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Category: Social Network Websites

5

Facebook, Bullet Not Dodged Yet (Part Deux)

In June, I blogged about the dreaded question (for parents of teenagers): “Mom, can I have a Facebook profile?”  At the time, we talked about its benefits and drawbacks.  On the one hand, it’s a gateway to socializing that she had been missing given her late birthday.  Different sports leagues had Facebook groups, perhaps she needed to join, and other activities would as well.  On the other hand, her privacy and reputation could be jeopardized, by her own hand or her “friends.”  Facebook’s privacy settings are notoriously whimsical, and more importantly as Steve Bellovin’s work shows notoriously misunderstood–setting up an account was indeed a game of chance, or as Bob Keller notes, like giving your kid a pipe of crystal meth.  We gave our thirteen year old kid the choice and told her to talk to us when she was ready to get started.  The summer came and went and all was quiet.  So now, a good five months later and a good five months wiser, my kid has decided that she wants to think about getting a Facebook page again.  And the conversation went something like this (she did all of the talking):  So I’m feeling excited about this.  Facebook would let me stay in touch with my sleep-away camp friends who live all over the place and I could friend kids that I meet from other schools in the area, at games, mixers, etc.  And I am jazzed about this new close friends feature that everyone’s been talking about.  This way I can share photographs only with my five best pals and I don’t have to worry.  (Pause).  But, I really want to friend the kids from camp and want them to see what I am up to, so this close friends feature may not work.  And what if those camp friends have weird friends or end up being strange themselves.  I can’t de-friend them, can I and still pal around at camp?  And I don’t want other people making judgments about me based on what those not-so-close friends are up to?  Will colleges see what I am doing, when it comes time?  And what if someone goes on my close friend’s computer and copy and pastes my silly remarks and it goes viral, like the Friday girl who ended up getting death threats and harassed.  Can I put up my favorite artists?  I definitely can say I like the Beatles and Elton John, but can I say Kesha?  Will people think I am appropriate if I put Kesha down or Katy Perry?  Some of their songs are, err, a little inappropriate.

After all of that, my kid said she needed to think about it, it all seemed so, well, complicated.  That seemed just the right word: complicated.  But the question seems even more tricky now than it did in June.  Who is she doing this for?  Taking cues from Erving Goffman, life is a performance.  Some of it is just for you–a way to develop oneself, experiment, play, and figure out who you are as much as who you are not.  Much of it is for others.  We perform different roles for the people in our lives: friends, parents, co-workers, coach, priest/imam/rabbi, acquaintances, and strangers.  Some performances are oppressive: we cover or pass as best we can in the face of stigma and prejudice.  And we perform at a time of extensive social and political surveillance.  We feel watched, and for good reason.  Companies give us social influence scores.  Employers, marketers, and businesses use those scores to benefit some, leaving others less favored and less fortunate.  Maybe we perform online for them?  Colleges look at social media profiles.  (danah boyd has a great piece about a question a college asked her about a student’s MySpace page, which seemingly contradicted his college essay.)  Do young people perform for them?  At the same time, government monitors our online presence, searching for threats to critical infrastructure and the like.  Government 2.0 social media sites may be keeping track of the stories we like, the friends we make, and pictures we post.  Who knows?  Agencies aren’t promising not to watch us, so maybe being careful is smart.  Are we performing for fusion centers and our government social media friends?  All of this watching brings to mind Julie Cohen’s book Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2011, see her talk here)–more on that in early 2012 in our online symposium on the book.  Navigating those questions every time one posts on Facebook is bewildering, especially because we can’t really control what happens to the information posted there.  A commentator on my previous post basically said that I had better get a grip on reality, that nothing I did or said could influence what she did and she would hate me anyway.  I guess we just fundamentally disagree.  Parenting is a huge responsibility, and lots of what my kid is mulling comes from long, long conversations we have had about being a responsible and smart digital citizen.  I am looking forward to talking it through again, once she has a better idea of what she wants to do.

