Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Building a community: Are we all at the same party?

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

In my last post, I described the ways in which Yelp and Facebook are different animals, despite Yelp’s social network-like qualities. Yelp feels like a community in which its members share the goal of writing good reviews for Yelp; Facebook contains communities, none of which particularly feel any affinity for doing anything for Facebook.

You would think, then, that Facebook isn’t a community simply because its members aren’t invested in a shared mission. But when you look at MySpace, a site that is also a social network and nothing else, the question of what makes a community a community becomes more complicated.

MySpace, first off, is not exactly a community either. Its members aren’t invested in MySpace any more than Facebook members are invested in Facebook. But it does feel very different from Facebook in a couple of obvious ways.

MySpace feels crazier, looser, and less professional, and thus also more personal and individualistic.

One of the most obvious and immediate visual differences between MySpace and Facebook is the way users design their profile pages. MySpace allows its users to customize their pages, which means MySpace is a riot of colors, animated gifs, and backgrounds. There’s a basic template with neat boxes, similar to what Ashton Kutcher has here:

But there are many more users who have so much animation and graphics, sometimes even their names are obscured.

The aesthetic reminds me a bit of my teenage bedroom, how much I was interested in making sure that the the posters I hung, art and music and what have you, expressed exactly who I was. A lot has already been said about the racial and socioeconomic differences between MySpace and Facebook, so I won’t go into them here, but it’s worth noting that this flexible aesthetic, as danah boyd points out, doesn’t only attract kids who are poor or don’t plan to go to college, but “the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.”

Facebook, on the other hand, has uniform blue and white boxes. You might choose to upload a quirky or weird profile photo, or even make up a profile like Peowtie del Toro, but your aesthetic choices are severely limited.

Facebook provides a more corporate, professional framework on which people are neatly displayed, like a telephone book or directory (aka, a college facebook).

MySpace’s design gets made fun of all the time, at least by the kind of people who tend to write for tech blogs, but it’s a draw for people who want to be able to individualize their profiles. Facebook’s design, in contrast, doesn’t promote a particular aesthetic. There are people who are drawn to Facebook’s clean professional look and repelled by MySpace’s free-for-all.

But the reason people praise Facebook’s design is because they value the way it’s a clean slate, bland and able to absorb almost anything and anyone.

Facebook is growing faster than MySpace, and although that may be in part due to its design, but it’s less because Facebook’s design is so compelling and more because it’s inoffensive.

MySpace feels like one big party.

The free-for-all of MySpace, compared to the clean, blank slate of Facebook results in very different atmospheres on both sites. MySpace feels like one big party. There are definitely subgroups within MySpace, but there is an openness to the site that is completely missing from Facebook.

From the moment you go to MySpace, you see content that’s available to you. With a few clicks, you can find videos, band pages with music, and individual profiles that have been made publicly accessible to anyone, even those who are not registered members of MySpace. Although there are MySpace users who don’t make their profiles public, you can browse the profiles of those who are public, and there’s a sense that any of these strangers might connect with each other. (It helps that so many of the photos are aggressively flirty.) Everyone’s at the same party.

Facebook certainly isn’t private, and as its many new developments indicate, the company is aggressively trying to make more of its users’ information public. (More on that to come.)

But Facebook isn’t one big open party. It’s a convention hall where you’re supposed to find your group and join whichever cocktail party, networking event, or shindig is being hosted by your group.

Your first view of Facebook is a virtual wall. The first page consists mainly of a blue and white graphic with abstract images of people connected all over the world. The login for members is the only visibly interactive part of the page, other than the sign up for new members. There isn’t even a search box for existing members. The impression is that until you log in or sign up, you don’t really have access to the site.

There’s definitely no “Browse” function. Even after you log in, you can only search for specific people. At best, you can browse your friends’ friends, but even that is based on the connections you already have. Although people increasingly have Facebook friends they don’t actually know, the connections most people have to each other aren’t based on the fact that they’re both on Facebook. Rather, people friend each other because they went to the same school, work at the same place, or have friends in common. To some extent, I really don’t know the full range of people who are on Facebook because I can only see the people I’m friends with.

It’s not surprising MySpace is the place to hear new music.

Despite Facebook’s rapid growth, MySpace is still the most popular site for bands. Part of that has to do with the ease with which tracks can be uploaded, but it also has to with the one party atmosphere of MySpace. You’ve come to have a good time, you’re open to hearing new music, you might just end up talking to the drummer after a set.

For example, when you look at the MySpace page for The National, the band’s 63,798 friends write messages that are directed to the band like,

Angela Marie 😉

Whereas on Facebook, the people who “like” The National don’t seem to necessarily have a sense of personal connection to the band. Some of them write direct appeals, like please come play in my town, but there are just as many comments that are directed to other fans as to the band itself, like,

just purchased tickets for the seattle show in sept!! can not wait to see them live..what an amazing follow-up to Boxer.”

Although The National is a relatively famous band, anyone can upload music on MySpace and hope to make it big, the way Lily Allen did. Many of the comments on The National page are from people in their own bands asking them to check out their music. They don’t have to already know each other to comment or become friends, whereas the social expectations are very different on Facebook.

