New Networks Target Discomfort With Facebook

The Facebook homepage is seen on a computer screen.

Even though Facebook remains wildly popular, a number of startup social networks are trying to woo people with the promise of better privacy controls. Nicholas Kamm/AFP hide caption

itoggle caption Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Right now, more than any other company, Facebook defines social networking. It has more than half a billion users and it's still growing. Recently, it even eclipsed that other hot Silicon Valley giant, Google, to become the most visited site on the Web.

It's hard to argue with that kind of success. But Finn Brunton, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University specializing in digital technology, has a different perspective.

"Because Facebook is not smarter than all the rest of the programmers in the entire world. Somebody is going to come up with a workaround, or some kind of social structure is going to emerge that is going to need a new kind of system," Brunton says."But it's just a question of when and what form it's going to take."

As Facebook grows, so does the number of disgruntled users. Howard Rheingold, a visiting professor who teaches a social-media class at Stanford University, said he's noticed growing discomfort among his students.

"When the first class began to not get into their graduate school or not get jobs because of their drunken Facebook pictures, people began to change their norms," Rheingold says.

Changing Students' Perspectives

Rheingold's social-media class did an exercise that changed the way many of his students interact with Facebook.

Each student projected their profile on a screen with everything but their name or picture. Everyone had to guess whose profile was on display. Estela Marie Go, an undergraduate student in the class, says she suddenly realized that she didn't like the way Facebook forced her to define herself with a list of interests.

"They encourage you to basically just have these little headlines," she says. Go says that seemed pretty shallow to her.

"I guess I want people to ask me more questions — not to just assume 'Oh, she likes The Office so maybe she's this type,' " she says. "It wasn't holistic of who I am."

After the exercise, Go erased most of her Facebook page. She says everyone else in her class had a similar reaction. Many have other complaints, too.

Stephanie Parker, another Stanford student, doesn't like that Facebook defaults to sharing everything with everyone. She said her mom doesn't need to know about last night's dorm party.

"Relatives or colleagues would be confused or ask questions about things that I'm posting, just because they don't see that side of me in real life, and I have to explain it or defend it in some cases," Parker says.

Another student in the social-media class, Shuqiao Song, says she's getting nervous about how much information Facebook has about her.

"Everything is up there, right? You could look through an archive of all of my messages, all of my status updates," she says. "Like every interaction I've had on Facebook."

Staying Vigilant

Estela Marie Go is almost paranoid about her Facebook page. She checks the wall 10 times a day to see what other people have written on it in case she needs to erase someone's posting.

"The wall in a way is controlled by other people. You don't have full control of it," she says. "And so, if they write something that's not representative of yourself, I guess, people could read it in the time that you didn't check it."

So far, these fears don't appear to be cutting into Facebook's growth. One out of 4 page views online is on Facebook. Organized protest campaigns haven't enticed many people to shut down their accounts.

But NYU's Brunton says social networks are in their early days.

"I suspect that Facebook is definitely not the last form of social network that we see," he says. "And in many ways we're going to look back at it as being the most primitive."

Brunton says a lot of startups are trying to solve the problems that Facebook creates or fails to address.

"And the things that are going to come next, the things that are going to evolve out of this are not just going to be much better at privacy and much better at data management," he says. "They're also going to be much better at allowing people to accurately represent the complexity of their lives and of their relationships."

Brunton says Facebook's software is just too simple for many people. He believes the next social networks will be more nuanced.

He says there are a lot of startups nipping at Facebook's heels. One of them — Pip.io — is in downtown San Francisco. The company consists of just two guys working in a big empty loft. It's a familiar story. Facebook was also founded by two college students in a dorm room.

An Emphasis On Privacy

Pip.io co-founder Leo Shimizu says his site lets users post real-time public updates to friends and strangers, but it also has very tight privacy controls.

"So, if Facebook is about replicating your real-world social graph and connecting you to people, what we're about is replicating your real-world privacy graph," Shimizu says.

Pip.io has what Shimizu calls channels. Users can set up completely closed groups for sharing postings, photos or videos that your mom doesn't have to see.

"My mom would be considered a trusted source, but she may not necessarily need to get the posts about me going out Friday night," Shimizu says.

He would like Pip.io to be the next Facebook in terms of growth, but he's got a lot of competitors — not to mention Facebook itself, which keeps adding functions like groups and e-mail.

Though many people may have problems with Facebook, it isn't that easy to leave.

Stanford student Go, who is also editor of the university's yearbook, says she needs to use Facebook because everyone has an account.

"And it's so easy to just send out messages for information that I need," she says. But Go says she would certainly be open to trying a service that was a better reflection of her real-world relationships.

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