P.S. Sorry about the light blogging, working on my first book on cyber mobs and hate (forthcoming Harvard University Press).

H/T Susan McCarty (who helped me find the db piece) , JJC

8

Hot Summer Flashes, Black Urban Mobs

Like Professor Zick, I am grateful for the invitation to share my view of the world with Concurring Opinions. I’d like to pick up where his post on strange expressive acts left off and, along the way, perhaps answer his question.

Flash mobs have been eliciting wide-eyed excitement for the better part of the past decade now. They were playful and glaringly pointless in their earliest manifestations. Mobbers back then were content with the playful performance art of the thing. Early proponents, at the same time, breathlessly lauded the flash mob “movement.”

MGK leads a movement (Youtube)

Today, the flash mob has matured into something much more complex than these early proponents prophesied. For one, they involve unsupported and disaffected young people of color in cities on the one hand and, on the other, anxious and unprepared law enforcement officials. A fateful mix.

In North London in early August, mobile online social networking and messaging probably helped outrage over the police shooting of a young black man morph into misanthropic madness.  Race-inflected flash mob mischief hit the U.S. this summer, too. Most major metropolitan newspapers and cable news channels this summer have run stories about young black people across the country using their idle time and fleet thumbs to organize shoplifting, beatings, and general indiscipline. This is not the first time the U.S. has seen the flash mob or something like it. (Remember the 2000 recount in Florida?) But the demographic and commercial politics of these events in particular ought to raise eyebrows.
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7

Identifying Those Responsible for a “Living Horror” and Its Signficance for Proposed Federal Law

In what can only be described as the worst side of humanity, the bulletin board Dreamboard hosted a members-only sharing of child pornography, particularly of children under 12.  New members could join the board only if they posted child pornography.  Members had to continue to post images of child porn every 50 days or face removal.  The rules of the board, printed in English, Russian, Japanese, and Spanish, included: (1) “Keep the girls under 13, in fact, I really need to see 12 or younger to know your[sic] a brother,” (2) “don’t avoid nudity in previews. I will NOT accept you if there’s no nudity.  And my definition of nudity is pussy or anal in the shot.  You just waste your own time if you don’t do this.  Because you will not get in, if you don’t follow the rules.”  One section of Dreamboard was titled “Super Hardcore,” and the rules required images and videos of “very young kids, getting fucked, and preteens in distress, and or crying. . . . If a girl looks totally comfortable, she’s not in distress, and it does NOT belong in this section.”  This part of the site featured images of adults having violent sexual intercourse with very young children, including infants.  One file was entitled “2yo assfuck she cries for mommy nasty pthc pedo 1 yo 3 yo 4 yo.”  The board amassed over 120 terabytes of violent sexual rape and abuse of children.

According to the rules of the site, members were to use encryption technologies to prevent detection.  The rules specified precisely which encryption technologies and proxy servers should be used and which should be avoided.  Members did not use their real names, but instead screen names to conceal their identities.  All of this suggests that the board went to great lengths to secure their anonymity.

Early this month, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. announced that federal investigators has charged 72 people for violating child pornography laws and more than 50 people have been arrested in the United States.  The defendants included doctors, lawyers, police officers, and a Navy commander, according to the Ellis County Observer.  Thirteen of those charged have pled guilty, and four members have been sentenced between 20 and 30 years.  Around 600 people from around the world were members of the bulletin board, which has been shut down.  The bulletin board used a server in Atlanta.  As Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer explained, the site “was a living horror.”  John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to say how investigators overcame the technological precautions used by some of the members.  He did tell the New York Times: “To those inclined to abuse small children, know this: this isn’t a place on the Internet or the planet in which you are truly safe.  It may take us some time, it may take us some effort, but we will find you regardless of a screen name, a proxy server or an encryption effort, period.” Read More

1

The Pluses of Google+

I love shiny new toys. Sometimes, its a crisp new book (Pauline Maier, for one… thanks Gerard!); other times, it’s something plush and adorable, like the yellow Angry Birds doll my 5-year-old nephew “bought” for me last month. Last week, it was Google+.

