k4t3.org blog

deconstructing social media, digital privacy and internet culture

I spoke yesterday at ANZCA2013 in Fremantle, Australia about some of my latest work coming out of my PhD research on the philosophy Facebook, radical transparency and privacy in the context of a decade of Facebook (as of next year). A full paper is in the works, but here’s where I’m at so far.


The amount and scope of personal information shared on Facebook has markedly increased over the past decade (Stutzman, Gross, & Acquisti, 2013), a privacy shift that has been reflected in internet usage more broadly. In the words of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO: “[In 2004] when Facebook was just getting started, most people didn’t want to put information about themselves on the Internet. So, we got people through this really big hurdle of getting people to want to put up their full name, a real picture, mobile phone number…and connections to real people… (Zimmer, 2008). As Zuckerberg’s statement suggests, these changes were not accidental. Facebook has intentionally and consistently pushed users to to increase their personal disclosures, or, as those at Facebook describe it, to become more “open and connected” (Raynes-Goldie, 2012). As their revenue model is based on datamining  and targeted advertising, Facebook has a clear financial motivation to encourage its users to share more personal information on the site. However, profit is not the company’s only motivation. Underpinning Facebook’s push towards less privacy is a deep ideological belief that if if we all lived more open, transparent and less private lives, society would be more compassionate, equal and just (Smith, 2007). It is a belief that Zuckerberg and his “inner circle” at Facebook describe as “radical transparency” (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 207).

Based on an extensive archival and media analysis of primary and secondary materials gathered over the last decade (including developer changelogs, court documents, official blog posts, interviews, and first hand employee accounts) and this paper will examine how Facebook has attempted to impose radical transparency upon its users, and indeed the internet more broadly. Specifically, this paper will outline how the company, through a variety of mechanisms (technical, discursive, social and policy-based), has strategically transformed Facebook’s culture from a locked down, student-focused community to a much less private, more open social network where nearly a billion people actively share their personal information and daily activities — changes which, due to the global pervasiveness of Facebook, have had a ripple effect on privacy culture more broadly. Overall, this paper will document exactly how and why a decade of Facebook has significantly changed privacy online.


Works Cited
Kirkpatrick, D. (2010). The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Raynes-Goldie, K. (2012). Privacy in the Age of Facebook: discourse, architecture, consequences. PhD. Curtin University, Perth, Australia.

Smith, J. (2007). Facebook Friends Lists let you manage your ‘friends’ more effectively. Retrieved September 21, 2008 from http://www.insidefacebook.com/2007/12/19/facebook-friend-lists-let-you-manage-your-friends-more-effectively/

Stutzman, F., Gross, R., & Acquisti, A. (2013). Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook. Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality, 4(2). Retrieved from http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=jpc

Zimmer, M. (2008). Facebook’s Zuckerberg on Increasing the Streams of Personal Information Online. Retrieved from http://michaelzimmer.org/2008/11/08/facebooks-zuckerberg-on-increasing-the-streams-of-personal-information-online/


In July, my PhD thesis passed examination. Today, after making the required (thankfully minor) revisions, I submitted the final version to my university!

Download [pdf] or access via Curtin Library repository (eSpace)

Raynes-Goldie, K. (2012). Privacy in the Age of Facebook: Discourse, Architecture, Consequences. PhD. Curtin University, Perth, Australia.

Most academic and journalistic discussions of privacy on Facebook have centred on users, rather than the company behind the site. The result is an overwhelming focus on the perceived shortcomings of users with respect to irresponsible privacy behaviours, rather than an examination of the potential role that Facebook Inc. may have in encouraging such behaviours. Aiming to counterbalance this common technologically deterministic perspective, this thesis deploys a multi-layered ethnographic approach in service of a deep and nuanced analysis of privacy on Facebook. This approach not only looks at both the users and creators of Facebook, it examines Facebook Inc. in the context of historical, cultural and discursive perspectives. Specifically, this thesis details how the company’s privacy policy and design decisions are guided not simply by profit, but by a belief system which which encourages “radical transparency” (Kirkpatrick, 2010) and is at odds with conventional understandings of privacy. In turn, drawing on Fiske’s model of popular culture, users “make do” with the limited privacy choices afforded them by the site, while at the same time attempting to maximise its social utility. As this dynamic demonstrates, Facebook Inc. plays a critical, yet often overlooked role in shaping privacy norms and behaviours through site policies and architecture. Taken together, the layers of this thesis provide greater insight into user behaviour with respect to privacy, and, more broadly, demonstrate the importance of including critical analyses of social media companies in examinations of privacy culture.

Stuff which might be useful for Facebook, social media & privacy researchers

  • In Chapters 3 and 8, I expand on my definition and application of social privacy as distinct from institutional privacy (which I first wrote about in in 2010) — that is, the management of information and disclosure about oneself in the context of one’s friends, acquaintances, co-workers — as an important concept in understanding privacy behaviours and attitudes on Facebook.
  • In Chapters 5, 6 and 7, I provide the origins, manifestations and consequences of the philosophy of Facebook — or what I call “radically transparent sociality,” which essentially explain why Facebook doesn’t want to protect the privacy of its users.
  • Chapter 4 provides a comprehensive chronological overview of Facebook’s history and evolution from 2004 until 2011.
  • Throughout the thesis, particularly in Chapter 8, I show how the idea that youth are privacy unconcerned (sometimes described as the “privacy paradox“) is an oversimplification, and is largely inaccurate.


