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Posts Tagged ‘Radical Transparency’

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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Social Media Director at U of M Becomes Casualty of Social Media Transparency

December 11, 2012 4 comments

Jordan Miller Case Study Collage

[Disclosure: I applied for the University of Michigan Social Media Director position.]

In October of 2011, the University of Michigan announced that it had created a Social Media Director position.  I was elated; it was a great sign that the practice was gaining the recognition it deserves.  In February of 2012 they announced that after “dozens” of applicants (a suspiciously low number for that high-profile of a position with an elite school that paid $100k/year) they had selected Jordan Miller to be their new Social Media Director.

Flash-forward to December 7 when a post appeared on Reddit titled “UM Social Media Director Jordan Miller lies on resume about bachelors degree, keeps job.” posted by citizenthrowawayx.  The post contained links to three scans of documents that pretty conclusively demonstrated that Miller had indeed lied on her job application claiming to have completed her studies at Columbia College in Chicago when in fact she had not.

Jordan Miller's Followgram Profile Description

Jordan Miller’s Unfortunate Followgram Profile Description

As of today, Miller resigned from the position at U of M.

There’s a lot more to the story (that the anonymous individual who did the legwork and posted the damning information is an ex-husband who happens to also work at U of M and who is involved in a custody battle, alleging that Miller manufactured child abuse allegations against him to negate his custody of their child) but I’m less interested in that than the larger ramifications of this case study in how not to approach social media.

Beat the Dead Horse: Radical Transparency

What I can’t get over is that someone would think they could get away with something like this in applying for (1) a social media leadership position at (2) one of the best universities in the US.  Who thinks this sort of deception can last in such a position of scrutiny?

Forget unethical (although it’s certainly that), in the age of radical transparency duplicity is just plain impractical.

Digital Shrapnel

Here is just a sampling of the ripples Miller’s lying has sent off in the direction of everyone she’s had contact with:

U of M Human Resources: Why doesn’t the University of Michigan’s Human Resources Office vet the higher education credentials of its applicants?  How many of the rest of the university’s employees are lacking in degrees from accredited higher education institutions?  Why didn’t the HR department take action on this information when it was forwarded to them “a few weeks ago?”  Why did it take contacting the university’s Compliance Hotline to get something accomplished?

Past Employers: Now that we know Miller lied on her U of M job application, does that mean that she lied on her application to the Ann Arbor News?  As a journalistic organization that trumpeted her hire and is now reporting on her downfall – it’s incumbent upon them to now shine that same light on themselves and their hiring practices.  How many of their other reporters are lacking in degrees from accredited colleges/universities?  Why don’t they verify higher ed credentials? Ditto to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the advertising agency that employed her for a year and a half.

References: This kind of situation makes me less inclined to want to give out references or endorsements, which are becoming ever-present on social networking sites.  You practically trip over them logging in to Linkedin, they’re on Facebook and its apps (like Branchout) and everywhere else.

Past Work: If Miller lied about something as substantial as her higher ed credentials, what else is lurking in her past?  Has she fabricated any of the information in the stories she wrote for the AnnArbor.com?

What They Think I Do - Super Hero

Social Media Pros: Specializing in social media is already a profession that hurts for credibility.  Here’s a comment from the story announcing Miller’s hire typical of the opinions of many people on social media:

“Wow. $100K per year to Twitter (aka “gossip”) and create seminars teaching other people how to Twitter (aka “gossip”). It’s too bad the UM doesn’t have any marketing students or anyone like that, who could devise and maintain “social media” strategies as part of their degree programs. What’s another $100K in taxpayer dollars anyway? It’s just disgusting. A hundred THOUSAND dollars a year. It’s incredible.”YpsiVeteran

This act can’t help but contribute to the sentiment that social media pros are charlatans and hucksters.  As a result, all of us suffer.

The Other Applicants for the Position: There were some other applicants for the position who were probably better-qualified than Miller (whose social media credentials I found to be surprisingly sparse – leading me to long suspect that there was some sort of backroom arrangement for the hiring process which is depressingly common at higher ed institutions).  Forget me, Lindsay Blackwell comes to mind – even I was impressed by the multimedia site she set up to apply for the position.  I worry that U of M will eliminate this position and kill a great opportunity for someone else (and an opportunity to show how far ahead of the business world the academic world is in terms of social media acumen).

