They Said it Better Than I Can

I’m a bit ashamed and embarrassed that I haven’t written anything here in so long!  The fall semester was very, very busy but one reason why I haven’t written anything is that there are so many eloquent, informed people who have written things that I want to say much better than I could have done so.  Here are some of the blogs that I follow that regularly impress me:

  • e-Literate: Led by Michael Feldstein, this group of authors routinely post insightful and detailed information about technology and U.S. higher education e.g., What Faculty Should Know About Adaptive Learning, State of the Anglosphere’s Higher Education LMS Market: 2013 Edition.  Some of their posts are a little bit hyperbolic and occasionally shrill (presumably to attract more readers), particularly this post.  Despite the occasional over-the-top writing, this blog was an excellent source of information about the recent kerfuffle about Purdue University’s learning analytics software.
  • Culture Digitally: This is another group blog, one that describes itself as “a gathering point around which scholars who study of cultural production and information technologies can think together.”  This blog doesn’t focus on higher education but it has posts from some wonderful researchers on the cutting edge of culture and technology.  I particularly like this recent post discussing “big data” and its potential shortcomings.
  • The Young and the Digital: This website is a companion to S. Craig Watson’s 2010 book of the same name.  It’s a great book and it’s very nice to be able follow the author as he continues to develop and share his thoughts.  This post is a great example of the good thoughts that are shared on this website.
  • Microsoft Social Media Collective Research Blog: The title of this blog tells you almost all you need to know.  This is a group of exceptional researchers who appear to have significant freedom to conduct ethical research without being unduly influenced by their employer.  This post listing some researchers’ opinion of the most influential journal article has a year’s worth of reading for anyone interested in social media.
  • Josie Ahlquist’s blog: A colleague – Joe Sabado, who has a nice blog of his own! – recently turned me on to Josie’s website.  She’s an EdD student who is beginning a dissertation focusing on “social media communication tools in higher education, focusing on college student use and educational methods to equip students to be positive productive citizens on emerging technologies.”  She is very well-informed and is doing a wonderful job of sharing and synthesizing the information she is discovering as she is completing her literature review. I’m very excited to follow her as she begins her research!

How I (Don’t) Use Social Media

This is an uncomfortable post to write. I’ve never wanted to use this blog to discuss personal issues and it feels very vain and self-important to describe some of my own personal habits and practices. But every time I’ve mentioned the things below people are intrigued and interested. Some people are even relieved to find someone else with some of the same practices. So here goes…

My personality strongly shapes my use of social media. I am introvert and an intensely private person. I am also learning in very profound ways what kinds of relationships I want in my life and I am working very hard to find and nurture them.

Specific ways in which my personality and interests shape my social media practices:

  • Facebook: I don’t use Facebook. Like most people my age (33), I was an avid Facebook user for several years. But I don’t use use it anymore unless I specifically receive an e-mail message or a personal request of some sort. I don’t dislike Facebook or people who use it. I simply reached the conclusion that it was not meeting my needs. I realized several months ago that I didn’t like reading about my friends’ and colleagues’ lives because it was unfulfilling. I don’t want to read about their lives – I want to be part of them. For me, it feels cheap and even a bit hollow to read about and see pictures from someone’s life when I want to be part of that life. Maybe it’s selfish but it’s important to me that we reinforce our relationships in substantial ways. I want to hear about your weekend over coffee, not Facebook. (And I never got anything out of Facebook as a scholar, student, or professional; maybe I just never looked in the right places for substantive information or support.)
  • Twitter: I don’t follow anyone. I typically use Tweetdeck and I have it set up to search for several hashtags and subjects of interest to me. It’s how I try to avoid the banality of Twitter: I don’t care what you had for breakfast but I do care if you have something to say about a passion we share.
  • LinkedIn: I don’t have a LinkedIn account. The idea of pure networking – meeting and “connecting” with people just to use them – is morally offensive to me. People are not means to ends and I refuse to use them in that manner. Yes, I’m sure that I’ve got a very skewed and probably incorrect perception of LinkedIn and how it’s used (e.g. I know some people love the discussion forums and get quite a bit of professional knowledge and support there). But I’m okay with that and with those who use LinkedIn; I just don’t think it’s for me.
  • FourSquare: I don’t have a smartphone so naturally I don’t use FourSquare or other similar tools. Even if I had a smartphone I don’t think I’d be comfortable broadcasting my physical location (although it would simply alternate between “work” and “home” most of the time). I don’t agree that “privacy is dead” but I think that we’re (often unwittingly) doing our damndest to kill it.