Think your privacy is protected because you have nothing to hide?

I was making a follow up appointment at my dermatologist’s office today. On the reception desk right in front of me, in plain view, was a print out of a patient call list. Certainly, this was a minor violation of patient confidentiality in itself. But what caused me real concern was what was written in the column labeled ‘comments’ next to one of the patients’ names: bitch. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Since the term is a gendered, hate word used to disempower uppity women, I consider bitch to be as offensive as any racial slur (and am surprised it’s still socially acceptable to use, while racial slurs are not). So, not only was this patient’s privacy being violated in a most unprofessional way, she had officially been labeled as a bitch in a document at her doctor’s office.

What was even more concerning was that this list was a print out, meaning there was also an electronic copy on the office computer. Anyone who uses the internet knows how easily information can move around, accidentally or consciously being repurposed for uses other than the one originally intended (see David Lyon’s concept of leaky containers). Anyone standing at the desk could see this list, but the potential audience of an electronic document is much wider and perhaps even more of a threat. Who knows if that description is in her medical records, or if it will follow her to future doctors. It has the potential to compromise her medical care, for example her doctor might be less open or accommodating given that she is apparently ‘a bitch.’

Yet another reason why paper-based heath records are better for protecting privacy.

PS I’m still trying to figure out what to do about this discovery as it is in violation of Ontario/Canadian privacy law, and I’m certain whatever ethics/codes govern Ontario doctors. I wanted to tell my doctor, but my next appointment isn’t for another year and there is no way to get to her unless I go through a receptionist.

Edit (July 21, 2011): Based on some of the feedback I’ve been getting, I’d like to further clarify that my main point was to highlight the unprofessionalism of what I saw at my dermatologist’s office. My point about e-health records was secondary, but seems to be getting more attention, so I’ll support/clarify that argument a bit more with a few other examples (below) of why digital records pose more of a threat than paper. And no, I am not saying paper is 100% safe and private, rather that it is more private than digital records. Furthermore, arguments that I should trust doctors to be professional and keep my info safe with digital records because they will follow the strict protocols are pretty much invalidated by what was written in that patient call list. Indeed, it is human error/unprofessionalism that is the main problem here, but the properties if digital databases/ICT magnify these issues.

1.) Digital records threaten privacy through obscurity – see the Facebook newsfeed example

2.) Digital records allow for function creep and leaky containers – see the reuse of a digital database of photos taken for driver licensing being used to identify potential criminals


UPDATE May 6, 2011, 14:07 ET Michael Oliveira (thanks!) has suggested that this is a legit email, even though the links go to a third party rather than a Sony domain – often a clear giveaway for phishing. In this case, Michael points out the third party does appear to be legit. However, the email was also suspicious to me because it for an SR number (which I was never given), moreover I don’t remember giving Sony my details when I called about the hack. Either way, you’d think Sony would do a better job making their emails look authentic given how careful people are now being.

Playstation sent me an email on April 27 to tell me that my information had probably been stolen in the hack, but couldn’t confirm anything. But it became pretty obvious when I started receiving way more spam than usual, including the following elaborate, targeted phishing email, playing on the fact that people have probably been calling Sony to get information about the hack. Not really a surprise, though:

Sony Computer Entertainment America:

Customer Satisfaction and Product Service Survey

***Please do not reply to this message. This is a system-generated email and your message will not be read.***


Thank you for your recent contact to Sony Computer Entertainment America Consumer Services Department for support with your PlayStation® system. We are very interested to hear about the service you received and would appreciate your feedback regarding your support experience.

We continually strive to provide you with high quality support and service and your comments and suggestions enable us to better serve your future needs. Please take a moment to complete this brief survey. (Completion time is five minutes or less). You will need either your 9-11 digit Service Request number (e.g. SR Number 1-xxxxxxxxx or W-xxxxxxxxx), or the phone number and area code you provided when you contacted us. To begin, please click the link below.

Click here to take this survey

We are unable to respond to replies sent to this survey email account, nor are we able to contact you directly if requested us to do so via your survey response. If you are in need of additional assistance regarding your PlayStation® system, please contact us at:

Email Consumer Services

Phone: 1-800-345-7669

Hours of Operation:

Monday through Saturday 6:00am – 8:00pm

Sunday 7:00am through 6:30pm

We appreciate the time taken to give us your thoughts and suggestions.


PlayStation Consumer Services

Sony Computer Entertainment America



You are receiving this email because you contacted SCEA for assistance with your PlayStation® system. If you believe you received this email in error, please contact Sony Computer Entertainment America Consumer Services Department at http://www.us.playstation.com/Corporate/ContactUs/ConsumerServices.

