On Web Site Power/Governance (Tools Of Access And Tools Of Service)

Today I wanted to discuss the matter of site governance – who makes the decisions about what happens with a Web site.

I would, first, like to prove the relevancy of this topic by laying the framework for such an argument. It goes without saying that technology is a tool; like most tools it is neither inherently bad nor inherently good, it’s what is done with the tool that creates the result.

In online communication (social networking), our tool is actually in two or more different forms. On one side are the tools of access, these being the phones, computers, or other electronics devices which allow us access the Internet. On the other side is the tools of service, this being the Web site which is performing the duty you are requesting of it. Notice how, in this model, the creator (the user of the tool) does not have direct access to the tool that he or she is using – they are using a tool of access to get to it. Thus there is no real ownership of the tool of service, only the tool of access.

There is an interesting paradox that then arises in this: the tool of service holds all of the important data we wish to manipulate; however we only really own the tool of access. Thus we enter into a realm where our information and our tools are to be dictated by whomever owns the Web site – which is not necessarily us. It is then we arrive at the question of who really should have control over the decisions made in regard the to Web site.

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On the Security, Privacy, and Ownership of Personal Information/Data

In the age of online communication, there is a vast amount of personal information/data that is shared. Much of this takes the form of photos, blogs, videos, and even the connections we make (our friends list). To begin, I’d like to look at the sole purpose of our placing this sort of personal information on the Internet: to share it with the people in our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong here, in fact I would argue this to be a good thing. The problem arrises in the handling of this personal data by the Web site which acts as the vehicle to share it.

To explain, let me provide a different real life model of this. Suppose you have a photo album of pictures from your wedding that you want to share with your best friend across the country. One of your co-workers happens to be making the trip cross-country and offers to transport those photos to your friend. Your co-worker (the vehicle of transportation) is like the Web site hosting your data. Almost daily, you upload your personal data from your own personal computer to a Web site like this, placing a great deal of trust that the Web site rightfully handles your personal data. Thus your personal data goes from a secure environment of which you control, to an environment of which you have little control.

From the perspective of the Web site acting as the vehicle to allow you to share your data, they have an advantage in making you feel confident in the security of your personal data so that you feel confident in using their site. However, there is also a conflicting advantage in making that data public, which is that it will drive more traffic to the Web site. Often there is a sort of mixing of the two, where your personal data is only available to the members of the site. But there is still a question of who really has control of your personal data once it has left your personal computer. Upon digging deep down, many sites will try to suggest that anything you upload to their site will become their possession.

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On Social Responsibility

As I have grown to understand just how prominent social networking (and the like) is in our society today, I have begun to question the responsibility of such power. It is one thing to simply serve your users yet it is a completely different, and far more significant, thing to empower those same users to actively participate in their society.

It would not be farfetched to say that most people check social networking sites several times a week, if not far more frequently. Our fondness of these sites allows them to sit comfortably along such other things in our life as cars, TVs, telephones, etc. which we greatly rely on. Yet we ask nothing of these sites – just that they don’t make the site too difficult for us to use.

Perhaps it was never the intention of these social networking sites to serve society, just the lack of communal conversation, a gap which has surely grown since its invention, that exists in society. Whatever the reason behind such oversight, it is clear that there is some real value missing here. A technology that was design to improve communication has, in reality, made us less able to communicate – at least in a real world setting. (I will expand this idea in the future.)

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