I’m not a Luddite or an antisocial recluse. I just have a very good idea what I want out of life and my relationships with others and I don’t care to use tools that don’t contribute to my life in the ways that I believe are positive. I know there is a price to be paid for a refusal to use these tools or an unusual usage of them. I’m okay with that.

Maybe you think I’m wrong or misguided. I’d love to hear from you! And I’d love it even more if we could spend time together substantively addressing and appreciating one another. So let’s not discuss this on my Facebook wall. Let’s discuss this over coffee, drinks, or dinner.

Yes, I know that’s unrealistic and we’re destined to have most of our conversations in blog comments, Twitter messages, e-mail, and – if we’re lucky – Skype. But a guy can dream, right?

Students No Longer Viewing Facebook as “Theirs” ?

The common view – one which I shared until recently – is that college students view Facebook as “their” space and resent intrusions into their space by faculty, administrators, parents, and other non-students and old people.  The willingness of students in my online identity classes to recommend that employers and college admissions administrators actively use Facebook to investigate young people contradicts the common view. Perhaps as a result of our discussions or simply as an acceptance of the inevitable growth of SNSes to include non-students, many of the students in my classes did not exhibit “ownership” of Facebook and accepted as natural the presence of non-students.

The final project for the first semester of my online identity class was to recommend a policy for employers’ or universities’ use of SNSes in evaluating new hires or applicants, respectively.  For the second semester, I limited the assignments to only including college and university admissions, omitting the employer option as unnecessarily complicating the assignment.  In both cases, the responses covered the entire range of possibilities from “No, they should never use them!” to “Of course, they should use them!  And they shouldn’t even tell the applicant beforehand!”  Most of the assignments were reasonably well-crafted and supported by rationales indicating a solid grasp on the course materials as reasonable people can easily make different recommendations.

The plurality of recommendations in both semesters recommended that employers or college admission officers use SNSes to investigate applicants.  Some recommendations even explicitly noted that applicants didn’t need to be told. This surprised me.  I expected the exact opposite, guessing that my students would use this opportunity to argue for more privacy and respect for perceived boundaries.  Even several of the “don’t use SNSes” and “use SNSes only if…” recommendations did not focus on privacy, instead focusing on issues related to misinformation and lack of context to interpret SNS content.  From those responses, it’s clear that even if many of my students don’t necessarily welcome non-students into Facebook they know and expect it to happen anyway, accepting it as inevitable.

Some possible explanations or interpretations:

  1. The selected materials and ensuing discussions led many students to this conclusion.  Some of the materials and discussions did indeed focus on the growing amount of information available about each of us (the chapter on “digital dossiers” from Born Digital immediately jumps to mind).  The general topic of many of the discussions was “our identity is being shaped online whether we like it or actively participate; what do we do now?”  These discussions may have led some of my students to embrace a (pessimistic or realistic?) view of “the information is there so we all may as well use it!”  Unfortunately, I did not explicitly ask my students about their specific views on this topic at the beginning of the class so it’s hard to judge the impact of the class on their thinking.
  2. Younger students have different privacy expectations than older students.  Not only have the younger students been using them from a younger age and thus have likely formed different expectations and usage patterns, Facebook has been open to non-students for much longer (perhaps “always” for some).

Whatever the explanation – and it’s probably a bit of all of these and several more – it seems that many of the students in my classes had different privacy expectations than commonly presented as the norm among most college students.  My students may have grown into their expectations through discussions and readings focused specifically on SNSes. But it’s also possible that many of the ownership issues related specifically to Facebook were relatively short-lived and largely an artifact of its introduction as a student-only space.  Just as we are exploring how different people use SNSes differently, we must also explore how their uses and expectations change over time as both the SNSes and their users change and (hopefully) mature.

