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The Big Mistake Mark Cuban Doesn’t Know He’s Making on Social Media

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

markcubanduh

Recently entrepreneur and noted Twitter user Mark Cuban discovered that companies are collecting data about activity of social media users, which was apparently a revelation to Inc Magazine and its readership.

In the hilarious fear-mongering advertorial, Cuban postulates that our digital histories will someday be used against us in court or for job interviews.

This is perhaps only a revelation to Cuban and Inc. The rest of the Internet-using public has been aware of this reality for more than a decade.

In fact, the well of data social media makes available to advertisers was one of the first concerns raised by observers of the then-nascent “social networking” phenomenon when it first appeared in the early 2000s. I did a quick search of databases to find early studies about this topic and to wit, this quote is from a 2005 report created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania:

“Most internet-using U.S. adults are aware that companies can follow their behavior online.” (Turow et al, 2005, p. 4)

That same study went on to reference the 2002 Tom Cruise blockbuster “Minority Report” (which Cuban also references in the Inc Magazine interview).

An even older Annenberg report (from 2003) detailed the pitch of the now-defunct Gator Corporation, which embedded tracking software on social networking software services like KaZaA (remember KaZaA?):

“Let’s say you sell baby food. We know which consumers are displaying behaviors relevant to the baby food category through their online behavior. Instead of targeting primarily by demographics, you can target consumers who are showing or have shown an interest in your category. … Gator offers several vehicles to display your ad or promotional message. You decide when and how your message is displayed to consumers exhibiting a behavior in your category.” (Turow et al, 2005, p. 6)

So it’s not a revelation that algorithmic data is mined and analyzed by marketers. What I do find revelatory is that Cuban thinks he has the power to do something about it.

There are two major problems with the claims made by Cuban about two upcoming apps, Cyber Dust (a ripoff of Snapchat with a 30-second window) and Xpire:

  1. They can’t possibly hide or delete a user’s social media activity from advertisers.
  2. What a person DOESN’T do on social media can be just as valuable to marketers as what conscious actions they take.

Allow me to explain.

First, one can’t truly delete one’s social media activity to remove it from the prying eyes of marketers using it to produce an algorithmic profile.

You can delete the post from your timeline, sure, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s “deleted.” As far back as 2010, for example, it has been public knowledge that Facebook caches a server-side copy of all of your content. In order to truly delete all of your posts and photos from the prying eyes of advertisers, you would need to hack into Facebook and remove it from the inside (which would be illegal).

Moreover, even if we discount the server-side caching that takes place on social media platforms, simply viewing a social media site like Facebook creates a trail of data that feeds the digital profiles sites like Facebook build for each of us. At the most basic level, Facebook tracks what you scroll past (counted as “impressions”), the time you spend on content, and what you search for.

Apps (like Snapchat or Cuban’s “Cyber Dust”) which purport to delete content within a certain time window are fatally-flawed in concept because of the many touchpoints they have to make as they go from one user to another. If you “snap” a compromising photo, that data can be accessed at many times between Person A and Person B – here are just a few:

  • From the data cached on Person A’s phone (tracked by mobile phone carriers).
  • Intercepted between the phone and whatever Internet connectivity point is used to send the message (be it wi-fi or cellular).
  • From the server used to pass the content through to the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the server receiving the content from the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the data cached on Person B’s phone (or by Person B if they decide to take a screen capture of the photo and publish it to the web, which has been the downfall of several Snapchat users recently).

Further, the above scenario assumes you don’t have one app integrated with another (which adds an additional layer of touchpoints upon which this data can reside).

Second, the actions you DON’T take can be just as valuable to marketers as the actions you DO take. This reality plays out in a couple of different ways:

Facebook Caches Unposted Data: In 2013, the public became aware that Facebook tracks and saves posts that users delete at the last minute without posting. Re-read that sentence. Facebook is caching the keystrokes you enter – even if you decide not to publish them.

