Monthly Archives: February 2009

Facebook as Big Brother (UPDATED 4/10/12)

1984-by-view-askewFacebook has morphed dramatically from their college and pre-college base.  Now only a quarter of users are 18-24 year olds (college and pre-college) and the fastest growth is coming from mature age groups.     Facebook is up to 845 million active users and their IPO capitalized on all the private information that users have inadvertently revealed.  And an Austrian student (Max Schrems), through the Austrian right to discover what information Facebook is collecting, learned that Facebook had 1,222 pages on him including posts he had deleted and his physical location when he posted.

“A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.”

The fundamental equation of Facebook is that it provides a free service, funded by Facebook freely distributing the reams of personal information that users reveal about themselves and which Facebook makes available to application developers, advertisers and the like.

Discussing the social implications and privacy, Jeesi Hempel writes in Fortune magazine:

“At times it may seem hard to reconcile Zuckerberg’s lofty aspirations for Facebook with the utterly commonplace content that users create on the site. Consider 25 Random Things, a new take on the chain letter that has grown so popular it was written up in the New York Times Style section. You list 25 supposedly random things about yourself and send the note on to 25 of your friends (who are supposed to do the same), but your randomness also ends up on display to any gawker who may be surfing your profile. The items range from the banal (No. 17: I never, ever, ever throw up. Like five times in my adult life) to the intimate (No. 2: I knew I was gay in the sixth grade but didn’t tell anyone until I was 19). The feature is high profile – some 37,500 lists sprang up in just two weeks – but taken as a whole it just seems like a lot of user-generated babble.  [Note: Slate had a recent post about how 25 Random Things spread in a style approximating a natural virus.]

“Yet it is that very babble that makes Facebook so valuable to marketers. Imagine if an advertiser had the ability to eavesdrop on every phone conversation you’ve ever had. In a way, that’s what all the wall posts, status updates, 25 Random Things, and picture tagging on Facebook amount to: a semipublic airing of stuff people are interested in doing, buying, and trying. Sure, you can send private messages using Facebook, and Zuckerberg eventually hopes to give you even more tools to tailor your profile so that the face you present to, say, your employer is very different from the way you look online to your college roommate. Just like in real life. But the running lists of online interactions on Facebook, known as feeds are what make Facebook different from other social networking sites – and they are precisely what make corporations salivate.”

Facebook users get to “curate their stream” – the flow of information about changes individuals have made to their Facebook page that goes to their social networks on the site.Individuals on Facebook have two feeds: a personal field that logs changes you have made to your own site (a photo, a status update, a video post) and a second feed that tracks all the

“interactions your friends are having (and alerts friends to updates you’ve made on your personal feed). If your brother RSVP’d to a dinner party, for example, you might be notified about it, even if you weren’t invited to attend. And if you change your profile photo, it may let your brother know. Like Facebook itself, the feeds are subject to the network effect: The more data you share and interact with, the more robust your news feed becomes….

The information that pops up is partly a result of controls you establish in your privacy settings and feedback you provide to Facebook. But Facebook also can track your behavior, and if the site notices you’re spending a lot of time on the fan page of a certain movie star, for example, it will send you more information about that celebrity.

Kind of Big Brother-ish, and a marketer’s wet dream.The irony is that despite the use of tracking this personal information to sell you things, users sense that they are not being watched because there is not so much advertising currently on Facebook.It’s almost like baiting a bear by getting it comfortable feeding nonchalantly at a location before one drops the trap. And on Facebook there is no retracting all the personal information that users have left on Facebook about how they know Jane, or their e-mail chatter with friends, or who is in their inner and outer circle based on number of shared friends or who they share their personal feeds with.  That’s all stored on Facebook servers somewhere deep within the enterprise.

