Zuck’s “data” dodge: it’s important.

Watching some of the highlights of Marc Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, I see lots of Senators asking him yes or no questions such as, “do you believe FaceBook users have a right to download or delete their data.” Zuckerberg’s response was an unequivocal “yes, Senator” in all cases. But when asked questions about allowing users to decide how data accrued on them could be used or corrected, Zuck began to backpedal and attempt to slip back into tech speak.

It’s really important to understand why he pulls short when asked about deleting or correcting erroneous data. One reason is that all the questions asked to that point were about the “user’s data,” which Zuck can very quickly and easily answer in ways that make the Senators happy.

Because those answers were already beaten out of FaceBook a decade ago. Then, the question was about copyright: FaceBook originally claimed copyright ownership over your photos and posts, a notion which was received with howls of condemnation at the time. The result was a change in FaceBook policy which carved out for itself a limited license for that kind of data.

All of which is to say no: FaceBook does not own your “data,” nor does it hold unlimited copyright to it. Yes, you already have a legal right to all of that information, including your posts, comments, likes, photos, uploads and the whole kit-and-caboodle.

But companies like Cambridge Analytica (and Coca-Cola. and Pepsi. and Sony) are really after is the metadata that is created by the pattern your data creates. The fact that you “like” Roseanne is a lot less important than the fact that you watch more FaceBook videos at 3pm than other times of day. You are available to be advertised too and influenced at those times.

Holding on to actual data about any one individual is a waste of server space, even if you think you might want an archive for some reason. What matters is the ability to observe behavior in real time. That’s why “meme” images with sloganesque sayings on them are so important: you can send one out that’s intended to seem racist and watch what happens.

How long does the average person look at that image? The average Republican? The average 4-year degree holder? The average cop? Does the length of time they look at an image correlate to likes and comments? Does it even need to?

None of this data is “yours.” It wouldn’t exist in digital form without FaceBook providing a platform and third-party businesses aggregating it into actionable insights. Which is why “correcting” data about you is so important and so difficult for Zuck to agree to: that would require that companies open up their data operations to allow you to see their assumptions of you.

Doing so would most likely be an infuriating experience for the end user and a nightmare for businesses. Which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t allow us to see what their assumptions are. But that’s what I think the line he’s going to try to skirt will be.

Social Media

Gates Police’s unhelpful Facebook video

Yesterday afternoon, Rachel Barnhart posted a video to her Facebook profile from the Gates Police Facebook profile, showing two dangerous recent interactions that Monroe County police have had with the public. One depicts a woman who already states to 911 that she wants the cops to shoot her. The second shows what appears to be a distraught and listless man shuffling around, not obeying police officers’ repeated commands to keep his hands out of his pocket.

Both of these situations are unquestionably dangerous. They’re two great examples of exactly the kinds of situations for which we rely on police. And had the video simply said, “this is what we do, thank you for your support,” it probably would have been a fine video. I would have applauded the outreach.

Sadly, the video did not stop there. It continued with the following statement:

The mentality around our country right now of no respect and challenging authority is the root cause of many of these violent encounters with Police.

This statement is troubling on a number of levels, the most obvious of which being that the mentally ill do not need a “mentality around our country right now,” to wish harm to themselves or others. If that was the message they intended to send to the public, they did themselves a disservice by not having shown actual instances of disrespect to law enforcement. Those instances cannot be rare in any age. Instead, they undercut their message with video that does not come close to fitting the situation.

The real problem, however, is that there is a real and legitimate debate happening “around our country right now.” The debate is about police procedure; the debate is about race and policing; the debate is about the militarization of our nation’s civilian police forces, as seen in Ferguson among other places; it continues, as ever, to be about the use of tasers as suppression tools.

The Gates Police video seems to want to jump into the middle of all that and just start throwing round-house punches. The blanket statement that there is a culture of disrespect seems to group everybody who objects to police procedures into the same camp with the two mentally disturbed people in the video. Somehow, a legitimate and perennial socio-political debate about how a free people chose to police themselves becomes a nation of lunatics, clawing at the walls of their cages.