Even as Facebook tries to make more of its users’ information public, it will never feel like MySpace.

Recently, Facebook rolled out several changes that either encourage or push its users to make more of their information public, depending on how you feel about Facebook.

These new developments — Personalization, Community Pages, and Like buttons across the Internet — are changing the way Facebook users’ information is available. Yet these changes are still in line with the “many communities” model, rather than the one-big tent feel of MySpace, with some interesting consequences for individual privacy.

More to come in a follow-up post…

Building a community: Just because it’s a social network doesn’t mean it’s a community.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Yelp via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

Yelp and Facebook have a lot in common.  As I wrote in my last two posts, they both emphasize or require the use of real profiles and they use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate activity and interaction on the site.

But Yelp and Facebook are fundamentally different.  In short, Yelp is a community and Facebook is not.

Although Facebook is a social network, it is not a community.  It began as a social network for Harvard students, basing itself on the existing connections within that community.  When it grew, it grew from community to community, from Ivy League universities to all colleges to high schools and then certain corporations, before becoming open to anyone with an email address.  When people interacted with other people on Facebook, it didn’t feel as funny or sleazy or strange as interacting with a stranger in a chatroom.  You might not have personally known a new friend, but he likely knew someone you knew.  Facebook emphasized real people and real connections.

So Facebook certainly contains communities.  It contains people who know each other from college, elementary school, an office, or even a party.  But it is not in and of itself a community. 

There is no ethos or set of values that all Facebook users share together.

Facebook users may be active on the site, but they don’t write status updates, upload photos, and play Farmville for Facebook.  They do it for themselves and for the people they want to interact with.  If another social network came along that was better, their friends were there, and it was easy to transfer their profiles, people would do it without a single pang of disloyalty.  It’s why Facebook has resisted calls for portability of profile data.  As addicted as people claim to be, no one calls himself a Facebooker.

In contrast, many people consider themselves Yelpers and Wikipedians. Yelpers have inside jokes and a self-conscious recognition that Yelpers are a tribe.  The Yelp Elite Squad gets together at events, while Wikipedians gather at Wikimania.  Although Facebook may have more users interacting in the offline world than any other site, it’s never an activity organized by or devoted to Facebook.

To me, the biggest reason for this difference is that Yelp and Wikipedia have a mission and Facebook does not.

The Wikimedia Foundation obviously has a mission; it’s a nonprofit organization with altruistic goals.  In a recent survey of Wikipedians, when asked why they contributed, 73% indicated, “I like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it,” while 69% said “I saw an error I wanted to fix.”  They’re motivated in part by their belief in Wikipedia’s mission, to provide knowledge for the world. Yelp may not have a mission in a traditional sense, but its goal to provide informative reviews of local businesses is one that’s shared enthusiastically by many of its reviewers.  As a result, the users on Yelp are helping to create Yelp’s product, reviews, while the users on Wikipedia are helping to create Wikipedia’s product, the encyclopedia.

Facebook, in contrast, has a stated mission but it means nothing to its users.  No one joins Facebook because he believes in Facebook’s mission.  He joins because that’s where his friends are.  He is not interested in helping Facebook create a product.  In fact, as Bruce Schneier put it,

“Alice is not Facebook’s customer.  Alice is Facebook’s product.”

Facebook itself admits more or less that it has no interest in building a community.  Rather, it’s building “info aggregation with a great photos app.”.  It’s why it’s trying it’s hardest to become Twitter, and why it keeps trying to think of new ways to make more of its members personal information public.

Building a community — will the real Mrs. Del Toro please stand up?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

As I discussed in my last post, having real profiles can really change the dynamic in an online community.  Yelp, which has more or less encourages Yelpers to use real identities, has created a community where people really care what other Yelpers think of them.  In contrast, Wikipedians care about the work others are doing, but they’re not so invested impressing other Wikipedians with their taste in music or food.  Yelp and Wikipedia have some similar incentives for people to create good stuff, like increased status and privileges, but Yelp feels like a social network while Wikipedia does not.

So how does the power of real profiles play out within Facebook, which is a social network and nothing else?  How do people’s concerns about their reputations play out when there are no reviews to write or encyclopedia entries to edit?  And how does Facebook in this context encourage people to create content?

(MySpace is a social network as well, but it’s so different from Facebook that I’m going to address it in a separate post.)

Facebook cares even more than Yelp about having real people.

Poor Peowtie, her Facebook account's been disabled.

While Yelp encourages people to use real first names and last initials and a real photo, Facebook requires it.  The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states, along with other rules:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not use your personal profile for your own commercial gain (such as selling your status update to an advertiser).
  3. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.
  4. You will not use Facebook if you are a convicted sex offender.
  5. You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
  6. You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.
  7. You will not transfer your account to anyone without first getting our written permission.
  8. If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user’s actual name).

Although we all know people who’ve sneaked through with a profile based on the name of a pet or a nickname, Facebook is diligent enough that it was very difficult for Caitlin Batman, Tim Six, Becky Super, and others with unusual names to sign up for an account.  My friend’s Peowtie Del Toro account, which she opened in October 2007, was disabled just this year.  (The above is a mock-up as it is completely inaccessible to her now.)