As a side note, the recommendations that seemed most interesting to me were those that gave applicants the option of allowing employers or admissions officers the option of investigating the applicants’ SNS profiles. This seemed to balance the inherent lack of context possessed by employers and admissions officers with the desire of applicants to use well-crafted profiles to present their identity or a portion thereof.  There are, of course, immense logistical and legal challenges with those recommendations but we didn’t address any of those topics in these classes.

Facebook and Grades: A More Critical Perspective

A real Facebook

Discussion about the possible relationship between college students’ use of Facebook and lower grades continued this week with the publication of a First Monday article addressing this topic.  This article follows up on previous discussions that followed the widespread publicity surrounding a poster session presented at AERA that found a correlation between Facebook usage and lower grades. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the research and related discussions have shed more light on this topic.  But it sure has been exciting to watch how quickly it’s all happened!

The discussions have followed two general threads: (a) the AERA research was poorly done and (b) the media got the story wrong. I’ll address the first thread in detail below.  The second thread has been relatively short-lived as there isn’t any real disagreement that many reporters and editors leaped (without looking, thinking, or corroberating) from “there appears to be a link between Facebook usage and low grades in this small sample of this very limited study” to “Facebook causes bad grades!!!”  That’s irresponsible and everyone agrees on that point.  There is also a third thread that focuses on “I can’t believe this is true but I don’t have any evidence!” but it’s not worth wasting any time on those ill-informed opinions.

In general, most of the current research into Facebook usage seems to lack sophistication (and much lacks rigor; how many of the articles based on surveys discuss or even hint at validity or reliability?). The researchers behind the poster session and this First Monday article both rightly acknowledge that they are discussing correlation but there is a whole lot going on that they don’t acknowledge or can’t account for with their selected (or mandated) methodologies and data.  In trying to understand college students, we go to great lengths at the shop where I work to isolate and separate the influence of different variables and we struggle with this mightily.  In many instances, we have to employ relatively-sophisticated analyses such as multilevel modeling to adequately control for different variables, particularly the institution-level and student-level variables.  In fact, I don’t recall seeing any mention of institution-level influences in any of the currently-available research even beyond this poster session and article (of course, one can’t do anything about this if one’s sample is only drawn from a handful of institutions, another significant limitation of nearly all Facebook research). I acknowledge that institution-level influences only account for a small proportion of the variance among most of the things we measure but omitting measurement and discussion of institutional characteristiscs altogether seems to indicate a lack of theoretical and methodological sophistication. To put it bluntly, this is the kind of thing that many non-higher education researchers often miss as it simply isn’t their area of expertise and why higher ed scholars desparately need to be actively contributing to this conversation.

What most people want to see is not correlation but causation.  In other words, we want to be able to say that (the use of ) Facebook causes lower grades.  That’s a damn hard claim to make.  Even under the best circumstances, establishing causation is fiendishly difficult.  It would require sophisticated measures and analyses. Given the previously-mentioned lack of sophistication in most of these studies I don’t know that these researchers collected the right kinds of data to even begin to do the work necessary to establish causation.  Frankly, I think it’s so complicated and the analysis would be so fragile and fraught with assumptions and caveats that it’s a fool’s errand.

Let me illustrate this with an example drawn from the work done by folks with whom I work.  We know, from several years of repeated data collection and analysis by different researchers, that more frequent use of technology is strongly associated with higher levels of student engagement.* But even with all of the data we have collected, the rigor of our data collection methods, and the sophistication of our analyses, we haven’t yet figured out what exactly causes these measures to be correlated.  In other words, although we know that students who frequently use technology do better in many different ways we don’t know why that happens.  There are many different possibilities but even after 10 years of poking at this we don’t have any explanations upon which we can hang our hat and say, “That’s it – that’s why!”

