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:
- They can’t possibly hide or delete a user’s social media activity from advertisers.
- 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):
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.
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
“Call me crazy, but I am not on Facebook. That’s strange for somebody my age and stranger still for somebody who belongs to a group of writers here at UVenus who are masters at using social media.”
I have two issues with the article:
- You’re not a master of using social media if you’re not on Facebook.
- It’s impossible to stay off Facebook.
Permit me to explain…
1. Mastery of Social Media
You’ll have to forgive me if I’m touchy about the subject of social media mastery. A primary means I make my living is through my understanding of social media, and my ability to ply my trade is substantially hampered by people who falsely claim to be experts like me. Regrettably the learning curve with SM is so great that the average person often isn’t able to distinguish good practice from bad practice. I’m hardly alone – virtually every profession or area of technical expertise faces this problem.
The 800-lb Blue Gorilla in the Room
Facebook is easily the most massive social networking site world-wide – particularly in the West. Right now they’re coming up on one BILLION users – or one 1/6 of the planet. Mastering social media inherently requires a thorough understanding of Facebook given its dominance. To be a social media expert and have no ongoing hands-on experience with its most key player is the equivalent of attaining a Master of Film Theory degree without learning anything about Sergei Eisenstein.
Social Media’s Shifting Sands
Online the only constant is change. As such, remaining a master of social media means constantly learning, growing and evolving with platforms.
To wit: every single social media presentation I do is different. I often stay up late into the night before a presentation revising it with the developments that happened that day. I even modified a recent preso I did for Crime Stoppers International from one day to the next because the social media world had changed significantly overnight.
Professor Jafar qualifies my first assertion by arguing in her article that Facebook nurtures two characteristics of McDonaldization (efficiency and calculability) that are harmful. Hopefully Professor Jafar is heartened by the fact that we as a society have evolved away from those measures precisely because of the effect of McDonaldization.
Social media experts AND Facebook know that impersonal shotgun blasts of information are far less effective than one-on-one engagement and discourage it (in the case of Facebook, its algorithms will de-prioritize that content so it shows up in the newsfeeds of fewer users). Even casual users of Facebook are opening their eyes to this reality, and todays’ students are getting better at communicating differently to different audiences.
With respect to calculability, virtually everyone from tweens to multinational corporations know that sheer numbers don’t matter online. Actual interactions and action are what matters – and those qualities are rarely present in inflated numbers of fans or friends.
2. You ARE on Facebook
Whether or not you want to be, you likely are on Facebook already.
If you know anyone who is on FB (or possibly even people who don’t know you), doubtless they’ve uploaded photos of you, updates about you, and if you’re a publisher of content like Jafar – that is being shared, liked, and commented on in Facebook. Institutions or events also publish content about us – like TEDx Conferences:
At the very least every web-accessible digital snippet about you is searchable through Facebook:
The ubiquity of recording equipment in society means that there is constantly digital documentation of our behavior. We’re able to ignore this reality on a daily basis because it’s usually never interesting. That changes the minute we do something sensational or outstanding in either a positive or negative sense.
In Professor Jafar’s case – this likely takes the form of her students discussing what an excellent teacher she is. Right now these wall posts, photos and posts are mostly unsearchable in Facebook – but that will invariably change as our notions of privacy evolve and become more permissive (a massive shift in public opinion that Pew has documented). The pressure Facebook is under to monetize its users will only accelerate this trend.
Don’t get me wrong – Facebook should give everyone pause with respect to their privacy. They’ve made a number of moves over the years that remove control from their users over what is shared about them. A decade ago, staying off a social networking site was a viable pursuit, but we’ve reached a saturation point where that is no longer the case.
The solution is not to abstain – it is to engage.
When you refuse to engage digitally (be it on Facebook or the web in general) you accomplish two things:
- you lose the opportunity to monitor what is said about you and…
- you give up the ability to contribute to the conversation about you.
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…
By now everyone with access to the Internet (and even a lot of people who don’t) are aware that Facebook filed for an Initial Public Offering.
If every other social networking platform in the history of the web is a guide, this signals the beginning of the end for Facebook. Private corporations are freer from the pressure to drum up wads of cash in the short term than publicly-traded companies. They are also more resilient in the face of economic challenges than private companies because they can absorb a period of shrinking profits instead of scrambling to implement drastic measure (like mass layoffs) to quickly cook the books for a pennywise short term jump in profits.
Here’s why Facebook will suffer from the rush to monetize the gigantic community of users it has amassed: Read more…
A sad note that marred an otherwise unseasonably-warm and dry week in Grand Rapids was the death of a blogger’s dog after a careless right turn by a man driving a truck who then left the scene (even though he later admitted to being aware that the distraught owner was trying to flag him down; I also refuse to believe he didn’t know he’d hit something).
The dog’s owner wrote a moving essay about the experience that has touched all of us. He also provided an example of forgiveness and compassion that I’ll think long and hard about for the rest of my life.
There were witnesses to the tragic accident and the reaction of the driver of the truck. As is increasingly the case, those witnesses had access to smartphones and tweeted what they had witnessed. One witness, who I’m proud to call a friend, took action and captured information about the truck and its driver. The truck was a work vehicle, so it was emblazoned with the name of the business – and the witness also managed to get (and tweet) the license plate. Read more…
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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“]
The more information accumulates about us online (with or without our consent), the walls between the compartments of our lives become more porous (eventually they’ll likely disappear altogether).
Whether or not you know it, your social network is visible to others online. This is important because it means people can view you how your social network understands you.
Even if you lock down your Facebook profile, odds are you allow viewers to see your friends (which can be a great source of information about you; one can easily use the public information your friends display to gain insight about you – what organizations they’re affiliated with).
Even the organizations and people you’re NOT affiliated with can say volumes about you; I anticipate this will become a huge source of inferential data in the future as data analysis tools continue to become more sophisticated and more data accumulates online. Imagine: an aggregation tool could run an algorithm to find out who you dislike based on an analysis of common connections, interests, and groups and looking for gaps in your circle of connections.
Nothing about this is anything new to police or intelligence agencies – they’ve been gathering this data for years (building cases by interviewing individuals peripheral to a target). The difference is that now it’s a communication channel available to anyone.
This is why I believe privacy will be virtually impossible in the future. This has important ramifications for public policy; take medical records.
- One of the main reasons medical records aren’t largely digitized is privacy concerns – people worry that individuals and organizations outside of the doctor-patient relationship will be able to use that data to the disadvantage of the patient (think insurance companies, banks and prospective employers).
- Even if you are able to keep your medical records from being posted online – the records of your relatives will be posted. Conclusions about your predisposition to health issues can be gleaned from the health of your relatives (and organizations whose profitability depends on calculating risks will actively seek out this information).
- Conclusions about your health can also be drawn based on aggregated data from the region you reside in (the percentage of fast food restaurants, the rates of STD/STI infection, etc.).
Another reality (explained in greater detail in the book “Born Digital” by Urs Gasser and John Palfrey) is that children born today typically don’t have a choice about what information about them ends up online; their parents begin creating digital presences for them while they’re still in utero (by posting sonogram photos/videos, and information on how they intend to rear their children in discussions with friends). A recent study concluded that 92 percent of toddlers have an online presence.
Update: Apropos of this post – a hilarious Venn Diagram from Dave Makes:
"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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