Take it or leave it, says Cyworld

Interesting 24 hours. On Monday 26th around 5pm (in KST), I received an email from Cyworld officially informing us, users, of a change in terms and conditions effective from 28th. It said, to summarise, they were going to collect our MAC addresses and computer names real-time for a security reason. The message also kindly added that “anyone who doesn’t agree with this change can deregister from the service”.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one finding this message unsettling. Having been faced with an immediate furore of users and the consequent organising of mass departure, Cyworld announced after barely a day that they revoked the decision and that they would instead look harder to come up with alternative measures against the growing problem of phishing.

Some might be wondering what the fuss is about when Cyworld already have all personal information about us, even including our national identification numbers. In my case, it was the last line of the original message that bothered me most. And let me be clear here. Even if Cyworld had gone ahead with this change, I don’t think I would have left them – not because giving them my hardware details in addition to what they already have of me is not a big deal but because I am too invested to leave.

Michael C. Gilbert (2009) once compared Facebook to a lobster trap.

[…] Facebook is basically designed like a lobster trap with your friends as bait.

This walled-off nature has three interesting layers to it. First, it’s hard to get your content out of Facebook once you put it in. When someone figured out how to create a simple outbound RSS feed of your own updates, Facebook managers blocked it. You can’t just export all your content in a form you can use elsewhere, without going to a lot of trouble. Facebook is a content management system (CMS), among other things, and should be evaluated by any responsible organization just like any other CMS, including interoperability and exit costs. Second, the more content you put into Facebook, especially if it’s in a form that people can’t get elsewhere, the more you’re serving as Facebook bait yourself. It’s even worse if you start inviting your stakeholders there directly. All the same exit costs apply at this level as well, only multiplied by the difficulty of being bound by expectation that it’s inside Facebook that you’ll connect with your stakeholders and them with each other. Third, this scales up to entire social networks and communities. If everyone’s friends are at the mall, then we’ll abandon the public spaces as well. That’s enclosure.

I came across this article through another article a couple of weeks ago and virtually clapped in sympathy reading the above paragraph. My concerns precisely. In fact, earlier this year, I wrote a short post on my other blog about this unfair relationship I am in with Cyworld. (And I am sure the same goes for other social networking sites.) The only difference is that I used the metaphor of ‘hostage’ where Gilbert used that of ‘bait’, to describe my perception of the situation. Not as a researcher but a long-term user of the service.

Cyworld is less and less talked about in the media and in the academic literature because their targeted population is – unlike Facebook’s – small and limited and they have long reached a plateau in growth. However, I felt compelled to write about this incident as it offers a sneak preview of what is likely to happen at other popular social networking sites. Perhaps this is why Ahonen and O’Reilly (2007) argued that when it comes to digital information and communication technologies, what’s observed in Korea today will be observed elsewhere sooner or later.

On the surface, this incident of Cyworld withdrawing their management decision yesterday might look like a small victory for users – those who strongly appealed against the decision and organised a boycott. But the problem is still here, isn’t it? Cyworld could very well come back tomorrow with another scheme and many of us might end up taking it this time. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cyworld proposed a toned-down version of what they were originally going to implement shortly. A typical use of the door-in-the-face technique.

You might say if I don’t like what they do, I should simply leave the site. It’s not that simple. Or I shouldn’t have been posting my photos and notes there for the past 10 years. Perhaps, although I am confused to see loyalty is something to be penalised for.

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