‘Friends’… your new enemies

or how ‘closed’ may become the new ‘open’… * (see note at end of article)

I have a friend, who up until recently, was quite a good friend, but then something strange happened. His dark, mischievous sense of humor, which had always been one of the qualities that made him unique and often terribly funny, suddenly discovered a vehicle that offered him something akin to supernatural powers. Like the power to transform himself into anyone he wished, or to be multiple people at the same time. The power to gain the confidence and trust of strangers by morphing into the identity of their trusted friends. On top of this, he had the power to anonymously wreak social havoc, distress and disorder, only to then be able to disappear like a thief in the night.

How did he obtain these supernatural powers? He signed up with Facebook, and slowly but surely became a Facebook “Troll”. Unfortunately, he is not alone. There are many individuals that exploit the unintended gaps within the fabric of sites like Facebook to impersonate and humiliate people that they don’t know.

One alarming aspect of this phenomenon is that these people are able to conduct this activity only by making quasi-partners of legitimate web-sites and services like Facebook and GMail, which is often used to generate fake email addresses to qualify for additional user accounts on social networking sites.

So, with human nature being what it is, one thing that we can depend on is that the trend will continue and there is very little that can be done about it. This then leads to the conclusion that in many ways the web has reached a point akin to what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’… meaning that the common area that became popular has now become too popular. So popular that in fact many of the benefits have been spoiled.

Its clear that many people will regret profoundly, releasing their private pictures and personal details innocently on the web, because once released, often they may never be able to be completely retrieved.

Which brings me to the idea of ‘open’ vs ‘closed’… Is it just me, or does the idea of a closed personal network to exchange information with friends seem so much more appealing than an open one?

I think there is a huge area of opportunity here, to appeal to ‘non-consumers’ of open-networks. These would be networks that people used to conduct genuine conversations with real friends from the real world. They would not necessarily be exclusive of strangers, but rather protective of relationships. New acquaintances could be invited in based on genuine qualification, again, in the real world.

My guess is that this period in the first decade of the 21st Century will be characterized by recollections of how so many people got burned by being ‘too open’.

(NOTE: This article is not intended to be a critique on the principles of ‘open-cooperation’ which are to be lauded as forward-thinking and appropriate for internet communities. The intention of the article is to focus on some of the negative externalities of ‘centralized’ social networks like Facebook and MySpace)

Related External Links:

Original Story, with updated related events: http://www.edgepolitics.com/?p=16
Detailed Account of updated events: http://alwayson.goingon.com/permalink/post/34778

8 Comments ‘Friends’… your new enemies

  1. Michel Bauwens

    In my opinion, there are two kinds of dangers to the kind of openness you deplore.

    – one is the trolling you deplore, but in an open network, trolls chiefly harm themselves by self-exclusion from the community, at least the ones with healthy norms and a culture of caring

    – the other is abuse of open information by employers and other not used to open networks, but it may very well be that this kind of attitude, may actually disappear as the new generations take over …

    A third factor is simple literacy, knowing what to post where, which comes through experience.

    And as for closed networks, they exist, I’ve been invited to a few, and all of them have been less useful than the open ones in my experience.

    At the p2pfoundation, we have a mixture of fully open networks, and rather frequently, invitation only email discussions where people add on the people they feel should be participating … The latter is not meant as an exclusionary policy, but also because not everybody is happy with getting all the discussions …

    In the two years of practice, so far no trolling has occured at all, and civility has been maintained. Is that just luck, or the effect of our community norms?

    Knock on wood …


  2. Simon Edhouse


    Its the effect of community norms I suspect. – I think the kind of problems I was referring to would tend to occur more in these mega-networks like Facebook. So, its a ‘scale’ thing I suspect. However, by the same token it is therefore a very big and real problem. Identity theft is a serious issue and even a small number of cases can do a lot of damage and have a big influence on public perceptions. – As regards Facebook again, one only has to read the story of what happened to Graham Cluley of Sophos, to appreciate the potential impact of this kind of behavior in a public forum.



  3. Jon Lebkowsky

    I think there we can learn to better deal with trolls and preserve the commons – with social rather than technical solutions or gates. However history shows that it’s always necessary to be able to throw people out, and to have someone who’s willing to be the benevolent dictator and handle that. Thoughts?

  4. Michel Bauwens

    Dear Simon:

    I agree that it is a serious problem.

    Thanks to Jon for his message. See http://weblogsky.com/ for his excellent blog. I suspect that we need both social and technological solutions, the latter are necessary in terms of automating some of the time-consuming effects of protective governance (such as excluding spammers). I think that next to the positive practices of inclusionary participation, any project also has boundaries, and that these boundaries need some form of defense. Is anyone aware of any literature that focuses on this type of defensive governance of online communities?


  5. Simon Edhouse

    The question I would pose then, in relation to a large site like Facebook, when you have a ‘black-hat’ user, lurking somewhere on the planet, and using multiple identities with perhaps 30 or more Facebook user-accounts under their control, how can ‘social mechanisms’ nullify, placate, convert back from the dark-side or disempower this user? – When a ‘black-hat’ is using so many identities, no one; not even Facebook management will know who is who.

  6. Sam Rose

    One often overlooked yet proven line of thinking, that combines both technological and social methods, is http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?SoftSecurity

    “soft security” empowers communities of people who care to collectively do something about trolling. Trolls in places like facebook are taking advantage of the fact that “power” in Facebook lies largely with Facebook (to ban users, block messages, etc) Soft Security attempts to “devolve power” to the users of the service. Some form of “Soft security” tends to emerge as among smaller social networks like p2pfoundation. For larger “mega” networks, if the empowerment of soft security existed, it would likely stabilize with networks of interest that are numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-150 people.

    My conclusions with networks like facebook, myspace, livejournal, orkut, secondlife, etc: the griefers and trolls are inevitable once the network scales up to a certain size. The only sustainable solution is to employ soft security, to allow those who inhabit the corporate spaces to have direct access to collectively maintain the integrity of their spaces. Soft security relies partially on technology. In the case of open wiki communities, it relies on a community-wide ability to reverse/roll-back, change or delete communications. In wiki communities, ID verification is not as important, because anyone can edit anything

    But, in online social networks, it could be possible to counteract anonymity through peer review, meaning that network holds data that any one individual or group may affect that attempts to diminish the power of anonymous trolling by showing a reputation, a flag, or a way to both associate a user with community wide undesired actions, but also a pathway that can show the troll how they might direct their energies in helpful, useful, community desired ways. This is not about reputation systems, so much as being about giving users who care some way to do something constructive about a disruption. “Soft security” will technically and in practice look and work differently in different online communities that are engaged in different activities.

  7. Simon Edhouse


    thanks for those comments and the information on ‘soft-security’. It sounds like a well considered approach. I will review that information more thoroughly when I have some more time.

    With Thanks


  8. Zbigniew Lukasiak

    Sam – now when I think about what you write above – it souds a lot of like the role of gossip in human communities. I now cannot find the references – but I remember reading that gossip has an important role in enforcing norms that flow below the radar of the law system.

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