Facebook, Quora, context and the value of my opinions

Experts are valuable. Anyone can have an opinion and you can find instructions for doing a great many things online (including brain surgery, I'm told) but while I'm a maker, a crafter and a DIY fan, I also believe that it's not just that experts can do it faster - they can often do it better.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Experts are valuable. Anyone can have an opinion and you can find instructions for doing a great many things online (including brain surgery, I'm told) but while I'm a maker, a crafter and a DIY fan, I also believe that it's not just that experts can do it faster - they can often do it better. And while my political philosophy is somewhere between naïve and complicated, even communism says 'from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs'. If you have something valuable to say, you should get some value out of taking the time and effort to say it well.

So I've been reading the various discussions of whether Facebook Sponsored Stories is just Beacon all over again and whether Quora is doing it right with interest. My Quora experience so far (one of the most egregious flamefests of privileged comment and derailing on the topic of sexism in technology that I've enjoyed in many years) leaves me strongly of the opinion that it's just like any other site; it's hard to hear the experts over the people who just have an opinion and that can make it hard to keep the interest of the experts.

The difference between sponsored stories and Beacon is that Beacon took what I did on another site and told my friends about it; sponsored stories take the comments I make to my friends about brands and share them with the wider world. Is taking something that I agreed to share in one context and amplifying it to a wider group of people a breach of privacy? Or is it just the price we pay for using free services like Facebook?

I've seen plenty of comments that if you post information on a social network that letting the social network use it for profiling and monetisation is only fair, because the site has to make money - and users are expected to know that. If you don't want your information shared, don't publish it; if you don't want your phone number handed over to app, don't put it online; if you can't stand the shark teeth, stay out of the water. And aren't sponsored stories just like choosing to wear a T shirt with the logo of your favourite brand or band?

First question: do users know that? Did they read the licence agreement and catch the announcement and appreciate what it would mean? Industry commentators know the site needs to make money; the site knows the site needs to make money. but - without intending any insult - do the users consider 'the site needs to make money and is not necessarily my friend' every time they post something?

I think many people view services like Facebook as somehow free with their bandwidth costs or at most covered by the ads that are already there; reviewers on Amazon don't necessarily think about how they're providing free content in exchange for public reputation, answer people on Quora may or may not realise they're trading expertise for public reputation. Some Quora users certainly realise because they complain when they feel they're not getting the reputation they deserve, so they must feel their contribution is valuable enough to be rewarded.

When the site is free, the users are what's for sale, as many commentators have pithily put it. Data - or metadata - contributed by users was a key part of Tim O'Reilly's original definition of Web 2.0, and it's the basis of a lot of business models. I think of it as going from 'if you build it, they will come' to 'if they come, you can sell their eyeballs to advertisers' - and with sponsored stories, 'then you can sell them T shirts with marketing slogans on'.

But when we're on Facebook telling our friends how dreadful the latte from Caffe Nero in Barnes is and how we wish Barnes had either a public restroom or a Starbucks or better yet an independent coffee shop that's as good as Valentina in Putney, I think the average user doesn't do the cost benefit analysis on Facebook being free, the users being the product and copying their legitimate sentiment being really' just amplification'.

I think they post to their friends and then feel taken advantage of - because amplifying my message beyond the people I addressed it to does change it. That's why a UK sports presenter has just been fired for off-camera sexist remarks; because his private remark to one group became something else when everyone else found out about it. The group I choose to address is more than the passive recipient of the message; it's the context. If I choose to wear a T shirt that advertises Monteiths (a fine Kiwi brewery that I'm happy to tell my friends and indeed the world about), I know where people can see me wearing it; it's in the pub I like in Putney, not on the advertising poster for Monteiths or the front page of their Web site. I can make choices like not wearing it to places I think aren't appropriate, not wearing it when I'm meeting people who might not want to know about my drinking habits - or not wearing it when I'm meeting someone Australian.

I've seen friends on Facebook being uncomfortable when their name has appeared on a news Web site as having 'liked' a story - even though only their Facebook friends who could already see that 'like' on their update stream would see the name on the public site. At least last time I checked - staying on top of what information trickles out of Facebook is a full-time job, and I see too many people confused about it to agree that everyone on Facebook knows what information they're disclosing and to whom.

A comment on my recent lament for Microsoft's proposed Hailstorm service made an interesting point about how busy we all are (or how busy we feel, anyway - too busy to read terms and conditions on free sites) and how exposing too much information makes you more liable to identity theft. A couple of years ago, banks were considering supplementing the usual security questions about your mother's maiden name and your first school with ones asking what you'd bought recently. If most of that information is on my social network profile - or showing up as an ad on my friend's profile - it's not much use as a secret question.

Mary Branscombe

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