To be fair, there is probably no one at the Gates Police Department who is a skilled activist, marketer or even PR person. Nor do I suppose there should be: we rely on the police to give us unvarnished truth, and resent the polished bullet points of larger metropolitan police statements. I’m sure that the message was a heartfelt one, if badly communicated.

Still, it may be impossible for those of us not directly connected to law enforcement to see these words as anything less than statist: we do a dangerous job, we protect you, so you shouldn’t question our methods. Doing so is disrespecting our good graces. The message seeks to end debate with an oversimplified generalization. It leaves no room for discussion, no quarter for anyone who quibbles with the details and displays no shred of self-reflection or awareness.

“Challenging authority” is not the same as not respecting it, and indeed, open public debate is the best route to building respect and trust. That, and acknowledging that the police are civilians, too. That there is no separation between the police and the policed.

As citizens of that same free state to which the rest of us belong, police officers have as much right to voice their opinion as anyone else. But when that opinion comes not from a single law enforcement officer, but an entire department, the effect is monolithic and antagonistic. I would like to hope that this was not the intention of the Gates Police Department. But it serves as a pretty good example of how bad messaging could, in perhaps less harmonious communities, begin a race to the bottom of our civic nature.


Facebook’s “Emotion Detector”: why doesn’t Cornell U take some of the heat?

By now, the story is everywhere: Facebook chose to edit it’s user’s timelines to experiment with whether predominantly good or predominantly bad news stories would affect their emotions. Not surprisingly, your friends’ funk spreads to you, even over the “innernets.”

But what’s got people really up in arms is that Facebook manipulated users’ feeds without telling them and for the express purpose of scientific experiment. That should upset people, for a lot of reasons. Not the least is: while it may be true that you’ve given your consent to have your data studied and manipulated for reasons other than you might intend, you didn’t give your consent to have your personal emotional state altered, which in this case is exactly what they did.

What is strange to me in all of this is that Facebook was not alone, yet they alone seem to be taking the blame. When first I heard of the story, more than two weeks ago, I heard it directly from the media arm of one of the universities that took part in the study, Cornell UniversityUniversity of California, San Francisco (UCSF) also took part in the Big Data study:

“People who had positive content experimentally reduced on their Facebook news feed, for one week, used more negative words in their status updates,” reports Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of its Social Media Lab. “When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: Significantly more positive words were used in peoples’ status updates.”

The experiment is the first to suggest that emotions expressed via online social networks influence the moods of others, the researchers report in “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” published online June 2 in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) Social Science.

Facebook certainly has a lot to answer for. But this should also serve as a warning to would-be Big Data experimenters that Big Data affects little people. If the results of an experiment are spread out over several hundred thousand unwilling participants, that does not mean that the experiment is consequence free, nor should it be.

Update: someone much more familiar with scientific ethics standards and IRB’s (Institutional Review Boards) than I seems to be echoing my concerns. A key passage:

.. But while much of the uproar about Facebook’s inappropriate manipulation of human subjects has been  (appropriately!) directed at Kramer and his co-authors, missing from the commentary I’ve found on the Web thus far is any mention of the role of the (academic?) reviewers who read the manuscript and ultimately recommended it for publication by the National Academy of Sciences..  (Note: Forbes reports that researchers at Cornell passed on reviewing the final paper, although Cornell researchers did help design the study.)

Thanks go to reader @chelseamdo for the find.

Later Update: The Ithaca Voice finds reason to believe, based on a Mashable article, that the Cornell University study may have also received US Army backing. The Army undeniably funded another study by the same boffin, also concerned with shaping dialog on social. But Cornell denies that the Facebook study in question was funded in any way by any outside contributor.

While Professor Hancock, like many researchers, has conducted work funded by the federal government during his career, at no time did Professor Hancock or his postdoctoral associate Jamie Guillory request or receive outside funding to support their work on this PNAS paper. Initial wording in an article and press releases generated by Cornell University that indicated outside funding sources was an unfortunate error missed during the editorial review process. That error was corrected as soon as it was brought to our attention.