Facebook doesn’t create a product, like business reviews or an encyclopedia, separate from its social network.  Its product is essentially human relationships, to the extent that they can be captured through status updates, photos uploaded, articles linked, and virtual gifts/pokes sent.  For all the personal detail Yelpers put into their reviews, it doesn’t compare to how personal content is on Facebook.

As real people, Facebook members are hyper-aware of their reputations.

The fact that they are creating content that is solely about their lives means that Facebook users care even more about the way that content affects their reputations.  It’s not just about whether they write witty Yelp reviews or edit correctly on Wikipedia — it’s about who they are. As much as they horrify middle-aged adults, the kids who post drunken photos of themselves on Facebook do care about their reputations.  It’s just that at that moment in their lives, it’s more important that they project that image than a more staid, responsible one. Some people want to be the kind of people who have 900 Facebook friends; other people want equally strongly to be the kind of people who have 50.  Some people want their friends to know they made pickles with seasonal ramps that weekend; other people want their friends to know they were watching football.

And despite the fact that Facebook has become a symbol of our over-sharing culture, Facebook wants us to share even more.  The more we share, the more it can make in advertising.  The more we share, the more valuable its data becomes.

But Facebook can’t give you a gold star for being a cool person…

Because people on Facebook are creating content about themselves, Facebook can’t use the same incentive systems used by Yelp or Wikipedia.  Yelp can promote good reviewers to the Yelp Elite Squad, Wikipedia can give privileges to reliable editors, but it would be laughable for Facebook to create a Facebook Elite Squad.  Imagine if Facebook deemed some users’ vacation photos better than others, or gave karma points like Slashdot to those whose status updates were wittiest.

Facebook, however, can use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate and promote activity.  There are ways for users to give each other the Facebook equivalent of badges, stars, and compliments: virtual gifts and “pokes.”

Facebook’s ways of motivating activity are generally more subtle.  Facebook doesn’t just ask people to share — it asks people to respond.  I once had a friend ask me why I never commented on her status updates.  She clearly cares whether people respond to what she says.  It’s part of why she uses Facebook.  If Facebook didn’t allow people to comment on each other’s status updates and posts, I imagine the level of activity would rapidly decrease.

Facebook’s “like” button serves an interesting purpose in this context.  Like Yelp’s “useful, funny or cool,” it lets people respond to their friends without having to write out an actual sentence.  It’s equivalent to a nod or sympathetic “uh-huh” offline — it’s a way to show you’re paying attention.

But of course, Facebook isn’t really satisfied with the level of activity currently happening.  Everyday, I’m given suggestions, not only for new friends but ways in which I could interact with existing ones.

I’m curious how many people actually see this and then go out and write on the wall of that elementary school friend who they haven’t communicated with since they accepted the friend request.  (In my case, I feel like it’s always telling me to reach out to Alex Selkirk, who I see almost everyday.)

It’ll be interesting to see what else Facebook tries as it works to monetize itself.  I don’t see how it can ever give out gold stars or badges or create elite classes within Facebook.  Not only would it be weird to rate a person for being a person, it would be difficult to come up with an incentive structure that appeals to its 400 million registered users.  Being a member of some Elite Squad, having karma points, being the Mayor of a local business as FourSquare does, might be appealing to some people.  It definitely won’t be appealing to all of them.

So privacy is about control…but what if you don’t even know what you’re controlling?

Friday, April 16th, 2010

It’s becoming practically a mantra, the way it’s being repeated everywhere: privacy is about control.  And a newish location-based social network seems to be taking this to heart.  As ReadWriteWeb describes, Rally Up has settings that allow you to control how information is being disseminated to your “real friends.”  Definitely interesting.

But then there’s the week’s big news about the Library of Congress archiving Twitter.  Not surprisingly, some people are nervous.  Even if all the Tweets archived were public Tweets, it’s unclear if those people equated the public nature of their Tweets with consent to being archived.  Even those who actively, purposefully, consciously were public in their Tweets may have ended up revealing more information about themselves than they intended.  Reading the pattern of tweets could allow researchers and others to deduce information people didn’t know they were broadcasting.  If that seems implausible, keep in mind that the data is valuable precisely because there’s information in it that’s not immediately obvious.

The difficulty with privacy in our age is that embarrassing things, which people have been doing since the dawn of time, are now so easily memorialized and stored for a very, very long time.  Fifteen years ago, you could do something stupid on spring break and at worst, be a laughingstock among your friends and their friends.  Now, a photo of you doing something stupid could stick around and impact your life years later, when a potential employer is checking you out.

It’s definitely troubling, and not an issue that is resolved only through multiple-choice settings.  On the other hand, maybe we’ll all just get used to it once we’ve been living in that world long enough.  Eventually, the generation that has embarrassing photos on Facebook will grow up and be hiring people themselves.  Maybe they won’t care so much when they find a drunken photo of a potential hire.

Building a community — populated by real people or anonymous cowards

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Mimi’s comment on my last blog post about building communities made an important point – although both Yelp and Wikipedia reward their users for their activities with increased status within their communities, they do so in very different ways with very different results for their content.

