Facebook has an identity crisis – and it's messing with democracy

I’ve followed the long standing Facebook identity battles that both Alec Couros and Alan Levine have had to endure, and the abject failure on the part of Facebook to deal with fake account after fake account expropriating their identities to do all manner of nasty things. Today comes news that the mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, was locked out of her own Facebook account because….well, because Facebook doesn’t believe that a person in politics could actually have the last name of Helps.

While what has happened to Alec and Alan is serious and has caused a great deal of pain to people who have been duped and manipulated by one form of catfish con after another (to say nothing of the huge amount of effort both Alec and Alan have expended fighting Facebook), it is another level of icky when Facebook starts messing with the identity of publicly elected officials.

Regardless of your political opinions of the mayor (and just for the record, I live in Saanich, a different municipality with a different mayor) it is clear that Helps considers Facebook an important tool to engage with her constituents on all manners of public policy. Which is how it should be. The internet should enable more direct interaction with our public officials.

But by locking her out of her own account, Facebook has essentially gagged a public official. In short, Facebook – a corporation that is no stranger to accusations that it manipulates political opinion and conducts ethically questionable research by manipulating what we see in Facebook – is messing with democracy.

Now, I don’t think that there is anything overtly political behind having the mayor’s account shut down by Facebook. I think this is a case of Facebook’s own algorithmic bumbling. But, intentional or not, there are socio-political implications to having a publicly elected official lose access to their own Facebook account. Imagine if this happened with just a few days left in a tight election campaign? Or during a crisis in the city where the mayor was trying to use Facebook as a way to communicate important information to the citizens of her community?

It would be dismissive to think that social media is trivial. That this is just Facebook and there are plenty of other avenues available to the mayor to communicate with constituents. Which is true. But the fact is that social media is driving much of the political discourse happening in North America. The recent Pew Research shows that most people get their news from social media, with 63% of respondents saying that they get their news directly from what they see in Facebook. Over 60% of us use Facebook and social media to engage in political discourse on social media. And Facebook, the company, has no qualms about adjusting our newsfeed to promote certain behaviours during an election.

Social media has become a vitally important mechanism in our political process and, by extension, our society.

I am becoming convinced that it is dangerous for us to leave something as crucial as our identity up to an unaccountable, corporate social media company. Facebook is messing up too bad and the stakes are just too high in a democratic society.

I think our civic institutions need to be playing a bigger role in digital identity. Our governments need to be doing more to help its citizens verify that who we are online is legit. It’s a role our government has always had a hand in, through the issuing of government identification documents like passports, health cards, and drivers licenses. It’s time for them to step up and provide some kind of mechanism that can help their citizens verify that they are who they are online.

I also think that we need some regulations on social media with regards to digital identity issues. When the mayor of a city – and that cities police force – are unable to convince Facebook that the mayor is who she says she is….that is a serious problem. Our digital identities are too important to be left to customer support who refuse to return messages and fix problems quickly. It begins to look like censorship – tacit or otherwise – when the mayor is cut off for 9 days, and gets NO response from the company that cut her off. With identity, Facebook is failing and it is time for our public officials to step in and ensure that there are effective and efficient identity dispute mechanisms in place that keep people from being locked out of their own accounts for days and weeks on end. And with Facebook single sign on accounting for over 60% of login credentials at third-party sites, getting the boot on Facebook likely means getting the boot of a whole host of other sites and services across the web that you use.

I am also becoming convinced that our governments need to be more proactive in providing citizens alternative public virtual spaces for citizens to engage. While it is great that civic engagement happens on Twitter and Facebook and other virtual spaces, it is still at the whim and control of that social media company.  Just like our communities have real public spaces like libraries, schools, recreation centres and other physical municipal institutions, we should also be pushing for more of these virtual public spaces provided by our civic institutions. Places where a mayor can virtually interact with a wide network of constituents that isn’t controlled by a corporation driven by their own best interests who seem to have little regard for the damage they are doing to our lives and communities.


Will Facebook Questions mainstream crowdsourcing?

Facebook announced a new feature called Questions this week that might be the tipping point that makes technology mediated crowdsourcing a commonly accepted everyday occurrence as a way for individuals to find answers and solve problems.

Now, crowdsourcing is not all that new, but for most people I suspect crowdsouricng as a personal activity with a large network isn’t really on their radar. Sure, when you look for information, you might ask your friends or family for advice or post a question in a forum on the topic somewhere, but I suspect for most people harnessing the network effects of a large distributed mass of people isn’t really something they take part in.

Questions just might change that. Post a question using Questions (you can add a photo or a poll to the question – nice touch), and not only will your friends be able to answer it, but you can also send the question out to the FB network. Further target your question by tagging it with a subject keyword, and only people who are interested in that subject (I assume because they have declared it somewhere in  their profile) will get the question, giving you access to a bunch of people who have some (granted self-declared) skill and expertise in this area.

