Social networking requirements

I knew that someone posted on this blog discussing what requirements a feminist-informed social network would have. Turns out it was me. A year on, and due to discussions around Google+, I think I have some positive requirements. (I recommend reading the old comments thread too.)

Control over identifying information. Name, gender, age, who you are friends with, what you talk about, what events you are in, and what you look like: this is all varyingly sensitive information and should be able to be hidden.

As few restrictions as possible on identity. Allowing use of pseudonyms, not assuming that everyone has two, or two ‘important’, names, free specification of gender if specified at all. As little structured compulsory information as possible. Unstructured, free-form, and non-compulsory are key things here.

Accessibility. State of the art accessibility design including testing with screen readers, colour palettes suited to as many variants of vision as possible, collaborative transcripting and captioning of images, no flashing ads or autoplaying video.

You own your space and control entry. This means you should be able to moderate things. Being able to ignore people is good but is not enough: you likely don’t want to subject your friends to the conversation of a person who you dislike enough to ignore.

Rigorous site-level attention to spam and harassment. No one (much) wants spam, enough said. But harassment—continued interactions or attempts to interact after being told to stop, including ban evasion—should be a terms of service level violation, as should any threats (whether or not the person has been told to stop). Use of threats or hate speech in user names and default icons or other things that appear in directory listings or search results may also need to be considered. This all requires staffing and a complaints system.

Consistent access control. If you set something private, or it was private by default at the time, it should stay that way, probably to the extent where if it can’t remain private for technical reasons, it should be deleted/hidden by the site rather than made public.

Access to your work and ability to export it. The correct thing to do here is a little tricky (are other people’s comments in your space yours to export and republish, or not? what about co-owned spaces?) The community has had some inconclusive discussions.

Fine-grained access control. I don’t think something along the lines of that which Livejournal and its forks have had for years and which Facebook and Google+ have implemented to varying degrees, is required (public blogs have a strong presence in activist discussions) but it’s useful for more universal participation. Some people need it.

Clear limits on sharing. This is something that Google+ early testers are coming up against again and again: ‘Limited’ posts are or were shareable, a commenter using someone’s name with the + sign (eg ‘+Mary’) does or did actually invite them into private comment threads without the original poster’s input. If you offer access control, the software must make it clear what controls apply to any space, and if you have influence over that or not, so that you can control your own revelations in that space. Substantial user testing to make sure that people understand what your interface is trying to say is required.

No advertising. I guess it might be possible to show people ads in a way that has neither the problem of offensive or upsetting ads (“lose weight for your wedding today!”) nor the problem of the advertisers doing dodgy malware ads to harvest your info or worse. Maybe.

What else? How do your favourite sites do on these?

30 thoughts on “Social networking requirements

  1. Meg

    I’m curious, without advertising are you envisioning a subscription model? That in turn would exclude those who have more time than money, or who don’t have access to online payments, and will probably make it hard to get such networks off the ground. Twitter is the only such network I know to have managed it, but only by getting venture capital with the promise of future advertising applications.

    Personally, I do believe advertising is possible in feminist spaces. In general spaces, I am generally content with non-aggressive, non-offensive text-only ads out of the way of my flow of reading. It eliminates the tendency to throw a naked women under whatever text is being used to sell a product.

    1. Mary Post author

      Dreamwidth also, which has a model of a higher tier of subscribing users who pay for the entire site. and LiveJournal do that in combination with advertising (part of the perks of the higher tier is not seeing ads). I’ve very occasionally also seen suggestions that non-profits and/or governments should enter the space. (Of course, governments are not benign entities, and non-profits don’t do things for free.)

      That said. I’m not even close to envisaging a business model for this (or being interested in developing it personally).

  2. Tony Mechelynck

    One more thing: i18n (i.e., internationalization). English is an extremely difficult language (at least if you want to achieve fluency in it); and so, BTW, is French, my native language. Even among people who are quite fluent in English, there are some who prefer to interact with their browser, or with their favourite sites, in a different language: see for instance Delphine Lebédel, a female, and, I think, feminist geek if there ever was one, oneof theleaders of WoMoz (Women at Mozilla), who gave quite an interesting speech in fluent English at FOSDEM this year, but whose blog, is “a French site”. I don’t mean that the site should be in English, French is OK by me, but I feel like the Internet has not yet found the right way to bridge language barriers, Google Translate notwithstanding.

