Home » Ends of Identity
Category Archives: Ends of Identity
As part of Curtin University’s new The Future Of podcast series, I was recently interviewed about my ongoing research into pre-birth and infancy at one end, and digital death at the other, in relation to our presence(s) online. You can hear the podcast here, or am embedded player should work below:
Facebook 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.]
On Friday, 7 April at 4pm I’ll be giving a public talk entitled “Saving the Dead? Digital Legacy Planning and Posthumous Profiles” as part of the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy (JCIPP) Curtin Corner series. It’ll touch on both ethical and policy issues relating to the traces left behind on digital and social media when someone dies. Here’s the abstract for the talk:
When a person dies, there exist a range of conventions and norms regarding their mourning and the ways in which their material assets are managed. These differ by culture, but the inescapability of death means every cultural group has some formalised rules about death. However, the comparable newness of social media platforms means norms regarding posthumous profiles have yet to emerge. Moreover, the usually commercial and corporate, rather than governmental, control of social media platforms leads to considerable uncertainty as to which, if any, existing laws apply to social media services. Are the photos, videos and other communication history recorded via social media assets? Can they be addressed in wills and be legally accessed by executors? Should users have the right to wholesale delete their informatic trails (or leave instructions to have their media deleted after death)? Questions of ownership, longevity, accessibility, religion and ethics are all provoked when addressing the management of a deceased user’s social media profiles. This talk will outline some of the ways that Facebook and Google currently address the death of a user, the limits of these approaches, and the coming challenges for future internet historians in addressing, accessing and understanding posthumous profiles.
Update (10 April 2017): the talk went well, thanks to everyone who came along. For those who’ve asked, the slides are available here.
A little article about digital death I wrote for The Conversation …
Facebook’s accidental ‘death’ of users reminds us to plan for digital death
The accidental “death” of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and millions of other Facebook users is a timely reminder of what happens to our online content once we do pass away.
Earlier this month, Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile displayed a banner which read: “We hope the people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.” Similar banners populated profiles across the social network.
After a few hours of users finding family members, friends and themselves(!) unexpectedly declared dead, Facebook realised its widespread error. It resurrected those effected, and shelved the offending posthumous pronouncements.
For many of the 1.8-billion users of the popular social media platform, it was a powerful reminder that Facebook is an increasingly vast digital graveyard.
It’s also a reminder for all social media users to consider how they want their profiles, presences and photos managed after they pass away.
The legal uncertainty of digital assets
Your material goods are usually dealt with by an executor after you pass away.
But what about your digital assets – media profiles, photos, videos, messages and other media? Most national laws do not specifically address digital material.
Requests to access the accounts of deceased loved ones, even by their executors, are routinely denied on privacy grounds.
While most social networks, including Facebook, explicitly state you cannot let another person know or log in with your password, for a time leaving a list of your passwords for your executor seemed the only easy way to allow someone to clean up and curate your digital presence after death.
Five years ago, as the question of death on social media started to gain interest, this legal uncertainty led to an explosion of startups and services that offered solutions from storing passwords for loved ones, to leaving messages and material to be sent posthumously.
But as with so many startups, many of these services have stagnated or disappeared altogether.
Dealing with death
Public tussles with grieving parents and loved ones over access to deceased accounts have led most big social media platforms to develop their own processes for dealing with digital death.
Facebook now allows users to designate a “legacy contact” who, after your death, can change certain elements of a memorialised account. This includes managing new friend requests, changing profile pictures and pinning a notification post about your death.
But neither a legacy contact, nor anyone else, can delete older material from your profile. That remains visible forever to whoever could see it before you die.
The only other option is to leave specific instructions for your legacy contact to delete your profile in its entirety.
Instagram, owned by Facebook, allows family members to request deletion or (by default) locks the account into a memorialised state. This respects existing privacy settings and prevents anyone logging into that account or changing it in the future.
Twitter will allow verified family members to request the deletion of a deceased person’s account. It will never allow anyone to access it posthumously.
LinkedIn is very similar to Twitter and also allows family members to request the deletion of an account.
Google’s approach to death is decidedly more complicated, with most posthumous options being managed by the not very well known Google Inactive Account Manager.
This tool allows a Google user assign the data from specific Google tools (such as Gmail, YouTube and Google Photos) to either be deleted or sent to a specific contact person after a specified period of “inactivity”.
The minimum period of inactivity that a user can assign is three months, with a warning one month before the specified actions take place.
But as anyone who has ever managed an estate would know, three months is an absurdly long time to wait to access important information, including essential documents that might be stored in Gmail or Google Drive.
If, like most people, the user did not have the Inactive Account Manager turned on, Google requires a court order issued in the United States before it will consider any other requests for data or deletion of a deceased person’s account.
Planning for your digital death
The advice (above) is for just a few of the more popular social media platforms. There are many more online places where people will have accounts and profiles that may also need to be dealt with after a person’s death.
Currently, the laws in Australia and globally have not kept pace with the rapid digitisation of assets, media and identities.
Just as it’s very difficult to legally pass on a Kindle library or iTunes music collection, the question of what happens to digital assets on social media is unclear to most people.
As platforms make tools available, it is important to take note and activate these where they meet (even partially) user needs.
Equally, wills and estates should have specific instructions about how digital material – photos, videos, messages, posts and memories – should ideally be managed.
With any luck the law will catch up by the time these wills get read.