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
UPDATE 2 – 3/25/13: See Below
Mark Twain once said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Let’s test that hypothesis in the era of social media.
Right now, students at Grand Valley State University are circulating the image above which appears to be a screen capture from a mobile phone showing an email from a GVSU faculty member describing in elaborate detail why classes will be canceled tomorrow (3/20/13).
Some of my students forwarded it to me and inquired if I’d heard anything. To date (7:50 pm on 3/19/13) I’ve received no emails from the administration, and there are no announcements on the college’s website, nor any messages pertaining to a cancellation on the college’s Facebook or Twitter pages. Moreover, there are no cancellations for GVSU in the news media.
So it’s probably false.
What also makes me think the image is a fake is that there’s no date in the email (and I’m not aware of any version of the Gmail client that doesn’t at least show the date or time in the header information of an email). I’m betting it was probably photoshopped. To test my suspicions I ran the photo through Photoshop Killer, an online tool that detects when changes have been made to images. The report seems to indicate photoshopping; in addition to the lack of EXIF data about the image, it appears to have possibly been sharpened (possibly to hide traces after blurring out some portions to edit them).
It’s true, the weather hasn’t been optimal today – but it’s hardly bad enough for GVSU to cancel all of its classes at all of its campuses.
It’s also true that there was a bus accident on campus today A student was struck by a bus at GVSU a month ago – however the female student who was struck by a Rapid bus only suffered minor injuries. Also definitely not reason enough to cancel all classes.
I sent an email to Dr. Kevin Cole, the professor from whom the email purportedly originates.
Updates to follow. It would be great if we could debunk this in real time.
UPDATE: 9:40pm 3/19/13
Dr. Cole returned my email in record time confirming that, indeed, the email is a hoax. Here’s his response:
It’s going to be interesting to see what GVSU’s Computing and Technology Support department finds when they go through the digital trail that this email likely left behind. Unless this person was seriously savvy, it’s likely they will have left multiple bits of identifying information behind as a result of sending this message.
UPDATE: 12:45pm 3/52/13
A couple of days after this blog post, GVSU responded to the situation; apparently there were several instances of these fraudulent emails being sent. Today they announced that they were able to track down the student who was responsible (who may now be charged criminally and possibly disciplined by GVSU).
As I write this, Burger King’s Twitter Account (@burgerking) has been hacked by Anonymous and turned into a McDonald’s account with the parody storyline that BK has been acquired by McDonald’s. It’s still posting updates (including photos of drug use and links to rap videos on YouTube) unabated.
What’s particularly amazing about this situation is that it’s now almost an hour into the hack and no one has taken action (neither Twitter, nor Burger King), though that may attest to the resourcefulness of LulzSec – the security wing of the unofficial hacker collaborative Anonymous.
[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.
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.
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?
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).
I was fortunate to work with a great team of people who helped Family Promise of Grand Rapids win Toyota’s “100 Cars for Good” competition this year (a full case study is available here). Yesterday, the organization took receipt of the car which was another great public relations opportunity from the competition (which has given the organization a great platform to reach more members of the community).
West Michigan charity takes delivery of Toyota truck it won through Facebook contest
By Jim Harger | Grand Rapids Press | on October 26, 2012 at 11:49 AM
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Family Promise of Grand Rapids took delivery of its new Toyota Tundra pickup this week thanks to its success in Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition earlier this year. (More)
Eric Stoller at Inside Higher Ed recently wrote an article (You Are Not a Social Media Jedi, Ninja, Sherpa, or Guru) poking fun at people who use any of the wide array of “Social Media _______” titles online. As someone who has used such titles in the past, I feel it’s up to me to write a rebuttal and defend those of us who feel we’ve earned these appellations.
To be sure, there are tens of thousands of people running around claiming credentials they don’t rightly deserve for a variety of fields. Social media is currently the most notorious for this because it’s a field in its embryonic stage and as such hasn’t had any formal rigors applied to it. Moreover, it shifts so much more quickly than other disciplines that establishing an objective rubric by which to measure one’s bona fides is virtually impossible. Read more…
"...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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