    1. John

      The web already has a mechanism for this, the `Accept-Language‘ header in the http request, in which your browser tells the server your language preferences, and the server (if it uses this part of the protocol) will return the page in the first language (in your preference list) in which that page is available. You can set your list of languages from common browsers’ preferences dialogs, e.g. on Firefox it’s in Edit Preferences > Content > Languages. The server application can then use a localization framework to indicate which strings need translation; see for example I18n for WordPress Developers.

  3. Jon Niehof

    Funny how quickly Facebook loses! To “Consistent Access Control” I would add “Transparent” or “tin-compliant”–FB has a “my friends list is private” checkbox but when you go digging in the privacy policy, friends lists are public regardless. (That was the point where I left.)

  4. John

    One of the comments on Mary’s earlier post mentioned using a distributed system, and that reminded me of Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box proposal: a plugtop wireless networking device that should eventually include distributed social networking software. This may be an opportunity to get in early and influence the design! Part of the aim of the project is to support privacy.

  5. Jen

    I definitely think a requirement for a feminist social network would be that it is open to all, regardless of ability to pay.

    I think a model of payment by donation – i.e. optional payment, where folks are encouraged to pay if they can afford to, could work. The amount of money needed per donor should be quite small (I’m thinking of a not-for-profit service that just needs to have enough money coming in to pay for its servers, bandwidth, and perhaps a small number of paid employees.) Given the amount of money that was thrown at Diaspora, I think a lot of people would be willing to put a bit of money in if they believed in the project.

    1. Starwoman

      There’s also the “sponsorship” model. I subscribed to a newsletter some years ago that had three subscription rates: one for students/low income, one was the normal rate, and one was a higher, sponsorship rate that helped subsidize both the low income rate and a “pay what you can” option, so that everyone who needed the kind of information and support that the newsletter made available could get it. The rates were roughly 50%/100%/150%, and the subscription box explained that for every two people who paid the sponsorship rate, one person who needed it but couldn’t afford it could get it for free. For me at least, it contributed to a real sense of community, knowing that I personally was helping some other person get the newsletter, even though I didn’t know who it was.

  6. GG

    Changes in default user settings should not be applied to pre-existing accounts without account owner confirmation.

    Example: If the default setting for “Extremely personal pics that no-one else should ever be able to see” changes from “Fort Knox” to “Sold over and over again for pennies to porn advertisers, popping up all over the screen whenever anyone tries to access your profile, and automatically emailed to your stalkers”, this should not occur to existing users unless they specifically choose to align their account settings to the new default.

    Not only is changing user settings without consultation a betrayal of the people who provided the content which made the site worth visiting, but there’s no better way to generate massive, permanently recorded negative publicity for the site.

    I’d even suggest making available a date-sorted list of default account settings, so that people can choose to have older-style accounts and security/privacy settings if they want.

  7. Liza

    I think Dreamwidth does awesomely at all of these! (Why yes, I’m a Dreamwidth fan and volunteer. And user.)

  8. warped-ellipsis

    Google’s looking for feedback on all of this stuff (no I’m not affiliated with Google). How things work as of now:

    1. You have a high level of control on what gets seen by who, what’s public. You can even choose which friends–and which followers–are listed on your profile. However, if someone hasn’t listed you as “show this person”, they won’t show up in your profile. It’s kind of hard to explain; I think it’s that the other person’s privacy trumps your wanting to show them. The only public photo is your profile photo.

    2. I don’t think there’s any nyms available at the minute. That’s probably a technical headache to add, especially with it being tied to an email address; tying your nym to your main address rather defeats the point, because a search of that address would bring up the nym’d account. Perhaps the ability to create a bunch of nyms off of just one address would work, barred with a reCAPTCHA for each; people who do this would probably know how to run several addresses to one account anyhow, without revealing a connection between them if they wished. Hey, Google would get lots of people signing up for Gmail that way too, since it’s friendly for routing a lots of incoming addresses into one place. Score!

