• December 17, 2014

'Social-Media Blasphemy'

Texas researcher adds 'Enemy' feature to Facebook

'Social-Media Blasphemy': An Academic Adds 'Enemy' Feature to Facebook 1

Mei-Chun Jau for The Chronicle

EnemyGraph, an application that allows Facebook users to identify their enemies, is the creation of Dean Terry (right), director of the emerging-media program at the U. of Texas at Dallas, and Bradley Griffith, a graduate student.

Dean Terry has 400 friends on Facebook, but he wants some virtual enemies.

Mr. Terry, who is director of the emerging-media program at the University of Texas at Dallas, says a major flaw of the popular social network is that it's all sunshine and no rain: The service encourages users to press the "like" button, but offers no way to signal which ideas, products, or people they disagree with. And "friend" is about the only kind of connection you can declare.

Real-world relationships are more complicated than that, so social networks should be too, the scholar argues. He's not alone—more than three million people have voted for a "dislike" feature on an online petition on Facebook.

But Mr. Terry has decided to take action, protesting the ethos of Facebook by literally rewiring the service. Or at least, adding the ability to declare "enemies."

"It's social-media blasphemy, in that we're suggesting that you share differences you have with people and share things that you don't like instead of what you do like," he told me last week. "I think social media needs some disruption. It needs its shot of Johnny Rotten."

Here's what he's done. Last month he and a student released a Facebook plug-in called EnemyGraph, which users can install free and name their enemies, which then show up in their profiles. "We're using 'enemy' in the same loose way that Facebook uses 'friends,'" Mr. Terry explained. "It really just means something you have an issue with."

The scholar would have preferred to use "dislike," but the word is literally banned by the service to prevent developers from creating a dislike button. Critics of Facebook say the social network's leaders want to keep the service friendly to advertisers who might object to users publicly scorning their products.

Mr. Terry wondered if Facebook would even allow his plug-in application to pass the company's approval process, and even though it did, he still believes administrators will shut it down if it becomes popular. The day I talked with Mr. Terry, only 300 people were using it, but at that point no national media had picked up the story.

Facebook officials declined to talk about the new app. The only response a spokesperson would give was a one-sentence e-mail addressing the company's position on creating a "dislike" button: "At some point we may consider it, but for the time being, we are working on what we believe are more high-impact features."

Who was Mr. Terry so eager to diss? "One of the first things I put was the band Journey," he said of his enemy list, "just because they annoy me, and I thought it was funny." He has also enemied Deepak Chopra and the color red.

The programming stunt might win Mr. Terry some real enemies among people who think the best thing about Facebook is its relative lack of negativity. After all, many online forums are prone to vicious flame wars that lead reasonable people to steer clear. What's wrong with keeping an online world like Facebook nice?

To Mr. Terry, that's where his role as an educator comes in. "What we all do in the program is help our students think critically about social media," he says, noting that that is the main goal of EnemyGraph. "On Facebook you're the product—it's commoditized expression," he argues, and he wants students and others to recognize that. "I'm not telling students not to use it, I'm just telling them to understand what's happening when they use it."

A graduate research assistant, Bradley Griffith, did the actual coding, and he made an even stronger case for the service than Mr. Terry did. "It's dangerous for us as a society to move in this direction where everything has its worst qualities removed from it," Mr. Griffith told me.

Virtual Dissent

EnemyGraph points to a new form of social protest, one that could only happen in a virtual realm. In the physical world, scholars calling for social change might write up their suggestions, or stage symbolic protests, and hope their arguments prompt leaders to make changes. In online communities, it is possible to promote change by creating a new technical feature or service.

As Mr. Griffith put it, "academics have always had ideas about society, but we could only really talk about it, and now we can do it."

Consider another work of online protest by Mr. Terry and Mr. Griffith. Last fall they built a searchable Web archive of Twitter messages that had been deleted by users. The service was possible because while deleting a Twitter message stops it from being distributed, it can live on, since in some cases it has already been captured by archival services that mine Twitter for information. Called Undetweetable, the service disturbed many observers, some of whom criticized its creators for giving new life to comments that users had chosen to remove.

The goal of Undetweetable was to raise awareness of how persistent anything posted online can be—and how easy it is for outsiders to secretly pluck those messages to analyze them in various ways.

"Someone said, These are the nicest people who will ever steal your data," said Mr. Terry, referring to one of the bloggers who wrote about the service. "Because we're not going to do anything nefarious with it."

Undetweetable did start a conversation. It attracted a stream of users after being mentioned by The Wall Street Journal and popular technology blogs including Gizmodo. It operated for only five days—until Mr. Terry got an e-mail from Twitter asking that he shut down the service because it violated Twitter's rules. He complied.

"This is the way you call attention to certain kinds of things on the Net," he said. "You have to make something that people can use. Some of these things need to be experienced firsthand."

Alex Halavais, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University and president of the Association of Internet Researchers, said he expected to see more of this kind of high-tech intervention by scholars as more researchers in the humanities gain skills in programming and comfort using social media. "Increasingly there are faculty who feel confident doing this," he said.

A Tool for Cyberbullies?

A social critique is one thing. But what if adding an "enemy" button leads to increases in cyberbullying, bringing real harm to users uninterested in the scholars' points?

Mr. Terry believes that the feature will not spark hateful speech. "It's not necessarily going to make us fight, it's just going to make us have a conversation," he argues.

So far the most popular enemies are public figures, such as rock stars and politicians. A page of "trending enemies" shows that Rick Santorum now leads, with the band Nickelback close behind. Also on the list are racism, Merrill Lynch, and hypocrites.

Users of the service, like Maria-Luiza Popescu, a senior at the Dallas campus, say that's the kind of thing she would like to know about her Facebook friends. "What I want to know when I first interact with someone is what we disagree over," she said. The service even highlights things that one friend has "liked" and another has "enemied," showing it as a point of "dissonance," in hope of starting a conversation. She imagines "making new friends through enemies."

Mr. Griffith, though, expected some sparks to fly. He said he is disappointed that EnemyGraph hasn't been used more for what he called "bullying and high-school dramas." He feels Facebook's current system is artificially nice, so he wants to "encourage people to confront their negative relations to each other head-on as a sort of conversation." He argues that "when you keep groups or people separate, you can actually cultivate more enmity."

The researchers are eagerly watching to see what happens next, as Facebook users discover their app and become volunteers in a new kind of social experiment.

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