Tag Archives: coercion

Percentages of Facebook users in Australia

In the comments of my previous post I mentioned the benefits of working out the percentage of people who are on Facebook by location, as this would help support an argument about the ethics of excluding people from such spaces. (If more people are on there, the social cost of opting out becomes greater.) I felt inspired to do a quick calculation of the numbers. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of numbers and tables!

Calculating Australia’s current population

We last held a census on August 9 2011 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website is a great resource for demographic information. This page helpfully displays census data for the Greater Sydney area, New South Wales and Australia overall, which I will be referring to here.

However, it has been a little over a year since the census and the population will have increased. To address this I will be increasing the values found on that page by 1.4%, the estimated rate of national population increase in 2011 from the previous year as stated on this page. This won’t make my results exact (states and cities increase at different rates, and the past year’s increase may be different to 2011′s), but I think this is close enough for my purposes.

Estimates of the current Australian population by location:

Location Population
Sydney 4,453,157
New South Wales 7,014,505
Australia 21,808,825

Factoring in age restrictions

Facebook doesn’t (officially) allow users under the age of 13. Many ignore this, and some are even assisted by their parents in  setting up an account. For this brief study I’m going to pretend this (possibly significant?) number of underage users does not exist.

The problem, then, is removing people under 13 from my population results table above so I can compare it with Facebook data. The census statistics page helpfully breaks down the population by age, but includes ranges ’10-14′ and ’15-19′ rather than having a convenient break between ages 12 and 13. To address this I have used the 2011 totals by location and removed the entire population of under 10s and 3/5 of the 10-14 demographic, and then increased these values by 1.4% as above to estimate the current population.

Revised estimates of current populations to include only those over 13:

Location Population (13+)
Sydney 3,762,165
New South Wales 5,930,528
Australia 18,440,93

Getting data from Facebook

One thing I love about Facebook is that its advertising page allows you to find interesting demographic data about its users. You need to be logged in first (I used my testing account), but all you need to do is go to the ‘Advertise on Facebook’ page, put in a URL (anything – it doesn’t matter), and then play around with the ‘Choose your audience’ section that appears. For example, if you wanted to work out how many Australian accounts have no declared ‘gender’ (yet another example of interchangeability of terms), you select ‘Australia’ as the location and ‘All’ under ‘Gender’ and it displays the audience size to the right (11,624,680 – this and following values retrieved 24 September 2012). Subtract from this the number of ‘Men’ (5,336,740) and ‘Women’ (6,091,320) users and you find that 196,620 (1.69%) Australian accounts have not succumbed to Facebook’s insistence, since 2008, that they choose a sex/gender. (It’s impossible for new accounts to opt out now, of course.)

However, there are issues with trusting this data. First of all, it isn’t clear how accurate the values displayed are, and – discounting a highly unlikely set of chance results – all values are rounded to 10. But more than that the results rely entirely on the accuracy of user entered data.

The 11.6 million ‘Australia’ Facebook accounts counted here include, among those from legitimate users,

  • Accounts of deceased persons
  • Abandoned accounts
  • Accounts from those who have moved away and not updated the location on their profile
  • Additional accounts from those who have multiple accounts
  • Accounts from those who are under 13 (which presents a problem for my calculation)
  • Fake accounts (like mine)
  • Accounts made by others for non-humans such as groups, brands, non-human animals, children (who are human but not operating their own account), etc.
  • Closed accounts that are still archived (I have no way of determining whether these are part of the number)
  • Anything else … ?

I’ll call those ‘non-legitimate accounts’ for the purposes of this discussion.

In addition to this, the total number does not include Australian users who

  • Do not declare their location (for example, I calculated that 5.11% ‘Australia’ Facebook users have not declared a state – it’s unclear how many users choose not to declare a country*)
  • Declare another (fictional or real) location

To an extent, items on these two lists cancel each other out, but it’s difficult to argue whether, say, the active number of Australians on Facebook is higher or lower than the 11.6M stated by the advertising page. (Any thoughts?)

For my purposes here I’m simply going to use the data given to me by Facebook, though I freely admit the issues raised here make any conclusions or results problematic.

Population of Australians on Facebook

By refining my Facebook advertising results by choosing the city ‘Sydney’, the state ‘NSW’, and the country ‘Australia’, and comparing them with the results of my earlier tables, I get the following results:

Location Estimated population (13+) Declared Facebook population Percentage on Facebook
Sydney 3,762,165 2,669,540 60%
New South Wales 5,930,528 3.792.440 54.1%
Australia 18,440,933 11,624,680 53.3%

It makes sense that Sydney has a higher percentage of Facebook users than the rest of the state and country, but I’m actually surprised it’s quite that high as I assumed fewer users would go the extra trouble of declaring a city, let alone their state, on their profile. I also don’t know what the earlier Facebook profile interface was like, but I assume it wouldn’t have categorised locations as well as it currently does so many older accounts may say ‘Sydney’ (text field), or one of many locations that are encapsulated within it, rather than ‘Sydney’ as a tagged, searchable category option. Therefore I suspect many may be missing from this 60% total, though that number may be countered by the number of non-legitimate accounts.

Conclusions

In short, what we’ve seen here is how one may use available data from Facebook and the ABS to determine a non-reliable percentage of Facebook users by location.

This and similar studies could be used in arguments regarding the coerciveness of Facebook and how, because of the high prevalence of use within a population, Facebook and similar systems, despite their status as private enterprises who ‘should be able to do whatever they want because it’s their system’, may actually have a responsibility in making their systems accessible to all by removing barriers such as ‘real identity’ requirements. Because such a high percentage of our social engagement now occurs online, and much of it on Facebook, those who are barred from entry lose the ability to meaningfully engage with their communities, both geographic and virtual, to a fair extent. When systems impose marginalisation and society silences diverse voices because they adopt such systems for everyday interaction, ideas stagnate and we lose as a civilisation.

… And other things I won’t go into now.

Of course, if anyone is actually tempted to use my results or method in making these or other arguments, be prepared for others to dispute the numbers. There’s a wide range of uncertainty within the Facebook data that I’ve only just begun to address.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As someone who advocates for profile systems making all fields optional, it makes me happy to recognise the major limitations of this data =)

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* If I could be bothered, I could work out the populations of every country, add them together and subtract that from the number of total Facebook users, and then attribute a percentage of this number (relating to the ratio of declared Australian users) to the Australian population … but that could take a while.

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 talkingpointsmemo.com (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.