It’s interesting and instructive to read not only the First Monday article, the response from the AERA poster session author, and the response from the FM authors.  I am hopeful that we will see more sophisticated and better planned research and I am more hopeful that this will occur if those who are most knowledgeable of college students and American higher education continue working and contributing to this discussion.

* In the context of this discussion I must emphasize that although we do ask students about their grades our focus is almost always much wider than just that one measure; in fact, we see broadening discussions of educational quality beyond simple measures such as grades or rankings as one of our primary missions.  I also add that we typically don’t specifically ask in any of our surveys about SNS use.  We do have a set of experimental questions out right now that asks about this but if I recall correctly the question is limited to communication about academic issues as we’re exploring how students and faculty communicate and collaborate.  Our colleagues at UCLA have explored this general issue, however, and it’s worth looking at their work if you haven’t already done so.

Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned

Several days ago, I submitted (and then corrected) final grades for my undergraduate online identity course. I am planning to teach the course again next semester and I’ll certainly be making some changes based on this first semester of the class.

First, Clay Shirky’s right: the first challenge when working with young students in discussions about their use of the Internet and other technologies is to help them understand just how different their uses of these technologies are compared to previous generations’. For many of the youngest students, cell phones, MySpace, and wireless Internet access have almost always existed and they have always been part of their lives. While for many of us these technologies and the ideas underlying them – flexible and changing ideas of privacy, incredibly public and intimate expressions of identity, and indexable, searchable, and permanent artifacts – are new and world-changing, for these students these ideas are old-hat and completely non-notable. Next semester, I need to work harder at the very beginning of the class to help my students understand how new and unexplored all of these technologies are for all of us. I’m not quite sure how to do that and figuring that out is my homework during the holiday break.

The final assignment elicited some surprising insight and ideas from my students. In a nutshell, they were to make policy recommendations for the use of social networking services (SNSes) for either a college admissions office or a company hiring new college graduates. The recommendations spanned the entire range of potential recommendations from “they must investigate the profile of every applicant” to “they can never investigate the profiles of applicants” with varying levels of quality support and rationale for the recommendations.

The most surprising and interesting recommendation, submitted by a few students, was that applicants should be able to decide whether or not their SNS profiles are fair game. That is not a recommendation I had anticipated and the justifications were very interesting. Essentially, these students really grabbed hold of some of the ideas we discussed and read that related to the active role we can take in shaping and understanding how we are presented and described online. I haven’t quite figured out how practical the recommendation is when scaled up to institutions or corporations that have thousands of applicants but it’s a great answer for this final assignment and it shows a wonderful grasp of some very important ideas.

I wish I had more time to tackle ideas of privacy and context.  That’s something else I will see if I can work into the course next semester although I am not very hopeful. Given the length of the course, it’s impossible to even touch on every important and interesting topic. I hope to expand the course to a full semester and teach in one of our living-learning centers next year with the hope that will allow me to add these topics and have enough time to explore them.

SIGUCCS Web 2.0 Preconference Worskhop

Yesterday afternoon, I presented a 3-hour pre-conference workshop at this year’s SIGUCCS fall conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference is a rather small one with about 350 participants and it focuses on IT support in higher education. My workshop was entitled “Web 2.0: Social Software Foundations and Implications;” for this audience I think that my session fell more into the “professional development” category than the “help me solve an immediate problem” category. Attendance was light (9 signed up; 8 attended) but I know that my approach is a bit “out there” for this audience. There aren’t many workshops or programs at this and similar conferences that are as heavy on theory and history as mine but I view those as incredibly important and necessary, particularly in the context of pre-conference workshops as many of those are explicitly devoted to professional development topics.

The PowerPoint slides from the workshop can be found here. My speaker notes, good and bad, are there too. I removed the videos from the file due to both copyright concerns and to keep the file size manageable. The file is still a bit large (7.3 mb) probably because there are 70 slides and some of them have large images culled from Flickr. Of course, the original content I developed for the workshop is all available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License (I forgot to include that in the actual session) so if you’d like to use this for non-profit work then you’re free to do so.

