Fourth Blog Entry Fri Aug 5th

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These days social networks have plenty of cool features including their mobile native and web apps for smartphones and tablets, their geo-location and multimedia sharing features and the ability they provide you to update your status via text message there are also drawbacks which I will describe below. The first one involves the emergence of personalized filter bubbles a topic I am revisiting from an earlier blog post, and the second privacy.  As web companies strive to tailor their services including news and search results to our personal tastes a dangerous and unintended consequence may occur. We could get trapped in personalized filter bubbles and don’t get exposed to new information that challenges or broadens our world view. I’ve mentioned before that in his book “The Filter Bubble: What The Internet is Hiding From You” Eli Pariser has said that this is bad for democracy. After all the Web was meant to be an open and inviting, advanced global telecommunications network enabling users all over the world to freely share information and communicate online. As such it was intended enable individuals to meet and interact with new people online, make new friends etc who they can freely share information and communicate with online. Instead we are seeing a walled garden of proprietary online services and platforms springing up to lock-in users to a specific platform or service that are isolating us into individual groups and cutting us off from other users online.

For example, when you use Google+ you only communicate and share information with the people in your Google+ Circles. Yes you can always add new users to your circles you want to follow, communicate and share information with but we often end up then picking and choosing what users to allow in and they are often people we already know. For example, I don’t friend anyone on Facebook I don’t know personally as I don’t want strangers seeing my personal profile with all my information.  However, at the same time there may be some people I don’t already know who I might like to get to know that I never would if I don’t send them friend requests. Depending on the social network you use you may not even be allowed to send a friend request to another user unless you indicate you know the person already. For example, with the professional social networking service LinkedIn if you want to add  a contact you have to indicate how you know the person and if you don’t you might not be allowed to add them. For privacy reasons this could seem like a good idea but if all social networks employ this feature it could make it harder to meet new people and make new friends. Social networking will only be about interacting with your existing friends. When you share something on Facebook all your friends get to see it you can’t pick and choose when posting to your Wall which Facebook friends get to access your post. Anyone your friends with on Facebook can view your post then if its not intended for them. One thing nice about Google+ is you can pick and choose which one of your circles you want to share information with when you make your posts private. That way you can choose which friends of yours on Google+ can view your posts if you have three or four friends for example in only one circle, and another three or four friends in a separate circle depending on which circle you choose only the friends you have in that circle can view your posts.

Now another disadvantage in using social networks is that they make online privacy a luxury that is unavailable to users.  You see social networks can make your personal information freely and easily available to anyone online resulting in more of our personal information potentially becoming publicly available online. This raises the question among privacy conscious users are social networks safe? That is an important question that certainly needs addressing especially as users updating their social network status wirelessly using mobile devices check-in to public locations with wireless access and add geo-location data to their posts to tell people where they are. Now what do web companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn do with your personal information when they get it? They use it to deliver personally relevant and targeted advertising to you. Their not just personalizing services for your benefit but so they can deliver more relevant ads to you as they are in business to make money.

Historically we have always had corporate gatekeepers in our media. At one time we had a corporate gatekeeper AT&T’s Ma Bell monopoly for our wire-line phone communications but AT&T’s monopoly was broken in 1984 to provide more competition and consumers more choice. Unfortunately we are starting to have corporate gatekeepers standing in the way of our communications again in the Internet era with AT&T allowed in the 2000s to reconstitute the Ma Bell monopoly which is on the verge of creating a Ma Cell monopoly for the wireless market with their T Mobil USA and Qualcomm mergers. However, the gatekeepers in our media have typically been human editors. On the web as these filter bubbles emerge we are seeing that the new gatekeepers are algorithmic in nature and are web based automated robots. So the new gatekeepers for the Web are electronic algorithms and the filter bubbles coming up that they moderate are invisible to us. They are automatically personalizing our web search results and other information we access on the web without our permission or knowledge. Even if they were human editors the point of the open internet was to get rid of gatekeepers so we can have open and universal access to media and communications which we could freely use. Even if you perform Google web searches when signed out of Google they can still find out what web browser, computer or mobile device your using and what your location is and then use that information to personalize your web search results.  Websites can install tracking cookies typically associated with advertising to track who in their network of advertisers a user visits. So if I visit Yahoo.com then Yahoo could put  tracking cookie on my computer to find out if I visit other sites affiliated with them that is other sites in their network that often have advertising.  So these web companies even when you don’t sign in to their sites can still get information about you and use it to personalize your results. As a result users trying to stay out of the new filter bubbles may have a hard time doing so. The single greatest thing we can do is spread awareness of the issue and empower users to be more cautious sharing information about themselves with social networking sites.

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