An open vector? Notification emails are an invitation to malware.

Do you use email notifications on your various social networks to keep yourself abreast of things? New followers on Twitter? Comments on your Facebook pages or pictures? Sophos has recently announced that they’ve discovered at least one new malware threat that exploits just this kind of traffic:

“Be wary of emails claiming to be from Facebook, and saying that you have been tagged in a photograph,” Sophos’ senior technology consultant, Graham Cluley said in a blog post today.

“SophosLabs has intercepted a spammed-out email campaign, designed to infect recipients’ computers with malware.”

Cluley highlighted how to spot the malicious email notifications by a tell-tale sign, as Facebook is misspelled as “Faceboook”, with three “o”s.

The misspelling of the name is probably a means to get around your anti-spam software.

But the real concern is this: whenever you start blending potential vectors for malware – email plus Facebook, for example – you’re doubling the chances of chaos reigning. That either email or Facebook are vectors for viruses is a given. Putting the two together is a recipe for disaster.

Neither is Twitter immune from this same vector. I’ve been in the habit of using emails to notify me of new followers and direct messages for a while, but I’ve begun to rethink that habit. You only need a reasonably well-fashioned phishing email with a link to follow a person to hook a dupe. And I have to admit that, as careful as I’ve always been with security, this has been a blind spot that I’ve taken for granted.

But then, Twitter’s “notification system” is basically non-existent, isn’t it? You can be notified of incoming DM’s if you’re on the web version, but clients including Twitter’s own TweetDeck have to wait in line to be informed of DM’s. Half the reason I have email notifications turned on is specifically because TweetDeck makes a legitimate direct message conversation a near impossibility.

If DM traffic were given a more instantaneous, priority access to the API, it would go much farther towards ending email notifications. For me, anyway, and I suspect I am not alone. In fact, a separate section in the API dedicated to *just* notifications of the type normally sent via email would be great. Currently, the only notification system in place is for tracking other users’ activities.

While it is far from a flawless plan, social networking sites would do well to consider ways of making sure email notifications are entirely unnecessary: find a way to make communicating with the platform entirely internal.


Facebook down: three hours and counting

I’ve been surprised to not see any articles on the subject all this time, but since at least 5am this morning and continuing to this present moment, Facebook has been unavailable. The login message says the site is down for “required maintenance,” which is polite tech speech for:

“Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit!!”

This is the second such outage in a week, though the last one merely slowed the site down to a crawl for most of us. This is quite a bit worse. What’s going on over there?

UPDATE: After nine hours of waiting, I’m finally able to get back onto Facebook.

Sci-Friday Technology

Sci-Friday: In 2012, Big Brother is following. And you love it.

Anyone who has ever spoken to me knows I’m a product of my generation. A day without my smart phone is comparable to the day I was cut from my mother’s umbilical cord. I must have Spotify on any computer I use because silence is the devil. I own paper books – but they’re becoming dusty because I have a Kindle now. If you still use an AOL email address, I assume you’re elderly; if you still use a yahoo email address, I assume you live under a rock.  I multi-task like a champ, at all times keeping two browsers open with six tabs running on each to toggle between my work tasks and my personal branding and you better believe I will click off a website in under a second if I don’t like the fonts it uses.

I’ve always loved reading, and though I enjoyed George Orwell’s 1984 when it was assigned in high school, it was almost laughable to think of this supposed futuristic world taking place a year before I was even born. I hadn’t really given the book, or the premise behind it, much thought until this week when my friend told me she had quit Foursquare.

“I have to check in before my roommate gets home so he doesn’t steal my mayorship.”
“Yeah, I recently just lost all of mine.”
“I quit Foursquare. Twitter, too.”
“I reread 1984. It really creeped me out.”

Light bulb. While I didn’t react with the same Big Brother fear that she did, I definitely got that feeling of everything coming eerily full circle. Facebook asks what’s on your mind. Twitter asks what’s happening. Foursquare asks where we are –and we tell them. 1984’s constant tabs on everyone was government mandated, but we voluntarily share everything and anything with anyone who cares enough to read it.