To unsubscribe from future PlayStation® surveys please click here.

Information provided will only be used to enhance customer experience and is not used to sell any products or services. To view our Privacy Policy, please visit http://www.us.playstation.com/support.aspx?id=privacypolicy.

Sony Computer Entertainment America 919 E. Hillsdale Blvd. Foster City, CA 94404


The Dark Side of Online Group Coupons

by kate raynes-goldie on April 2, 2011

in coupons,groupon,social media,toronto

UPDATED – April 28, 2011

Groupon and other similar group coupon sites are currently a huge online trend. Consider that Groupon recently turned down a buyout offer from Google for $6 billion, prompting Google to start their own version, Google Offers. For the uninitiated, these sites offer huge discounts at local businesses if a certain number of buyers put down their money up front. If the set limit of buyers isn’t met, the deal is off. The coupon merchant takes a percentage and the local business gets a large amount of cash before actually providing their product or service, as well as access to a large group of new, potentially loyal, customers.

Being a PhD student for the past few years has turned me into an excellent deal maven, so I love these sites. But a recent example here in Toronto has revealed the dark side of these coupons, especially as they become more popular. Aside from the privacy issues inherent in these sites (I suspect a large amount of revenue is actually coming from data mining and consumer research rather than the commissions on the coupons themselves), there is huge potential for abuse by business who want to game the system.

I’ve been watching this situation unfold for a few weeks now. I’ve sent it to a few media outlets and I’m disappointed no one has picked it up. These group coupons are becoming hugely popular, so people need to be aware of what they’re getting into.

Here’s the story: Starting in January, The Butchers – a local, family-owned business in Toronto – began using a number of the deal sites to offer huge discounts on their products (as much as $50 for $150 of meat). They used Dealgetters, Webpiggy (twice), DealByDay, DealFind and probably a few more that I haven’t found yet. They sold a huge volume of coupons, more than they could manage to fulfill. Customers started complaining, about rude staff, poor quality products (or no products at all), reduced business hours, massively inflated prices for coupon holders (but no one else) and even a refusal to honour the terms of the coupons. Some are even calling it a scam. Despite this, the folks at the Butchers keep using whatever new group coupon site they can find to do another offer. A rep at Webpiggy confirmed that by March, they had likely sold $1.5 million worth of coupons – a seemingly impossible amount of product for a small business to honour. The Webpiggy rep also told me that the owners of the Butchers are opening a fish store across the street, which suggests that all this group couponing is not an effort to get new customers (they’re doing a horrible job if that’s their goal), rather it is fundraising effort for their new business venture at the expense of customers who are not having their side of the bargain held up.

Full disclosure here: I bought a few of these coupons from Webpiggy. After being yelled at or hung up on by staff multiple times, getting my order delivered 3 weeks after placing it, and finding dirt and human hair on my chicken, I had them all refunded. The staff at the Butchers blamed the amount of coupons they had sold for their troubles, which makes it even more suspicious that they kept offering more deals on more sites.

The issue now, which presents an interesting problem for an unregulated industry, is that a large number of customers are asking for refunds. I was lucky, getting a refund early. But others are posting saying Webpiggy is no longer offering refunds, and Dealgetters has just told unhappy customers to deal with it. From what I’m reading on the forums, Webpiggy and other sites were covering the refunds out of their own pockets, rather than getting it back from the Butchers.

There is no clarity on who is responsible here. The customer is essentially at the mercy of the coupon provider, and has no recourse with the business itself if they are unhappy with the product or service. The local business provides the service, but the money is prepaid to someone else. It presents a very difficult situation for customers in cases like this where businesses are essentially gaming the system for their own benefit. In any other situation, I’m pretty sure this would be illegal.

I recently had a conversation with Jon DiMauro (who runs Evoke Salon) about this story. They ran their own group coupon deal but they did it the right way. His insight, which I thought was brilliant, was that the first rule of social media for businesses should be actually being a good, ethical business that treats its customers well. If you’ve got that down, you’re set in the social media space, and you don’t have to worry about hoards of angry comments and how to manage them. Social media marketers seem to just think its all about adding me on twitter and sending me spammy tweets, but that’s a whole other post.

Update (April 28):
The negative side of the Butchers’ group deals is finally getting some mainstream press coverage:

Ellen Roseman – Why You Might be Wary of Internet Coupons (Toronto Star)
Jim Richard’s Showgram (NewsTalk1010) (I did a radio interview for this one)

Also, a few very unhappy people have told me that the Butchers is now putting restrictions how much you can spend per visit on the $400 coupons (again, unfairly changing the terms of the contract they have with coupon holders). Last week it was $150 per visit, and on Monday it was $25, which considering their prices, doesn’t get you very much.

Update (April 18):
I got a hold of Eddie at Acadian Beef. This is what he told me:

- He does not supply organic meat to the Butcher
- He instead sells ‘naturally raised’ which he told me means ‘no antibiotics and they eat corn’ BUT are still ‘intensively farmed’ (a nice way of saying factory farmed).
- He himself buys meat from suppliers and cannot say exactly where or which farms the meat comes from.