The content of the workshop was broken into 3 sections:

  1. Web 2.0: We discussed common perceptions of Web 2.0 and then worked to come to a common definition of Web 2.0. We then compared our ideas with those of Tim O’Reilly. I then presented John Suler’s ideas about Online Disinhibition as important ideas in understanding the draw and success of Web 2.0 tools.
  2. Social Network Sites (SNSes): This section was an update and compression of a pre-conference session I presented last year at ResNet. This time, however, we had several new pieces of research upon which to draw: boyd and Ellison’s JCMC article Social Network Sites: Definition, history, and scholarship and the book Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, particularly boyd’s chapter. Older research that is still informative and used in this section of my workshop includes Brett Bumgarner’s research (first an undergraduate thesis and now a First Monday article) and Matthew Vanden Boogart’s 2006 Master’s thesis.
  3. Technical Foundation and Examples: The final section was an attempt to extract some technical foundations from the previous discussions and present some examples. I’m afraid this section was the weakest of the three, particularly the “technical” part. The examples are okay and I know that attendees here at SIGUCCS will have the opportunity to see many more examples of much more recent vintage at presentations here at the conference. Some of the examples were drawn from NASPA’s Tech Tools program.

The pre-conference workshop itself went well. Although the group was small the discussions were great and we all interacted very well. It was particularly interesting that in this small group over one-third of the participants were from countries other than the United States; one attendee was Canadian and two were Norwegian. I felt bad that my perspective (shaped by my experiences, education, and attention) was so American but our Canadian and Norwegian colleagues were fantastic in helping us out and sharing their experiences and perspectives.

I’m hanging out in Portland for the next few days and attending some of the programs here at SIGUCCS in between reading, writing, and other classwork (no sight-seeing for me unless those sights are in or right next to the hotel). The topics of discussion here at SIGUCCS are not challenges I face in my current position but I am about to start performing some research on full-time higher ed staff who supervise student employees so there is still a lot here for me to pick up and absorb.

2008 NASPA Conference: Facebook, Blogs, and Other Electronic Communication: How Students Construct Learning Environments through Social Networking Sites

The final technology-related program I attended on Monday was entitled “Facebook, Blogs, and Other Electronic Communication: How Students Construct Learning Environments through Social Networking Sites” and it was an extremely well-attended session; every seat was filled with some people standing in the back and I would guess there were over a hundred attendees. The presentation focused on survey results from the University of Michigan that asked Michigan students about their use of tools such as Facebook and blogs. The PowerPoint file for the presentation can be found on their Web site.

The general tone of the presentation – this is what our students are doing and we must be aware of its many effects instead of being fearful or controlling – is the right message. That we are still having to work to get that message out is disappointing but at least it seems to be getting easier to get that message out.

The presenters began by discussing CIRP data specific to Michigan students but they quickly moved on to data specific to their original research. I refer readers to the PowerPoint linked in the first paragraph for all of the specific data points.

The major findings of their research into students’ use of online communities generally echo the findings of other researchers who have focused on college students’ use of Facebook. In particular, they discovered that the top two activities of respondents to their surveys were messaging people they know and viewing profiles of people they know. The researchers further asserted that the two areas most impacted by online communities is community and identity development. They arrived at these conclusions by navigating and using multiple frameworks, including Tinto’s persistence theories and a community psychology perspective. Other specific results of the UM surveys also support or are very similar to others’ findings that one of the primary uses of online communities is for keeping in touch with high school friends.

Despite the prominent use of online communities by respondents to form and maintain social connections, the respondents largely disagreed with statements that implied or outright stated that it would be more difficult to meet new people or stay connected without online communities. These questions were discussed in the context of negating the perception that use of or participating in online communities detracts from or takes the place of face-to-face communication.

Not all of the questions UM asked on their surveys focused on online communities. They also asked about blogging and media-sharing communities, including video- and photo-sharing communities. These results, although interesting and informative, generated no discussion.

The researchers then discussed their assertion that use of online communities ties in with identity development, specifically Chickering’s “developing autonomy” and “establishing identity” vectors. This is similar to qualitative research performed by five IU Master’s students done a couple of years ago analyzing the interplay of Facebook use with Chickering’s “developing mature interpersonal relationships” vector. Similar to the IU results, the Michigan results did not appear to support the tie between online community use and participation and Chickering’s vectors.