That’s okay, though – we have privacy settings we can select! Sure. But just how private are they? After I had accepted my position with my current employer and submitted my two week notice to my previous one, I updated my Facebook status with my exciting news. Two days later, I received an email from another company I had interviewed with, informing me they had wanted to extend a second interview to me, but found during their “standard social media search” I had accepted a position elsewhere and wanted to know if this was true. I double checked. All my privacy settings were set to friends only. Unless I have a friend working in this company’s HR that I was unaware of, there’s more than one way to find someone’s information if you really want to.

Privacy settings aside – what about the individual who chooses not to partake in social media at all? Well, that comes with the price of an attached stigma. In college, one of my internships told me they had checked to see if I had Facebook before interviewing me because if I didn’t have one, I wouldn’t have been offered the internship. Why? Because everyone has a Facebook account. If you don’t, you’re weird and behind the times.

The future of 1984 that George Orwell so vividly painted for us may now be 28 years in the past – but is it? Giving up all our info is voluntary, of course, but I’m sure I speak for many when I say I’ve become very relaxed and almost lazy about it. We all have things we’d never tweet, update, or check in with, but when I think about how open I am about the tiniest things, anyone, anywhere, could easily figure out who I am, what I’m about, and where I’ll be at any given moment- and I even use those fancy, new-fangled privacy settings available.

So knowing this, and being called out on it, am I likely to get be more mindful of what I do or don’t post on my social networks? Nope. Big Brother, feel free to keep watching. It’s Follow Friday, and I have a Twitter feed to catch up on.



Nielsen puts Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple at the top of the heap

The Nielson ratings agency has released its 2011 review of the biggest names in tech, and the list is.. not at all surprising.

The biggest brands in tech are Google, Facebook and Yahoo! (ok, one surprise), toping out at 153k unique visitors a month for Google. Unique visitors are people who visit a site for the first time in a day. Subsequent visits by the same user are not counted in this tally. Facebook’s 137k uniques earn them the top slot in the social network competition, with really no particular competition at all, Blogger coming in at a paltry 45k and Twitter at a nearly-embarrassing 23k.

Interesting to note, however, that Google+ made the grade in social with 8k uniques.

The video category holds no surprises, with YouTube winning handily, followed by VEVO and Facebook. Really, when you put together social networking, the Google home page and video, Google seems to swamp the competition in the terms of this review, which is page views.

One interesting note: Blackberry still holds the #3 slot among smartphone manufacturers, which is surprising, given the dirges played for RIM at every hour, seemingly on the hour.

Nielsen’s Tops of 2011: Digital | Nielsen Wire.

Media Technology

Nielsen: smartphone subscribers increased 45%, social media dominates app markets

The Nielson company that has told you for years what we’re all watching on television also now reports on mobile media. This quarter’s results show just how much media is being converted to digital and just how fast. Among the key findings cited in their summary:

  • Smartphone subscribers have increased 45% since the same quarter 2010.
  • In just the third quarter, 26m consumers viewed video on their smartphones.
  • 62% of smartphone users have downloaded apps (why else own a smartphone?)
  • The vast majority of smartphone users have used deal sites like Groupon.

Not surprisingly, the study also shows near-saturation of the young adult market, with a whopping 64% of 25-35 year olds owning smartphones. Meanwhile, in the classic PC-era irony that we never seem to quite get away from, Apple is the largest manufacturer of smartphones with 26% of the marketplace, but Android is the top Operating System with 44% of the marketplace.

Most of us with parents will also not be surprised that the older set is getting into the texting game with a vengeance. While young-uns like the texting – 13-17-yo’s receive as many as 3400 texts a month! – the number of messages received by the 55+ set has doubled in two years.

And here’s the kicker: Facebook applications are the single most-used applications on both Android and iPhone platforms. Mobile websites that are popular include the stand-by Google, Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

On the issue of smartphone applications, the download rates are telling. The Apple iOS market remains consistent since 2009, with around 35% of users downloading applications. But Android users are much more download-y, apparently, with an explosive 45% growth over the same two years: 49% of Android users have downloaded an application in the last 30 days before the survey. RIM and Windows are both lagging behind, with a 21% drop for RIM and a 15% drop for Windows.

