This evening via the Irish Times we learn that

“Representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are to be invited to appear before an Oireachtas committee investigating abuses of social media.”

This appears to be digging into the questions of anonymity and abuse online. The problem here is that the wrong questions are being asked. There are a series of excellent posts that deal with the questions of anonymity online. And there is no need to repeat those argument. There is this from researcher Danah Boyd on how Real Names policies are an abuse of power.  There is also her Communications of the ACM Paper on the topic here. And more specifically Daragh O’Brien wrote a detailed piece specifically in an Irish context  Call the Tweet Police.

Then on the 10th of this month Hugh Linehan of the Irish Times wrote an excellent piece on The Big Issues Lost Online Among the Twitterphobia. In it he writes

Because very big questions do confront us. The digital communications revolution poses real and serious challenges to many traditional concepts that underpin our civic society and to long-cherished rights to privacy, personal integrity and protection of the young. It places huge power in the hands of a small number of corporations whose business models are based upon “monetising” you by exploiting your personal data.

There are very big questions that confront us in relation to social media. There is the question of the status of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube as the Communications Utilities of the 21st Century. 

Chris Leyton writing in The Next Web describes what happens when Facebook disabled his account.  He discovered the hard way that he needed Facebook more that he thought. From the inconvenience of

Netflix, Spotify, Foursquare and a whole plethora of other apps and services that I use with Facebook authentication are now off limits to me.

To the real problem of

Losing my archive of memories, my messages, my photos, my groups, my Pages, my Events, anything I actually RELY on Facebook for though is infuriating. There’s no way to get this information out of Facebook once your account has been disabled, it’s all ‘gone’.

And why did he lose his account. Facebook told him that

Upon investigation, we have determined that you are ineligible to use Facebook. Unfortunately, for safety and security reasons, we cannot provide additional information as to why your account was disabled. This decision is final.

In a rather Kafkaesque nightmare not only can he not use Facebook, he cannot be told what his crime is, and he –  under Facebooks terms and conditions – can never become a member of Facebook again.

Chris is using the UK Freedom of Information legislation in an attempt to find out the reasons he was banned and to see if there is any way to appeal the decision.

Pause and think about that for a minute. Imagine if one day your mobile phone ceased to work. When you contacted the phone company you were told that your account had been disabled, all your messages your voicemails, your contacts and your number were gone. No they couldn’t tell you why you had been disconnected. Oh and you could never get another phone number ever again.

Facebook has grown to over a billion members. Over 50% of adults in Ireland, the UK and the US use it every week.  And it is a completely private network with some very restrictive terms and conditions. Facebook is a walled garden on the Web. Despite their various appearances of permeability Google and Twitter are also walled gardens. And much has been written about the dangers of walled gardens to the fabric of the Internet.

There are also significant social questions about these systems. What happens if you are locked out of the garden?  In Wired magazine Mat Honan told the horrifying story of his online life disappearing before him through a series of hacks last year. There are echoes with Chris Leytons story of the consequences of being locked out of your online life.

The hoary old Spiderman quote says that “with great power comes great responsibility“. Collectively through our actions we have given great power to companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter. We need to talk about the responsibilities that we want to place on these companies. And it goes far beyond any discussion of anonymity and incivility online.

Some politicians appear to get it. Ciaran Cannon writing in The Journal 

added that all politicians who “value genuine freedom of expression” should resist calls for regulation of social media and should instead engage with it to communicate directly with the people who elected them. 

This is ultimately a question of power. Cannon recognised it

 he also says that in some cases the fear of social media arises from “transfer of communicative power from the few to the many” because of the advent of social media sites.

“There are some in the political sphere, both practitioners and media commentators, who are distinctly uncomfortable with this recent transfer of power,” he writes.

“They are losing control of the “message” and feel challenged, now that the power to communicate with many is no longer the preserve of the few.

And Danah Boyd in her analysis on Real Names and Anonymity recognised it

The “real names” debate goes beyond identification technologies and economic interests. Regardless of the business implications, the issue about whether or not to  mandate “real names” is fundamentally one of power and control. To what degree  do designers want to hold power over their users vs. empower them to develop social norms? To what degree do companies want to maintain control over their  systems vs. enable users to have control over their self-presentation and actions?

These are wicked problems and

These are complex socio-technical questions with no clear technical or policy  solution. Furthermore, even though design plays a significant role in shaping how people engage with new technologies, it is the interplay between a system and its users that determines how it will play out in the wild.

Ultimately

As with all complex systems, control is not in the hands of any individual actor – designer, user, engineer, or policy maker – but rather the product of the socio-technical ecosystem. Those who lack control within this ecosystem resist attempts by others to assert control. Thus, finding a stabilized solution requires engaging with the ecosystem as a whole.

It would be great to see some mature policy discussion surrounding the role of social media. It doesn’t look or feel that way though.