There are many, many differences between Yelp and Wikipedia.  (I’m curious how many people are registered users on both sites.)

But one really obvious one is that Yelp has created an active community of reviewers who largely use real photos and real names (or at least real first name and last initial), like peter d., a member of the Yelp Elite Squad.

Wikipedia, in contrast, is a free for all.  Many people who write or edit are anonymous.  They may register with pseudonyms, or they may not register at all, so that their edits are only associated with an IP address.  There are occasionally Wikipedians who reveal their real names and provide a lot of biographical information on their profile pages, like Ragesoss, who even provides a photo.

But for every user like him, there are many more like Jayjg and Neutrality, who seems to identify with Thomas Jefferson, as well as users who have been banned.

Obviously, there are other communities that encourage the use of real identities — Facebook, MySpace, social networks in general.  And there are communities where being pseudonymous or anonymous is perfectly fine, even encouraged — Slashdot, Flickr, and many more.

So how does the use of real identities affect the community?  How does it affect the incentives to participate?  The content that’s created?

Yelp’s reward system, as described in my earlier post, is very focused on the individual.  The compliments, the Elite Squad badge, the number of “useful, funny or cool” reviews written are all clearly attached to a specific person, such as peter d. above.  Although people are complimenting peter d. for the content he’s generated for Yelp, they’re also complimenting him as a person, as he’s told that he’s funny, he’s a good writer, and so forth.

Yelpers are encouraged to develop personas that are separate from the reviews they write.  The profiles have set questions, like “Last Great Book I Read” and “My First Concert.”  They know that it’s not just about one review they’ve written, but where they’ve eaten, where they’ve gone, what they’ve done, that shows something in a generation that recognizes tribes based on what people consume.  There is a suggestion that Yelpers might interact outside of Yelp, and in the case of the Yelp Elite Squad, an assumption that they will, as one of the major privileges is that members get invited to local events.  The reputation you seek to develop on Yelp is not necessarily so different from the reputation you seek to develop in real life.

Yelp isn’t just a review site.  It’s a social network that feels almost like an online dating site — you can see how easily compliments could be used to flirt.

Wikipedia’s reward system, based on the open source software model, is more low-key.  Wikipedia does rate articles as “good articles,” and notes which articles have priority within certain classes of subjects.  If you write a lot of “good articles,” or otherwise contribute substantively, you can get various gold stars and badges as well, like the Platinum Editor Star Jayjg has on his profile page.

But the compliments are less about the Wikipedia user, even when stars are given, and more about the Wikipedia-related contribution he or she has made.  Some Wikipedians may be flirting with each other, but it seems really unlikely, at least not within any Wikipedia-built mechanism.  Jayjg clearly feels no need to tell us where he’s from and what his first concert was — it’s not relevant here.  The Wikipedians who do share more personal information aren’t required or even encouraged to do so by the Wikipedia system.

It doesn’t matter who Jayjg is.  It only matters what he does for Wikipedia.

So although both sites use rewards and feedback loops to encourage participation, they’re creating fundamentally different content with fundamentally different communities.

Yelp’s entry for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has 126 reviews, each wholly written by a single user with that user’s photo, name, number of friends and number of reviews immediately visible.  The reviews are clearly personal and subjective, as made obvious by references to what that person specifically experienced.  In peter d.’s case, his review notes how his brother once pushed him into the Japanese Pond.

When you look at Wikipedia’s entry on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, you see a seamless, unitary document.  Unless you click on the tabs that cover history or discussion, you won’t even see who worked on the article.  There is no personal perspective, there is no author listed with stars next to his name, there are no buttons asking you to rate that author’s contribution as “useful, funny or cool.”

This makes sense, given their respective missions.  Yelp’s goal is to generate as many reviews as possible about local businesses, recognizing that taste is really subjective.  Wikipedia’s goal is to produce a free encyclopedia with unbiased, objective content.  Yelp doesn’t want you to write one review and go away.  If you do, your review may not even show up, as the spam filter may decide you’re not trustworthy.  But of the thousands and thousands of people who’ve edited Wikipedia, the vast majority have done a few, maybe even just one edit, and never come back.  Wikipedia is a collective work; Yelp is a collection of individual works.

I don’t have an opinion on whether a community of real profiles is better or worse than a community of anonymous and pseudonymous contributors.

The different structures seem to shape the content of Yelp versus Wikipedia in appropriate ways.  What’s less clear to me is how this difference affects the make up of their communities.  Wikipedia has recently been in the news as it examines the demographics of its users, which is “more than 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, around 70 percent under the age of 30.” Its rewards system and its open source model clearly attracted the right kind of enthusiastic people who were willing to write encyclopedia entries without personal recognition and glory.  Wikipedia wants more and different kinds of people to be writing entries.  Would a system like Yelp’s that encourages a more explicit sense of community and social networking change who is attracted to Wikipedia? Or would it attract precisely the wrong kind of people, the ones who couldn’t work collaboratively without explicit credit and acknowledgment?