I wonder if Twitter’s presence in this survey is muted by the fact that its application ecosystem is so varied: while Facebook has its own well-used application, Twitter users tend towards third-party apps such as HootSuite Oosfora and Seesmic. Like Twitter’s linking problem – which they have recently moved to cure with the shortener – Twitter’s proper place in social networking is not accurately calculated because of this flexibility.
Nielsen | State of the Media: Mobile Media Report Q3 2011.


How young is too young for #Facebook? Parents fake kids ages to get them accounts.

Would you let your kids lie about their age to get into an adult website? Probably not, but new research finds that a lot of parents are helping their kids get onto Facebook by lying about their ages.

Danah Boyd, the lead researcher on the project, suggests that the reason is an unintended consequence of the COPPA act: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Because the act requires a parent’s permission to enter commercial sites that require registration, many companies including Facebook have opted to simply not allow children under the age of 13 to have an account, period. Because many parents would like their kids to have Facebook accounts, they’re lying about the kid’s age:

Many general-purpose communication platforms and social media sites restrict access to only those 13+ in response to a law meant to empower parents: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This forces parents to make a difficult choice: help uphold the minimum age requirements and limit their children’s access to services that let kids connect with family and friends OR help their children lie about their age to circumvent the age-based restrictions and eschew the protections that COPPA is meant to provide.

Its probably easier to let grammy know what the kiddos are doing by letting them post to Facebook than sending an email because, well, who uses email any more? But allowing kids to post their goings-on online presents all manner of privacy concerns. Not to mention the notion that future employers of your 12 year old get to read their entire life’s history.

In many ways, this puts the general problem of online privacy for all people in sharp relief, simply by highlighting the problem for kids. If participation in social networking is now becoming part of the norm, participation becomes compulsory in many ways. For more on the study, read the report linked below:

Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’ – Danah Boyd, University of Illinois at Chicago.


What a 24 yo German lawyer knows about what you’re doing on Facebook

Think you deleted that message about scoring pot from your buddy on Facebook? You might be surprised to find out that no, you didn’t. Quick: smoke now, before the cops show up. I’ll wait.

You cool? Ok, so here’s what a German law student discovered about the information Facebook’s got on you. Not only did he find 1200 printed pages of documentation on himself, but he also discovered messages sent through Facebook which he had “deleted.” Those messages still existed, but were flagged as ‘deleted.’ In other words: while the law student could no longer see the message, anybody else with access to this data could. And he found out that it was all available through a form on the web:

IdentityBlog – Digital Identity, Privacy, and the Internets Missing Identity Layer.

While I’m not at all immune to paranoia under certain conditions, I’m not inclined to think of this as a show-stopper. The fact is: data such as this is already being collected about you every day. Google Analytics tracks what many would find a frightening amount of information on you just by visiting a website. Now Facebook is as well.

In fact, as we go forward, I’m finding it hard to even accept the idea of some sort of universal data retention law. The sheer volume of data available and shared on a day-to-day basis seems to make the concept impractical, requiring not just Facebook but any owner of any website to delete massive amounts of data on a regular basis or be subject to, dare I say it, “privacy trolls.”

What the article points to, if nothing else, is the lack of understanding we have for what data actually is. You cannot make an educated decision about how your data should be kept private or not without understanding what data actually is and means.

Journalism Technology

FaceBook Linked to Psychological Disorders… Like Paranoia, Maybe?

I remember being a kid and watching PM Magazine. Yes, I watched PM Magazine. Was weird then, am weird now…

Anyway, the point is: every week, there would be another story about Dungeons and Dragons and cults. Apparently, somewhere in the United States, there were kids who actually formed cults based around the popular role play game and committed murder because of it. Remember that? Can anyone find me an article with documentary evidence of same?

I didn’t think so. And with that in mind, I present to you the modern equivalent:

Facebook Linked To Psychological Disorders In Teens – Technorati Blogging.