These results seem counterintuitive to me, particularly in the case of the UM results related to identity. In particular, it seems that if the presentation accurately reflects the UM survey then there are some pretty serious methodological issues. Self-identity is much more complex than simply asking someone if you “believe who you are is reflected in your [Facebook] profile” or if “by using online communities I can better express myself.” I’m not even convinced that exploratory research in this area on these topics can be adequately done using surveys. They seem to be topics that require personal interaction – interviews, focus groups, etc. – to capture and explore the intricacies and ambiguities of human interaction and identity development.

Throughout the presentation, the presenters addressed issues of how and whether administrators should use Facebook. They recommended that administrators use peer educators in many cases rather than creating Facebook profiles and using those profiles to seek out and connect with students. Similar to others who have made recommendations regarding administrator use of Facebook, the UM presenters recommended that administrators only form online relationships with students when the students initiate them. Further, they insisted that administrators view Facebook tools such as groups, events, and fan pages as complementary tools to use alongside other tools such as Web pages. Much of the discussion after the formal presentation during the question-and-answer session focused on those Facebook tools.

Another question from the audience asked about the advertising in Facebook and how the UM administration viewed the advertising in relation to official and unofficial UM use of Facebook and Facebook tools. They are not happy with the advertisements but it’s out of their control. The question, however, was very insightful and indicative of the kinds of questions and concerns we should all be exploring as we move forward with commercial tools and environments.

Others described their experiences on their campus and with their students. One described how students on his campus viewed as “cool” compared to other administrators because of his use of Facebook. Another described how students on his campus attacked, defended, and then discussed policy changes made by campus administrators.

When one audience member asked about the danger of students creating unofficial groups or fan pages misrepresenting the university, other audience members replied by advising against creating new policies aimed specifically at Facebook. One audience member reminded the original questioner that existing policies almost certainly covered such a situation. Other audience members suggested that a high level of control over students’ use of Facebook is impossible.

Other audience members discussed using Facebook groups for and during new student orientation. One use is to create Facebook groups for each orientation group well before the actual on-campus orientation session. Discussion questions were created for each group were posted along with events.

The session was packed to the gills and there was a ton of excellent discussion after the formal presentation. Other topics of discussion not fully documented here included one anecdote about a conduct case involving harassment on Second Life, (positive and negative) use of Facebook to select roommates, and education of students about their profiles and how others view them.

The lack of methodological details makes it very hard to evaluate the quality of the original research.  In particular, the discussion was couched in the language of inference where the responses and characteristics of the respondents were assumed to reflect those of the entire population. Without knowing the particulars of the methodology, it’s impossible to evaluate if this can be done with the results of these surveys.

On the one hand, it was somewhat disappointing that some of the questions during the session were extremely basic; I had hoped that we had gotten past that point already. However, many of the questions and observations were very interesting and insightful. More importantly, the answers to the questions from both the presenters and audience members were often right on mark and consistent with current research. Despite the problems with their research, these researchers are on the right track.

NASPA Leadership Exchange SNS Article

I’m traveling to Boston right now to attend the NASPA conference and bad weather in the midwest and northeast is making travel…interesting. I found myself with a few extra hours in Atlanta’s airport when I checked my e-mail and found the new copy of Leadership Exchange in my Inbox.

In the new (Spring 2008) issue of Leadership Exchange are two articles related to technology. One is in the regular Technology Tools column and it’s entitled “The Great Divide in Social Networking Sites.” I wrote the article and you’re welcome to download a copy of the article as it was when I originally submitted to the editors a month or two ago. The article discusses apparent differences between users of SNSes based on race and class. Such differences are always interesting to student affairs professionals as they are keen advocates of the less privileged (which you should not read as implying that there is necessarily an injustice involved here; many people simply like to congregate in and socialize with relatively homogeneous groups of people who resemble themselves).

