A Facebook logo is reflected in a person's eyeFacebook has always had a problem with kids.

The US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) explicitly forbids the collection of data from children under 13 without parental consent.

Rather than go through the complicated verification processes that involve getting parental consent, Facebook, like most online platforms, has previously stated that children under 13 simply cannot have Facebook accounts.

Of course, that has been one of the biggest white lies of the internet, along with clicking the little button which says you’ve read the Terms of Use; many, many kids have had Facebook accounts — or Instagram accounts (another platform wholly-owned by Facebook) — simply by lying about their birth date, which neither Facebook nor Instagram seek to verify if users indicate they’re 13 or older.

Many children have utilised some or all or Facebook’s features using their parent’s or older sibling’s accounts as well. Facebook’s internal messaging functions, and the standalone Messenger app have, at times, been shared by the named adult account holder and one or more of their children.

Sometimes this will involve parent accounts connecting to each other simply so kids can Video Chat, somewhat messing up Facebook’s precious map of connections.

Enter Messenger Kids, Facebook’s new Messenger app explicitly for the under-13s. Messenger Kids is promoted as having all the fun bits, but in a more careful and controlled space directed by parental consent and safety concerns.

To use Messenger Kids, a parent or caregiver uses their own Facebook account to authorise Messenger Kids for their child. That adult then gets a new control panel in Facebook where they can approve (or not) any and all connections that child has.

Kids can video chat, message, access a pre-filtered set of animated GIFs and images, and interact in other playful ways.

Parental controls on Facebook's Messenger Kids.PHOTO: The app has controls built into its functionality that allow parents to approve contacts. (Supplied: Facebook)

In the press release introducing Messenger Kids, Facebook emphasises that this product was designed after careful research, with a view to giving parents more control, and giving kids a safe space to interact providing them a space to grow as budding digital creators. Which is likely all true, but only tells part of the story.

As with all of Facebook’s changes and releases, it’s vitally important to ask: what’s in it for Facebook?

While Messenger Kids won’t show ads (to start with), it builds a level of familiarity and trust in Facebook itself. If Messenger Kids allows Facebook to become a space of humour and friendship for years before a “real” Facebook account is allowed, the odds of a child signing up once they’re eligible becomes much greater.

Facebook playing the long game

In an era when teens are showing less and less interest in Facebook’s main platform, Messenger Kids is part of a clear and deliberate strategy to recapture their interest. It won’t happen overnight, but Facebook’s playing the long game here.

If Messenger Kids replaces other video messaging services, then it’s also true that any person kids are talking to will need to have an active Facebook account, whether that’s mum and dad, older cousins or even great grandparents. That’s a clever way to keep a whole range of people actively using Facebook (and actively seeing the ads which make Facebook money).

Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan sit on a couch next to each other while reading to their son Max.
PHOTO: Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan read ‘Quantum Physics for Babies’ to their son Max. (Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg)

Facebook wants data about you. It wants data about your networks, connections and interactions. It wants data about your kids. And it wants data about their networks, connections and interactions, too.

When they set up Messenger Kids, parents have to provide their child’s real name. While this is consistent with Facebook’s real names policy, the flexibility to use pseudonyms or other identifiers for kids would demonstrate real commitment to carving out Messenger Kids as something and somewhere different. That’s not the path Facebook has taken.

Facebook might not use this data to sell ads to your kids today, but adding kids into the mix will help Facebook refine its maps of what you do (and stop kids using their parents accounts for Video Chat messing up that data). It will also mean Facebook understands much better who has kids, how old they are, who they’re connected to, and so on.

One more rich source of data (kids) adds more depth to the data that makes Facebook tick. And make Facebook profit. Lots of profit.

Facebook’s main app, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp (all owned by Facebook) are all free to use because the data generated by users is enough to make Facebook money. Messenger Kids isn’t philanthropy; it’s the same business model, just on a longer scale.

Facebook isn’t alone in exploring variations of their apps for children.

Google, Amazon and Apple want your kids

As far back as 2013 Snapchat released SnapKidz, which basically had all the creative elements of Snapchat, but not the sharing ones. However, their kids-specific app was quietly shelved the following year, probably for lack of any sort of business model.

A teen checks her Twitter notifications.
PHOTO: The space created by Messenger Kids won’t stop cyberbullying. (ABC News: Will Ockenden )

Since early 2017, Google has also shifted to allowing kids to establish an account managed by their parents. It’s not hard to imagine why, when many children now chat with Google daily using the Google Home speakers (which, really, should be called “listeners” first and foremost).

Google Home, Amazon’s Echo and soon Apple’s soon-to-be-released HomePod all but remove the textual and tactile barriers which once prevented kids interacting directly with these online giants.

A child’s Google Account also allows parents to give them access to YouTube Kids. That said, the content that’s permissible on YouTube Kids has been the subject of a lot of attention recently.

In short, if dark parodies of Peppa Pig where Peppa has her teeth painfully removed to the sounds of screaming is going to upset your kids, it’s not safe to leave them alone to navigate YouTube Kids.

Nor will the space created by Messenger Kids stop cyberbullying; it might not be anonymous, but parents will only know there’s a problem if they consistently talk to their children about their online interactions.

