I just watched @tamaleaver ‘s Slideshare presentation on Birth, Death and Facebook. He examines how our online identities are created by other users, not necessarily only ourselves – it has become a curated effort.
Tama spoke of Digital Shadows, which occurs when information is no longer in our control, or hard to delete and get rid of. @StewartWoods mentions digital shadows in the first lecture for #Web101, and uses the example of the Star Wars Kid, who filmed himself making fighting moves, inspired by the film, Star Wars, and how that clip was transferred into digital format by his peers and uploaded to YouTube, where it went viral. Digital shadows are a prime example of how user-generated content has evolved into the phenomenon of content-generated users.
Tama then goes on to discuss Facebook, and the concepts of birth and death in this popular social media tool. He asks how do and should young people “inherit’ online identities. Incidences of mothers/parents posting ultrasound images of their unborn children on Facebook were offered as points for further consideration when endeavouring to answer this question. Stages of pre/post birth of babies, as parents assigned Facebook profiles to their unborn children to express their pride in the documentation of the growth and development of their offspring. However, many people are not aware of the contract they are signing when they start this process with Facebook. For example, ultrasound images have metadata – e.g. the mother’s name, her location, the hospital that took the image, etc. All of this data is text searchable. It is also interesting to look at the hashtag for #ultrasound on Instagram and see what pops up in the results.
Facebook will run, by default, all profile pictures on their site through facial recognition software. Google’s PICASA also does this, but doesn’t upload this information like Facebook does. Social media tools are very sophisticated and become more and more so all the time.
Infants are becoming BIG DATA. Tama supplied an example of a sophisticated medical sensor that is attached to a baby, so that his/her parents can monitor any irregularities or normal bodily functions like heart rates, pulse, kidney functions, etc. This sensor was designed to be used up to a year after a newborn comes home, but lots of data is generated from such a tool. Tama speculated that one day, Facebook would buy the rights to such a tool to aggregate their own data on users’ profiles also.
Tama also covered the nymwars, which marked the shift to the use of real names online. Almost gone are the times when one could use a pseudonym to create a social media presence online. This makes it possible to track all individuals’ activities. For companies like Facebook and Google, it’s all about selling things – that’s their current prime motivation. At this point, Tama referred to Danah Boyd’s Social Steganography: Learning to Hide in Plain Sight blog post which discusses privacy in the public age.
One has to question when the time will come when Google and/or Facebook will use this big data collection as a means of control, rather merely for financial gain. It reeks of Orwellian overtones, and it’s not too hard to picture such control occurring openly in the not-too-distant future.
We know that we are under surveillance in a myriad of ways. Tama discusses this also – surveillance VS SOUSveillance, which is not without agency. He argues that if agency is taken out of the equation, it doesn’t work. But, then, he goes on to discuss shadow profiles and Facebook’s practices in this realm: where Facebook creates a profile when they figure out that another person exists, but that person doesn’t necessarily have a social media presence or profile that is obvious to the average person. For example I could “tag” a friend of mine in a photo, and post it on Facebook, even though that friend has no Facebook account. Furthermore, I could have a list of contacts and their contact details and phone numbers on my Facebook address book, or in my Google contacts. Even though that particular friend of mine is not online or socially engaged, they are constructed by these companies, in the event that they eventually do sign up and or post to a web site sometime. They aggregate information from assumptions made by collecting data from people who are friends with these people.
When we communicate online, we ARE the big data. Big data needs “big ethics” around it, and we are yet to have that. Tama used the example of PRISM, where the United States’ NSA collected data and aggregated it all – but this can open up a Pandora’s Box, as the data is not precise enough to give us true/real meaning about someone, we can only make assumptions based on that data, which could lead to many other unforseen problems. Agency is no longer about individual autonomy.
The social media contradiction is that it is designed to make you feel connected, but serves as aggregators for companies and their marketing strategies, or in PRISM’s case, intelligence. The concern is that there is no literacy around social media as a phenomenon.
The same contradiction exists when it comes to Facebook and death, but in a different way. Dead people are now a dataset to be treated as Facebook sees fit. One loses all ownership rights upon death – no digital assets or wills – all of these are automatically deferred to Facebook.
Tama asks “Do we have the right to delete all of this personal data after our deaths?” There is a positive aspect to this conundrum – others can find the most fascinating information about us, our culture, etc. from a historical perspective. Tama speculates that in a decade or so, Facebook will be more akin to something like ancestry.org as a web site. However, Facebook currently has two options available to users upon their death – one is to delete their profile (which doesn’t mean that all information will be permanently deleted, it will only be visible to Facebook and not publicly available), the other option is be memorialised, almost serving as a permanent obituary of a person that has departed, where they can no longer “add” friends, or post status updates, but can be viewed by their Facebook friends and contacts when desired.
Finally Tama posed some questions for his audience:
1. How have you experienced the circulation of media about babies and young people on social media (or if not using social media, are other electronic forms used)?
2. How do YOU want to be remembered when you die? (Online at all?)
3. Where should parents learn about social media and communication? (At parenting lessons? Online? Where else?)
The most interesting question for me was the second one. Do I want to be remembered online after I die? The answer to that is not as straightforward for someone like me. I do if it’s from a professional perspective – papers I might have written, books I may have published, my intellectual property, which is no longer mine after my passing and free to use by all. I don’t want to be remembered online if my personal life, my foibles and weaknesses are all out there for all and sundry to scrutinise. I am a fan of Nietzsche – who am I to think of myself as important in that regard? I am not a nihilist, but I am a realist who occasionally tends to be more cynical than optimistic. So, I like reading a lot of Nietzsche’s work – using it to find other ways to interpret his writings.
All in all, as a person who is incredibly engaged via social media, and has been for quite some time now, I found Tama’s presentation fascinating. It’s a scary world, and an exciting one at the same time. Ultimately, do I care if I am being surveyed by others this much? Answer: only if the information is not used for evil instead of good… or even marketing. (I’m not a huge shopper, with the exception of books, electronic gadgets and motorcycling paraphernalia). So, I can live with this. But, the philosopher in me questions where one would draw that line in the sand with a sign saying “do not cross” – or would it be too late to do anything about it by the time we reach that point? We have already “sold our souls”, so to speak.