The politics of chat and the dangers of the ‘Walled Garden’

We don’t talk the way we used to – not even online. The conversations we have through platforms like the Facebook wall are becoming less of an exchange and more the rehearsal of a person’s idealized self-image, chirping sweet, self-affirming nothings atop their personal soapbox.

Internet-based communication systems have been available to the public for over 20 years now, and a comparison of this new walled garden approach of Facebook and Twitter with traditional real-time chat such as the old Internet Relay Chat reveals some of the potential social effects of the different platforms.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC)

IRC was the most popular form of the internet ‘chat rooms’ of the 80s and 90s. A chat room or channel had a name, an owner and hierarchy of operators – people with power to set topics, moderate conversation and kick people out of that channel. A typical IRC user frequented three or four channels at a time, with a different power structure in each – the owner of channel #newzealand might be an operator in #nzchat and a standard user in #funfactory. Messages are sent to a channel or to an individual in ‘private chat.’ Everything sent to a channel is seen by everyone in that channel.

How Facebook Timeline does it

By contrast, the visibility of posts on Facebook Timeline are much more obscure. We each see the activity of our friends, but it’s much harder to determine common ground. My wife and I share about one-third of our friends in common, so you’d expect us to see about one-third of the same posts, but it gets even more complicated. Some Facebook users share up to 100x the average amount of information, and Facebook itself uses a complicated formula called ‘EdgeRank’ to figure out whose posts to show you and whose to hide. The result is not only a bubble of false consensus from the opinions of your friends, but an unpredictable one based on who you’ve recently interacted with and the current implementation of EdgeRank.

But what does that do?

IRC gives a clearer context to all of the conversations a user engages in. Users in a quiet channel are able to see that it’s quiet for everyone, and might complain about being bored to strike up a conversation. A busy channel is visibly busy – it’s possible to get a sense of how taxed another user’s attention is. Users augment their nicknames to reflect their status on a moment-to-moment basis: <Brandy_away>, <Giuseppe`Dinner> etc. On Facebook it’s impossible to anticipate the amount of information that another user has in front of her, so it’s impossible to know how engaged she can afford to be in conversation.

On your permanent record

Confusingly, although the Facebook lacks a single, authoritative record of a conversation, it does keep a permanent record of everyone’s actions. IRC had no such official record. Individual users could save chat logs for posterity, but these were subjective, covering only the duration of that user’s involvement in the channel. This gave everyone the benefit of a selective memory – something that we’ve lost in deference to The World According To Facebook.

The presence of a permanent, undisputed record is also wreaking havoc on what people say. The reality of these new networks is that a stranger, an employer or a government might have access to what you say even years after the fact.

What does that do?

With these features in mind, IRC is a platform where any enduring record is limited to direct participants in that conversation, the list of those participants is made explicit and there’s a visible hierarchy of moderators who can be reasoned with. Contrast that to Facebook – essentially a system where 1. you know that what you say is going to be recorded for all time and 2. you can’t be sure who is paying attention to it right now. I think it’s clear that the latter is going to encourage a more guarded, superficial form of dialog that is more a form of self-promotion than a conversation.

Final thoughts

Facebook does do something extremely well – it’s a great replacement for the vanity websites that allow users to curate their public persona. That’s a legitimate function and the site supports it brilliantly. But it doesn’t support contextual debate, and it doesn’t support free-flowing conversation. That wouldn’t be so bad except that modern social networks have displaced other platforms like IRC. It’s clear that technical choices that go into building a platform change the kind of conversation that takes place on it. I’ll admit that this fills me with a bit of nostalgia for IRC and other platforms whose times have passed, but it also makes me realize that despite the apparent stability of the walled garden, there’s still plenty of room for experimentation.