On ownership

The primary school I attended was a private one, as opposed to a state-funded one. So, folks here would have called it a public school. (This irony always amuses me. πŸ™‚ ) From the first year, one of the things that teachers drilled in our brains was that the “real owner of the school” was not the founder or foundation but us pupils. ‘Huh? Are you sure?’ This obviously confused our 7-year-old minds, but I was a bit of Lisa (Simpson), who would remember every word teachers say, so whether personally convinced or not, I had no problem answering correctly when I was later asked either verbally or in written exams. That’s right; it was even an exam question, and a predictably recurring one at that. My sense of the situation was that they just wanted us to cherish facilities as if they were ours.

Lucky for them that I was a well-behaved girl, because I have a theory regarding ownership that would otherwise have worked diametrically against their efforts. My theory is that if you are the true owner of something, you’d have the right to abuse whatever that is. I don’t have a religion and I don’t subscribe to any particular ideology or philosophy, but I would go even further with this theory and contend that many problems in this world are rooted in false sense of ownership. Domestic violence? Territorial disputes? Environmental crimes? You name it. They are in most cases caused by those who think/act as if what they abuse belongs to them when it doesn’t. And if you stop for a second and think, there aren’t many things that we can say we truly own. Er, actually, can you think of any? I can’t even offer one.

Where am I going with this? Please bear with me a bit more. In my field, hardly a day goes by without criticisms of Facebook and its privacy policy lately. Some of my friends have left the site already. danah boyd among other social media researchers has been writing/speaking about this issue extensively. In a recent blog post, she even states that as Facebook projects itself as a utility, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the authorities step in and try to regulate it soon.

Aside from the debate for a moment, let me redirect your attention to a Korean social networking site called Cyworld. It was never successful outside Korea, so you might not be familiar with it, but it was huge in the country a few years back. How huge? As of 2006, 90% of South Koreans in their 20s and 25% of the total population were registered users of the site. Despite the fast growth of Twitter and other microblogging services, it still is a steady number one in the domestic market, seeing off challenges from MySpace and Facebook. In retrospect, many features it introduced were quite ahead of its time. For an overview of online social networking in East Asia, here is a nice presentation prepared by Benjamin Joffe (2008).

Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the founder of Cyworld, Lee Dong-hyeong. The interviewer asked Lee why Cyworld failed to go global (Rubbing it in?), and what particularly interested me was his following comment.

“Online social networking was going to see a transition from individualised profiles to news feeds. […] But news feeds work only in an ideal context, and [although we were aware that was the direction in which social networking sites were heading], a listed company like us couldn’t afford to adopt such a facility that customers disapprove.”

An attempt to justify his company’s ‘failure’? I would never know what went on in his head, but this is when it struck me anyway. ‘Hang on; is this what this is all about? An ownership conflict?’ A multidirectional conflict among the facts:

  • that no matter what they claim, Facebook is a privately owned company;
  • that yet they insist on the pacifying rhetoric of ‘power to users’ (which I, as a user myself, find most insulting);
  • that indeed users are not only a figurehead but actual owners of the data they have generated in the house of Facebook;
  • that Mike Zuckerberg and his team of developers, however, seem to think in the frame of the mind of an old landlord, forgetting that the content of the house belongs to the tenants.

And by old, I mean medieval.

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