That data, analyzed by a PhD student from Carnegie Mellon University and a Facebook researcher, was used to produce a report revealed at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Here’s one of the key findings:

“Our results indicate that 71% of users exhibited some level of last-minute self-censorship in the time period, and provide specific evidence supporting the theory that a user’s “perceived audience” lies at the heart of the issue: posts are censored more frequently than comments, with status updates and posts directed at groups censored most frequently of all sharing use cases investigated.” (Das and Kramer, 2013, p. 1)

“Escher Fish Theory”: I’m loathe to coin a term, but there isn’t really an existing shorthand (that I’m aware of) to describe the value of observing the gaps in our social graphs. For example, who we’re not connected to (interests we don’t have, posts we don’t like, updates we don’t comment on) can be a valuable insight now that we have the computing power to crunch those petabytes of data. The tessellations of M.C. Escher provides a good illustration of this concept (that recognizable patterns exist in between other patterns):

M. C. Escher Tessellation

The only way to stop social media platforms from gathering this data would be to try to clog the datastream with phony likes, shares and comments.

Cuban’s premise is flawed for another reason – namely the idea that out-of-context messages will be used to incriminate us. This is pointedly absurd because the same systems that cache all of this data track iterations of that data, which would provide exculpatory evidence in the event someone were to modify them to distort what we posted.

Even if we were to assume that Cuban’s apps worked as intended (they won’t) they could conceivably produce the opposite of their intended result. A social media user with a completely sanitized history could actually create suspicion. A benign and mundane history of digital activity draws less attention than a blank page.

Our privacy is certainly going through dramatic changes – and so are our notions of privacy. The reason social media platforms continue to grow in both the number of monthly active users and the volume of content those users create is that they provide a benefit that transcends the loss of privacy we’re experiencing. No one has a comprehensive solution of how to balance privacy and the utility derived from transparency, least of all Mark Cuban.

Sources:

Das, S., & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-Censorship on Facebook. In Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1r9EZ6A

Turow, J. (2003). Americans & Online Privacy: The System is Broken. In Annenberg Public Policy Center. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1HfZOPV

Turow, J., Feldman, L., & Meltzer, K. (2005). Open to Exploitation: American Shoppers Online and Offline . In Annenberg Public Policy Center. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1r9Et8M

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Facebook Change to User Emails is Case Study in the Limits of Spin

June 29, 2012 1 comment

The @Facebook.com Bait and Switch

As you’re likely aware, recently Facebook changed the email settings of all users so that the email they signed up with is no longer visible – replaced by their @facebook.com email address.  The company rolled out an email service back in 2010.  My guess is that adoption was lagging so given the new pressure they’re under as a result of their IPO to monetize the service, they made the switch.

They’re perfectly entitled to do this; after all they’re a private company providing a free service to users.

HOWEVER, what you’re ENTITLED to do and what you SHOULD do are two completely different things.

MOREOVER, WE do not control the language – THE PEOPLE DO (in this case, the users). Read more…

George Zimmerman is the Latest Case Study of Radical Transparency – the MySpace Page

May 2, 2012 Leave a comment

George Zimmerman's MySpace Page

Online nothing goes away, and anything can come to light if enough time and pressure are applied.

George Zimmerman is about to find that out because the Miami Herald found his MySpace page.  I’m kind of surprised this didn’t come to light sooner.  In a bit of dark humor, he was just awarded the “In the Spotlight” badge because people are flocking to pore over his updates for clues.

We can’t undo the advances into the era of Radical Transparency, we can only adjust to it.  That isn’t a bad thing.

Just as social media can have a negative impact on someone’s life, it can also have a positive impact.  It depends on how much of a person is positive or negative.

Social media is only a tool – it has no inherent qualities.  It can only reflect those who use it.  The same social media platforms that are providing fodder to back up the allegation that the shooting of Trayvon Martin was a hate crime motivated by mistrust of a race are ALSO raising funds for Zimmerman’s defense fund and spreading the message of his fervent right-leaning defenders.  Con artists on both sides of the case have faked content to support their side – and virtually all have been caught and debunked.

Right now the big headlines are the racist missives against Hispanics that the MySpace profile contains, as well as some allusions to criminal behavior.

That won’t be the only headline, and a fuller picture of Zimmerman is already being illustrated in the news media as we all endeavor to learn more about him and his motivations.  The Herald noted that he has a racially-diverse group of friends (as depicted by his photos).  Likely there are other positive features of Zimmerman which will come to light.

I tend to think anything that helps make us more aware that the world is a complex, gray place with few (if any) absolutes is a benefit to us all.

