started posting porn to her profile. The second was scarier. I got an email from an old MIT acquaintance who I’ll call John Random, from an address like The mail said he was stranded in London with no money or credit cards because his wallet was taken–could I please help?  As you might guess, John is my real friend but his real email address is The gmail with the abbreviated last name was available, and scammers claimed it. The scammers friended John on Facebook and sent mail to all of his Facebook friends from a real-seeming variation on his email address.

Over the last week, I’ve gotten six creepy friend requests. They’re all from people who claim they went to Harvard, but I don’t recognize their names. They’re all friends with the cartoon character Alfred E. Neumann. And most of them have their relationship status as “widowed.” They have different variations on things they share in common with me–some college, some college and year, some also city of birth. If this is from a researcher trying to see what criteria make people more likely to accept a fake friend request, your IRB will be getting an angry letter when I find you. This is invasive and creepy and not OK.  More likely, it’s a scammer planning to john.rdm me in the future.

All of this leads me to ask an obvious question: why am I on Facebook again? What value does it have for me? The most immediate answer is that I genuinely enjoy keeping up with former students. I know that Andrea Forte is doing well in Philadelphia. I know that Rodney Walker still is watching football and golf, and I can chat about them with him. Those things are important to me, and a bunch of comments from people I hardly know get in the way.

Bottom line: I’ve had it. If I don’t recognize you and can’t immediately see that you’re someone in my field, the answer is no. I need to change my strategy and make Facebook friends be more like real friends.

Categories: Facebook, social computing

Internet Public Shaming

August 10, 2010 3 comments

I laughed at this when I saw it: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office (33 Photos).” In it, you’ll see a woman holding a small dry erase board with messages. She quits her job, and describes what a loser her boss “Spencer” is. Among other things, she accidentally overheard him calling her a “HOPA” (hot piece of a**). This is her revenge. Since Spencer installed monitoring software on everyone’s computers to see if they’re wasting time (and she as his assistant has the passwords), she outed him for being on non-work related sites a lot –including being on Farmville 19.7 hours a week.

My first reaction was amusement. She seems pretty cool. A bit like Heather Armstrong of Dooce–everyone’s hip friend with attitude. Then I thought, wait, I bet Spencer just has Farmville running in the background–he can’t be playing that many hours a week. And why is his bad breath really relevant here? And isn’t this all horribly mean? OK, he sounds like an annoying boss. Maybe even a chauvinist pig. But is public shaming the right answer?

Of course my next thought was, I wonder if this is real or just performance art. But either way, it’s part of a disturbing trend–the self righteous using the Internet to do more harm than good while “righting wrongs.” Clay Shirky wrote about this in his book “Here Comes Everybody.” And as he points out, the phenomenon of using the Internet for public shaming is particularly intense in Asian countries, where the “human flesh search engine” can track people down and ruin their lives. OK, the girl on the subway in Korea should have cleaned up after her dog–no question about it. But did she deserve to be turned into a pariah? Wikipedia tracks similar incidents in its article on Internet vigilantism.

The good news is, this medium gives formerly dis-empowered people a voice. Instead of just quitting and slinking off, White-Board Girl has a recourse. Instead of just getting angry as you slip in dog poo on the subway car, you can collaborate to identify the inconsiderate dog owner. But the problem is that the response is out of proportion to the crime, especially when you consider that the Internet is a largely archival medium. (An old cliché says taking information off of the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool.) So Puppy Poo Girl and Spencer will have their judgment lapses follow them potentially indefinetely. And that seems a bit too much–approaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet A or Neal Stephenson’s tattoos that say “poor impulse control.”


WhiteBoard Girl (or “Jenny DryErase”) is indeed a hoax. Which is fortunate for the Spencers of the world, real or imagined!

Electronics as Fashion–The Anti-Gizmo Fetish

August 7, 2010 11 comments

I regret to admit that I may suffer from an anti-gizmo fetish. Am I alone?

Since I teach in the school of Interactive Computing, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of my colleagues like getting new computers and electronics. Several pre-ordered iPads, and tweeted about opening the box, and their first impressions of the device. More than one colleague and friend has mentioned that they enjoy going out with their iPad and having people notice it and ask about it. In the row behind me on my flight yesterday, I overhead a conversation begin, “Is that an iPad? Mine just came! I haven’t opened the box yet.” Its features were discussed in great detail over most of the midwest and into the southeast.

This isn’t a post about iPads–it’s about the latest and greatest device, whatever that happens to be at the moment. For most people, having your device noticed is a pleasure. I guess I can speculate on how they feel, but I’m wondering: am I the only one who feels the opposite? When I imagine someone in a café noticing my iPad (or similar), I’m filled with a squirmy sensation I can only describe as embarrassment. I’m not sure if I need a “third device,” but I know if I get one I may wait until it’s commonplace.

I’m not a shy person. I’m more likely than average to strike up a conversation with the supermarket checkout clerk, the person next to me on the shuttle bus, or the other parent on the park bench. But the idea of those people saying “Oooh, is that a cell phone (remember when they were a status symbol?)/iphone/ipad/etc” is completely unappealing.

The topic of whether any particular device is actually useful or pleasing is a separate issue. I’m talking here about electronics as a fashion statement–an expression of personal identity. And for portable electronics, that statement is increasingly visible and public. Having a blu-ray player (when they were new) or a 3D TV (more recently) is one sort of fashion statement, but you need to mention it or have friends over for anyone to know. Having a portable device you use in public takes electronics-as-fashion to a new level. You really do “wear” it.

I don’t like being noticed for expensive clothes or shoes either. Is the issue the same? You can notice my jewelery, but only if it’s arty jewelry made from relatively inexpensive materials–I don’t want emeralds thank you very much. It’s not a lack of interest in fashion–it’s just a different sensibility for fashion.

Do you also have an anti-gizmo fashion sense? Leave me a comment!

In the comments, Kurt Luther asks–is this just about money? Could an inexpensive but new/useful device cause the same kind of phenomenon? I do think a big part of this is about money. But with a night to think about it, maybe it’s also about a kind of “techno-positivism”: the belief that new gadgets make the world better. I very definitely do NOT think that new gadgets necessarily make the world better. In fact, I’m pretty sure they sometimes make it worse. As I wrote in an old essay called “Christmas Unplugged” (written 12/25/92, published 12/94), I worry that being connected all the time is unhealthy. I think the new “wearable computing” conveys both money and techno-positivism, and neither is a message I want to send.

Categories: identity, mobile computing
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