Facebook is playing a dangerous game with sociological theory.
This was evidently what Mark Zuckerberg meant when he declared back in January that “the age of privacy is over.” Facebook anticipates that the default Internet interaction of the future will be social and traceable to identities, and is positioning itself at the head of this movement.
I’ll leave the hyperbolic claims that their activity amounts to “a deal with the devil” or “winning the Internet” to other (usually less hysterical) commentators. My take is that Facebook is trying to turn the Internet into a front stage, and it’s a pretty risky move to bet the pocketbook on being able to control or anticipate the consequences of such a major change.
While the Internet has always been a front stage in theory, most users haven’t treated it that way. To the extent that Internet behavior is anonymous (e.g., YouTube comments), it’s been a way to act publicly from offstage. Even when Internet behavior has been traceable to identity, it’s been a back stage in the sense that the major social audience (parents, employers, etc.) was unlikely to ever find out about it, especially if one was aware of the risk and taken steps to prevent the wrong public from finding out.
Social network sites, until now, have been one of those back stages—if not the back stage to the age demographics that made them famous: teens and young adults. To these groups, the definition of the situation is that they should be spaces with relaxed social norms and little pressure to conform to the behavioral demands of the more powerful (i.e., older adults). These users didn’t join Facebook to watch their language or repress the more controversial aspects of their lives.
As older adults have increasingly accounted for more and more of Facebook’s exponential growth, Facebook has increasingly become a front stage for its base of younger users. The new integrations, combined with the success of Facebook Connect, will likely start a stampede as nearly every website seeks to hitch a ride on Facebook’s influence for fear of missing out. For Facebook users, the spotlight of the front stage will increasingly shine on previously back stage and offstage spaces.
The dilemma for Facebook is that it has to choose whether it wants to be “the” front stage destination of the Internet, or “the” back stage destination. It can’t be both. If you’re performing for your boss, you can’t be performing for your friends.
Both are necessary. We need to perform publicly to succeed socially and financially, but we also need to form bonds by commiserating back stage with our inner circle. Facebook was initially a back stage and could’ve continued to be “the” back stage. But since it’s abandoned its previous privacy stance in the race to attract more users and believes it can’t go back now, the only way is forward, and encouraging the front stage is going to keep it rich for the next few years. But if it doesn’t compensate for the loss of the back stage space that fueled its rise, it’s going to be in trouble.
I don’t mean to suggest that Facebook will become irrelevant anytime soon. Far from it. But I think it will start to resemble a more successful LinkedIn—a place to perform on the front stage in front of parents, teachers, bosses, and acquaintances and make bland status updates about the weather. There’s no doubt that this front stage positioning will be lucrative for Facebook financially, at least in the short term.
But users will miss the privacy of the back stage, and unless Facebook overhauls its byzantine privacy options and/or builds in an easier way to safely post pictures of keg stands, it will leave itself vulnerable in the rear. A social network site will adopt Facebook’s old policy of making profiles visible only to friends or come up with an easier, quicker, safer way to disseminate information to back stage partners, and start capturing market share as Facebook interactions become increasingly artificial.
It will be interesting to see who exploits the vacuum left by the loss of a safe online back stage. Facebook could avert the above scenario by making changes in its platform to enable back stage interactions. MySpace could try to stop its free fall by making its profiles private by default and turning the MySpace-versus-Facebook narrative into a public-versus-private debate (though I doubt they’d risk alienating their remaining faithful users by going private). A middling startup with an embryonic base may find an appealing siren’s song to distinguish it from other middling startups to disgruntled Facebook users. But the winner will be the one who creates the best, safest way to post embarrassing pictures of your friends.