I’m pleased to announced that the special themed issue of Digital Culture and Education on Facebook in Education, edited by Mike Kent and I, has been released. The issue features an introductory article by Mike and I, ‘Facebook in Education: Lessons Learnt’ in which we may have some opinions about whether the hype around MOOCs and disruptive online education ignores the very long history of learning online (hint: it does). As something of a corrective to that hype, this issue explores different aspects of the complicated relationship between Facebook as a platform and learning and teaching in higher education.
Having some form of anonymity online offers many people a kind of freedom. Whether it’s used for exposing corruption or just experimenting socially online it provides a way for the content (but not its author) to be seen.
But this freedom can also easily be abused by those who use anonymity to troll, abuse or harass others, which is why Facebook has previously been opposed to “anonymity on the internet”.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been committed to Facebook as a site for users to have a single real identity since its beginning a decade ago as a platform to connect college students. Today, Facebook’s core business is still about connecting people with those they already know.
But there have been concerns about what personal information is revealed when people use any third-party apps on Facebook.
So this latest announcement aims to address any reluctance some users may have to sign in to third-party apps. Users will soon be able to log in to them without revealing any of their wealth of personal information.
That does not mean they will be anonymous to Facebook – the social media site will still track user activity.
It might seem like the beginning of a shift away from singular, fixed identities, but tweaking privacy settings hardly indicates that Facebook is embracing anonymity. It’s a long way from changing how third-party apps are approached to changing Facebook’s entire real-name culture.
Having the option to log in to third-party apps anonymously does not necessarily mean Facebook users will actually use it. Effective use of Facebook’s privacy settings depends on user knowledge and motivation, and not all users opt in.
A recent Pew Research Center report reveals that the most common strategy people use to be less visible online is to clear their cookies and browser history.
Only 14% of those interviewed said they had used a service to browse the internet anonymously. So, for most Facebook users, their experience won’t change.
Facebook login on other apps and websites
Facebook offers users the ability to use their authenticated Facebook identity to log in to third-party web services and mobile apps. At its simplest and most appealing level, this alleviates the need for users to fill in all their details when signing up for a new app. Instead they can just click the “Log in with Facebook” button.
For online corporations whose businesses depend on building detailed user profiles to attract advertisers, authentication is a real boon. It means they know exactly what apps people are using and when they log in to them.
Automated data flows can often push information back into the authenticating service (such as the music someone is playing on Spotify turning up in their Facebook newsfeed).
While having one account to log in to a range of apps and services is certainly handy, this convenience means it’s almost impossible to tell what information is being shared.
Is Facebook just sharing your email address and full name, or is it providing your date of birth, most recent location, hometown, a full list of friends and so forth? Understandably, this again raises privacy concerns for many people.
How anonymous login works
To address these concerns, Facebook is testing anonymous login as well as a more granular approach to authentication. (It’s worth noting, neither of these changes have been made available to users yet.)
Given the long history of privacy missteps by Facebook, the new login appears to be a step forward. Users will be told what information an app is requesting, and have the option of selectively deciding which of those items Facebook should actually provide.
Facebook will also ask users whether they want to allow the app to post information to Facebook on their behalf. Significantly, this now places the onus on users to manage the way Facebook shares their information on their behalf.
Sometimes people want to try out apps, but they’re not ready to share any information about themselves.
It’s certainly useful to try out apps without having to fill in and establish a full profile, but very few apps can actually operate without some sort of persistent user identity.
The implication is once a user has tested an app, to use its full functionality they’ll have to set up a profile, probably by allowing Facebook to share some of their data with the app or service.
Taking on the competition
The value of identity and anonymity are both central to the current social media war to gain user attention and loyalty.
Facebook’s anonymous login might cynically be seen as an attempt to court users who have flocked to Snapchat, an app which has anonymity built into its design from the outset.
Snapchat’s creators famously turned down a US$3 billion buyout bid from Facebook. Last week it also revealed part of its competitive plan, an updated version of Snapchat that offers seamless real-time video and text chat.