Yelp isn’t a model of community building either, of course.  Its users are more diverse than Wikipedia’s in that its breakdown by gender is 54-46, male-female, but it’s also a very young community.  It’s less international than Wikipedia, partly because it grows city by city, but its American youth-oriented culture may not translate well either.  It’s facing its own credibility problem as business owners accuse Yelp of extortion.  It’s not surprising, as it’s fueled by people who are addicted to writing reviews and complimenting each other, but it’s paid for by advertisers who don’t participate in that same incentive structure.

Both Yelp and WIkipedia have managed to attract active, enthusiastic contributors willing to do a lot for no pay (or mostly no pay in the case of Yelp, which has admitted to paying some reviewers.)  But moving forward, which model of participation and rewards will be more attractive to more people for the right reasons?

For more on this issue, see today’s New York Times article on how news sites are considering getting rid of the anonymous option for commenters.  Or they could do what Slashdot does, which is call anyone who chooses to post anonymously an “Anonymous Coward.”

The meaning of membership

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

BSA Member Card, Focht, Flickr/Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

We’ve been talking about a “datatrust” for awhile now, why we think we need one, how we envision it as a long-lasting institution, what kind of technologies we might employ for it to provide measurable guarantees around privacy.

But we’re now starting to get down to the nitty-gritty.  How will it actually work?  What will it mean to an actual researcher, nonprofit organization, policy-maker?  To you?

First and foremost, we imagine the datatrust as a member-based data bank where organizations and individuals can safely contribute personal information to inform research and public policy.

The member-based part is key.  We plan to be both non-partisan and absolutely transparent.  We have no particular academic or policy ax to grind. Our only goal is to maximize the quantity, quality and diversity of sensitive data that is made available to the public.  To ensure that decisions aren’t made even with an unconscious bias, we plan to build a decentralized structure that relies on the participation and contribution of members to build and sustain the datatrust.

But the word membership can mean a lot of different things.  When my local public radio station exhorts me to be a member, membership doesn’t seem to come with something more than a tote bag.  In contrast, if you’re a Wikipedian, it means you’ve actually written or edited an entry, and the more you participate, the more access and privileges you get, including the right to vote for members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been looking at member-based communities.  Not all of them would call themselves member-based communities, but they all have in common a structure that requires participation from a large group of people.  Some are nonprofits, some are businesses running social networks; most are online, a few are not.  Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to summarize how these communities work, what motivates the members, how the communities monitor themselves, and how diverse they are, because all of these issues will inform the decisions we make in creating our datatrust.

Here are the ten communities included in this study:

MySpace is one of the world’s largest social networks with about 125 million users, though Facebook has in the last year surpassed MySpace with the number of users and pageviews both in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  The look and feel of MySpace is very different from Facebook, since MySpace users are allowed to customize their pages.  There’s also been a lot of press about the demographic differences between MySpace and Facebook, but those differences are probably disappearing as Facebook simply grows and grows.  MySpace remains more popular than Facebook as a site for bands and music.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with about 400 million users.  Despite its popularity and recent news that it even surpassed Google in Internet traffic, it’s also been the center of controversy, particularly regarding user privacy and terms of use, with each major change made to the site.

Yelp is a social network-based user review site for local businesses in multiple cities in the U.S.  It’s growing much faster than older sites like Citysearch, and its spawned offline events where really avid reviewers meet and socialize.  It has also gotten controversy with accusations that it extorts businesses to take out ads in return for highlighting good reviews or pulling bad ones.  Although Yelp has denied these accusations, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Yelp.

Flickr is a popular social network-based photo-sharing site.  Unlike many photo-sharing sites like Kodak Gallery or Photobucket, Flickr has emphasized sharing photos with the general public and organization by crowdsourcing via tags. Although it does have some services for printing photos and mugs, its main service is photo-hosting and storage, particularly for bloggers and photographers.  In addition to hosting photos, Flickr also manages projects like “The Commons” with the Library of Congress and other institutions interested in putting their public domain photos in wider circulation.

Slashdot is a news aggregator for self-professed nerds with estimated traffic of 5.5 million users per month.  It shares news stories contributed by its users, who also comment on the stories and moderate the comments.  Useful contribution is rewarded with karma points, which increases the privileges each user gets.

Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.  The number of named accounts for writers and editors is at about 11 million; about 300,000 have edited Wikipedia more than ten times.  Despite early skepticism, Wikipedia has become one of the most trafficked sites online and has expanded into multiple countries around the world.  Wikipedia has clearly developed a community of avid and enthusiastic users who contribute without monetary compensation, but in its tenth year, it is evaluating the lack of diversity among Wikipedians (only 13% of contributors are women, for one) and what steps it should take to provide access to a free encyclopedia all over the world. Wikipedia has also instituted a number of changes over the years to deal with vandalism and inaccuracies.

Open Source Software – rather than look at one particular open source project, for this study, I focused on the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel, which describes how projects should work.  Obviously, actual projects will vary widely, but we decided this was an area worth looking at because the open source movement has spent years figuring out how to structure shared work.

