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Facebook's Mobile Home Ignores Context

The ubiquity of Facebook's "home" feature may draw attention to itself when it's most disruptive and least appropriate

Irina Raicu

By trying to be ubiquitous, always on and always on you, Facebook may alienate even its most dedicated users.

In April 2013, with great fanfare, Facebook unveiled its latest feature—a super-app for mobile devices, called "Home." If installed and kept always on (as it is clearly intended to be), Home prioritizes online social interactions above everything else. With Home, texts and images from your "friends" pop up directly onto your lock screen and home screen, and continue to surface on top of whatever else you're doing (searching, reading, watching). As Mark Zuckerberg and others involved in its design described it, the intent of Home is to "put people first"—ahead of apps.

Of course, Facebook has always been about people. What it has done best, and still does well, is allow people to connect and communicate easily. Phones, of course, also used to be about people—about verbally communicating with people, usually one on one. Then apps (including Facebook) came to phones, and changed them. Even Facebook's most hard-core devotees, however, used to choose when and where they accessed the platform--the time and circumstances in which they would dip into the stream of photos, status updates, messages, likes, and "Sponsored Stories." Home takes away that choice.

By attempting to be ubiquitous, always on and always on you, Facebook is likely to draw most attention to itself when it's most disruptive and least appropriate: during those times when you wouldn't have chosen to access it. When you pull out your phone to show your boss a picture of your kid, do you want to see a friend's message about a massive hangover? When you get on your phone to download directions to a hospital, do you want to see a picture of Grumpy Cat? When you check your bank balance or your health records, do you really want anything to pop up on top? When you need to make a call at a funeral, to find out why someone is delayed, do you want to be presented with all the "lightweight" announcements waiting for you to review them (let alone the ads that are bound to come), making you doubly aware of what's trivial and what's really important?

Once again, Facebook ignores the importance of context.

In an influential article called "A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online" (an article that has persuaded regulators, among others), philosopher Helen Nissenbaum argues that "we must articulate a backdrop of context-specific substantive norms" for our online interactions. We need a set of norms, she argues, because there is no unitary online experience: "[o]nline activity is deeply integrated into social life in general and is radically heterogeneous in ways that reflect the heterogeny of offline experience." The Net, she says "is not a single social realm, but the totality of experience conducted" through it.

If our online activities are now conducted increasingly through smartphones, will we really choose to perform all of them in a one-room mobile "Home" with all of our "friends" constantly popping over our shoulder? Over and over again, Nissenbaum insists that we need to be mindful of context. Home isn't.

Of course, as many commentators have pointed out, Home may not be intended for just any mobile phone user. Writing in Wired, Mat Honan noted that "[f]or many people, Facebook is the Internet, just as AOL was before it. And just as Facebook is the best way for them to experience the Internet in a browser, Facebook Home is going to be the best way for those people to experience the Internet on a phone." Other journalists have argued that Home is targeted primarily at teenagers—the people most eager for frequent "lightweight" social interactions.

Still, even Facebook addicts, even teenagers, have multifaceted lives and live in a multiplicity of contexts. Facebook may include lots of stuff besides cheerful status updates and vacation pictures, but—by design—it is not as heterogeneous as the Internet, let alone as the offline world. Turning a mobile phone primarily into a Facebook conduit is likely to draw heightened attention to everything that Facebook is not.

Irina Raicu is the Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2013

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