Back to the future
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Just because Facebook has troves and troves of personal data doesn’t mean it has any real idea what it all means, writes April Dembosky in San Francisco. Data interpretation is the biggest hurdle facing technology companies, and it gets more and more challenging as people, especially young people, become increasingly creative about how they express themselves on these public forums – and protect themselves by hiding information in plain sight.
“Young people are much more strategic about finding privacy,” says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “They assume data is accessible, but things are increasingly encoded so the meaning is not.”
Boyd studies the internet behaviours of teenagers and has discovered some of the novel strategies they use for navigating social networks. One girl, Mikalah, uses the “super log out”. She deactivates her account at the end of each day, so no one can search for her, friend her, or leave her comments when she’s not online. Knowing that Facebook makes it next to impossible to fully delete an account, she knows she can reactivate it whenever she wants.
Another girl, Shamika, found a way to make Facebook a real-time activity. At the end of the day she deletes all the comments everyone left for her. Then the next day she deletes all the comments she left for others the day before.
“This is their way of repurposing technology to create the context they want,” Boyd says.
The most prominent method she has seen teenagers use to achieve privacy is by encoding their emotions in song lyrics. She tells of Carmen, a 17-year-old whose mother is friends with her on Facebook. Carmen’s mum comments on everything she posts. So when she was having a terrible day and wanted to get some support from her friends without alarming her mother, she posted a lyric from a song in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “Always look on the bright side of life”, a chipper line that is sung in the most dismal of contexts – while the main character of the movie hangs nailed to a crucifix.
Carmen’s mum wrote, “looks like you’re having a great day”, while her friends immediately called and texted her.
Facebook has a long way to go before it figures out how to turn a post like that into a social ad.