Real name coercion: a survey that helps ‘make Facebook better’

I just read the recent news that Facebook, apparently through various iterations over the past few months, has been asking users to confirm whether or not their friends are using real names.

This news appears to have gotten big following a Tweet on September 20 that helpfully included a screenshot. An article on (TPM) outlines the story well, along with some of the concerns, and includes a few official responses from Facebook. I share the concern that it’s unclear as to what Facebook is using these survey results for, but I think there’s more to this move than direct policing by the service themselves.

First of all I wanted to address a claim that appeared in the TPM article and happens to have been adopted by others breaking the story. It ends with a paragraph stating

In general, Web users may prefer anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But Facebook is not alone in enforcing a real names policy: Google Plus provoked a backlash for employing a similar policy shortly after in launched in late June 2011, a response dubbed “Nym Wars” as in “pseudonym,” for the desire of some users to use pseudonyms. Google Plus has since backed away from this policy as well.

The final sentence suggests Google no longer enforces a real names policy. Interestingly, the first embedded link doesn’t suggest this at all. The second link discusses the eventual move by Google to finally allow pseudonyms in addition to real names within its service. Allowing the inclusion of pseudonyms does not mean it is no longer enforcing a real names policy. (I wrote about this back in January.) I think it’s dangerous to paint Google as leading the way in social media privacy; that’s not what they have achieved here.

The second issue that isn’t really being raised is that of how this may affect engagement with these systems. TPM quotes a Facebook representative as stating “This isn’t so we can go and get that person in trouble […] None of our surveys are used for any enforcement action.” The story as discussed by this and other posts appears to centre around whether or not Facebook is sincere when making such statements, but I feel this is largely irrelevant. The simple suggestion of potential enforcement can change user practices much more than any actual enforcement system – which Google and Facebook both know is extremely difficult and all too easily results in a PR nightmare.

Say you use a pseudonym on Facebook and you get one of these notices asking you to confirm whether one of your friends are using a ‘real name’ (whatever that is). Regardless of what you do next, you’re going to be a little less comfortable risking pseudonymous engagement yourself now you are aware of the possibility friends of yours could just as easily receive a similar message about your account. And if you’re not yet on Facebook and regularly read these sorts of alarmist articles, you’re going to feel even less confident signing up with a ‘fake name’.

Facebook enforces their ‘real names policy’ in a rather intelligent way. They don’t do heavy-handed bans like Google did last year; rather, they regularly publicise their stance on real names (in their official documentation, by allowing interviews with Zuckerberg, etc) to suggest an environment where there is a risk of account deactivation. All they need to do is occasionally ban accounts when they receive a complaint from an enemy (an individual, a company, a government) of that account (this is believed to be what happened to blogger Michael Anti last year), and let the low-level news coverage do the work for them.

No one wants their account to be deactivated. Even if Facebook keeps to their word and does not act on data gathered by these name surveys, which I suspect might be the case, actions and stories like these serve to scare users into compliance.

Light hacks

I barely touched my desk lamp lampshade this evening and it broke, apparently quite brittle from many years of loyal service. Without the lampshade the light was too bright so I began devising plans to construct a replacement in the vague future.

Desk lamp using old jar as a lampshadeIn the meantime, Cassie fixed it =)

Creative Commons License

Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Version control: In which Facebook makes improvements and my work suffers

In a paper I presented last year I discussed how hiding your sex/gender from your public Facebook profile didn’t actually remove the gendered language the system uses to refer to you. So, when leaving the box unselected, like so

'Hiding' sex status on Facebook

your public profile would still use sentences such as, “If you know Anne, add her as a friend or send her a message” (emphasis mine).

Facebook's gendered language

I see this as a concern for various reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere and I won’t go into them now. (Google+ also had a similar practice during its testing phase, which it changed fairly quickly after receiving a lot of user feedback. Frances Haugen from Google talks about the situation here, for anyone wanting a refresher.)

I mention this again this week because I’m in the process of finalising a paper which reviews gender and sex usage in social media systems and discusses potential social effects leading from these system design choices. It was going well and I had a great structure that appeared to work, but yesterday I went to check out Facebook’s system to confirm my statements and noticed that they appear to have addressed the above issue. Now, when looking at a person’s public profile, regardless of whether they’ve chosen to hide their declared gender/sex status, you see shorter sentences that avoid pronoun usage altogether.

Facebook system avoiding gendered pronouns

I think this is a great move! Eventually I’ll make time to look into other instances of this and evaluate how easily other systems can introduce similar changes (it’s difficult because I’m not that familiar with other languages/cultures). But for now I have to finish writing my paper. And this improvement throws a spanner into the works. (Or, rather, removes one that I was hoping to talk about a bit.)

I can work around it. I just need to do some work on changing the way I’ve structured everything. But it does raise one major difficulty I’ve been having throughout my research; that of being unable to easily record how the systems I discuss change over time when they are ‘closed’ systems.