The other article is the (regular?) “Web Sites to Watch” column. NASPA’s editors specifically solicited information about Social Networking Services from the Technology KC. Included in the list are Digg, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Ning. I’m very pleased to see the Technology KC continue to grow and gain exposure!

State of the Net: Social Networking Privacy: An Oxymoron?

The second item on the agenda of this year’s State of the New conference of specific interest to me and appropriate for this blog was a panel discussion of social networking sites (SNS) and privacy. The panel was formally titled “Social Networking Privacy: An Oxymoron?” and it was moderated by Tim Lordan of the Internet Education Foundation. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Jon Leibowitz introduced the discussion. Unfortunately, this appears to be one of the sessions that was not recorded or at least the recording is not yet on the Net Caucus’ Web page.

The panelists in this discussion included:

In his introduction, FTC Commissioner Leibowitz discussed some of the thoughts the FTC has in relation to SNSes:

  • Two documents regarding SNSes and privacy the FTC has produced, one aimed at parents and the other at “tweens and teens,” have been viewed over 2 million times.
  • The FTC has recently asked for individuals involved in nefarious activities on MySpace be held in contempt of court.
  • If Facebook had not reacted as quickly as did when uses rebelled against the initial rollout of Beacon, a feature that allows business to connect with their visitors’ Facebook profile, Leibowitz would have instructed his staff to look into potential Facebook violations of federal law (I think he said “COPA” but I’m not sure I wrote that down right; hasn’t COPA been struck down as unconstitutional?).
  • When it comes to collecting or sharing user data, it’s always better to have a “true opt-in.” For all of its faults, Beacon was at least transparent.
  • It is not inconceivable that very popular SNSes may one day be forced to abide by the First Amendment as other owners of privacy property have been forced. In fact, this was not the only time this very issue was raised during the conference; it came up again in a later panel discussion involving press rights in Second Life.

After Leibowitz’s introduction, the panel got off to a lively start. Lordan opened the discussion by asking the panelists if SNSes are so different from other operations that collect data such as e-commerce merchants and search engines as to merit special consideration. Goldman and Kelly seemed to reply in the negative with the view that SNSes are an evolution of communication media. boyd expressed disagreement and asserted that SNSes differ from other operations in that SNSes collect not only data about you but also data about your social network. So by giving away “your” data you are also giving away, by some measure, “your friends'” data at the same time since.

boyd continued by giving examples that related to the concept of “outting.” This is a term traditionally used in to refer to the process of homosexual persons revealing their homosexuality; it’s a very personal and often private experience often fraught with emotion and personal risk. It can be used in other situations, however, to refer to having information about oneself revealed by another without your permission. The specific example used by boyd was that although she is careful not post photos of herself drinking online there is nothing stopping her friends from posting such photos and then labeling (“tagging”) boyd in the photos this outting boyd as one who drinks alcohol.  So we can not think of data residing on and in SNSes as data merely about one person but we must think “in terms of network models.”  Remember, two of the defining features of SNSes are that they (a) contain a list of other users with whom other users share a connection and (b) allow one to view and traverse the list of connections from one user to another.

The next set of exchanges focused on privacy policies and the “illusion of privacy” they provide. There seemed to be general agreement that the current paradigm of posting privacy policies laden with legal jargon incomprehensible to the general public is ineffective. Goldman opined that asking consumers simple questions to determine their preferences might be a good way to go about things. Interestingly, there was no discussion of machine-readable privacy policies (P3P); has this idea died off completely, perhaps becoming outdated before it ever rolled off the assembly line?

The discussion then shifted to advertising as Kelly and boyd sparred about how well or poorly Facebook users understand privacy controls on Facebook. Kelly asserted that the controls work. Coming at it from a different angle, boyd insisted that the controls don’t matter because youths believe that Facebook is a closed network (as contrasted with MySpace). She pointed the finger at mass media for establishing the idea that Facebook is closed but MySpace is open. The same scene – Kelly describing how a feature in Facebook works and boyd insisting that users don’t understand it – occurred later when discussing (again) Beacon. Goldman and boyd both seemed to strongly agree, as would I, that much of the consternation caused by the use of SNS data stems from the commercial nature of those intended uses.