The Silver Lining

Radical Transparency is here to stay.  It is the norm.  It is one of the rules of the ecosystem.

As we work to get past the social norms that are in conflict with this new reality, we can facilitate this by making use of all of the amazing computing power arrayed before us.  There is value in verification – think of what Linkedin could do to further attract employers as a job posting website by offering the verification of credentials.

I’m not optimistic about the odds of it happening, but hopefully the human resources world takes this opportunity to reflect on how outmoded its conventions for vetting job applicants are.  There are so many ways to measure the abilities of people online, and so few HR departments are flexing all of those resources.

Regardless, it’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out (and it is literally playing out right now on Reddit as Miller’s ex-husband is able to respond to the questions and comments of other Redditors).

Unexpected Reveals in the Age of Radical Transparency

December 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Linkedin Company Insights

Government reform activists are constantly working to shed light on the dark dealings in politics, particularly on government employees and officials moving to the private sector to lobby the agencies and offices they used to occupy.  In the past, this information was difficult to obtain.

Enter Linkedin.

Like all social networking platforms, the strength of Linkedin is in its ability to mine profile data with algorithms to create connections and paint a picture unseen from other vantage points.  Also like other social networking platforms, they’ve been steadily adding features and doing more with the growing body of data they hold.

Even with a free Linkedin account and a few minutes of research, one can look up the top ten lobbying firms in the US for 2012 and get a glimpse of insight about the comings and goings of employees from and to the public sector by looking at these organizations “Company Insight” pages on Linkedin:

  1. Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck (4 employees from the US House of Representatives)
  2. Hogan & Hartson (4 employees from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, 3 from the US House of Representatives)
  3. Quinn Gillespie & Associates (one employee recently departed for a job as a Press Associate for the Senate Finance Committee)
  4. Holland & Knight (9 employees from the US House of Representatives)
  5. Ernst & Young
  6. Williams & Jensen (one employee recently departed for a job with the US Department of Energy)
  7. Van Scoyoc Associates (3 employees from the US Senate)
  8. Cassidy & Associates (4 employees from the US Air Force)
  9. Akin, Gump, Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP (10 employees from the US Senate, 9 from the US House of Representatives)
  10. Patton Boggs LLP (9 employees from the US Department of Justice, 6 from the US House of Representatives)

 

Someone with more programming expertise than I could easily create an automated program to mine and archive this publicly-available data (and mash it up with other bodies of data).

Something important to consider about all of this information is that it came from the users themselves; not from the companies.  As always with data security, even the most robust program is only as strong as its weakest link.

There is very little that is certain about our rapidly-evolving world, but one certainty is that more data will become public and we’ll have more and better ways to understand and sift through it.

Any institutions that rely on a lack of transparency are going to be in for unexpected surprises if they don’t fundamentally change their practices, or invest in some heavy-duty online reputation management.

Fair warning.

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.

What we Learned From the Passing of a Best Friend Carried on the Fleet Feet of Social Media

January 13, 2012 Leave a comment

The Passing of a Best Friend Carried on the Wings of Twitter

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.

The Incident

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…

You’re Asking the Right Questions – But Are They to the Right People?

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Cybernetics Cover

While in Grad School I became familiar with the work of Norbert Weiner, originator of the theory of Cybernetics and a brilliant mathematician who contributed a great deal to numerous fields – only one of which is organizational leadership.

Cybernetics by Norbert WeinerAside from having a name that virtually guaranteed a career path involving MIT, Weiner is famous for a variety of things but my favorite is the approach he took when studying where to most effectively place armor on military aircraft: Read more…

Missouri Senate Repeals Facebook Friending Ban for Teachers

September 16, 2011 2 comments

I blogged previously about how the Missouri Senate had banned teachers contacting students through unapproved channels (like corresponding with them via personal email accounts not supervised by schools, or friending them on Facebook).

The law was problematic for a variety of reasons, but one thing that concerned me was the liklihood of a teacher violating it unintentionally given the ubiquity of electronically-mediated communication in everyday life. Read more…