Google+ is social networking done the Google way. The soft launch is part of Google’s long-running master plan to enter the social networking market and try to do it better than the basically moribund MySpace and the supposedly plateauing Facebook. We are told that Google+’s chief asset is its ability to simulate real relationships, and our different interactions with different types of friends, on the Internet.

Google+ introduces us to circles, where you can take the 800 or so “friends” you would have on Facebook and break them down on your own terms. You have friends, acquaintances, co-workers, well-wishers, frenemies, those-guys-you-met-at-that-terrible-bar, whatever. And, you can use these classifications to tailor your interactions, thus avoiding the problem of your mother, sister or child accessing a picture meant for your pals.

There are also sparks, which are news and video aggregators. It is easy enough to tell a spark what you enjoy doing when you’re not working on important affairs of state, thus allowing you to spend “more time wasting time without wasting your time looking how to waste time.”

And, hangouts are Google+’s attempts to recreate chance encounters. I’m not sure these are completely functioning yet, though. Remember when you used to visit the mall or walked through the West Village and ran into someone you hadn’t seen in years? Hangouts attempt to turn an online social networking into a place where anything social can happen, only with Google+, you “bump” into someone through a video message.

Let’s assume for the moment that all this works as well as we hope and that Google+ allows us to recreate real life in the virtual realm. Facebook is not really trying to recreate real life and simulate precisely how we interact with one another in the physical world. It is trying to supplement it, foster new interactions in new ways. At times, we don’t like that. Facebook’s forced socialization and privacy issues give many social networkers pause. There are many other digital technologies that seek to supplement our physical social world. Grindr, a geolocating social networking service for gay men, is one such example. Grindr allows its members to be out and about, smartphone in hand and find other gay men in the vicinity. Its purpose is to eschew traditional social networking that keeps you saddled to your computer and to let you physically meet people you have something in common with who may be living across the street or down the block. It is interactive, mobile and a multi-purpose tool.

So, Google+ is trying to forge a different path, i.e., using the Internet as an extension of our physical social circles and to keep those circles the way they are now. Of course, that is not to say that Google+ will not bring us closer to new friends — we can still interact with friends of friends, let people we barely know into our network and share content with whomever we please. But, Google+’s chief draw appears to be its greater fidelity to real life. If that is true in the long run, as Google works out the kinks and listens to its users, is that what we want in our online social networks?

The benefits are clear — we can avoid the grandmother seeing you at the bar problem. But there are also disadvantages — we lose the liberating potential of reaching new people. What do you think?

0

Technology Musings

Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy.  In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.”  The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.

The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well.  Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties.  But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around.  Information has permanence on the internet.

Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet.   Read More

Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization: A Must-Read on Where “Knowing” is Going

Google’s been in the news a lot the past month. Concerned about the quality of their search results, they’re imposing new penalties on “content farms” and certain firms, including JC Penney and Overstock.com. Accusations are flying fast and furious; the “antichrist of Silicon Valley” has flatly told the Googlers to “stop cheating.”

As the debate heats up and accelerates in internet time, it’s a pleasure to turn to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything, a carefully considered take on the company composed over the past five years. After this week is over, no one is going to really care whether Google properly punished JC Penney for scheming its way to the top non-paid search slot for “grommet top curtains.” But our culture will be influenced in ways large and small by Google’s years of dominance, whatever happens in coming years. I don’t have time to write a full review now, but I do want to highlight some key concepts in Googlization, since they will have lasting relevance for studies of technology, law, and media for years to come.