Demanding Facebook Passwords is the Same as Demanding Online Banking Passwords

April 3, 2012 2 comments

Employers Demanding Facebook Logins

A disturbing trend has ramped up over the past couple of years: employers demanding the login credentials for the Facebook accounts of their employees.  Another example of this cretinism reared its ugly head here in Cassopolis, Michigan at Lewis Cass Intermediate School District where teacher’s aide Kimberly Hester was fired for refusing to cough up her password to administrators after posting a nondescript and safe-for-work photo of a co-worker’s pants around her ankles.

What makes this case doubly-stupid is that was completely unnecessary: if the school needed documentation of the alleged transgression, it could have taken a screen capture from the account of the local parent who raised the issue with the administration in the first place.

Demanding the Facebook credentials of an employee is just as outlandishly-inappropriate as demanding the login credentials for an employee’s online banking account.  Employers should consider such a request with exactly the same level of caution (because they could open themselves up for liability).

Here’s why: Read more…

London Looters: Openly Committing Crimes in the Age of Radical Transparency is Stupid

August 10, 2011 3 comments

Looting in the Age of Radical Transparency

Hey kid – would you put down those Foot Locker boxes and have a bit of a chin waggle for a minute?

Martin Luther King once said “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  What’s burning up London right now is an unheard population, and while I can sympathize with the sentiment, the violence isn’t something that can be condoned and it’s utterly and completely daft.  Here’s why:

  1. London is one of the most surveilled cities in the world (just behind Chicago).  There are over 500,000 cameras throughout the city quietly recording with unblinking eyes.
  2. Facial recognition technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s so commonplace we all have access to it in Facebook.  The pool of photos is growing all the time, both on social networking sites and off in private databases.  Even if you’re wearing a mask or covering your face, it doesn’t matter because police will be able to match your clothing from other video footage when your face was uncovered.
  3. You can’t count on your friends because all it takes is an errant tweet or Facebook post to incriminate you.  Police are already watching for incriminating evidence of activities in process and arresting tweeting looters.
  4. Your technology can narc on you.  Given how prevalent mobile phones are in the UK and how flimsy the security is, it should be relatively easy for police to use scanners to identify all mobile devices within range of a certain area where the riots are taking place.  That would help kick-start any investigations or facial recognition searches.  Not only that, but if the companies that produce all the electronics that have been nicked in the past few days have added any sort of security to them, connecting to the Internet could identify a looter (or someone who received stolen property).
  5. London Police can crowdsource the investigation with ease.  [Update: …and they already are] Back in 1997, a bunch of people in a neighborhood near Michigan State University rioted after MSU lost to Duke in the NCAA finals, burning couches, stealing and destroying property.  Even back then, there were plenty of people shooting video and taking pictures which the local police took and looped on a cable-access TV channel with a message inviting the community to tip them off if they recognized anyone in the photos.  That was 15 years ago – just think of how much easier it will be to crowdsource identification with Facebook ads or mobile apps.
  6. The evidence will stay around “forever.”  That means Law Enforcement can take its time with the investigation – as it does so, the technologies and pattern-recognition algorithms will continue to improve.  I’m also pretty sure England doesn’t have a statute of limitations – so prosecutions could happen even years after these fires have been extinguished.
That’s the new reality whether we want it or not.  The world is much more transparent, and we need to respond accordingly.  My hope is that this new level of disclosure enables important messages to reach their intended audiences without violence like this.

In the meantime, mind the gap! (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

[Update: This just appeared on Mashable and is obviously highly-relevant recommended reading – “NYPD Creates Unit To Track Criminals Via Social Media“]

[Update II: Scotland Yard Confirms It’s Using Facial Recognition Tech]

Twitter Lists and the Semantic Web

May 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Twitter List Screen Shot

Have you taken a look at what Twitter Lists you’re on lately?  It’s an interesting study in how we help the web understand itself through our actions and contributions to the great, seething tide of data online.

This is a great example of the evolution toward the idea of the Semantic Web proposed by Tim Berners-Lee (which he explains in his own words in the video below).

The web is resembling more and more a form of artificial intelligence, and we netizens are the amino acids that make up its DNA.  Through the information we post, the ways we categorize it, and the connections we make with each other (social media makes the maxim “you are who you know” ever more true) – we’re teaching the web to understand us (an idea beautifully illustrated by Dr. Michael Wesch in this now-classic YouTube vide0).

