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Category: social networking (Page 1 of 4)

“There’s No Hiding on Facebook”

I was asked to write an editorial for the Guardian’s Comment website about Facebook and privacy. Here’s an excerpt:

Facebook has been repeatedly criticised on privacy grounds. While the company claims it doesn’t sell user information, details are made available to third-party application developers, who account for much of the site’s profits. And researchers have found that personal data can be “leaked” to advertisers and data aggregators, who already collect browsing and behavioural information about people as they move about the web. Just last week, Facebook announced a multi-million dollar deal with Nielsen, known for their meticulous tracking of television ratings and internet metrics.

Even without these partnerships, Facebook makes privacy advocates uneasy. University of Wisconsin professor Michael Zimmer accurately identified an “anonymised” Facebook dataset from the description that it was a private college in the northeast (spoiler alert: it was Harvard). Similarly, the “Project Gaydar” research team at MIT found that gay men’s sexual orientation could be identified based solely on their friends. It’s not just information you make explicitly available – age, partner’s name or favourite film – that identifies you on Facebook. Close analysis of a network of friends can reveal deeply personal details, even with a private profile. These studies suggest that it’s impossible to retain complete control over personal information within a detailed, publicly available network.

I’m happy with how it came out and I look forward to hearing everyone’s comments. The Guardian website right now has a majority in favor of “if you post your personal info on Facebook you deserve whatever you get,” so if your understanding of online privacy is slightly more sophisticated, feel free to leave me feedback.

The MySpace Moral Panic Paper Published

I’m very proud to announce that my article “To Catch a Predator? The MySpace Moral Panic” has been published by First Monday in their June 2008 issue.

This article discusses the panic over “online predators” on MySpace and how it’s not based on fact. I analyze media coverage of the cyberporn panic of 1996 and its links to internet content legislation, and compare this to the current hysteria around MySpace. My conclusion: there is no problem with online predators, the real problems of child abuse and child pornography are ignored by the proposed legislation, and the panic worries parents and restricts teenagers unnecessarily.

Formal abstract:

This paper examines moral panics over contemporary technology, or “technopanics.” I use the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace to demonstrate links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children. This is of particular interest currently as a new Internet content bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), is being debated in the U.S. Congress. The technopanic over “online predators” is remarkably similar to the cyberporn panic; both are fueled by media coverage, both rely on the idea of harm to children as the justification for Internet content restriction, and both have resulted in carefully crafted legislation to circumvent First Amendment concerns. Research demonstrates that legislation proposed — or passed — to curb these problems is an extraordinary response; it is misguided and in many cases masks the underlying problem.

I originally wrote this paper for Helen Nissenbaum‘s Information Policy class at NYU Law School, and presented it at the iConference Doctoral Colloqium this past spring. Thanks to everyone involved in the iConference for valuable feedback, and thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for his helpful feedback. And thanks to danah boyd for her original essay which mentioned moral panics over MySpace, which inspired the research topic.Technorati Tags: , ,

status in social media

I finally got a glimmer of a dissertation idea today: status in social media. I’ve been working my way through my gender & consumer culture readings and musing on luxury, brand consumption, brand display, etc., and how this translates into online behavior. At the same time, since I’m back in the Bay Area for a month, I’ve been playing armchair anthropologist with my friends and thinking about what counts as a “status symbol” in SF geek culture.

So what does “status in social media” mean?

Well, thinking about status very literally, first there’s what I might call “Conspicuous MySpace Consumption”:

heinous Chanel MySpace layout

mmm, fug

This is literal display of brand names as part of self-presentation strategy. Substitute “My Chemical Romance” or “LOLcats” for Gucci or Chanel and “personal homepages” or “blogs” for “MySpace” and status becomes just a series of signifiers– it’s not at all limited to luxury brand display. It’s just something to identify oneself as part of a group or with a particular symbol, just as you’d wear a t-shirt or a button. And naturally people use “real world” brand names online. There’s not too much difference between these types of layouts, fashion blogs obsessing about the newest “it” bag, and the fashion rating communities (like StyleMob) which are supposedly about personal style, but read more like a hipster handbook instruction manual.

( Note that there’s no digital equivalent of the real Chanel bag — yet. Multiple companies have tried (and failed) to monetize “virtual bling”, like those Facebook gifts that cost a dollar. But it tends towards the micropayment lower-end of the scale. )

But I digress. “Status” can also encompass “reputation”: eBay feedback, Yelp Elite status, number of Facebook / Pownce / Twitter / LJ friends, “interestingness” on Flickr, Technorati rankings: there are numerous visible, clear, measurable, public and easily comparable indications of popularity. I guess there are some social media sites where this isn’t an issue, but not many. I’m interested in reputation vs. popularity, too: Wikipedians generally value reputation, as do eBay participants, whereas bloggers look for number of hits or comments.