What does this mean? The Butchers advertises and charges the same high price you’d pay for 100% certified organic meat from a local farmer, but you’re instead you’re getting factory farmed meat from who knows where, just like you would at the grocery store, except the animal is fed corn and no antibiotics. This perhaps explains how the Butchers is able to offer so many coupons and still make money.

To me,  factory farmed is not ‘naturally raised.’ The Healthy Butcher would agree. Check out their definition:

“Locally-raised using traditional methods, high quality, yet more wallet-friendly. Raised without antibiotics or hormones; humane treatment from birth to death.  The pasture or feed are not Certified Organic, and therefore may have been sprayed; however, most of the farmers we deal with run their farm to strict biodynamic standards.”

Update (April 17):
The Trueler has posted another update on Acadian Beef, one of the ‘organic farms’ that supplies The Butchers with the 100% certified organic meat advertised in Metro. A customer was actually frustrated enough to find out their address and drive out to check it out for himself (more investigative work than professional journalist Tim Kilazde did for his Globe & Mail piece, I might add!). And he took pictures:

I called them and left a message asking if they carry organic products and where they get their products from. But clearly, they are not a farm. Instead, the Trueler reports that they are a ‘Free-standing Meat Processor’ which is not held up to the same standards as the rest of the industry.

Update (April 16):
A few things to update you on:

1.) Dealticker took down their Butchers deal after The Butchers stated they would refuse to honour their vouchers. They are “now considering all legal remedies available against the Butchers.”

2.) The Globe and Mail ran a somewhat more balanced story that at least covered some of the customer concerns, but neglected to cover the bait and switch tactics that are being used by the Butchers. For example, how they keep reducing the store hours and now won’t honour coupons on weekends, or have raised prices for coupon holders or even switching to lower quality suppliers than those advertised on deals such as the one on Webpiggy in February.

3.) I’m also trying to track who is giving refunds. DealGetters tells me they have actually been refunding customers (and have refunded ‘thousands of dollars’) but people have yet to receive their refund checks or have not even received a reply to their refund request. Please let me know via the comments if you are having problems. Be sure to mention which company you got your coupon from.

Update (April 15) #2:
Without directly referring to the Butchers (it’s not hard to read between the lines) The Healthy Butcher has posted a detailed financial breakdown of why The Butchers coupon deal is financially unsustainable. Basically, if reputable stores like the Healthy Butcher who carry 100% certified organic meat offered the same deal, they’d quickly go under.

Update (April 15):
Dealticker is now offering yet another $100 for $400 deal, even though the Buytopia deal that ended yesterday was billed as the ‘last’ Butchers deal. In yet another bizarre turn, The Butchers have stated on their website that the Dealticker deal is ‘invalid.’ The Buytopia deal has now been extended to end past Dealticker’s, in an effort to keep it as ‘last’ deal.

Update (April 13):
It is becoming even more unclear just where The Butchers are getting their supply of ‘organic and naturally-raised meat.’ Of the suppliers listed on one of the original Webpiggy deals, Beretta Farms and Blue Haven Farms both have confirmed they have not supplied the Butchers in 2-3 years. Marcia Stevers of Blue Haven told me she was very angry that her name was being used, without her knowledge or consent. Even more baffling, was when I called Cascadian Farms (the supplier listed on the Buytopia deal today for the Butcher’s meat and poultry). Not only had they never heard of The Butchers, they don’t actually produce meat of any kind, just fruits and jams and cereals. [This was a copy error - Buytopia tells me the farm name is actually Acadian Beef]

Update (April 11, 2011):
Trueler.com has a done some analysis of the meat sold by the Butchers, suggesting they products are not at all organic or natural.

Update (April 9, 2011): The Butchers are now offering yet another deal: $400 worth of organic meat for $100 on Webpiggy. Speculations continue as to how they can possibly be making any money selling organic meat at that price.  The Butchers’ homepage has been updated with various notices regarding the coupons, including an indication that customer frustration seems to be reaching the boiling point:

The team at The Butchers have stated numerous times that you can NOT use more than one voucher at a time. Today we had numerous customers ask to use more than 1 voucher at a time and our staff politely said no. These customers then proceeded to cause scenes in the store. We are doing our best to accomodate all voucher holders, however we never expected to set a North American record with our voucher deals. Please be patient with us and our staff as it’s unfair to yell and scream at the staff if we run low on stock. Due to this behavior we will not honor vouchers on weekends.

Also interesting is mysterious explanation for the large number of deals, which leaves me wondering why they’d make contracts with almost every local online coupon provider:

We have been asked by many people why we continue to do these voucher deals. We agreed to do a specific # of deals and signed contracts so we are under contractual obligation. Once these contracts have been fulfilled we will no longer take part in these vouchers deals.

Update (April 2, 2011): Toronto Star’s coverage here. Clearly the journalist (Vanessa Lu) didn’t read the multiple angry threads on Chowhound or RedFlagDeals – the piece is basically nice PR for the Butchers, showcasing their ‘success.’