Facebook often proves unable to regulate content effectively, in large part because it relies on algorithms and a relatively small team of people to very rapidly decide what does and doesn’t violate Facebook’s already fuzzy guidelines about acceptability. It’s unclear how Messenger Kids content will be policed, but the standard Facebook approach doesn’t seem sufficient.

At the moment, Messenger Kids is only available in the US; before it inevitably arrives in Australia and elsewhere, parents and caregivers need to decide whether they’re comfortable exchanging some of their children’s data for the functionality that the new app provides.

And, to be fair, Messenger Kids may well be very useful; a comparatively safe space where kids can talk to each other, explore tools of digital creativity, and increase their online literacies, certainly has its place.

Most importantly, though, is this simple reminder: Messenger Kids isn’t (just) screen time, it’s social time. And as with most new social situations, from playgrounds to pools, parent and caregiver supervision helps young people understand, navigate and make the most of those situations. The inverse is true, too: a lack of discussion about new spaces and situations will mean that the chances of kids getting into awkward, difficult, or even dangerous situations goes up exponentially.

Messenger Kids isn’t just making Facebook feel normal, familiar and safe for kids. It’s part of Facebook’s long game in terms of staying relevant, while all of Facebook’s existing issues remain.

Tama Leaver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

[This piece was originally published on the ABC News website.]

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As part of the Curtin Humanities Research Skills and Careers Workshops 2015 I recently facilitated a workshop entitled Strategies for Developing a Scholarly Web Presence During a Higher Degree. As the workshop received a very positive response and addressed a number of strategies and issues that participants had not addressed previously, I thought I’d share the slides here in case they’re of use to others.

For more context regarding scholarly use of social media in particular, it’s worth checking out Deborah Lupton’s 2014 report ‘Feeling Better Connected’: Academics’ Use of Social Media.

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DCE_6.1_Cover

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.

This issue features ‘“Face to face” Learning from others in Facebook Groups‘ by Eleanor Sandry, ‘Exploiting fluencies: Educational expropriation of social networking site consumer training‘ by Lucinda Rush and D.E. Wittkower, ‘Learning or Liking: Educational architecture and the efficacy of attention‘ by Leanne McRae, and ‘Separating Work and Play: Privacy, Anonymity and the Politics of Interactive Pedagogy in Deploying Facebook in Learning and Teaching’ by Rob Cover.

Also, watch this space in about a month for the related and slightly larger related work in the same area.

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By Tama Leaver, Curtin University and Emily van der Nagel, Swinburne University of Technology

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”.

So in announcing that it will allow users to log in to apps anonymously, is Facebook is taking anonymity seriously?

Real identities on Facebook

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.

Keeping things hidden third-party apps on Facebook. Flickr/Christoph Aigner, CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Facebook still insists that “users provide their real names and information”, which it describes as an ongoing “commitment” users make to the platform.

Changing the Facebook experience?

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

Spotify uses Facebook login. Spotify

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.

The New Facebook Login

In describing anonymous login, Facebook explains that:

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.

Introducing chat for Snapchat.

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.

The Conversation

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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braceThe themed issue of the Fibreculture journal on Trolls and the negative space of the internet has been released, with a raft of amazing articles, including my piece ‘Olympic Trolls: Mainstream Memes and Digital Discord?’ looking at the mainstreaming of some techniques associated with trolling, using a case study of a Facebook group lamenting the quality of Channel 9’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

The abstract:

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 full paper is freely available online, and as a PDF.

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Last week, as the inaugural paper in CCAT’s new seminar series Adventures in Culture in Technology (ACAT), I presented a more in depth, although still in progress, talk based on a paper I’m finishing on Facebook and the questions of birth and death. Here’s the slides along with recorded audio if you’re interested:

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.

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Links through to May 21st:

  • 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.)
  • Yahoo! to Acquire Tumblr / Yahoo [Yahoo News Centre] – Yahoo buys Tumblr for $1.1 billion and, in their words, “promises not to screw it up”. A clever buy for Yahoo, but it’ll be hard to integrate the rebellious/youth Tumblr userbase into the Yahoo brand.
  • 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.”
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I’ve got a new article in the most recent issue of the M/C Journal entitled ‘The Social Media Contradiction: Data Mining and Digital Death’. Here’s the abstract:

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.

Read the rest at the M/C Journal (open access).

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.

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Links through to April 22nd (catching up!):

  • 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.
  • Android To Reach 1 Billion This Year | Google, Eric Schmidt, Mobiles [The Age] – “Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt predicts there will be more than 1 billion Android smartphones in use by the end of the year.”
  • 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!
  • “Welcome to the New Prohibition” [Andy Baio on Vimeo] – Insightful talk from Andy Baio about the devolution of copyright into an enforcement tool and revenue extraction device rather than protecting or further the production of artistic material in any meaningful way. For background to this video see Baio’s posts “No Copyright Intended” and “Kind of Screwed”.
  • Instagram Today: 100 Million People [Instagram Blog] – Instagram crosses the 100 million (monthly) user mark.
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Links through February 23rd:

  • 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.”
  • Billboard and Nielsen Add YouTube Video Streaming to Platforms [Billboard] – The Billboard music charts in the US finally adapt to include online activity, including YouTube streaming data, and suddenly Baauer’s meme-tastic ‘Harlem Shake’ debuts at the top of the Billboard chart! The ratings, they are a-changing.
  • 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.”
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