Last year when Google Profiles allowed users to hide their gender status I kicked myself because I didn’t think to take a screenshot (a documented first-hand account that may constitute a better academic reference than a random person’s blog post) before it was changed – honestly, I didn’t think they’d fix it! I could keep taking regular screenshots of various interfaces, but that’s time consuming when I don’t actually know what I may want to focus on later. It’s what changes that becomes interesting, and I don’t have forewarning. In this case with Facebook removing gendered pronouns I actually have screenshots; what I don’t have is an idea about when, exactly, within the twelve months between my two screenshots these changes were actually made.

Couple this with the fact that some users see different iterations of a system interface, depending on their location or the server they’re using, documenting something accurately for later use can be quite difficult.

And this is one important (though small) reason I love open source software: I can find out which version is running on a particular server and then look through the code personally to document it accurately. This allows one to take a historical look at these services.

With all their talk about ‘transparency’, I wish Facebook and Google+ would take this direction. Just for me.

It would make my work a little easier.

Postgraduate symposium abstract – Stranded Deviations

I’ve just submitted a finalised abstract for a twenty minute paper I’ll be giving at the UNSW postgraduate symposium on Monday September 3. (Specific time and location TBA.)

The symposium theme is ‘Making Tracks’ so, naturally, I’ll be using plenty of dinosaurs in my presentation.

Title and abstract are copied below.

I might actually blog about some of this stuff one day, though the rest of the year sees me quite busy writing other things so it may take a while =/


Stranded deviations: Big Data and the contextually marginalised

Knowingly and otherwise, we all leave traces when we use digital technologies. As social and practical interactions moved to the digital realm, facilitated by technological breakthroughs and social pressures, many have become understandably concerned about user privacy. With the increased scale and complexity of stored information, commonly referred to as ‘Big Data’, the potential for another person to scrutinise our personal information in a way that makes us uncomfortable increases.

However, it can also be argued that because there is so much personal data stored in various digital systems our privacy is retained ‒ we all become lost in the noise. Attention is a finite resource so it becomes unlikely that we will experience a privacy breach by a real person. In practice our traces are most often treated as data, computationally analysed, rather than content, scrutinised by biological eyes.

‘Security through obscurity’ may appear to be an inadequate concept here because privacy breaches occur regularly. However, ‘cyber attacks’ are directed at targets who stand out from the noise, chosen based on some form of profiling. Therefore, within any context, certain individuals become disproportionately targeted. Those regularly contextually marginalised have the most to lose from participating in a culture of Big Data, raising issues of equal access.

In this paper I bring these ideas together to argue that the privacy discourse should not only focus on the potential for scrutiny of personal data, but also the systems in place, both social and technological, that facilitate an environment where some users are more safe than others.

Title select

At some point in the past few months I registered for an event where I was given an uncommonly large number of options to choose from for the ‘Title’ field. I’ve written before about how rare it is to have the option to use a non-gendered title, and how even then they are mostly related to official qualifications and roles so they can’t be used legitimately by the average person.

However, this time while scrolling through the list I came across a new, totally unexpected option: ‘The Late’. Even though I didn’t physically qualify for it I just had to choose it.

Whether it’s more likely it was someone’s intentional stroke of genius or if the options were copy/pasted from a list of possible titles without that final but important step of quality control, there’s at least one person who appreciates it.

I wanted to share it but I couldn’t remember where I encountered this. But tonight, while signing in at the UNSW Alumni’s Brainfood Lecture, ‘It Won’t Happen to Me’: Cybercrime Myths and Misconceptions, I saw that all important field waiting to greet me on the paper.

So, for a good example of many options for a title field, though it’s still quite limiting because it is a required field, UNSW Alumni’s registration page is a good place to check out while it’s still up.

Is limited representation bad for advertisers?

I’m writing a chapter about the representation of individual persons this month so I’ve been thinking more than usual about the justifications for limiting profile options.

One common reason for, say, giving users of your system a limited set of predefined options to choose from (drop-down menus, toggle switch, ticky boxes, etc) is that such strict categorisation allows for easy collection of specific data. You can more easily compare users. And often – for example, if you’re using a free corporate social media service – this categorisation ties right into the advertising side of the business; they offer targeted advertising services to other businesses wanting web traffic in order to remain financially viable.

I was looking at Facebook’s ad targeting page this week, which outlines the process of targeting specific demographics and later seeing detailed metrics that help you review your approach. (Check it out, it’s interesting!)

Another concept I’ve been looking at a lot this week is that of ‘Big Data’. I had some trouble defining it so I evaluated other attempts . . . which weren’t as helpful as I had hoped. It appears Big Data is one of those new buzz words that everyone is using and defining differently in relation to their own work or theoretical context.