    3. I don’t know much about this, so I can’t comment, but I do think it should be there. I haven’t seen any Google ads outside of YouTube that use flash or autoplay video.

    4. The weakness here is that a blocked person can get into conversation where mutual friends are involved, and can still get on your public posts–at least as of now. Again, they’re taking feedback on this. I think a better way to do this would be to have not only “post to these people” as the circles work, but also “don’t post to these people”, like how searches work: [+”extended circles” -Snape -Malfoy]
    In that vein, I think it would be neat to be able to use circle terms like that to post to just one friend’s “extended circles” like you can on FB (post on a friend’s wall, only that friend and hir’s friends can see it): [+Luna +”extended circles]
    Of course, anything public would be public minus your blocked list.
    Abilities like that would enable planning for surprise parties, and obviously less trivial things. I don’t think it’s any different from keeping a group private, or having a private group message session. I may be overlooking some things there.

    5. No idea what’s they’re doing with that, but it ought to be there.

    6. Google seems aware of this; right now, if you try to share someone’s nonpublic post, it gives you a message about “be careful how you post this, it was originally a limited post!” (paraphrase). I think that’s their placeholder until they figure out how to go about the technical limitations of the OP’s granting sharing access. I think a good way of doing it would be to have a couple options; share with name; share anonymously; restrict it from going public; and on top of those, have the option of having your name attached to it or not.

    7. There is something called “Google Takeout”, where you can download all you account info. Not sure exactly what it does or how it works, especially regarding other users’ info as noted.

    8. Access control, as in who gets access to your stuff? I think that’s already there, because as long as you post nothing public [minus your profile photo, and even that can be left blank] then you can only let in people who you want. With the circles, you can also only share personal stuff with your most trusted friends, then tier it from there on. You can also post public stuff, even if you don’t want to let anyone else in. In that respect, it works like Twitter.

    9. Agreed. If they’re not in the original share space, then there should be some kind of mod message: “Person wishes to join this post; grant access?” I wonder if there’s a bug in there, for thread sharers to pull in people you’ve blocked.

    10. That I’ve seen so far, GP doesn’t have any ads in it. I don’t know if that’s only pre-launch, though. As for malware infections and third parties intercepting your data, Google is far more secure than FB is.

    Extra thoughts?

  9. jon

    Wow, was that really a year ago? How time flies when you’re having fun!

    Great list. It’s interesting reading it along with my answer to How would Quora be different if it prioritized diversity? (which also points to Dreamwidth as a model) … you bring up several things I had overlooked and I’ll update the answer at some point.

    Excellent point how far away Facebook is from this. Google+ may be somewhat closer — or not; their initial implementation flies in the face of the first two points.

    For advertising, what about a privacy-respecting advertising system that requires community approval of any ads (to avoid offensive or objectifying ads) and is opt-in for community members? The idea is that you don’t see ads unless you want to, and none of your personal information is shared unless you want it to be. There are some domains this could work really well in. Thoughts about that?

    Other business model possibilities include affiliate sales [again probably with some community oversight process] and sponsorships, content subscriptions, software sales if you create something like mobile app or WordPress plugin/theme, consulting … why yes, I have been thinking about this a lot :-)

  10. Ravan Asteris

    It seems from the attitudes over at Google+ that I will not be using their site. Why would I want to join yet another site that supports stalkers by requiring use of “real” (legal) names? All of the people that seem to be gung-ho for real names are male – I wonder why that is? Maybe because they don’t worry about stalking?

    I’ve used this same pseudonym since the 1980s, before the graphical web. I resent the living hell out of people who want me to throw it away and be stalkable. (Yes, I have had people try to stalk me, but who were thwarted by my pseudonym.)

