Sunday, April 01, 2012

If you are on Facebook

Or, for that matter, any other social networking site, you should read John Brownlee's post about an iPhone app called Girls Around Me: This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy.

The post's title says it all!

Charlie Stross expands on Brownlee's story to flesh out the whys and hows of the incentives that drive social networking sites [via Brad DeLong], and their implications for people using those sites:

The problem is this: all social networks run on the principle that if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. They operate as profitable businesses because they encourage users to channel their social interactions via their network, perform data mining on the interests that users disclose, and present the users with advertisements tailored to their interests (which are consequently much more likely to result in a successful sale).

However, to make such micro-targeted advertising practical, the social networks need to motivate their users to disclose information relevant to advertisers. There's no point marketing bacon to Jews or Muslims, so religion is relevant. There's no point marketing turkey to vegans or wheat products to coeliacs, so dietary preferences and medical conditions are relevant. If a user is a member of a subculture associated with a distinctive clothing fashion, that information is relevant to garment vendors. And so on. So Facebook, Orkut, G+ and so on all attempt to induce their users to maximize their self-disclosure and to tie their accounts to as many useful third-party information sources as possible.

You may have noticed that Facebook provides privacy controls, for those who are sufficiently worried about stranger danger to want some illusion of control. Unfortunately the vast majority of people have no idea how widely visible "show to all" really is, or that it might enable the users of apps like "Stalking Targets Around Me" to identify and track them. And it is not in Facebook's commercial interest to promote the use of privacy controls [Emphasis in the original]. If someone is using the privacy controls with all the settings jacked up to 11, it becomes very unlikely that long-lost friends and relatives will be able to make contact with them through Facebook. Which is a lost advertising opportunity, and therefore detrimental to the revenue stream.


  1. Ungrateful Alive said...

    But what prevents extensive lying in the disclosure? My Facebook account has nothing in common with my Google account has nothing in common with my Yahoo account. Not even the first or last names. But my (real) friends know what I am called in each place. The only exception is LinkedIn, where you do have to provide real data. But then, LinkedIn makes some real contributions to the economy, while Facebook and Twitter are, in aggregate, huge gashing wounds in the economy through which much time bleeds away.

  2. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    "But what prevents extensive lying in the disclosure?"

    Finding information through this would be an interesting problem for an experienced WebMiner, wouldn't it? ;-)

    I don't think people have taken the privacy issue very seriously. A lot of the earliest users of social media like FB and Orkut were college students; consequently naive about privacy and such, or even the fact that they are archiving their juvenility for years to come. For them it was just a toy. The severity of the privacy issues has been understood only in hindsight.