And so “status” can also be social capital, as “interestingness” (widely) or “microcelebrity”. Both of which are generally displayed and easily quantified online.

The third way to think of social media status is in terms of what counts as status in the world of social media creators. I made a really quick list:

1. Invites to betas and closed communities (think Gmail 2 years ago)
2. Gadgets: iPhones, etc.
3. Access to events (company-sponsored parties, Foocamp, various barcamps, South by Southwest)
4. How trendy the company is that you work for, and what your position there is (how cool or obscure your title is)
5. How integrated your life and your online life are (hint: the more the better)
6. Having a product, blog, meme, picture, etc. that gets widespread viewership

And when there are certain things considered status symbols in a community of creators, it stands to reason that these types of values will find themselves incorporated into the products that are being created. For instance: a company ignores their enormous Chinese user base in favor of hiring PR firms to throw flashy parties in West Coast clubs, because the latter users are “cooler” than the former users. Or limited invite schemes that are designed specifically to create buzz among a tiny community of bloggers and nerds.

So: who’s left out?

It’s relatively easy to have a MySpace layout teeming with logos. But it’s not easy to amass the other types of status, since they assume a particular class position, knowledge, professionalism, experience, or possession of free time, each of which is specific, limited, and located. This is why people are always complaining about MySpace being so tacky and ugly: because it moves beyond the echo chamber of trendiness that most social media companies focus on. I’m always bemoaning the lack of women in visionary positions in social media companies, but what about non-Americans, young people, or older people? What is the effect of these status matrices on software development? Who are we designing for, and what features do we prioritize as a result?

I need to think a LOT more about this topic.

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MySpace Profiles and Identity Formation

In my last post, Kevin pointed me to the work of Larry Rosen, a psych professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills (where Torrence’s boyfriend went in Bring it On!!) and his work on MySpace. He conducts empirical, quantitative studies of teen activities on MySpace, and his conclusions are twofold:

1. That there is very little “predatory” action, if any, on MySpace, and
2. That parents should stop worrying about sexual predators and start helping their teens by setting boundaries, talking to them about their online experiences, and helping them make sense of identity formation online (emphasis mine).

IANAP, so I can’t say much about his recommendations (although boundaries and talking sound like one of those universally good things you really can’t argue against), but it was his last point that really struck me.

When I started working on social networks in 2003, I was interested primarily in online self-presentation. I don’t focus on that anymore; my paper on MySpace customization (eternally in draft) is the only project I’m working on that really covers identity. But I do have a very strong background in identity theory and self-presentation theory, so I thought it might be fun to revisit the topic, especially considering the explosion in SNS popularity in the last four years. So a few maxims.

1. MySpace profiles are identity work.
We are all constantly tweaking our identities to perfect how we appear to others, and to ourselves. While we have this cultural idea of a “true self” or an “inner self” (hence the popularity of such inspiring American Idol-isms as “follow your heart”), in reality our “selves” are much more complex and variable. Particularly in the modern, liberal democracy, there’s this idea that we “work” on our selves to become better, stronger, more “accurate” people– we “find” ourselves.

This work could involve taking up yoga, finding religion, travelling the world, or so forth, but in actuality it’s more likely to consist of adopting a new style of dressing, getting a new haircut, buying a car or a house that we think reflects our personality. The teen obsessing over his Panic! at the Disco-style haircut and the 30-something spending a grand on the hottest brand of stroller are both attempting to indicate something very specific to their peer groups. The messages are different, but the mediums are very similar.

The work we do tweaking and pimping and blinging-out our profiles is the same. I ask my students about their first web presences and I get a roomful of groans and eye-rolling as they confess to their first Geocities web page or Britney Spears fansite. As danah recently wrote, teens are more likely to chuck an entire established, groomed online identity and start from scratch than they are to remodel something fully formed. The point is that our current profile should reflect not necessarily who we are, but who we want to be perceived as.

And that’s constantly changing, improving, getting more current and more “hip”. Hence the work. One of my students told me that his best friend’s profile included a long list of bands that he’d never heard of. “I’ve known this kid for five years,” he said, “And I’ve never seen him listen to that stuff.” It’s a carefully edited version of yourself, for public consumption.

2. Identity work is becoming automated
Profiles must be up-to-the-minute; my friends, who are all 20 and 30 somethings who really should know better, consistently update their pictures and preferences with the latest and greatest. What is my February playlist? Am I still really into that Girl Talk album, or do I need to replace it with the new Klaxons? I’ve been hitting the gym more recently, time to put a new picture on MySpace.