By default, these conversations disappear as soon as they’ve happened, but users can select important items to hold on to.
Whether competing with Snapchat, or any number of other social media services, Facebook will have to continue to consider the way identity and anonymity are valued by users. At the moment its flirting with anonymity is tokenistic at best.
Tama Leaver receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
Emily van der Nagel does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
While the mainstream press have often used the accusation of trolling to cover almost any form of online abuse, the term itself has a long and changing history. In scholarly work, trolling has morphed from a description of newsgroup and discussion board commentators who appeared genuine but were actually just provocateurs, through to contemporary analyses which focus on the anonymity, memes and abusive comments most clearly represented by users of the iconic online image board 4chan, and, at times, the related Anonymous political movement. To explore more mainstream examples of what might appear to be trolling at first glance, this paper analyses the Channel Nine Fail (Ch9Fail) Facebook group which formed in protest against the quality of the publicly broadcast Olympic Games coverage in Australia in 2012. While utilising many tools of trolling, such as the use of memes, deliberately provocative humour and language, targeting celebrities, and attempting to provoke media attention, this paper argues that the Ch9Fail group actually demonstrates the increasingly mainstream nature of many online communication strategies once associated with trolls. The mainstreaming of certain activities which have typified trolling highlight these techniques as part of a more banal everyday digital discourse; despite mainstream media presenting trolls are extremist provocateurs, many who partake in trolling techniques are simply ordinary citizens expressing themselves online.
The talk abstract: While social media services including the behemoth Facebook with over a billion users, promote and encourage the ongoing creation, maintenance and performance of an active online self, complete with agency, every act of communication is also recorded. Indeed, the recordings made by other people about ourselves can reveal more than we actively and consciously chose to reveal about ourselves. The way people influence the identity and legacy of others is particularly pronounced when we consider birth – how parents and others ‘create’ an individual online before that young person has any identity in their online identity construction – and at death, when a person ceases to have agency altogether and becomes exclusively a recorded and encoded data construct. This seminar explores the limits and implications for agency, identity and data personhood in the age of Facebook.
Sensis Yellow Social Media Report 2013 [PDF] – The new Sensis Yellow Social Media Report is out (based on a survey of 937 Australians in March and April 2013), showing widespread social media use, with growth in mobile and second screen uses:
* 95% of AUstralian social media users use Facebook
* The typical Australian spends 7 hrs/wk on Facebook
* 67% of Australians access social sites on a smartphone
* 42% of Australians use social media while watching TV
A better, brighter Flickr [Flickr Blog] – Yahoo have majorly redesigned Flickr, giving new free (ad-supported) accounts 1Tb of storage, which is an awful lot of photos. The Android app is now almost identitcal to the iOS app, but the new aesthetics of the web-based version are a big change, looking more and more like every other photo-sharing service around today. Quite a few long-term Flickr users (of which I am one) have voiced a range of concerns about the design changes. Also, what this redesign means for people who’ve already paid for Pro accounts is deeply unclear on the main Flickr pages. (The Twitter account seems to suggest nothing changes.)
Introducing Photos of You [Instagram Blog] – Just in case you momentarily forgot that Facebook owns Instagram, the photo-sharing service has just added the ability to tag photos (remarkably similar to Facebook’s tagging function). Looks like Instagram needs a better map of your personal networks before they can harness it commercially.
Follow the audience… [YouTube Blog] – May 2013 and YouTube users “are watching more than 6 billion hours of video each month on YouTube; almost an hour a month for every person on Earth and 50 percent more this year than last.”
