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Thoughts on the engagement of 6 million Facebook users

July 24, 2013

June 21, 2013 Facebook reported that a bug had potentially exposed 6 million Facebook users’ contact details. While this security breach is a huge at any scale and raises concerns regarding online privacy what I want to bring forward is that it also illuminates how our data is currently used by social media sites. In fact, it is quite interesting that instead of technical description of what happened Facebook wants to tell us why and how it happened:

When people upload their contact lists or address books to Facebook, we try to match that data with the contact information of other people on Facebook in order to generate friend recommendations. For example, we don’t want to recommend that people invite contacts to join Facebook if those contacts are already on Facebook; instead, we want to recommend that they invite those contacts to be their friends on Facebook.

Because of the bug, some of the information used to make friend recommendations and reduce the number of invitations we send was inadvertently stored in association with people’s contact information as part of their account on Facebook. As a result, if a person went to download an archive of their Facebook account through our Download Your Information (DYI) tool, they may have been provided with additional email addresses or telephone numbers for their contacts or people with whom they have some connection. This contact information was provided by other people on Facebook and was not necessarily accurate, but was inadvertently included with the contacts of the person using the DYI tool.

The point I want to focus on here is that in response to the security breach Facebook gives us a rather rare view of how they use user information to establish and maintain user engagement. What is important in this regard is the notion that users’ ‘contact lists’ and ‘address books’ are not only stored to the server but also actively used by Facebook to build new connections and establish new attachments. In this very case your contact details are used to make friend recommendations.
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According to Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus (2007, 101) social networks have an inbuilt “architecture of participation.” This architecture invites users to use the site and then exploits the data user submits to intensify the personalized user experiences. Friend recommendation system is without a doubt a part of these architectures. It is based on the idea that you do not connect with random people but with the people you know. You do not need to search for these people, Facebook suggests them for you with its algorithmic procedures (Bucher 2012). Your real life acquaintances become your Friends on Facebook and you do not have to leave the site to maintain these relationships.

To paraphrase José van Dijck (2013, 12 n9) social media sites engineer our sociality: in other words social media sites are “trying to exert influence on or directing user behavior.” Engineering of sociality needs not to refer to political propaganda or ideological brainwash but can as well be interpreted as technology of keeping users engaged with social media sites. Facebook of course needs user engagement in order to remain productive and to be credible for its shareholders. To be clear, user engagement here is not only emotional or psychological relation to a social media site but a relation that is in extensive manner coded and programmed to the technical and social uses of the platform itself. As such it needs to be researched from views that take into account both human and non-human agencies.

In short, being engaged with social media is a relation of connecting and sharing, discovering and learning, expressing oneself. These architectures of participation work in a circular logic. The more information you provide to social media sites, either explicitly or implicitly (see Schäfer 2009), the more engaged you become. Not only because these sites are able to better place you to a demographic slot based on big data but also because they use the small data, your private data, to personalize the experience. Eventually, you are so engaged that things like compromising the privacy of 6 million users does not stop you from using these sites.

References

Bucher, Taina 2012. “The Friendship Assemblage: Investigating Programmed Sociality on Facebook.” Television & New Media.Published Online August 24.

Coté, Mark & Pybus, Jennifer 2007. “Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks.” Ephemera, Vol 7(1): 88-106.

Schäfer, Mirko Tobias 2011. Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Van Dijck, José 2013. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

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