See also:
The Butchers on Yonge Street: Group-Buying Blowback

You Get What You Pay For – Why Deep Discount Coupons Aren’t Sustainable in the Food Industry

Chicago the epicentre of group buy deals but Toronto close with dozens of sites

The Butchers Scam on WebPiggy, Dealfind.. Additives in meat

Where do The Butchers “Organic meats” come from?

Meat Cheat

The Butchers Visit

The Butchers Deal

Ninety-nine bucks for $400 worth of organic meat. Seriously?

Why You Might be Wary of Internet Coupons

My Interview about the Butchers on Jim Richard’s Showgram (NewsTalk1010)


I was invited to write the annotated bibliography on social network sites, privacy and surveillance for the upcoming Cybersurveillance and Everyday Life workshop at the University of Toronto, and they’ve kindly allowed me to share it here. I’ve also included, below, some other resources I’ve found useful for general social network research.

[download full annotated bibliography]

citation: Raynes-Goldie, K. (2011) Annotated bibliography: Digitally mediated surveillance, privacy and social network sites. Cybersurveillance and Everyday Life: An International Workshop. University of Toronto, Canada. Retrieved from http://www.digitallymediatedsurveillance.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Raynes-Goldie-Digitally_mediated_surveillance_privacy_and_social_network_sites.pdf

Included citations:

Acquisti, A., & Gross, R. (2006). Imagined Communities: Awareness, Information Sharing, and Privacy on the Facebook. Proceedings from Privacy Enhancing Technologies Workshop, Cambridge, UK.

Albrechtslund, A. (2008). Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance. First Monday, 13(3). Retrieved from http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949

Andrejevic, M. (2005). The work of watching one another: Lateral surveillance, risk, and governance. Surveillance & Society, 2(4), 479-497. Retrieved from http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/articles2(4)/lateral.pdf

Barnes, S. B. (2006). A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States. First Monday, 11(9). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1394/1312

Beer, D. D. (2008). Social network (ing) sites… revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 13(2), 516-529.

Bigge, R. (2006). The cost of (anti-)social networks: Identity, agency and neo-luddites. First Monday, 11(12). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1421/1339

boyd, d., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230. Retrieved from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Brandtzæg, P. B., Lüders, M., & Skjetne, J. H. (2010). Too Many Facebook “Friends”? Content Sharing and Sociability Versus the Need for Privacy in Social Network Sites. Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 26(11-12), 1006-1030.

Dourish, P., & Anderson, K. (2006). Collective information practice: exploring privacy and security as social and cultural phenomena. Human-computer interaction, 21(3), 319-342. Retrieved from http://www.dourish.com/publications/2006/DourishAnderson-InfoPractices-HCIJ.pdf

Krishnamurthy, B., & Wills, C. E. (2008). Characterizing privacy in online social networks. Proceedings from Proceedings of the first workshop on Online social networks.

Lenhart, A. (2009). Adults and Social Network Websites. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Adults-and-Social-Network-Websites.aspx

Nissenbaum, H. (2010). Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Palen, L., & Dourish, P. (2003). Unpacking “privacy” for a Networked World. Proceedings from CHI 2003, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Raynes-Goldie, K. (2010). Aliases, creeping, and wall cleaning: Understanding privacy in the age of Facebook. First Monday, 15(1-4). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2775/2432

Solove, D. J. (2007). Privacy in an Overexposed World. In The Future of Reputation. Yale University Press. Retrieved from http://docs.law.gwu.edu/facweb/dsolove/Future-of-Reputation/text/futureofreputation-ch7.pdf

Stumpel, M. (2010). The Politics of Social Media: Facebook: Control and Resistance. Master’s thesis. University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Tufekci, Z. (2008). Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure Regulation in Online Social Network Sites. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 28(1), 20-36.

Utz, S., & Krämer, N. (2009). The privacy paradox on social network sites revisited: the role of individual characteristics and group norms. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 3(2). Retrieved from http://www.cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2009111001&article=1

Zimmer, M. (2008). The externalities of Search 2.0: The emerging privacy threats when the drive for the perfect search engine meets Web 2.0. First Monday, 13(3), 2008. Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2136/1944

Additional Resources
danah boyd’s Bibliography of Research on Social Network Sites

Alice Marwick’s Online Identity Bibliography


[This is another brain dump of a core piece of my PhD research on Facebook and privacy. Huge thanks to Phil Moore, one of my advisors and an ethnographic guru, for helping me think this all out and make the connections.]

While it may seem that they are one and the same, there is an important distinction between an ethnography of users versus an ethnography of a social media site. The latter is an ethnography of a system (or culture, or space, or context) which can be deployed to expose and examine the ideologies and philosophies embedded in a system, such as Facebook (as is the case in my research). I would argue that this type of ethnography is the most useful for internet researchers. As Christine Hine argues in her Virtual Ethnography, one of the strengths of ethnography is rendering problematic the things we take for granted (again, like Facebook), thus opening them up for enquiry.

