Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Facing the future Facebook style

Screenshot of Facebook
Facebook has become so influential it is bound to create headlines
Regular commentator Bill Thompson ruminates on the inevitability of Facebook being in the news in 2008

The coming year is not going to be a comfortable one for Facebook.

It might just manage to avoid upsetting its users with new services such as Beacon, the misjudged advertising feature that told your friends about your purchases.

It might spot fake profiles of famous people, like the two Bilawal Bhutto entries that fooled both Facebook and some newspapers, and remove them before they get noticed.

And it could even avoid falling victim to one of the frauds that are likely to be perpetrated against users of all social network sites.

But even if Facebook is lucky it will still get a lot of coverage.

Because during 2007 it became the social site of choice for journalists, politicians, bloggers and others who see MySpace as for the kids and LinkedIn as too business-oriented for friends.

Face off with blogger

Bill Thompson
The spat has helped highlight the issue of data ownership and data portability, and may even lead to more careful consideration of who can do what with the information found around the internet.
Bill Thompson
That means it will be the focus of attention in any story about the impact and evolution of online activity simply because it is the site that MPs and columnists know about.

It also means that when Facebook is directly involved in a story then it will be bigger than it may otherwise have been.

We saw this recently in the fuss over the site's treatment of Robert Scoble, one of the more significant technology bloggers and a former Microsoft employee and evangelist.

Scoble, who has complained that Facebook limits him to 'only' 5,000 online friends, used a program to read each name, e-mail address and date of birth and import them into another social service, Plaxo Pulse.

When you sign up for Facebook "you agree not to use the Service or the Site to harvest or collect e-mail addresses or other contact information of other users from the Service or the Site by electronic or other means for the purposes of sending unsolicited emails or other unsolicited communications".

Since Scoble was using an automated script to harvest addresses he was clearly breaking this condition, so Facebook suspended his account just as it would for any other user.

Data issues

However Scoble is an A-list blogger so when he wrote about his suspension it generated a storm of comment.

At first people were broadly on his side, criticising Facebook for acting as if it owned his network of contacts.

Others then weighed in, pointing out that the birth dates and e-mail addresses Scoble had taken didn't belong to him but to his Facebook friends, many of whom might not want to be imported into Plaxo without their consent.

Company and blogger have now made up, with Scoble having achieved his goal of enhancing his notoriety and outsider status by standing up for users right to have access to 'their' data - even when that data is personal information about other people.

And Facebook has backed away from another PR embarrassment, although not without some loss of face since it is unlikely that an unknown accountant from Basingstoke would have been allowed to return after such an egregious breach of the site's rules.

Blurring boundaries

The spat has helped highlight the issue of data ownership and data portability, and may even lead to more careful consideration of who can do what with the information found around the internet.

But it also shows how important Facebook has become as the focal point for any discussion of this type. It is our lightning conductor for many of the issues which are emerging as important in the new, online world, and that will ensure that it will be dragged into stories to make a point, even when it is not directly involved.

Of course the chances are that the site will also merit some coverage because of the way it grows.

In his list of technology predictions for 2008 noted computer scientist Ed Felten includes 'a Facebook application will cause a big privacy to-do', and he's not alone in this belief.

One reason for this is that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg comes from the generation that grew up with the network in their lives, for whom the boundaries between offline and online relationships have always been indeterminate and to some extent irrelevant.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, part of a new generation of networkers

Zuckerberg's instincts are those of the children who flock to MySpace, Bebo and YouTube, not those of the older users who are now using the tools his company has developed.

This culture clash is an interesting reversal of the old order, in which teenagers would grow into a world defined by their parents and have to learn how to assert their own desires and demands.

Adults going online for the first time are entering a world that has been shaped by the interests, desires and concerns of the younger generation, a world that does not operate according to the rules they have followed in real life.

It is hardly surprising that there are differences of opinion, or that the practices of the various social sites sometimes cause concern for parents, politicians or teachers.

It will be interesting to see whether some compromise can be achieved in the coming months and years, or whether the rapid rate of network development means that even Mark Zuckerberg will end the year complaining that the youngsters are just not behaving responsibly online.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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