    1. Mary Post author

      Hi, can you stick to one thread please (edit: I mean, for any one comment, not for your entire participation in this site)? Or, even better, provide a URL where you will blog incremental updates to G+ policy and practice. It’s a little noisy for you to pop in to share every time you either find more data or find a new discussion there.

      You are, otherwise, of course very welcome to continue commenting on our blog. Welcome!

      1. warped-ellipsis

        Will do; I’ll stick to this one for now since it’s got all the issues on it rather than just one. I don’t have a blog, and I wasn’t sure of the etiquette of similar discussions across different threads. Thanks for clearing that up :)

        Because Google is looking for feedback on these things, and it’s a running conversation at least until they’re out of beta, would there be a good way to keep this going, either here or somewhere else?

  11. Feathersmith

    It’s been a while since I looked deeply into what the folks at diaspora (free, open source social networking: are up to, but my general sense is that they have been building the project from the get-go with the intent of A LOT more privacy control than Facebook – and, I suspect, more than Google, too. You do not have to fill out your gender; if you want to provide the info, you have a blank box – you can type in whatever you want. You do not have to enter your birthdate, etc. The odds that they will be policing accounts to make sure people are using their “real” names seem unlikely, to say the least.

    Right now, it’s still in alpha, and unlike all other social networks, it is distributed across many servers (also by intent; eventually, it will be easy to host your own information on your own machine) so there is no one place to setup an account – both of which present barriers to entry to a lot of people right now. But anyway, I’m really looking forward to seeing it become more stable and accessible, because I think they have a better way of doing social networking right, in terms of actually letting people control their data, than any of the big corporations.

    1. Anastasia de Cleyre

      I’ve just left Diaspora entirely because of the inability block people. I was starting to face harassment already. I do prefer the way it handles gender, but without more control over who can and cannot comment on my posts, it definitely fails to meet my expectations from a social network.

      1. warped-ellipsis

        Actually, you can effectively block people on Diaspora, at least from your private posts. I did this by creating a new aspect, putting the people I wanted to get rid of into this new aspect, and then deleting that aspect. Got rid of them on my end of things, although unless they do the same to you they’ll still be sharing with you. End consequence is that you can keep them from getting on things you don’t share publicly.

        GP has this problem as well, that they allow people you block to still comment on things you post publicly, and you can still interact with your blocked people on mutual friends’ posts.

  12. Catherine

    Ravelry (a social networking site for knitters and crocheters) had advertising that, IMO, is normally inoffensive and sometimes even beneficial. (Sometimes I really do want to know that a product exists or where I can buy it.) Ads are fiber-related only, and I believe they are purchased and approved individually–more like placing an ad in a newspaper.

    1. quartzpebble

      Yes! Ravelry ads are pretty much the only ones I ever click on online. I think that because of the very targeted nature of the site, the ads can actually be extremely relevant to my interests without creepily following the rest of my browser history or assuming what I want based on the gender I had to provide to sign up. Many of them are links to Etsy stores, and I browse Etsy on my own anyway.

      I don’t see this model working on sites with a broader range of content or a broader range of advertisers.

  13. Skud

    Other features:

    * Ability to mask your content from search engines (Dreamwidth/LJ have this)

    * Ability to make your entire presence private/unfindable with a single action. Let’s say someone threatens to out me to my employer or something, based on my social network behaviour. I want to be able to make my stuff private quickly and effectively. DW/LJ have tools to let you turn all your posts private as a batch. DW/LJ *and* Facebook both have mechanisms to suspend or soft-delete your account and restore it later (Facebook calls it “deactivate”, DW/LJ delete the account but you can restore it if you change your mind within 30 days.)

    * Similarly, ability to lock down all your posts against comments with a single action. (DW/LJ is the only one I know that does this.)

    * The ability to moderate comments in your space both *pre-emptively* (by setting rules as to which comments require human approval) and *after the fact* (by allowing the deletion of comments or freezing of threads). LJ/DW and WordPress are both pretty good at this (though their models vary widely).

    1. Mary Post author

      DW (according to a recent news post there) is also planning to implement a separate “vacation” lock-down feature at some point, as in “you can’t see my journal right now, I’m on vacation”.

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