Moreover, users’ desire for privacy and Facebook’s desire to know with whom they are dealing often collide.  Facebook has recently actively fought the right of users to use pseudonyms (even for Arab Spring activists or Salman Rushdie).  As someone interested in social capital, I do think there is another side to this story (although I’m not at all sure this is what is motivating Mark Zuckerberg).  Online interactions that are anonymous are far more likely to be vitriolic and interfere with users investing heavily in preserving their online reputation.  If one can lie, or cheat, or flame, and no one knows that it is you, many studies have shown that lying or cheating or flaming is more widespread.

We may be six degrees of separation from anyone else in the world, but only only degree of separation from Big Brother wearing the mask of Facebook.

Facebook is walking a fine line as much of their market value will go up in smoke if they lose user trust.  It is for this reason that several years back they put new changes in the site to a vote in which 30% of their then user base (or 60 million users) had to approve the changes.

This loss of privacy is more concerning, considering  just how many people this affects and how widely users use Facebook to post pictures, posts, links, and friendship patterns that reveal lots about themselves that they probably wouldn’t feel comfortable posting to the world.

Fortune magazine notes how Facebook dramatically shrunk the amount of time to reach 150 million users or sell 150 million units.  Phones took 89 years, televisions took 38, cellphones took 14, iPods took 7 years and Facebook took only 5.  [Fortune doesn’t focus on the fact that the population is larger now so getting to 150 million users or units is easier and that Facebook is aided by the fact that it is free, but Facebook’s growth was impressive nonetheless.]

In 2009, Facebookers spent 169 minutes a month on average (or almost 3 hours) on the site and this increased rapidly.   Fortune doesn’t present a graphic but I assume that there is a group of manic Facebook users that spend 3-5 hours a day on the site or more and some users who use it very rarely.  Facebook acknowledged several years back that less than 10% of users, although still a sizable 15 million folks, do update their status every day (and this is up almost 400% from 2010 while over the same period the number of users was up only 75%, so the growth wasn’t just coming from more users ).

Zuckerberg’s vision is to have Facebook be a “social utility” where “one day everyone would be able to use it to locate people on the web “ David Pogue has an interesting story showing how this is starting to come true: a woman who found a wallet in a NY cab was able to track the wallet’s owner down on Facebook when she couldn’t through 411.  But equally the reality is that it can and is being used not just to locate people on the web, but to sell everything about them to others.

Read other posts about the social implications of Facebook.

See New York Magazine’s, “Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?” (4/5/09) (describing how Julius Harper’s group on Facebook, protesting Facebook’s privacy policies, swelled to almost 150,000 members

Read the interesting Fortune Cover Story, “How Facebook is Taking Over Our Lives”  by Jessi Hempel  (3/2/09)

Facebook Is Using You” (Lori Andrews Op-Ed, NYT, 2/4/12) that notes that information revealed on Facebook can hurt you down the road in mortgage applications, job interviews, etc.

Read Lori Andrews’ I Know  Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy (2012).  [NYT review of book here.]

Read “Selling You on Facebook” (WSJ, 4/8/12 by Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine)

And if you want to laugh about it, see the Onion’s satire “Mark Zuckerberg Is a CIA Agent “.  Laughing aside, the CIA has purchased a stake in Q-Tel and Visible Technologies to actually listen in on social media (including YouTube, blogs,  tweets, etc.) and the  CIA has admitted to using social media software in recruiting operatives.

Obama Information Czar and Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein suggested in a 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories” with co-author Adrian Vermeule that government might “cognitively infiltrate” social networks to help unveil conspiracy theorists and change their minds.

Would you dine with a stranger for charity?

Stranger dining - photo by memetic

Stranger dining - photo by memetic

Eco-activist Franke James was invited in an e-mail by a stranger to dine with her (in her home) and in exchange have $200  contributed to the charity of her choice?  Would you do it?  At what price?

The question raises social capital questions of trust of strangers and raises interesting questions of when chance encounters lead to interesting new ties.

Franke James probably would have felt like a chump if it had come to violence or roberry but she chose to trust (after an initial Google search of her dinner stranger).  Here’s the whimsical tale of what happened.