Tracking widgets help us to do this without even thinking about it. iLike and Last.fm let us show off our current music without any effort:

The popularity of weight loss trackers, travel maps, “mood-o-meters”, and so on show off to the world exactly what we’re doing. The latest entrant in this crowded marketspace is Slifeshare, which tracks everything you do online and broadcasts it to your eager audience. I’m assuming that you can turn this off once you start trolling Rotten.com, The Superficial and, of course, pr0n.

Of course, while this information might be nice to add to our profile, it also makes tracking our activities extremely easy. Which means determining a demographic profile for us is extremely easy. Which means selling to us becomes extremely easy. (Watch out for more on this from me soon).

3. Our self-presentation strategy depends on context and audience.
This is an old chesnut from communication/performance theory favorite Erving Goffman, who wrote a book in the 1950’s called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” which is still regularly assigned to reluctant undergraduates. He watched people in regular, every day situations, as they put on smiling faces or professional faces or relaxed around their friends. Goffman came up with the dramaturgical metaphor for everyday life which includes the idea of “frontstage” (public, to all) and “backstage” (private, to “insiders”). If you’ve ever worked retail or food service, you know what it’s like to go on the “floor” versus “the back” or “the kitchen”. The floor is scripted and artificial; the back is just as constructed, but in a much more relaxed, “real” kind of way.

In social networking sites, “context” can be a few things. First, the application itself– my LinkedIn profile is very different from my MySpace profile (which is under a pseudonym for this exact reason). This is not only because the assumed purpose of the application is different, but because the fields and capacities available to me are different. Second, it can be our location within a larger network of friends. If you look at teen MySpace profiles, you’ll see common visual and textual tropes from friend-to-friend, throughout communities – maybe they all have sexy pictures of themselves, or ironic names, or use a certain font or have a certain widget.

Audience also comes into play. The cultural anxiety around teen profiles is often about parents or teachers seeing “backstage” identity performance where they’re used to seeing “frontstage” identity performance. When I was a naive MA student, I used my RealName in my MySpace profile, which severely embarassed me while I was visiting Northwestern and found that the current PhD students had looked up all the prospectives on MySpace. My bad! I tell my students that I don’t look at their Facebook profiles, and I really don’t. Although Facebook is fairly good about letting people set their privacy settings, the fact that Facebook originated from semi-closed student communities created certain cultural norms around university communities. We create profiles based on who we think will see them, which can be very different from the people who do see them.

4.SNS don’t care about you.
They care about you as an eyeball or as a creator of sticky time, but they don’t care about you. They just want you to stay on the site, tell them what bands you like, and ratchet up their numbers (pageviews, user accounts, clickthroughs). Merge your contact info, install their proprietary IM application, invite all your friends to join, create a really awesome profile that will encourage other people to spend more time on the site, provide more and more and more and more information that lets behavioral targeting get more and more and more and more “accurate”. But MySpace or Friendster or Hi5 or Bebo or Facebook would remove your favorite feature or block your favorite widget provider in a second if it threatened their profit model. They would disallow MySpace codes if they could. It’s all about the money; it’s not a free service. It’s a service insofar as it encourages you to stay on the site. It’s not about what’s the best experience for you or what’s the most fun or the most interesting.

I’m finishing up my paper for the JCMC about social networking sites and profit models. Look for more on that soon.

What I’m Working On

Two new projects this semester:

1. To Catch a Predator? MySpace Moral Panics
I’m looking at rhetoric around “child protection” and the internet, tracing it through the CDA, to CIPA, COPA, and DOPA. I get to read lots of awesome history/sociology literature on moral panics and the construction of child abuse (see the Satanic daycare center witchhunts of the 80’s, etc.), and I get to weed through thousands of articles on how MySpace is sooo terrifying.

Note: has anyone noticed how all the moral panic discourse is rilly, rilly sexist? It’s always people freaking out about girls taking pix of themselves in bikinis, never about boys posting shirtless pictures online. That New York Magazine cover story last week, which for the most part I thought was pretty good, surveyed like 8 girls and one guy. I’m stoked on the recent barrage of stories about the oversexualization of young girls because I do think it’s a real problem, but I think this is very different from the MySpace moral panic discourse, which usually paints teen girls as wanton temptresses who turn on the wrong guy and then get hacked to death. Anyway. More on this as this project progresses.

2. Untitled project on Manhunt (potentially NSFW)
I’m beginning some ethnographic work on the gay hookup site Manhunt, so right now I’m basically just talking to people. I need ethnographic subjects! If you live in the NYC area and you use Manhunt to meet guys, email me. Likewise, if anyone else is working on this site, let me know. I know John Edward Campbell’s work on gay chat rooms, but any other citations would be really helpful.