Many social media tools and services are free to use. This fact often leads users to the mistaken presumption that the associated data generated whilst utilising these tools and services is without value. Users often focus on the social and presumed ephemeral nature of communication – imagining something that happens but then has no further record or value, akin to a telephone call – while corporations behind these tools tend to focus on the media side, the lasting value of these traces which can be combined, mined and analysed for new insight and revenue generation. This paper seeks to explore this social media contradiction in two ways. Firstly, a cursory examination of Google and Facebook will demonstrate how data mining and analysis are core practices for these corporate giants, central to their functioning, development and expansion. Yet the public rhetoric of these companies is not about the exchange of personal information for services, but rather the more utopian notions of organising the world’s information, or bringing everyone together through sharing.
The second section of this paper examines some of the core ramifications of death in terms of social media, asking what happens when a user suddenly exists only as recorded media fragments, at least in digital terms. Death, at first glance, renders users (or post-users) without agency or, implicitly, value to companies which data-mine ongoing social practices. Yet the emergence of digital legacy management highlights the value of the data generated using social media, a value which persists even after death. The question of a digital estate thus illustrates the cumulative value of social media as media, even on an individual level. The ways Facebook and Google approach digital death are examined, demonstrating policies which enshrine the agency and rights of living users, but become far less coherent posthumously. Finally, along with digital legacy management, I will examine the potential for posthumous digital legacies which may, in some macabre ways, actually reanimate some aspects of a deceased user’s presence, such as the Lives On service which touts the slogan “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”. Cumulatively, mapping digital legacy management by large online corporations, and the affordances of more focussed services dealing with digital death, illustrates the value of data generated by social media users, and the continued importance of the data even beyond the grave.
Incidentally, yes, one of the points in this article is already out of date as last month Google quietly launched their Inactive Account Manager. While far from perfect, this Inactive Account manager gives Google users more control over what happens to their Google stored assets after they pass away (well, actually, after they don’t log in for a specified period of time). It is, however, far from perfect.
Siri secrets stored for up to 2 years [WA Today] – “Siri isn’t just a pretty voice with the answers. It’s also been recording and keeping all the questions users ask. Exactly what the voice assistant does with the data isn’t clear, but Apple confirmed that it keeps users’ questions for up to two years. Siri, which needs to be connected to the internet to function, sends all of its users’ queries to Apple. Apple revealed the information after Wired posted an article raising the question and highlighting the fact that the privacy statement for Siri wasn’t very clear about how long that information is kept or what would be done with it.”
Now playing: Twitter #music [Twitter Blog] – Not content to be TV’s second screen, Twitter wants to be the locus of conversations about music, too: “Today, we’re releasing Twitter #music, a new service that will change the way people find music, based on Twitter. It uses Twitter activity, including Tweets and engagement, to detect and surface the most popular tracks and emerging artists. It also brings artists’ music-related Twitter activity front and center: go to their profiles to see which music artists they follow and listen to songs by those artists. And, of course, you can tweet songs right from the app. The songs on Twitter #music currently come from three sources: iTunes, Spotify or Rdio. By default, you will hear previews from iTunes when exploring music in the app. Subscribers to Rdio and Spotify can log in to their accounts to enjoy full tracks that are available in those respective catalogs.
Soda Fountains, Speeding, and Password Sharing [The Chutry Experiment] – Fascinating post about the phenomenon of Netflix and HBO Go password sharing in the US. When a NY Times journalist admitted to this (seemingly mainstream) practice, it provoked a wide-ranging discussion about the ethics and legality of many people pooling resources to buy a single account. Is this theft? Is it illegal (apparently so)? And, of course, Game of Thrones take a centre seat!
Nielsen Agrees to Expand Definition of TV Viewing [The Hollywood Reporter] – Nielsen ratings reflect that online TV ratings are growing and matter: “The Nielsen Co. is expanding its definition of television and will introduce a comprehensive plan to capture all video viewing including broadband and Xbox and iPads … By September 2013, when the next TV season begins, Nielsen expects to have in place new hardware and software tools in the nearly 23,000 TV homes it samples. Those measurement systems will capture viewership not just from the 75 percent of homes that rely on cable, satellite and over the air broadcasts but also viewing via devices that deliver video from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, from so-called over-the-top services and from TV enabled game systems like the X-Box and PlayStation. While some use of iPads and other tablets that receive broadband in the home will be included in the first phase of measurement improvements, a second phase is envisioned to include such devices in a more comprehensive fashion.”