Just look at what one can glean from how people have categorized me by what I tweet:  public relations, social media, Grand Rapids, Michigan, great dane lover, professional, foursquare, education, GRCC, digital, West Michigan, college, advertising, design, video, search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), web, marketing, branding,  communication, Lost, ddm, PRSA 2009 conference, etc.  There are even value judgments: greatness, elite, superuser, conversationalist, greatness, smart, connected.  Even the use of language provides insight into me; I’m described in slang/jargon terms like “tweeple,” “twibes,”  “g-rap,” “journchat,” “pr 2.0,” – indicating that I likely fit into various subcultures.

What can we forecast from this phenomenon?  For starters, privacy will continue to change in ways that disrupt our cozy and long-held expectations.  I don’t control who lists me or how they list me (though right now I can make the lists I’m on private).

As with other areas of social media or your digital identity, there are really two responses we’re left with;

  1. Closed:  restrict the content about oneself online by zealously guarding personal information and the content one contributes to the web.
  2. Open:  contribute to the content about oneself online to have a hand in shaping one’s online identity.

Increasingly the closed approach is futile.

Even if one were totally abstinent from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the blogosphere – content will inevitably be contributed to the digital world without one’s consent.   Your friends, co-workers and neighbors will tweet about you, corporations will make the data they aggregate about you more web-accessible (whether it’s the purchases you make, the magazines you subscribe to, the traffic cam video of intersections you drive through – even the lab results of your doctor’s visits – unfortunately I don’t think medical records are immune to this unstoppable trend).

The Futility of Abstaining From Social Media: A Plea for Rationality

January 4, 2010 2 comments

PIPL.com Search Engine

Mashable just published an article surveying some of the recent stories of people rejecting social media (Anti-Social Media: A Rising Rebellion Against Web 2.0?).  They cite examples like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, workplace bans (citing productivity concerns), and the phenomena of teens rejecting Facebook.

An abstinence-only approach to social media will likely be as ineffective as the abstinence-only approach to sex education: both rely on ignorance and are based on the assumption that one can control the behavior of others.  It’s far more effective to  be pragmatic and arm people with information so that they’re empowered to make decisions about their future.

Problem is, it doesn’t matter if a handful of teens are rejecting Facebook; that’s not going to stop information about them (or any of us) from ending up online.

The details of your life are online whether or not you choose to publish them: friends and neighbors are posting photos of you, corporations are digitizing records, and government documents are going online.  The process has been slower for digital immigrants, but for digital natives – it can begin even before they’re born as parents and relatives post sonogram photos or blog the intimate details of the pregnancy.

Don’t believe me?  Search for yourself with Pipl (a seach engine focused on gathering information about individuals) and see what you find.

I sympathize with the privacy concerns (I, like most, used to do everything online under pseudonyms), but here are two realities you can count on:

  1. More information will be published about you online.
  2. The tools we use to aggregate, sort, index, and categorize information online will continue to improve.

In that context – abstaining from social media seems a bit foolish.  By trying to stay off the grid, you’re voiding your say in how you’re portrayed online.  People (university admissions offices, romantic prospects, and employers) will invariably use the web to learn about you, and it’s prudent to participate in the identity that is created for you online.  At the very least, it pays off to have a Facebook account so that you can keep track of what your friends are saying and posting about you (and ask them to hide or untag photos/videos or other content that you’d rather not have go public).

Employers attempting to force employees to abstain from social media to maintain productivity might want to more closely evaluate that approach.  First, it’s expensive and time-consuming to try to block access to everything online (and most efforts can easily be defeated anyway).  Second, it hasn’t been established whether or not social networking adversely affects productivity (the research thus far is pretty skimpy – and it’s mostly based on surveys as opposed to measuring/observing employees at work).  You’ll likely want to evaluate the type of work each employee is doing and consider factors like these before making a decision:

  1. Do they need to incorporate creativity in their work?
  2. Do they need to collaborate with others (including customers/clients) on their work?
  3. Do they need to be aware of current events or social trends?
  4. Do they need to stay in contact with co-workers/customers/clients who aren’t within yelling distance?
  5. Do they need to frequently reference resources to do their job?