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the U.S.  It has 1.3 million members, but because it is not a primarily online organization, it isn’t easy to evaluate the activities of its members online.  However, it recently created a series of social media sites for online networking among Sierra Club members and supporters and our report focuses primarily on this aspect of their member activities.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a local cooperative grocery store in Park Slope Brooklyn.  (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been a member since 2005, and my research on how it works is based on my experiences there.)  Unlike many coops, membership is predicated on work.  All of its approximately 150,000 members are required to work a two hour-45 minute shift every four weeks, which reduces labor costs and thus reduces prices.  Despite being a place many people love to hate, it continues to thrive and attract new members.

Habitat for Humanity International is a major nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building decent housing around the world.  (DISCLAIMER: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in high school and college and participated in a fundraising bike trip in 1999.)  Like the Sierra Club, it is also an offline organization, but its website provided more detailed information on how its affiliates work and I drew on my personal experience in trying to understand how Habitat encourages and retains volunteers.

Yay, it’s Data Privacy Day!

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

As sponsored by, among others, Google, Microsoft, Lexis-Nexis, and AT&T.

Lexis-Nexis, for those of you who are not lawyers and journalists, is an amazing tool for doing research on court decsions, regulations, statutes, and other legal matters.  It is also a great way to investigate people, comb through property records, and more!  In a way, though, the information it stores is pretty private, at least to the extent that it’s so expensive to access, it’s not available to the vast majority of people.  Which makes me wonder, how much is Lexis-Nexis worried that its product is becoming less valuable because more and more of their information is available elsewhere for free?

Which leads me to the crux of the problem.  Privacy, a word for which very few people can agree on a definition, is nevertheless a real issue these days.  But the reason it’s become such a pressing concern isn’t only because surveillance technology has gotten better or more pervasive.  It’s also because more information is available everywhere.  Re-identification from supposedly anonymized databases wouldn’t be so easy if other data sources, like DMV records, weren’t so readily available.  In addition, the Internet is teeming with information we want to provide ourselves, through Facebook, PatientsLikeMe,, which we do not just because we’re exhibitionists, but because we get value from sharing that information and seeing what others have shared as well.

We want privacy.  We want information.  How are we going to reconcile these two very legitimate desires?  Will there be trade-offs?  Can we really have it all?

We’re definitely not in the camp of “We’ll never have privacy, let’s throw out the data!”, nor the camp of “Privacy’s gone anyway.”  So yes, we do think we can have a lot, if not “all.”  And to do that, we need to move beyond talking about privacy and information in the abstract.  We need to look at specific areas — like electronic health records, campaign finance, government transparency — and be concrete about what we lose and what we gain with every decision we make.

Data Privacy Day may be “an international celebration of the dignity of the individual expressed through personal information,” but let’s be honest.  Dealing with these questions will be interesting, but it isn’t going to be a party.

Privacy Problems as Governance Problems at Facebook

Monday, January 4th, 2010

You know that feeling when you’ve been pondering something for awhile and then you read something that articulates what you’ve been thinking about perfectly?  It’s a feeling between relief and joy, and it’s what I felt reading Ed Felten’s critique of Facebook’s new privacy problems:

What Facebook has, in other words, is a governance problem. Users see Facebook as a community in which they are members. Though Facebook (presumably) has no legal obligation to get users’ permission before instituting changes, it makes business sense to consult the user community before making significant changes in the privacy model. Announcing a new initiative, only to backpedal in the face of user outrage, can’t be the best way to maximize long-term profits.

The challenge is finding a structure that allows the company to explore new business opportunities, while at the same time securing truly informed consent from the user community. Some kind of customer advisory board seems like an obvious approach. But how would the members be chosen? And how much information and power would they get? This isn’t easy to do. But the current approach isn’t working either. If your business is based on user buy-in to an online community, then you have to give that community some kind of voice — you have to make it a community that users want to inhabit.

This is a question we at CDP have been asking ourselves recently — how do you create a community that users want to inhabit?  We agree with Ed Felten that privacy in Facebook, as in most online activities, “means not the prevention of all information flow, but control over the content of their story and who gets to read it.”  Our idea of a datatrust is premised on precisely this principle, that people can and should share information in a way that benefits all of society without being asked to relinquish control over their data. Which is why we’re in the process of researching a wide range of online and offline communities, so that when we launch our datatrust, it will be built around a community of users who feel a sense of investment and commitment to our shared mission of making more sensitive data available for public decision-making.

We’d love to know, what communities are you happy to inhabit?  And what makes them worth inhabiting?  What do they do that’s different from Facebook or any other organization?

Wow, new privacy features!

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Wow, so many companies rolling out new privacy features lately!

Facebook rolled out its new “simplified” privacy settingsGoogle introduced Google Dashboard, a central location from which to manage your profile data, which supplements Google Ads Preferences.  And Yahoo released a beta version of the Ad Interest Manager.

Many, many people have reviewed Facebook’s new changes, and pointed out some of the “bait-and-switch” Facebook has done for some new, and I think better, controls.  I don’t have much more to say about that.

But it’s interesting to me that Google and Yahoo have chosen similar strategies around privacy issues, though with some differences in execution.  Both companies haven’t actually changed their data collection practices, and cynics have argued that they’re both just trying to stave off government regulation.  Still, I think that it makes a difference when companies actually make clear and visible what they are doing with user data.