Why I’m Done Posting Photos of My Kid On Facebook [Chicago Now] – Short but well written piece on why parents should be more careful about what photos etc they share of their kids online. Author calls parents “online guardians”. “We all want to believe that Facebook takes parents’ concerns about privacy seriously. But the truth is that Facebook is a publicly traded company that cares first and foremost about making its shareholders happy. We have no idea how far it will go to do so, especially since the company is not extraordinarily profitable right now. But what we do know is that Facebook is pushing our boundaries now, often, to see just how much of our privacy we’re willing to give away.”
Instagram users begin fightback against stolen photos [Technology | guardian.co.uk] – Solid piece on the challenges of photos from Instagram (and the web in general) being used by others without permission. Copyright, theft, credit and ethics all get a mention, but the short version is: if copyright is understood on the web (often it’s not), it’s often not respected whatsoever. For the Instagram examples, I can only image this will get worse, not better, with Instagram moving more solidly onto the web proper, not just mobile devices.
Introducing Your Instagram Feed on the Web [Instagram Blog] – Furthering their shift to looking more and more like parent-company Facebook, Instagram have expanded the web presence associated with each username, allowing the liking, commenting and exploring of the people you follow on Instagram without use of a mobile device. The only thing you can’t do is upload an image from the web (yet).
Coming and Going on Facebook [Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project] – “Two-thirds of online American adults (67%) are Facebook users, making Facebook the dominant social networking site in this country. And new findings from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicate there is considerable fluidity in the Facebook user population: * 61% of current Facebook users say that at one time or another in the past they have voluntarily taken a break from using Facebook for a period of several weeks or more. * 20% of the online adults who do not currently use Facebook say they once used the site but no longer do so. * 8% of online adults who do not currently use Facebook are interested in becoming Facebook users in the future.”
3D-print your face in chocolate for that special Valentine’s Day gift [guardian.co.uk] – While I’m a big fan of 3d printing, this seems just a little too creepy for me: “Stuck for a Valentine’s Day gift with that special personal touch? A Japanese 3D-printing company may well have the answer – providing the opportunity for you to print your own face in chocolate. Shibuya’s FabCafe is offering a two-day workshop for budding techno-chocolatiers to learn how to transform their face into a sinister edible treat. For 6,000 Yen (£40), you can have your head scanned and turned into a 3D digital model, which is then printed in plastic in high definition on a ProjetHD printer. A silicon mould is made from this positive form and filled with melted chocolate – and the final product can be secreted in a box of chocolates and presented to your unsuspecting loved one.”
vinepeek – An endless stream of recent Vine video posts (hypnotic): “vinepeek shows you newly posted Vines in realtime. Sit back and watch the world in 6 second bites. Best viewed on a desktop browser. This stream is coming straight from Vine and is unmoderated. You have been warned! Unlike lightning, sometimes Vines strike twice. Please be patient if you see a Vine more than once. If it seems to freeze, refresh the page.”
Facebook’s Graph Search tool causes increasing privacy concerns [Technology | guardian.co.uk] – actualfacebookgraphsearches.tumblr.com makes the news: “Privacy concerns are mounting around Facebook’s recently announced search tool, after it was used to unearth lists of people related to supporters of the outlawed Chinese group Falun Gong and companies apparently employing self-declared racists. Graph Search, Facebook’s answer to Google’s search engine, was launched last week by founder Mark Zuckerberg, who promised it would help people find friends who share their interests. Critics argued it could be also be used to unearth compromising information on Facebook’s 1 billion members. In a blog launched on Wednesday, a series of controversial search results have been made public, showing the extent to which those who share photos, personal information and “likes” on Facebook could have their privacy invaded.”