From an educational perspective, we can say that an ethnography of a system can expose the hidden curriculum (thanks to Jason Nolan and Melanie McBride for this connection). Or, from semiotics, it exposes hidden codes of behavior (as one of my undergraduate profs, Bart Testa noted, drawing on Barthes, we all know not to go into a restaurant and order just sauce. Why? Because we all implicitly know the code and syntax of food.)

Indeed, my reason for choosing this ethnographic mode stemmed from my frustration with the majority of social media research implicitly treating sites like Facebook as neutral and free of ideology (as you can see in my previous post on the Philosophy of Facebook, this just isn’t the case). As an ethnography of Facebook, my research aim is not to create an exhaustive list the specific and different ways in which people use and understand Facebook with respect to privacy, or to make general statements about how most people behave on Facebook, but rather to push it further and look at the meanings behind those behaviours. In other words, I’m using those specifics to see and understand context/culture/hidden curriculum (or philosophy) of Facebook and what that does to privacy. The generality, then, is not in behaviours, but in what those behaviours reveal about the design of Facebook, the ideologies within that design, and privacy. As C. Wright Mills pointed out in The Sociological Imagination, personal problems can often reflect on larger public issues and help us to understand them. Put simply, the personal is the political.

In Phil Moore’s eloquent phrasing: Words are not culture. They are manifestations of culture. But we can only get to the culture through the words. The important question is ‘What sort of world (or system) makes these words possible?’ Like the code and syntax of the restaurant, the hidden curriculum is not written down (hence the term hidden).

So, the point and power of an ethnography of a system is to bring out the hidden world. It allows us to see how meaning is embedded, how ideologies run through systems like Facebook and how meaning plays out. It acknowledges that the world is not found in our words, it is found in between our words and within our practice. It recognizes the human disposition towards knowing, without knowing we know it. But most of all, it provides a holistic and excellent way for poking (at) the why, how and what of Facebook and privacy.


Update: This is an early brain dump of some of the core concepts in my PhD thesis, which I’ve now completed. For a more fleshed out version of this, please see my dissertation, which can be downloaded here.

To say that Facebook does not care about privacy is really only half the story. Maybe even less than half.

Since the very beginning of Facebook, the company has consistently pushed the privacy envelope, but few people seem to be really asking why. The common conception seems to be that Facebook is simply making poor, ill informed privacy choices (frequent use of the word ‘blunder’ or ‘misstep’ in stories describing the latest Facebook privacy issue, for example). The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin’s cinematic account of Facebook’s founding and early days, portray site creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a somewhat socially and emotionally inept genius, motivated to create the site by a desire for women and entry into one of the prestigious Harvard final clubs. This account is perhaps unsurprising, given that the film was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, which was based on evidence from many parties, except from anyone actually at Facebook, including Zuckerberg himself.

Nick Bilton, a New York Times tech writer says that when he asked a Facebook employee what Zuckerberg thinks about privacy, the employee laughed and said “He doesn’t believe in it.” This gets us a bit closer to what is really going on: Zuckerberg doesn’t believe in privacy because he believes in radical transparency instead. As Anil Dash put it: “Facebook is philosophically run by people who are extremists about information sharing.” Time and time again, Zuckerberg has said that Facebook’s goal is to make the world more open, connected and transparent. He truly believes that improving communication by making it more efficient will make the world a better place. In 2008 at the Facebook Developer Conference, Zuckerberg stated: “In the world we’re building where the world is more transparent, it becomes good for people to be good to each other. That’s really important as we try to solve some of the world’s problems.” Earlier this year, Zuckerberg inadvertently revealed a (secret?) Facebook insignia, hidden inside his hoodie, which doesn’t appear anywhere on the site or in any official Facebook communications. Among other things, the insignia reads “Making the world open and connected.”

But here’s where it gets interesting. What no one seems to have asked is why are Zuckerberg and everyone at Facebook so into transparency or why he thinks being transparent and communicating efficiently will save the world. This sort way of thinking about the world long pre-dates Facebook, indeed, it runs throughout the philosophies embedded in the modern internet. It is the culture of the Californian Bay Area that has codeveloped along with the technologies it has created. Described most simply, it is a form of technological utopianism whose rhetorical roots lie in Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics of the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s American counterculture fused with the computing and digital networking technologies of the 1980s and 1990s. One of the core tenants of this mode of thinking was the belief that flattened hierarchies and the blurring of traditional boundaries — enabled by computing and networking technologies — would bring about a more equal and democratic world where individuals could be themselves and would be free to determine their own destinies. The 1990s saw the infusion of the New Right‘s celebration of free markets and economic liberalism into the mix, which further blurred hierarchies and the boundaries between work/play, personal/professional and producer/consumer. This evolution and merging of philosophies and ideas gave us The Californian Ideology in the 1990s, which spawned Web 2.0 in the mid 2000s.* But the most important aspect for our discussion of privacy, which draws on Wiener’s cybernetics, is the notion that most world problems are problems of inefficient, closed communication, disorder or poor information sharing. Computers, as systems, can be seen as sources of ‘moral good’ as they can solve these problems (see “The Human Use of Human Beings” for more on this). If the entire universe is code (a favourite notion of Kevin Kelly), then the conversion or merging of the analog with the digital would turn the physical world into a manageable system, one that can be indexed, managed, sorted and redistributed (and of course aggregated and datamined as well), thus making the world ordered, open, efficient and transparent. In other words, better. Sound familiar?

