Privacy Controls and Awareness

I’ve been thinking about online social networks (OSNs for now) and why people use them, sparked by a discussion with my supervisor. OSNs such as (FB for now) are interesting for researchers because they show an example of a mass social phenomena, and they give a unique window from which we can observe the social trends and patterns of social information sharing that are being displayed.

A paper by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross described the results of a quite comprehensive survey conducted in a North American college institution to try and find out the awareness of privacy controls that FB users have. Interestingly, the undergraduates in the study who expressed the highest level of concern for threats to their personal privacy are the majority joining FB, at 89.74%. This confirmed my thoughts that although people are aware of the privacy issues on these sites, they go ahead and share a ridiculously accurate description of themselves anyway, including sexual orientation, movie preferences and musical taste. Of course, it doesn’t stop there. A laughable example is a college student majoring in criminal law admitted to stealing on his blog. Why are people so open to revealing such facts to a virtual world? Is it they are so absorbed into it that they forget that the two worlds merge together as one?

Another interesting result Acquisti found is that the respondents by far deny FB is useful to them for dating or self-promotion. They claim that their real aims are to find old classmates and make it convenient to keep in contact with them. However, when asked whether how often, on average, their peers use FB for the same activities, the results differed dramatically. The tasks of keeping in touch with old classmates and communication between classmates remained ranked highly, but ones such as “showing information about themselves/advertising themselves”, “making them more popular”, or “finding dates” suddenly became very popular.

How interesting is this? These college students and staff were offered $6 to fill in a survey that they knew was anonymous. Why is it that the users have such different views on why they use the system compared to what they think their peers use it for? Is this the real root of the success of these systems?

Imagined Communities: Awareness, Information Sharing, and Privacy on the Facebook


Online Social Webs: A Waste of Time?

My friend recently sent me a link to a really interesting article which pretty much summed up a lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently regarding the real nature of online social networks:

Link: Facing the Faceless

In summary, the article says that people are increasingly using online social networks as an excuse for avoiding F2F (face-to-face) contact. Even though these systems can provide us with a much easier way to connect to our friends, it seems like we are creating less and less strong relationships with them. What are your thoughts?


Bad MoSoSo

Our lives are filled with a multitude of distractions. Taking email as an example, some people adopt one-a-day approach. As the name implies, email is only checked once a day. The communication medium becomes used in the way that it was designed for – a persistent inbox where people could leave messages that don’t have to be read and replied to straight away. The mSpace (mobile) system (m.c. shraefel)  is one of many examples of software designed for the PC has been modified using techniques in HCI literature that tries to enable the user to do what they can on the PC on a mobile device. "ZedPanes", "Dimension Selection", "PaneSlider", "Multiple Selection" and "Triage Space" are just a subset of the techniques employed on the mobile version. These screens are not designed to support displaying so much information at one time. Keep these fancy interfaces in the movies – like email is not designed for instant messaging, mobile devices are not designed for displaying large amounts of information at a time.

Multitasking is something the broad population is getting better at. We are constantly bombarded with information, and even young teenagers are able to skim-read the web while engaging in an instant messaging conversation. We get better at multitasking (see the book, "Everything Bad is Good for You by Stephen Johnson), but does it actually make our lives any less stressful? My envision is that the important things should distract our attention (for example, alarm clocks, reminders, etc), but the less important things (email, friends’ location messages, etc) should be something we choose to look at. The systems should work in the background and soak in the complex information and present them in an easier-to-digest form when and only when the user requests it.

Research in ubiquitous systems (Wieser’s envision) aim to make life simpler and more efficient by being as transparent as possible. For now, the end result is idealistic, so we can only work towards a mix of the two. I’ve been reading up on Matthew Chalmers, who has written a few papers about "Social Navigation", which talk about the patterns in social interaction that emerge when there is a perceived increase in interest in one thing. A good example given was that when we’re browsing the shopping streets at leisure and see a large group of people together in a crowd we are often curious to see what’s happening behind the crowd. Chalmers notices that there are social implications to this – that there is a kind of collective enjoyment with gathering together out of curiosity.

We may improve social interaction by not bringing social networks to the mobile, but by increasing the ease of networking with people around you by taking advantage of the portable ID we carry around us (mobile devices). People hardly ever part with their mobile phones, so the devices already provide this identity. Computer-aided social networking should be a passive process, keeping in line with traditional values associated with getting to know someone. It should not be a push process, which creates distractions (beeps whenever a new piece of information comes through). The limited size of mobile devices restricts the freedom to express a person’s thoughts as easily as when they’re sitting on a desktop computer.

MoSoSo (Mobile Social Software) is the name of a relatively recent trend of software for mobile devices that aim to put the power of social networking websites straight into mobile phones and PDAs. Some of these systems, for example Plazes and Dodgeball aim to overlay location-tagged, user-created information on the social network. Other ones have a strong dating bias, including features to find the correlation of interests between you and a person in close proximity (Enpresence, Nokia Sensor). These systems are more like toys than useful applications you would use everyday; they push distractions onto you when you’re out and about. For a particular teenage culture maybe this would be a good thing, but such applications don’t seem to be aimed at improving the lives of the average person; instead, they are a complex blend of technologies: WiFi, GPRS or 3G for internet connections, GPS for location tracking, and Bluetooth for device identification in proximity. In these systems we have to deal with two modes of interaction. One on mobile, and one, linked, system on the web. This all should be a passive process so we can ignore it most of the time but make use of it when we want to.

Now we go back to the idea of letting go of technology during social encounters and leaving the networking for some other time. The power of lack of interaction and transparency could be harnessed by a design for mobile social networking; one that detects the gathering of people transparently. If we take the processing of information away from the mobile device and use it solely as an presence sensor, we take away the complexities in terms of both the technological hurdles that have become the center of attention in MoSoSo work so far, and of the irregular interaction with the system while it is activated. Because the complexity of the mobile interfaces for MoSoSo is increasing as more features are added to them, I believe research is heading in the wrong direction. Technology should not constantly get in the way of social interaction – we should not merge so thoroughly a virtual world and a physical world.