James think this might be a really nice model for doing good (getting money donated to charity) while meeting strangers (that might help build new social ties).

OFA activated to stump for Stimulus Bill

I previously posted about the Obama’s efforts to turn their amazing 13 million person grassroots network into an organizing force on behalf of the Obama legislative agenda (or “your agenda” in their language).

OFA (technically “Organizing for America” or sometimes called OFA 2.0) was activated through this video where President Obama notes the importance of crowd-sourcing (how the people will collectively produce a better product), although he doesn’t use that term.

Apparently 3,300 house parties on the stimulus were organized, to mixed press reviews — the OFA is tapped out or a success — some were canceled, some had low turnout, but others seemed an excellent example of democratic participation, like the account that538 had of one grassroots account of a Maryland house party among OFA Obama activists discussing the stimulus bill. After reminiscing about the 2008 campaign and why they wanted to stay involved, participants broke into subgroups like Energy; Science & Technology; Transportation; Education; Health Care; Jobs (retraining); and Public Sector Jobs (teachers, firefighters, etc.) to discuss what was or wasn’t in the Stimulus and what should be.  Their goal was to share the group’s thinking with Senator Barbara Mikulski.

Not sure whether these efforts actually changed the stimulus bill, which disappointingly was hammered out between House and Senate leaders (with Administration representatives) in closed-door, old-fashioned, smoke-filled rooms. But is clear that some combination of Obama stumping for the bill plus the activation of the OFA network may help explain why popular support for the stimulus bill increased in recent days.

As I wrote earlier, I think the challenge of keeping OFA vibrant is making participants more than foot soldiers in the Obama “our” agenda.

Thin-slice volunteering

extraordinaries-lgDriven by concern that 73% of Americans do not volunteer, the developers of Extraordinaries have decided to try to enable smart-phones to be used with thin-slice volunteering.

It’s part of the ever-shrinking notion of volunteering.  Volunteering used to mean some regular commitment to a cause (mentoring a kid, working every Saturday in a soup kitchen, visiting an elderly shut-in weekly, etc.).  In the 1990s, the Cares organizations (NY Cares, Hands on Atlanta, etc.) realized that yuppie go-go Americans either wouldn’t make a long-term commitment like this or didn’t have control over their schedule.  This gave rise to monthly schedules of interesting one-off volunteer opportunities that members could sign up for.  The 1980s and 1990s also gave rise to corporate volunteering days and “Days of Service” like the one on MLK’s birthday before Obama’s inauguration organized by

Now the Extraordinaries ‘ founders focus on the fact that there may be millions of smartphone American users who can’t (or won’t) even make a day-long commitment to volunteering, but they collectively have billions of free hours in micro-slices (while waiting for or riding the bus, while waiting for a meeting to begin, sitting in an airport, etc.).

They are trying to invent lots of collectively useful tasks that Americans could be doing during those times (other than playing video games), and make the interaction fun and exciting, and change the culture of waiting into producing a collective good.

Applications use smartphone features  like  Internet, graphics, camera, GPS, video, audio and break tasks up into ones that can be done in a few minutes.  Possible tasks include:

If this cannibalizes existing volunteering, I’m not sure that this will be a win-win for society, but if it augments the amount of volunteer labor in the US, it could have clearly beneficial results.

Note: some of the health benefits of volunteering undoubtedly stem from a sense of engagement in society that volunteers have and some from the inter-personal ties (social capital) developed through volunteering.  Virtually all of the existing applications that Extraordinaries plan to tap into are devoid of social capital (see above list).  We encourage Extraordinaries to be creative about thin-slice volunteering opportunities that could augment social ties and social trust.  For example, they mention the idea of using smart phones in thin slices to help immigrants improve their English (Phone ESL).  Depending on how this was set up, it could have interesting bridging social capital implications.  We hope that more such social capital-friendly thin-slice volunteer opportunities will emerge.

For an interesting post by Extraordinaries co-founder Ben Rigby on TechPresident, read here.