The problem of visibility controls in new media
With the rising popularity of new media such as Facebook and Twitter, companies have started using it as an extension of their customer service experience, responding directly to customer queries and complaints.
But often these aren’t in response to direct communication, but the result of the company earwigging in on conversations and comments people are making on their feeds. This unnerves some, seeing it as an invasion of their privacy, while others seem to dismiss their fears – they made the information public in the first place so should not be surprised when companies read it.
To me this highlights a complex and unsolved problem that we are currently facing with new media.
There are two factors to be considered: visibility and intent.
Visibility determines who can view your content. Different services provide different granularity; Facebook allows you to specify individual groups or people who can view each individual piece of content, while Twitter only provides the choice between visible by all and visible by a list of vetted followers.
Facebook is geared towards managing a complex social network of friends, sharing different sorts of media such as text, photos and video as well as experiences through their app framework. The fine granularity of the visibility controls is necessary to manage the complex friendships people build. The view of Facebook as a place to spend hours at a time means that the overhead of managing such granularity is subsumed by the time creating and consuming content.
Twitter has less of an emphasis on mutual friendships and complex social networks, instead focusing on a simple asynchronous model of followers. Twitter’s positioning as a service that you can update on the go, combined with its purposeful simplicity means more fine grained visibility controls would complicate the tweeting process.
Intent is the intended audience of content. A particular piece of content may be intended for everyone to view, or for only a specific group of people. The span of potential intended audiences is vast. You may intend for a comment about a surprise birthday event to be visible by everyone you know but the birthday boy/girl. A particularly rude joke may be perfectly fine for your friends, but you’d rather people at your work not see it.
These examples of intended audiences are catered for, with differing effectiveness, by visibility/privacy controls such as Facebook’s. There are, however, intended audiences that the current model of visibility controls cannot, and possibly will never be able to capture. Take, for example, the intended audience of most people’s tweets – people who are interested.
It is impossible to know ahead of time who will be interested in me as a tweeter, but if someone is interested I want them to be able to see my timeline. It is impossible to capture this intent with even the fine grain controls of Facebook, let alone Twitter’s. It can be approximated by making my tweets private and being liberal with who I allow to follow me, but this not only introduces overhead on my part, but also prevents people who are not already aware of me discovering the sorts of things I tweet and deciding if they are interested.
There is a gap between the models of visibility that can be expressed and the model of visibility that needs to be expressed to reach the intended audience. How we solve this problem, I don’t know, but we cannot simply disregard people’s feeling of their privacy being invaded simply because the current tools do not let them adequately express their intent.