“Is this everything?”

Both Google and Yahoo indicate in different ways that the user who is looking at Dashboard or Ad Interest Manager is not getting the full data story.

Google’s Dashboard is supposed to be a central place where a user can manage his or her own data.  In and of itself, it’s not that exciting.  As ReadWriteWeb put it, it doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know before.  It provides links in one place to the privacy settings for various applications, but it focuses on profile information the user provides, which represents only a tiny bit of the personal information Google is tracking.

Google does, however, provide a link to the question, “Is this everything?” that describes some of their browser-based data collection and a link to the Ads Preferences Manager page.  To me, it feels a little shifty, that the Dashboard promises to be a place for you to control “data that is personally associated with you,” but it doesn’t reveal until you scroll to the bottom that this might not be everything.  Others may feel differently, but this to me goes right at the heart of the problem of how “personal information” is defined.  When I go to the Ads Preferences Manager, I see clearly that Google has associated all kinds of interests with me–how is this not “personally associated” with me?  Google states it’s not linking this data to my personal account data which is why they haven’t put it all in one place, which is good, but it seems too convenient a reason to silo that off.

Yahoo’s strategy is a little different.  It may not be fair to compare Yahoo’s Ad Interest Manager to Google’s Dashboard at this point, given that it’s in such a rudimentary phase.  It’s in beta and doesn’t work yet with all browsers.  (As David Courtney points out in PCWorld, being in beta is a pretty sorry excuse for the fact that it doesn’t work with IE8 and Firefox.)  Depending on how much you use Yahoo, you may not see anything about yourself.

Still, I thought it was interesting that Yahoo highlighted some of the hairy parts of its privacy policy in separate boxes high up on the page.  Starting from the top, Yahoo states clearly in separate boxes with bold headings that there are ways in which your data is collected and analyzed that are not addressed in this Ad Interest Manager.  The box for the Network Advertising Initiative is a little weak; it doesn’t really explain what it means that Yahoo is connected to the NAI.  But the box on “other inputs,” shows prominently that even as you manage your settings on this page, there may be other sources of data Yahoo is using to find out more about you.


Yahoo also reveals that the information they’re tracking from you is collected from a wide range of sources, including both Yahoo account information like Mail and non-account websites like its Front Page.  Unlike Google, Yahoo doesn’t ask you to click around to find out that some of “everything” is elsewhere.


Turning “interests” on and off

Google and Yahoo are very similar here.  Google’s Ad Preferences Manager indicates which interests have been associated with you with a clear link to how they can be removed, with a button for opting out from tracking altogether.


Yahoo’s Ad Interest Manager has a different design, but the button for opting out altogether is similarly visible.


We’re using cookies!

Compared to the other issues, this is the most obvious difference between Google and Yahoo.

Google has this on its Ads Preferences Manager:


So you can see that some string of numbers and letters has somehow been attached to your computer, but you’re not told what this means in terms of what Google knows about you.

In contrast, Yahoo shows this at the bottom of the Ad Interest Manager:


Yahoo knows I’m a woman!  Between 26 and 35!  The location is actually wrong, as I am in Brooklyn, NY, but I did live in San Francisco 5 years ago when I first signed up for a Yahoo account.  Still, Yahoo is very explicitly showing, and not just telling, that it knows geographical information, age, gender, and the make and operating system of your computer.  I’m impressed—they must know this is going to scare some people.

Does any of this even matter?

I prefer the Yahoo design in many ways — the boxes and verticality of the manager to me are easier to read and understand than the horizontal spareness of the Google design.  But in the end, the design differences between Google and Yahoo’s new privacy tools may not even matter.  I don’t know how many people will actually see either Manager.  You still have to be curious enough about privacy to click on “Privacy Policy,” which takes you to Yahoo! Privacy, at which point, in the top right-hand corner, you see a link to “Opt-out” of interest-based advertising.  The same is true with Google. And neither company has actually changed much about their data collection practices.  They’re just being more open about them.

But I am impressed and heartened that both companies have started to reveal more about what they’re tracking and in ways that are more visually understandable than a long, boring, legalistic privacy policy.  I hope Yahoo is feeling competitive with Google on privacy issues and vice-versa.  I’d love to see a race to the top.

Remixing Creative Commons licenses for personal information, Part II — What good would that do?

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The scenarios of data sharing I outlined in my first blog post may not sound too exciting to you.  So what if one person uploads a dataset on her blog, making it public, and then says it’s available for reuse?  How does that make the world a better place?

It’s possible that although personal information licenses, a la Creative Commons, wouldn’t solve all data-collection problems today, it could shape and shift the debate in several important ways:

1) Create a proactive way for people to take control of their information.

Right now, we as users generally are told, “Take it or leave it.”  We can agree with the terms of use that govern the use of our personal information, or not. A few companies are trying to offer more choices—Firefox has a “Private Browsing” option, Google offers some choices in what interests are tracked.  But a user almost never gets a choice in how his or her information is used once it’s collected.  A set of licenses could be a way to assert control instead of waiting for the choices to be offered.  As many privacy advocates have noted, it’s problematic that most privacy choices are offered as an opt-out rather than an opt-in.  A set of licenses would create a way to “opt-in” before being asked.  Even if the licenses turned out to be difficult to enforce, if the licenses became popular and widespread, it would be harder to ignore that people do have preferences that are not being considered or honored.