Right now I’m finishing up a paper for the JCMC special issue on social networks. Once that’s done, I’m planning on a) putting a lot of my older work online in PDF form so people can use it, b) rewriting my ID2.0 paper in light of current situations and submitting that to a journal, maybe First Monday and c) getting ready for SXSW, which is going to be a blast. I’m speaking on “Combinatorial Media”, which is the creation of tactical media to be mashed up (see: Yahoo Feeds, etc.). If you’ll be around lemme know! I might also be going to Women, Action and the Media again since it was so much fun last year.

(Here’s my panel description. )

Liveblogging the UNC SS: Social Networking One Minute Wrapups

Thomas Vander Wal: disciplinary terms are socially loaded, so if I use my own terms I can talk across fields. Same with tagging (I agree with him about studying, although in the academy you need to locate yourself disciplinarily. But with regard to tagging, I feel that using terms that are specific to particular communities means that you identify yourself with a community of practice, which can be really useful if you’re trolling del.icio.us looking for like-minded people.)

Carolyn Hank: Success of SNS is like your unit of measurement for critical mass, threshold for a social network to become a phenomenon / with institutional repositories “cross-federated IRs” – making different identities in different systems come together – what’s going to be the impetus for anyone making social networks interoperable (I agree with this, there’s no business reason to do so – walled gardens capture eyeballs, advertising dollars)

Jacob Kramer-Duffield: I agree with Thomas. We need more rigorous definitions and be conscious of the words we’re using to communicate ideas.

Terrell Russell: Something about how using English as a lingua franca might lead to loss of linguistic diversity (Wasn’t paying clear attention)

Jackson Fox: We spent most of our time talking about Facebook and MySpace; we haven’t talked about this in a cross-cultural or non-Western sense (totally true). How does this work outside of the US? Does it work outside of the US? Yes: Cyworld (Korea), (I’d add Wallop in China, Orkut in Brazil and Iran, MSN Spaces in India). We need to study social networks in other countries.

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LiveBlogging UNC SSS: Social Network Panel

Amanda, Pew Internet and American Life project

Methodology and problems with methodologies
We’ve done 2 research projects on this:

1. Focus groups with middle school and high school students: SNS and their feelings about it. What expectations of privacy did they have in this space? What was the utility of social networks in their social lives? What kind of truth-telling did they do? (Before MySpace allowed private profiles; the young women often labelled themselves as younger than they really were to get the privacy protections, which used to only be available to people under… 14?)

– No info that could lead to identification in physical space / real time (home address, location). Many people lied about their location – my friends know I live in PA rather than CA, and people who I don’t want to know where I live will think I’m in CA. Teens took small steps to protect themselves. Otherwise, they thought things were generally private but obviously not perfectly
– Tension between people you wanted to find you (people from your school who you don’t know) vs. people you didn’t want to find you (older people, creepy people, etc.)
– Some disconnects about school identification: people had a hard time noting that their school mapped to their physical space: especially since very large schools have many students, which provides a modicum of privacy.

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Liveblogging UNC SSS: Social Networking Session

Nicole Ellison (MSU) (who is editing a special issue of the JCMC about social networks with danah) and Cliff Lampe (School of Information at University of Michigan)

Dataset = Survey of undergraduates last spring: 285
First pass explores: different kinds of social capital (bridging, bonding, and maintained – maintaining ties with a previously joined community like high school peers) AND measured intensity of facebook use. Found that Intensity of FB use was a significant predictor of all three (esp. weak ties)

Web crawling: capture entire MSU Facebook network
– allows us to probe relationship between profile fields, number of friends and social capital

First year student survey: do they use FB to search for new people or browse the network, etc.

In the future they plan to do “cognitive walkthroughs”: sit them in front of FB and ask them about their profile, their friends, etc. & interviews on self-presentation and impression formation

Overall Methods

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Liveblogging UNC SSS: Tagging: One Minute Wrap-Up

Each person gets one minute to say something about tags.


  • There are many uses of tags:
  • For information retrieval: finding vs. browsing
  • To perform identity, identify self with community of practice
  • Making sense of the object tagged; also express opinion/political thought/point of view about an object (for example, tagging a book on amazon “this sucks”)
  • Learning new ideas from tags
  • Using tags as reminder followups: todo, toread
  • We must consider context
  • Relationships between tags and communities: some tags identify you as a community member, some people use tags to find like-minded people, some people’s tags are more valuable because you share interests.
  • My contribution:

    These types of organizational systems (flickr, delicious, rawsugar, etc.) privilege certain kinds of use
    1. ephemeral knowledge / informalized knowledge / cannot be articulated
    2. communities of practice whose expertise does not line up with the tools available
    3. So who is represented? Who speaks in these systems? What is more or less valued?

    RAW DATA: may be mistakes, there are certainly people left out.

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