How to Protect Your Privacy from Facebook’s Graph Search [Electronic Frontier Foundation] – “Earlier this week, Facebook launched a new feature—Graph Search—that raised some privacy concerns with us. Graph Search allows users to make structured searches to filter through friends, friends of friends, and strangers. This feature relies on your profile information being made widely or publicly available, yet there are some Likes, photos, or other pieces of information that you might not want out there. Since Facebook removed the ability to remove yourself from search results altogether, we’ve put together a quick how-to guide to help you take control over what is featured on your Facebook profile and on Graph Search results.”
If Graph Search works as advertised, then it’s a technical marvel, allowing a huge array of complex searches using real questions, not just keywords.
Type in “Which females in my area, around my age, support the Fremantle Dockers and are single?” and suddenly Facebook becomes a very specific and useful dating service. But this nuanced, “natural language” searching also means that, for many users, it will be even easier to delve into the minute details that are seemingly hidden on your connections’ Timelines.
The discussion around the release of Graph Search highlights something more important – something that could be described as the “social media contradiction”.
“Social” implies conversation and other communication which we are accustomed to thinking of as ephemeral – largely disappearing after the interaction is finished. Conversations in the street or telephone calls generally don’t persist once they’re done.
To Facebook and other social media service providers, it’s the media side of social media that matters. Media fills the databases – the most valuable part of Facebook to marketers (the actual customers of Facebook) – and this media has no expiration date.
Once entered, my relationship status, likes, photos, comments on friends’ photos, silly news stories I share and current location are all media elements which are in the Facebook database in perpetuity … unless I go to some pains to remove them.
Social media networks generally aren’t run by governments, and rarely by philanthropists. Most are for-profit corporations. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and most other online services have shareholders and are out to make a profit.
Different, but increasingly similar
Every time someone has a conversation on Facebook, or does a search on Google, that information gets stored in a database. Google and Facebook make their money by harnessing that enormous database and allowing advertisers to reach people making specific searches or discussing specific topics.
Graph Search makes the experience of Facebook more like the experience of Google. An effusive profile of the Graph Search team in Wired notes that the core software engineers have both defected from Google, including Lars Rasmussen who was one of the original creators of Google Maps (and the ill-fated Google Wave).
These two online giants might have different origins, but they are looking increasingly alike.
Be it Google or Facebook, privacy is a key issue in social media, and one which is at the heart of the social media contradiction. At any given moment, the design of a service like Facebook may make some information feel private, even when it’s technically not.
When Facebook shifted from profiles to Timelines, old conversations that were buried in the past were suddenly easy to find by scrolling back through the years. Graph Search takes that a step further, as anything in your history – any past conversations, any old photos or anything else shared on Facebook – will be searchable by others if your privacy settings allow it.
Limiting the visibility of a photo to “friends of friends” doesn’t just control who will see it initially on their newsfeed. It now controls who is able to search for that photo, in terms of location, caption, people tagged in it, or whatever other data exists about that photograph.
Facebook touts Graph Search as “privacy aware” but all that really means is the service will respect Facebook’s already complicated privacy options.
Be aware, act sensibly
As Facebook makes our data accessible in yet another unexpected way, it’s perhaps time to stop reacting to each change with outrage, and become aware of the ongoing social media contradiction.
Every online conversation we have, every photo we upload, every item we share goes into a database. Corporations will try to harness that database to make money. That doesn’t make Google or Facebook malicious, it just makes them a business.
The social media contradiction occurs when we imagine Facebook or Google to be a service, not a business. If we keep in mind anything shared will be stored forever, analysed, and harnessed to make money, then, like Facebook, we’ll be aware that social media is media, not just social.
As users, our business is to try and be aware of the privacy settings available on these services and take our options seriously. Facebook might change how their database is accessed and utilised, but if we’ve only shared something with our Facebook friends, they’re the only ones who can search for it.
Of course, if it’s not on Facebook at all, no-one can use Facebook to find it.