Enemies on Facebook – Anti-social behaviour in social networks


Image from Enemybook

“People have always been mean and petty and now, with the culture of putting everything online and the reality shows that thrive on voting people off the island or telling people you’re fired, it’s not surprising that people want to blast their enemies to the world,” said Patrice Oppliger, assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University. “The entertainment of being mean is almost elevated to a new level.”

An article in the Boston Globe last month raised once more the vexing problem of civility in online communications, this time in online social networks.  Dealing with Enemybook and Snubster, apps for the hugely popular Facebook social networking platform, the article deals with the emergence of application that run on platforms such as Facebook. Through the growth of multi-platform APIs like Google’s OpenSocial in the future, we can expect more applications like these to become common.

Over the summer, Kevin Matulef, who is doing a doctoral thesis on algorithms at MIT, designed Enemybook, a software application that lets people list enemies below friends on their personal Facebook page. He describes the program as “an antisocial utility that disconnects you to the so-called friends around you.”

It maybe just me, but this is wasted intelligence. Writing an app to spread enmity online is easy – after all, it doesn’t take much to tap into hate. Harder to engender and figure out ways of communicating are real, meaningful social relationships mediated through online social networks. Though opinion is divided whether Facebook per se fits the bill I have an abiding interest in how social networking can help strengthen peacebuilding, conflict transformation and reconciliation.

As I note in Understanding terrorism better through technology? the technology is already here. All we need are a few doctoral students to devote their attention on how to make the world a more civil place.

One thought on “Enemies on Facebook – Anti-social behaviour in social networks

  1. I would argue that this is merely an extension of XFN and addresses an aspect that the original authors of the spec deliberately ommitted.

    From the background page:

    Negative relationship terms have been omitted from XFN by design. The authors think that such values would not serve a positive ends and thus made the deliberate decision to leave them out. Such terms (we won’t even bother naming them here) while mildly entertaining in a dark humor sort of way, only serve to propagate negativity.

    The authors do not deny that such negative relationships exist in the real world today. Of course they exist. However, we see no need nor benefit to standardizing such relationships and capturing them in a form which would spread on the Web. There is enough hatred in the world. We should work to eliminate hatred, not to spread it

    My personal opinion has always been that leaving those aspects out was a bad idea. The point of XFN is to express relationships. If people are forced to use another protocol/standard in order to express enmity (if they choose to do so), ultimately we all lose out because the standard for machine readable relationship links become fragmented. A spec isn’t a place to make a moral choice, surely?

    Personally (and with some degree of experience in the matter), I feel that a system oriented approach to enforcing civility online is ultimately pointless. If people want to insult/degrade/humiliate others online, there will always be a means of doing so. The line between civility and snark can also be blurry. One person’s mortal offense is another’s funny joke.

    Enforcing a standard of civility may also make for boring and somewhat stodgy discourse.

    Paraphrasing a quote I recall from somewhere:
    Renaissance Italy had murders, intrigue and political instability. They also gave us Gallileo and countless works of art that are treasured today. What did Switzerland give us in thousands of years of peace and stability? Chocolate and cuckoo clocks.

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