Speaking to journalist Jose Vargas in 2010, Zuckerberg said the following: “Most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Think about what we’re doing when we use Facebook. We’re creating digital versions of our relationships, activities, even our identities. We’re turning parts of our lives into code. And it’s not just Facebook. Consider Kevin Kelly’s predictions from his 2007 talk at EG:

“There’s like a billion social sites on the web. Each time you go into there, you have to tell it again who you are and [who] all your friends are. Why should you be doing that? You should just do that once, and it should know who all your friends are. So that’s what you want, all your friends are identified, and you should just carry these relationships around. All this data about you should just be conveyed, and you should do it once and that’s all that should happen. And you should have all the networks of all the relationships between those pieces of data. That’s what we’re moving into – where [the internet] sort of knows these things down to that level… what it’s doing is sharing data, so you have to be open to having your data shared, which is a much better step than just sharing your webpage or your computer. And all of these things that are going to be on this are not just pages, they are things. Everything we’ve described, every artifact or place, will be a specific representation, will have a specific character that can be linked to directly…[the internet of things where a] physical thing becomes part of the web so that we are in the middle of this thing that’s completely linked, down to every object in the little sliver of a connection that it has.” (italics mine)

Note here that Kelly, too, is advocating that for this better world of openness through the merging of atomic and digital. All we have to do is be ‘open to it.’

Indeed, the atomic and the digital can be seen as blurred boundaries, which brings us back again to to the legacy of cybernetics in Facebook. The cybernetic belief that flattened hierarchies and blurred boundaries are a social good can be seen in what has been called context collapse on Facebook, where everyone from various contexts of our lives (friends, ex-lovers, acquaintances, employers and so on) are treated as essentially the same, and we have to present ourselves accordingly. This is not how things usually work in the physical world. We can go drinking with friends and not get in trouble at work, until someone posts drinking photos that your boss sees on Facebook. When I spoke to Zuckerberg at SXSWi in 2008, he told me that he had concluded (based on research he had read) that people were happiest when they were the same in all contexts of their lives, and that was why he had designed Facebook the way he had, with only one profile for all life contexts.

Overall, when this set of philosophies is applied practically in Facebook, this has meant the (further) blurring of boundaries of time and space, public and private, online and offline. Users are now faced with flattened social hierarchies; context collisions; confused relationships and identity management issues. All of which, are essentially, issues of privacy. But, in Zuckerberg’s conception, these are not problems nor threats to privacy. They are simply the growing pains as we get used to a more transparent, more open, more connected, more efficient, and thus improved world. In Zuckerberg’s better world of the future, privacy is obsolete.

*I should note here there is a lot more nuance to this story that I’m glossing over here for simplicity’s sake (see Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture for an a meticulous and fascinating historical account, or Pim van Bree’s nice summation here.)


Privacy, safety & MMOs for girls

by kate raynes-goldie on November 24, 2010

in academic,children,kids,mmos,privacy,social media,youth

I took a short break from my PhD thesis to spend part of the summer researching autonomy, privacy and social media for kids with Jason Nolan at Ryerson’s EDGE Lab. I had the honour of presenting our findings at the recent DIY Citizenship conference in Toronto. If you weren’t able to check it out, my talk on MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) for girls and the privacy issues inherent in them was recorded (along with awesome talks on kids, hacking and autonomy by Alison Gaston, Yukari Seko, and Alexandra Bal.)

My main argument is that MMOs for kids (especially those exclusively for girls, such as Barbie Girls which Sara Grimes has done some fascinating work on) present themselves as safe spaces where kids can play online and parents don’t have to worry about sexual predators or online bullying. However, MMOs for kids reinforce fear and the rhetoric of stranger danger (despite the fact that studies have shown that children are more likely to be harmed by people known to them) while obfuscating other very the real dangers that are actually created by the design of the MMOs themselves, especially in terms of reinscribing disempowering gender roles for girls and exposing them to endless marketing messages. For example, the objectives and activities in Barbie Girls, Club Penguin and Webkinz are all based around passive consumption of digital goods rather than creativity. And, more alarmingly, MMOs propose to keep kids safe by only allowing conversations through predetermined pull down menus of phrases, many of which limit a child’s expression to disempowering gender roles or advertising for the MMO itself (eg “Someone made fun of my outfit!” “I looked like a dork in gym class!”, “My crush found out I like him!” (Barbie Girls) or “I like to answer surveys to earn KinzCash.” (Webkinz)) The thought is that by preventing kids from sharing information about themselves online, they will be protected from stranger danger. The irony of all this is while youth are blamed for oversharing, 84% of Canadian children under the age of 2 have a digital footprint created by their parents.