I haven’t seen the feature yet (it is being rolled out by Facebook as a beta to some users), so I am not going to speculate much more on it. And I am not sure how the questions will be posed to the network in an unobtrusive manner. If unsolicited questions just start popping up in people’s news streams, I suspect there will be a few upset users complaining about the added noise. But at first blush, it seems like the kind of feature that a social learning enthusiast can get behind.

EduDemic has an early look at how Questions could be used in the classroom.

Image: Share your ideas by Britta Bohlinger used under Creative Commons license.


Facebook is not how life works

Following up on a post from a few days ago regarding whether or not students want us in their space, I just came across an interesting article from the Washington Post called An Unmanageable Circle of Friends.

Overall the article is critical of social networks and the seemingly shallow relationships between people that often form. While I agree that many of the relationships are shallow, I also happen to know that the opposite is true and some fairly deep relationships can occur.

It’s also true that social networks don’t build real connections. It’s the people behind the keyboard who are the architects of real connections. I think the technology itself is agnostic when it comes to the level of depth of the relationships it mediates. The users choose how deep or shallow they wish to wade into the social network pond.

The one point that was bang on for me, however, was the point raised by University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman. Wellman really hits the nail on the head with regards to Facebook, MySpace and other social networks.

The bigger problem with Facebook et al., says Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist and founder of INSNA, is that current sites “assume that everyone in your life is on one happy network.” On MySpace, your work colleagues are given the same info as your Halo buddies. That’s not how life works, and pretending it does dilutes the meaning of our more powerful connections.

Essentially, everyone in our network gets the same level of access to personal information, whereas in “real life” we have much more control over what types of information we want to share with the people around us. I don’t necessarily tell my work colleagues all the details of my personal life, although they all know much more about my kids than my banker does. But my banker knows much more about how much I owe on my mortgage than my colleagues. We build these little walled areas in our life and when areas collide it makes us feel uncomfortable. And this is where I believe the friction will occur with students as educators push more into their online social networks.

One other question raised by the article, and one that I’ll be asking more and more, is how many social connections can we have before they begin to lose meaning and effectiveness? I have never heard of Dunbar’s number before, but I’m certainly going to research it a bit more as I continue to look at the effectiveness of social networks as an educational tool.


Do students want us in their space?

Got into an interesting discussion last week with a couple of faculty members who are just coming to Facebook for the first time. They have been receiving notifications from former students who have their email address in their address book when they upload them to Facebook. Usually the invitation to the faculty by the student is an inadvertent side effect of the Facebook bulk email address upload, and the students are often embarrased that the faculty person got a request from them. Which lead us into discussing whether or not students really want us in “their space”?

While there is a lot of excited clamoring in the edtech blogsphere about the potential of Facebook as a personal learning environment (me included), it seems to me there is a reluctance by students to have us that closely entwined in their life. I’m beginning to suspect that students see a real disconnect between their life and their education. Facebook is not where they go to learn. It’s where they go to socialize, relax and throw virtual food at each other.

Earlier today I was doing a Technorati search using my insitution as a search term to see if there were any incoming students blogging about the school and came across this posting on MySpace from an incoming student who is none too impressed that one of our faculty has sent her an invite to join a Facebook.

Granted, her frustration seems to be more of the “this Facebook thing has gone too far” as opposed to “this is an intrusion where I don’t want it”, but you still have to suspect that there will be students who see MySpace as just that- their space. And whether they throw the doors open and invite us educators in with open arms remains to be seen. But I won’t be surprised if some students balk at blurring the lines between “school life” and “personal life”.


Warning for Facebook users using third party applications

VeriSign iDefense is warning Facebook users to beware when installing third party applications.

While no specific applications have been named, VeriSign says that the potential is there for third party applications to gain access to sensitive personal data.

On one hand, it’s nice to have security people issuing warnings like this to raise awareness that there are risks of having their personal data used in ways they don’t expect. On the other hand, why single out Facebook? This kind of blanket warning can apply to any web platform that allows access via API’s.

While there might be some technical hurdles to overcome before our information is safe online in applications like Facebook, the authors tend to think the problem has just as much to do with user attitutdes as it does with technical problems. Do all users go into using online applications like Facebook with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of how their personal data could be used? The authors don’t think they do.

However, Olson and Rick Howard, director of intelligence at VeriSign’s iDefense Labs, said a longer-term problem is users’ openness with personal information on public forums.

“They seem to have no sense of privacy,” Howard said. “We think it could go two ways. In the future, they’re either going to decide they’re embarrassed by all the information they’ve put out there, or they may decide it’s just the way it is and (that) it’s OK to put information out there.”

I wonder how many users are aware of how to fine tune their privacy settings in Facebook or of how Facebook controls personal information? Rather than rely on technical solutions from developers to solve the problem of keeping our information private, I think the better solution is to work on educating users about the nature of open and social networks.