Cryptopicon

Dan Solove helped shift the privacy conversation from “Orwell to Kafka” in a number of works over the past decade. Other scholars of surveillance have first used, and then criticized, the concept of the “Panopticon” as a master metaphor for the conformity-inducing pressures of ubiquitous monitoring. Vaidhyanathan observes that monitoring is now so ubiquitous, most people have given up trying to conform. As he observes,

[T]he forces at work in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world are the opposite of a Panopticon: they involve not the subjection of the individual to the gaze of a single, centralized authority, but the surveillance of the individual, potentially by all, always by many. We have a “cryptopticon” (for lack of a better word). Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance: instead, we don’t seem to care.

Of course, that final “we” is a bit overinclusive, for as Vaidhyanathan later shows in a wonderful section on the diverging cultural responses to Google Street View, there are bastions of resistance to the technology:
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1

Facebook as Hitbook, Sigh

Facebook and other social network sites offer much to celebrate.  They have given new life to long-standing relationships and cemented new ones while providing innovative means to share ideas and engage with different communities.  Offline relationships are extended online.  Student groups meet in classrooms as well as on YouTube channels.  Employees talk in the office and online (sometimes even to critique their bosses with co-workers, see Kashmir Hill‘s always- thought-provoking commentary).

Naturally, with all of this socializing comes the far darker side of human relationships.  Social network sites sponsor threats, harassment, and hatred, leading to important, though always outmatched, voluntary efforts to address destructive behaviors.  Given the scale of these sites, the Chief Safety Officers of those social network sites need help identifying malicious activity that their Terms of Service prohibit.  This summer, Facebook and the police learned about another disturbing case: a Chester County man tried to use Facebook to hire a hit man to kill a woman who accused him of rape.  In July, the woman called the police after seeing a posting on the man’s Facebook page that offered $500 for “a girls head.”  The man later updated the posting, saying that he “needed the girl knocked off right now.”  As the Huffington Post recently reported, the man pleaded guilty to rape, criminal solicitation of murder, and other counts.

5

Wikipedia’s Efforts to Close its Gender Gap

Time magazine recently did a true-to-form story on Wikipedia, where guest editors (and our very own featured author) Jonathan Zittrain (see here too), Robert McHenry, Benjamin Mako Hill, and Mike Schroepfer assisted in writing/editing/re-writing a feature entitled Wikipedia’s “Ten Years of Inaccuracy and Remarkable Detail.” As the piece explained, Wikipedia just celebrated its 10th birthday.  The site has 17 million entries in more than 250 languages, quite a feat given that Encyclopedia Brittanica only has 120,000 and only in English.  The Time wiki-like piece notes that Wikipedia has a “diverse, international body of contributors.”

According to The New York Times, most contributors are male.  More specifically, “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are female.”  This, in turn, has skewed the gender disparity of topics and emphasis.  Wikimedia’s executive director Sue Gardner explains that topics favored by girls such as friendship bracelets can seem short when compared with lengthy articles on something boys typically like such as toy soldiers or baseball cards.  The New York Times notes that a category with five Mexican feminist writers might not seem so impressive when compared with 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons.”

Why is this so?  Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia,” explains that Wikipedia’s early contributors shared “many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd,” including an ideology that “resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.”  He notes that adopting an ideology of openess means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists.”  The demographics of Wikipedia’s editors may also stem, in part, from the tendency of women to be “less willing to assert their opinions in public.”

How Wikipedia is now, and has been, responding is worth noting.  Sue Gardner told the Times that she hopes to raise the share of women contributors through subtle persuasion and outreach to welcome newcomers to Wikipedia.  Dave Hoffman and Salil Mehra’s terrific piece Wikitruth Through Wikiorder demonstrates that the site has already fostered efforts to create a more inclusive environment.  As Hoffman and Mehra explain, Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee whose volunteer members rule on disputes and set forth concrete rules on how users should behave.  The Arbitration Committee has sanctioned users who make homophobic, ethnic, racial or gendered attacks or who stalk and harass others.  According to Hoffman and Mehra’s empirical study, in cases when either impersonation or anti-social conduct like hateful attacks occur, the Administrative Committee will ban the user in 21% of cases.  Wikipedia’s more than 1,500 administrators, in turn, enforce those rules.  Wikipedia also permits users to report impolite, uncivil, or other difficult communications with editors in its Wikiquette alerts notice board.