A more broad and less obvious concern is the connection between autonomy, privacy and critical thinking (I thank Jason Nolan for this insanely brilliant insight). There is a huge body of research in early childhood education and developmental psychology that links privacy as a requirement for the development of autonomy and vice versa, as well as a host of other skills, such as making judgements, trust and analytical thinking (see Marx & Steeves, 2010; McKinney, 1998; Coleman & Hagell, 2007; and Davis, 2001). In the context of this research, the design of MMOs for kids tends to:

  • Discourage creativity, autonomy, critical thinking
  • Hider development of skills needed for privacy and trust
  • Normalize covert surveillance
  • Encourage self worth derived from consumption, economic buying power and appearance

To see the whole talk, check out the video. Jason Nolan, Melanie McBride and I have a paper forthcoming on all this.


I just came back from seeing The Social Network on opening night, in a packed theatre complete with a Tweetup filling the first two rows. I was impressed (especially after reading the rather disappointing ‘The Accidental Billionaires,’ the book the film was based on). But you can go read another much more excellent blog post about its cinematic, narrative or artistic merits. Instead, I’d like to offer my take on The Social Network as a Facebook researcher.

Gone Hollywood
In 1997, when I was a nerdy teenage girl sitting in my basement talking to my nerdy internet friends on IRC and ICQ, I never ever would have thought one day I would be seeing a Hollywood movie about the creation of anything to do with the internet (and written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, scored by Trent Reznor and starring Justin Timberlake, no less!) Back then, the internet was like my private, secret thing. I got a weird twinge the first time I overheard the ‘cool girls’ in the hallway whispering about how they were talking to boys they liked on ICQ. I realise it wasn’t just mine anymore. I still get this twinge whenever I’m reminded just how mainstream socializing online has become (even that phrase seems so outdated) – like today, when I went to see The Social Network on opening night.

The thing that most interested me was how the film would portray Zuckerberg, his motivations and the events that lead up to the Facebook we know today. As Aaron Sorkin admitted on the Colbert Report last night, no one other than those directly involved really know what happened. In some places, the film was very true to the available evidence. In the scene where Zuckerberg is creating the original Facebook site, the blog posts he makes are pretty much taken directly from his actual online diary which was used as a court document and later put online by 02138 magazine (and then, taken down because of legal battle with Facebook). As a wonderful nerd reference, Zuckerberg is shown to be blogging on LiveJournal under the account zuckonit. As awesome as it would be, I don’t think Zuckerberg used LiveJournal to host his blog from back then (anyone know? the source code shown in the court documents seem to indicate no).

Zuckerberg’s motivations
Like the LiveJournal reference, more often than not the film takes a lot of artistic license, especially with Zuckerberg’s motivations. The film’s plot revolves around Zuckerberg two supposed motivations for creating Facebook: women and getting into a final club. The scene where Zuckerberg creates Facemash (a pre-Facebook site like Hot or Not) right after being broken up by Erica Albright (Zuckerberg’s blog reveals this isn’t her real name) supports this notion because in the movie version, Facemash only compares female students. This assertion is also found in ‘The Accidental Billionaires,’ which is supposed to be non-fiction. However, the original Crimson story on Facemash (Harvard’s student paper) seems to indicate that both genders are comared, which makes Zuckerberg seem much more interested in creating something interesting rather than just wanting revenge on the general population of women for rejecting him. His preoccupation with Erica’s rejection runs throughout the film, which (spoilers!) closes on Zuckerberg looking lonely and deciding whether to Friend her or not. Again, the film leaves out an important detail – Zuckerberg had a girlfriend (Priscilla Chan, who is is still dating and will probably marry) throughout most of the events depicted in the film. The inaccuracies are not a surprise given that the film (and the book it was based on) are entirely based on everyone else’s accounts of what happened, with no input from any actual Facebook employee or Zuckerberg himself.

What the film does get totally right is that Zuckerberg is not motivated by money. Clearly, something else drives him, otherwise he would have sold Facebook to the hiddest bidder (and there have been many offers in the billions). But this something else probably isn’t as simple as women or getting into a final club. As Karel Baloun, an early Facebook engineer, reports in his book ‘Inside Facebook,’ Zuckerberg really believes he’s making the world a better place.

Anti-social networks
Like Temple Grandin‘s unique outsider perspective that enabled her to create more humane slaughterhouses (terrible analogy, I know) The Social Network ingeniously picks up Zuckerberg’s outsider-enabled ability to pick out the core social motivations and structures of humans that lead to the success of Facebook. Zuckerberg can only do this because he is on the outside looking in. This, on one hand gives him the critical distance to see what others can’t, but on the other leads, ironically, to the creation of a social network site that is actually profoundly anti-social.

All in all, The Social Network ‘underscores a cultural phenomenon‘ (duh). Go see it.

More? In time with the release of The Social Network, I was on MTV News this week to talk about Facebook and what it all means. Check it out (it’s clip 4).