However, the MIKE2.0 site offers an interesting understanding that emphasises the complexity of data, rather than its size, as being the definitive property of Big Data. This appeals to me and my approach because it highlights the confusion and potential for new understandings that this phenomenon introduces. To complement this, I also like Mac Slocum’s description of social data as “an oracle waiting for a question” in this context. There is just so much data out there and the new problems we face are less to do with accessing data than trying to ask the right questions to find out something new and exciting.

And this is where we return to Facebook. I’ve always thought the best argument for limited representation (gender/sex is always a good example, but other categories are just as relevant here) is that it helps with their advertisers. However, we have technology that can produce rich datasets and give us more details about individuals, so wouldn’t allowing a greater range of representation actually improve targeted advertising? Companies can include or exclude demographics and then better review the effectiveness of their advertising in much more detail.

One example that Facebook gives is a success story where a wedding photography business targeted women aged 24-30 who were recently engaged. Of course this works*, but it would be even more successful if they could look at and target finer demographics within this quite broad dataset. Imagine if Facebook simply allowed for an ‘other’ gender/sex option – even this simple change would help many advertisers not pay to target ‘those crazy, politically correct hippies who probably wouldn’t want my products anyway’, and give many more advertisers the ability to more easily target this specialised group.

Big Data is complicated, but it enables us to uncover interesting and important details. And where corporations such as Facebook may benefit from expanding its user options, government funded projects like the census who still enforce a male/female binary and ignore non-standard religions – thus making us all miss out on exploring and better understanding our diverse population now and in the future, which is an important aspect of its purpose – really have no excuse.

Admittedly, this is the very early stage of an idea so it’s not completely thought out, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to see Facebook’s binary gender/sex field as being detrimental to their business and thought this was important enough to share.

* As much as any online advertising works, at least. I’m always surprised to hear that people click on advertising links, because it’s counters my own practices so strongly. But I’m happy these people are out there, keeping the Internet alive!

ASUS EeePC server review – a few months on

In late October last year I successfully got my ASUS EeePC running as a web server for this blog. (Read more about it here.) A few things have happened – including the power going out in our apartment – which prompted an update on how well it’s working for me.

(I’m a strong believer that the best reviews are those that look at long-term durability under real world situations. Usually this is a problem because technology moves so fast, but I think these computers will be around for a while yet.)

Battery as a UPS
I planned to use the battery as an uninterruptible power supply. If I ever needed to remove the power cable I’d just put the battery back in (it draws less power when it’s out) and feel confident that it won’t turn off for at least a few minutes. I’ve had to do this a number of times and it works perfectly!

Ethernet versus wi-fi
I don’t trust wireless connections as much as I do ethernet ones so I chose to physically remove the wireless card. This was perhaps a mistake. We rearranged our bedrooms and rather than be encumbered by multiple ethernet cables running across doorways I decided it was time to put the wireless card back in and see how reliably it worked. Not only is it reliable and responsible for less cable clutter; I no longer have to worry about downtime when temporarily removing the ethernet cable which I had to do occasionally. I don’t know how much additional power the wireless card is drawing, but I think it’s justified. (I’m now even tempted to set my desktop PC up with a wireless card and move into the twenty-first century!)

ADSL downtime
We have a problem with either the phone connection going to our apartment or our modem. This problem results in our modem getting disconnected occasionally and having to re-establish a connection. If it was regular I’d think it was the modem, but we have bad days where it just can’t connect for a few hours at a time and long stretches where we may have no issues for weeks at a time. My suspicion is that it has something to do with wet weather.

Anyway, the point is, if you’re hosting content of any kind and absolutely need it to be reliable, it’s best to get a professional company to look after it. If you strongly prefer to have it hosted locally, just make sure you have a reliable connection. For me this isn’t too much of an issue – this is more of a hobby project and I have hardly any readers.

Last night, as previously mentioned, we lost power to our apartment. This lasted for more than four hours. Though rare, this revealed one important flaw in the ASUS EeePC that I hadn’t previously noticed: there is no BIOS option to turn back on when receiving power (common to desktop computers). This makes perfect sense; it’s a laptop that is not intended as a server, so this would not be seen as a useful feature.

What this means is that any time the power goes out – even temporarily, if you remove the battery to reduce power consumption like I to – you need to wait until power comes back to manually turn the computer on again. (I was asleep when power returned, so my blog was down for about twelve hours!)

(There’s actually a hack people have used to trick it into triggering ‘Wake-on-LAN’ actions when regaining power, but this requires the computer going into standby mode – read: having the battery in, which is a deal-breaker for me.)

This is a great server setup, though it does have a few limitations. If you have a reliable ADSL connection and you’re not too worried about losing power, I highly recommend it. But if you need a bit more reliability you may need to sacrifice the convenience of the attached monitor and trackpad, the lower power consumption, and much of the associated street cred, for a more traditional PC with the common ‘wake on power’ BIOS option.