Solove wisely reminded us that these privacy challenges are much broader than Facebook. He asserted, and presumably also asserts in his book (which is on my bookshelf and near the top of my “To Read” list), that our definitions of privacy are not static but are changing. He also asserted that because people don’t care about sharing information that does not mean that they don’t care about how that information is used. He illustrated this with an example in which he would someone might be okay in publicly stating their preference for a brand of bottled water but not okay with that statement being used to promote that brand (drink Aquafina water -it’s approved by Daniel Solove!). Solove then presented some of the changes he thinks may have to occur in the legal landscape to deal with privacy and reputation as our definitions and abilities have changed but I’ll let you buy and read his book to get those ideas.

I feel as if the entire conversation was strained on the part of Facebook’s official representative and I can’t blame him given the audience (there was nothing else scheduled concurrently with this discussion so nearly everyone was there). He seemed to spend most of his time defending his company which didn’t seem to advance the discussion in useful ways. Of course, that there were apparently many misconceptions about Facebook that he had to correct is itself telling.

The comments by Leibowitz (FTC would have investigated Facebook regarding Beacon, fictional Facebook and MySpace merger would be a vcry bad idea, companies must be held to task for what they say they are going to do or not do, etc.) were most interesting.

The focus of the conversation seemed to be on the fact that SNSes have large amounts of data and will continue to gather them. Users don’t know what’s being done with the data and the current mechanisms for telling consumers are inadequate. I was most disappointed in the lack of empirical data cited during the discussion, particularly in light of the relatively-recent Pew Internet & American Life Project data regarding users’ expectations of privacy.

Finally, I am again struck by the challenges posed by SNSes and other tools that force people to “flatten” their presentation and identity. We regularly and without thinking adapt our public presentation to the audiences we perceive and expect, moving from one presentation of self to others seamlessly. Environments that draw together disparate audiences (high school classmates, college classmates, professors, coworkers, family, etc.) and force people to adapt one presentation are very different from the environments in which we live our day-to-day lives. Those different presentations we exhibit are natural and important and it’s very confusing in many ways to be forced to put on the same presentation to every audience. That confusion and this flattening of our public identity is one of the key issues at the center of this discussion of privacy and SNSes.

Contradictory Messages from Educators

I’ve slacked off updating this blog for the last month or so as I tackled finals and increasing demands at work. So I’m going to slide back into things here with an easy one…

While many elementary and high schools have banned cell phones, at least one university has made them mandatory in the name of safety. Montclair State University requires “Full-Time Freshmen and Transfers” to have a cellphone from the institution’s chosen provider, Rave Wireless Services. The WCBS article and video linked to above quote a price of $420 a year which includes “just 50 peak voice minutes a month, but unlimited text messaging to any carrier, unlimited campus-based data usage, and student activated emergency GPS tracking.” The newer reports focus on the GPS device tracking capability as a safety feature.

So some students who matriculate to Montclair will be coming from schools where they’ve been told that their phones are dangerous distractions to a new institution that proclaims cell phones to be so important to students’ safety that they are mandatory. I know that the situation is much more complicated: colleges and universities are much larger, have many more students, and have more mature students. But the apparent contradiction seems pretty confusing. I suspect that the simple, uncomplicated (and thus wrong) messages each side has attempted to portray (“They’re evil distractions!” “No, they’re necessary safety devices!”) is the root cause of this apparent contradiction.

It’s very easy for those of us who work in higher education to ignore or merely be ignorant of what our counterparts in elementary and high schools are doing. Those of us who study college students (a pseudo-discipline we have labeled “student development”) very easily and quite often fall into the trap that everything important that happens to people happens between the time they step foot on campus and leave campus after graduation. But our students come to us shaped by their experiences throughout primary school, secondary school, and other life experiences. How damaging is it to all of education and all educators when we contradict one another (“Social Networking Services are bad!” “No, they’re good!”) without attempting to resolve or explain those apparent contradictions? And how confused and disillusioned do we make our students?