5

The Ugly Persistence of Internet Celebrity

Many desperately try to garner online celebrity.  They host You Tube channels devoted to themselves. They share their thoughts in blog postings and on social network sites.  They post revealing pictures of themselves on Flickr.  To their dismay though, no one pays much attention.  But for others, the Internet spotlight finds them and mercilessly refuses to yield ground.  For instance, in 2007, a sports blogger obtained a picture of a high-school pole vaulter, Allison Stokke, at a track meet and posted it online.  Within days, her picture spread across the Internet, from message boards and sport sites to porn sites and social network profiles.  Impostors created fake profiles of Ms. Stokke on social network sites, and Ms. Stokke was inundated with emails from interested suitors and journalists.  At the time, Ms. Stokke told the Washington Post that the attention felt “demeaning” because the pictures dominated how others saw her rather than her pole-vaulting accomplishments.

Time’s passage has not helped Stokke shake her online notoriety.  Sites continuously updated their photo galleries with pictures of Stokkes taken at track meets.  Blogs boasted of finding pictures of Stokke at college with headings like “Your 2010 Allison Stokke Update,” “Allison Stokke’s Halloween Cowgirl Outfit Accentuates the Total Package,” and “Only Known Allison Stokke Cal Picture Found.”  Postings include obscene language.  For instance, a Google search of her name on a safety setting yields 129,000 results while one with no safety setting has 220,000 hits.  Encyclopedia Dramatica has a wiki devoted to her (though Wikipedia has faithfully taken down entries about Ms. Stokke).

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2

Love’s Labour’s Lost in Cyberspace

Early this month, a class of  Match.com subscribers sued the service for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith, and negligent misrepresentation in federal district court in the Northern District of Texas.  The complaint alleges that while Match.com claims to have “millions of active subscribers, well over half of the profiles on its site belong to inactive members who have canceled their membership or allowed their subscriptions to lapse and/or are fake and fraudulent profiles posted by scammers and others.”  It asserts that as for inactive members, Match.com “takes virtually no action to remove these profiles . . . for months and sometimes years,” only removing them after former subscribers call to complain.  As to fake and fraudulent profiles, the complaint states that Match.com “makes little to no effort to vet, police, or remove these profiles.”

According to the complaint, Match.com intentionally failed to remove the profiles of inactive and former subscribers in order to induce members of the class action “to either become or remain paying members.”  The complaint claims that Match.com: (1) “routinely and intentionally represents that there are significantly more active members on the website than there actually are,” (2) falsely labels profiles as “active within [#] days” when the accounts belong to canceled and/or inactive accounts,” (3) sends “former and inactive members ‘winks’ informing them that a potential match is trying to contact them in order to get them to renew their subscriptions (only to find out after they do so that the supposed seeker does not exist), (4) fails “to effectively vet new profiles to determine whether they are fake or fraudulent despite easily discernible ‘red flags’ (including repeated use of imagery and language, and use of notorious IP address origins), and (5) misleads users into believing that the site has equal numbers of male and female members while the “makeup of actual active users is heavily skewed towards single males.”

To support their allegations, Plaintiffs point to changes in the site’s architecture.  For instance, whereas members could themselves hide their profiles after becoming inactive members from 2006 to 2007, only Match.com employees could block a member’s profile from view beginning in 2008.  The complaint also recounts the testimony of former Match.com employees who attest that the company’s database included a “huge” number of “filler profiles.”  As for the complaint’s allegation that Match.com failed to police the site for fraudulent members, the plaintiffs seemingly point to language in the Terms of Use agreement that permits Match.com to review and delete content that violates its terms.  They also suggest that “computer technologies exist that would allow the company to effectively and efficiently police its website for the benefit and safety of its customers.” Read More