Why This Latest Facebook Feature Is Likely About Civility, Not Virality

It’s hostage-movie gospel that you must get kidnappers to use your name, look at pictures of your family, learn about your life, anything that humanizes you and makes it more difficult for them to cause you harm. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen too many of these flicks, (Taken 4 anyone?), but similar motivation came to mind when reading about Facebook’s new “Things in Common.”

CNET’s Richard Nieva reported on a Facebook feature which displays what you have in common with another commenter in the discussion threads on a brand or publisher page. For example, see the “From Phoenix, Arizona” on the screenshot below.

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If this was Facebook 2012 you might think they were trying to show you other people to connect with and befriend. That is, this feature was another exploration of how to expand the social graph. But I see it differently – I think this is about civility, not virality. Specifically, does it decrease flame wars and increase likelihood of responses.

danah boyd coined the term “context collapse” to define one of the challenges in social media. That we often see other people’s statements totally devoid of any context – of who they are, what else they believe, and so on. In this case Facebook is using tribal intersectionality to show you how you’re similar to the commenter, probably in a way that suggests positive feelings – oh, we’re from the same town, like the same sports team, attended the same college, both have kids.

Why? Because maybe that lets you bring a little more context (or even kindness) to the interaction before you go into rage post mode. You might hesitate before dunking on someone for their, in your mind, ridiculous beliefs and respond in a more civil manner. Sort of a proactive deescalation. makes you more likely to respond and help someone if they’re asking for advice.

It’s smart and while just a test, points to how Facebook can use the information they have about us in ways that aren’t just ad targeting or friend finding. I have to imagine these experiments are exciting for the team working on them. I mean, if you’re a Facebook engineer would you rather just be tasked with getting another few seconds of daily engagement and a slight increase in ad clicks -OR- have the chance to invent the metrics and dashboards that will monitor the health of the web going forward?