2) Create a grassroots way for people to actively share their information for causes they explicitly support.

Obama's Healthcare Stories for America

We’ve all seen campaigns that are organized around human-interest stories, true stories about real people that are meant to humanize a campaign and give it urgency.  The current healthcare debate, for example, inspired a host of organizations to ask people to “share their stories,” the Obama administration’s site being one of the best-organized ones.

It had the following “Submission Terms“:

submission terms

By submitting your story, you agree that the story, along with any pictures or video you submit along with the story (the “Submission”), is non-confidential and may be freely used and disclosed, in whole or in part and in any manner or media, by or on behalf of Democratic National Committee (“DNC”) in support of health care reform.

You acknowledge that such use will be without acknowledgment or compensation to you.

You grant DNC a perpetual, irrevocable, sublicensable, royalty-free license to publish, reproduce, distribute, display, perform, adapt, create derivative works of and otherwise use the Submission.

Despite the all-or-nothing language, the Obama site was still able to solicit a great number of stories.  But the terms underscore a perennial problem for lesser-known organizations.  How do people trust an organization with their stories?

A more decentralized set of licenses could allow people to essentially tag their information across the internet and flag that it’s been provided in support of a specific cause, without giving their stories explicitly to another organization.  Individuals could also choose to tag their information in support of specific research projects.

The licenses could be an organizing tool, a way for organizations or people without established reputations to gather useful information without asking people to sign away the rights to their stories.  Or the licenses could be a research tool, enabling new forms of data collection.  Already, sociologists are exploring the possibilities of broadening research beyond the couple hundred subjects that can be managed through more traditional methods.  At Harvard, a graduate student in psychology created an iPhone application that allows research subjects in a study on happiness to rate their happiness in real time, rather than through recollection with an interviewer later.

Would the existence of standard licenses for sharing personal information make organizing around real stories easier?  Could it make personal information-based research easier?  Could it encourage people who support such causes or research but are uncertain about existing privacy guarantees more willing to try?  We think it’s certainly worth exploring.

3) Make sharing cool (and good).


Creative Commons is not without controversy, but almost everyone would agree, what the organization did manage to do was making sharing work cool.  The licenses created an easy way for people who shared the same view of intellectual property to band together and display their commitment.  They also made it easier to advertise and sell this ethos of IP to others.

We wonder if a set of licenses for sharing personal information might not be able to do the same.  We want to promote sharing information as a virtue, a civic act of generosity, and a way to enable all of us to have more information for decisions.  We want donating information to feel like donating blood.

4) Raise the bar on use of personal information in research, marketing, and other contexts.

It may seem like we’re encouraging less use and reuse of information by imagining a system where people put licenses on information they already make public (see screenshots from the first post.)  But what the licenses would make clear, which is not clear now, is that there is a difference between something being put out for the public, for general use and enjoyment, and something being put out for someone else’s reuse, gain, and potential profit.  Those who use the license would be signaling clearly their willingness to make their information available for research and other public uses.

About a year ago, researchers at the Berman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard released a dataset of Facebook profile information for an entire class of college students at an “an anonymous, northeastern American university.”  As Michael Zimmer pointed out, however, the dataset was hardly “anonymous.”  He was quickly able to deduce that the university in question was Harvard.  Although some have argued that some of these profiles were already “public,” Zimmer argues (and we agree) that having a public profile does not equal consent to being a research subject:

This leads to the second point: just because users post information on Facebook doesn’t mean they intend for it to be scraped, aggregated, coded, disected, and distributed. Creating a Facebook account and posting information on the social networking site is a decision made with the intent to engage in a social community, to connect with people, share ideas and thoughts, communicate, be human. Just because some of the profile information is publicly avaiable (either consciously by the user, or due to a failure to adjust the default privacy settings), doesn’t mean there are no expectations of privacy with the data. This is contextual integrity 101.

By creating a license that allows people to clearly signal when they do consent to being “scraped, aggregated, coded, dissected, and distributed,” we would also make clearer that when people don’t clearly signal their consent, that consent cannot be assumed.

5) Ultimately create new scenarios in which licenses can be used.

So far, the scenarios I’ve outlined in which a license could be applied are where information is being displayed openly, as on a website.  But the licenses could eventually apply to more closed systems, where the individual’s decision to share data is not itself public.

CDP is working on building a datatrust, a new kind of institution and trusted entity to store sensitive, personal information and make it publicly accessible for research.  Individuals and institutions could choose to donate data to the datatrust, knowing that they are contributing to public knowledge on a range of issues.  CDP will likely use a system of licenses that allow each data donor to pre-determine his or her preferences on how their data is accessed rather than a single “terms of use” tha applies to everyone, take it or leave it.

Similarly, if the licenses were to become popular, other organizations and companies that collect information from their members or account holders would be under pressure to offer these set choices or licenses when people sign up for accounts that require them to provide personal information.

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