Rosen presented the results of his studies in a presentation titled “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids.” The findings are based on a number of computer surveys that were distributed to 1,000 urban adolescents and Rosen’s 15 minute observations of 300 teens as they studied.

The findings showed that there were clearly psychological disorders in nearly every case. Social media has been linked to aggressive tendencies, mania, stomach aches, sleeping problems, anxiety and depression. In addition the teen is likely to suffer a technological “overdose” on a daily basis not limited to Facebook but including video games as well as other technological devices.

Sooooooo…… fifteen minutes and an anonymous survey of teenagers leads to a book deal, apparently. Shit, I can’t wait to write my book.


Is Video Chat the new WebTV?

There are just some things that don’t mix. Over and over again, we’ve discovered this with the various strands of Internet-connected television. Yes, being able to download movies and television shows from your NetFlix account to your Tivo box is a nice feature, but no, people are not inclined to sit in front of a keyboard or even a smart phone while watching television. Now with the announcements by both Google and FaceBook that they’re rolling out video chat features, I have to wonder if we’re not about to witness yet another colossal industry flop, this time in stereo?

Evolution – in organic life or in technology – is not a conga line of superior creations. Evolution includes many branches of distinctly-adapted creations that fulfill a required niche. That’s why there are humans and butterflies on the same planet, rather than a single, superiorly-adapted species. That is also why there is television and radio: one does not fulfill the role of the other. Its important to keep this in mind when we watch the parade of tech analysts and trend-watchers as they insist that Product X is the “wave of the future,” and that all other similar technologies will soon be relegated to the Smithsonian.

Internet on the Television

Computers and televisions also fulfill distinct roles. One is active, the other passive. When you watch television, do you really want to sit with a keyboard, tablet or smart phone and constantly change your field of vision? Not to simply update your Twitter or maybe program a few things to record, but to even make the television operate? That’s a recipe for a headache, even in the most technologically-adapted people I know. And forget about mice and the ill-fated pointers.

In many homes, television viewing is also a communal experience. Two or more people will watch the same television. Computers are largely a personal device, with only one person viewing it. Imagine watching television while someone constantly fiddles with five different applications on the same screen.

So while I certainly spend many television-watching sessions also furiously Twittering and surfing the Internet – much to my wife’s chagrin – I really don’t have any desire to combine the two in a single device. And clearly, after the flubs of WebTV and Gateway Media Center PC’s, the idea has gone to trial and the verdict has been a sentence of life on entries and punchlines.

All Hail Video Chat!

So, video phones have been the oohs-and-aahs sci-fi fantasy since there has been sci-fi. Why hasn’t it happened sooner? Well, it has. Over and over and over again, from AT&T’s Picture-Phone of 1956 right up to The Apprentice hawking some video phone service I don’t know the name of because…. it seems like it was probably a failure.

And here we go again. FaceBook and Google both have video conferencing systems in various states of readiness, and the big story throughout much of the media was whether Google beat FaceBook to the punch or the other way ’round. But has anybody bothered to ask the question: why do we use Social Networking instead of just talking to each other face-to-face? Because the answer to that question may be the reason for what I suspect will be an inevitable and expensive failure for both companies.

Social Networking is only half-social: yes, we share, we talk, we debate, we laugh. But we do so within the privacy of our own spaces. And we do so, in many cases, in various forms of anonymity. Even video blogging is a largely underutilized avenue of blogging. Do we wonder why?

Then there is one last item that dogs many would-be technological revolutions, Web TV and Video Chat included: the techno gap. Its all well and good for those of us who live and breath technology to say how easy it is to setup FaceBook chat, but is that the same experience your grandparents will have? What about your sister or brother who has a few kids constantly fiddling with their computers? Or your parents with the spyware and viruses loaded on their systems. Will they have the same effortless experience as you?

I could be completely wrong about the video chat thing. But I’ll bet anyone who cares to that this thing dies a slow, largely untelevised death in the backwaters of the companies foolish enough to have bothered.