Sunday 25 June 2017

A host of dotty ideas from the other Zuckerberg

Dot Complicated, by Randi Zuckerberg

Randi Zuckerberg: new book,
Randi Zuckerberg: new book,

The basic premise of Randi Zuckerberg's new book, 'Dot Complicated', is supposed to be provocative. Here's the sister of Facebook's founder – herself an early Facebook employee – telling us we should leave our smartphones at home, abandon the internet, and spend more time revelling in the sunshine, hugging our children, making eye contact, and what have you.

We are introduced to an examination of any number of the problems associated with our hyper-digital lives. This is only one of two books Zuckerberg published recently on that general theme; my colleague Sam Grobart read the children's book, 'Dot.', with his unimpressed seven-year old daughter.

Zuckerberg's advice to kids – try going outside – isn't exactly the same as what she suggest to grown-up readers. It turns out most of the problems caused by living online as adults can be solved by using Facebook. At times this gets a little silly, as when Zuckerberg encourages people not to attempt to separate their personal and professional lives online. Sign up for LinkedIn if you must, she avows, but science says you had better friend your boss on Facebook.

"Research has shown that when you refuse to share personal details on Facebook with your colleagues, it reduces your likability in the office, when compared to people who do share," she writes.

At the core of it, Zuckerberg thinks everyone on the internet should use their real identities at all times. Anonymity, she says, makes the internet an awful place. Just look at the comments on YouTube videos.

Many of digital life's social pitfalls disappear when people are required to use a single identity for everything, Zuckerberg tells me.

"Just like we're all expected to walk around with our driver's licence, and it has our real name on it," she says. There are certain situations – mostly those that look like the Arab Spring – where anonymity serves a productive purpose. But in the calm, unthreatening western internet, Zuckerberg argues, we have outgrown the need for anonymity.

This is a reasonable position to take, and many reasonable people disagree with it. Rich online communities such as Twitter and Reddit are highly pseudonymous.

Several years ago, internet scholar Danah Boyd warned that websites requiring users to share their real names represented an "abuse of power" that put the most vulnerable users at the most risk. Many people have become adept at maintaining a mixture of anonymous, pseudonymous, and verified identities online.

I attended a conference recently at which Blake Chandlee, Facebook's vice president for global partnerships, argued that five or six years ago no one would put any personal information online, but that people's concerns had faded and are headed in only one direction. "We're in the beginning stages of this," Chandlee said.

Zuckerberg agrees that the march is inexorable: If people don't like Facebook, why are 1.2bn people on the service? She dismisses the idea that there is inherent tension between technology companies and their users when it comes to privacy.

The idea that we shouldn't stare at our phones constantly is uncontroversial. We know we shouldn't – we just can't help ourselves. The messy issue is how we manage our increasingly sprawling online identities.

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