Seth Denbo made a clear call for greater awareness of how ‘free’ sites manage/use the information we post to, and the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle makes his October 2015 tweet ever the more relevant.
People are horrified that Facebook would sell the data we have voluntarily loaded onto their platform, but we really should have known better. Facebook and other social media platform will behave better when we demand it of them.
When we hand over our data without any guarantees or leverage over the platform, we contribute to a system in which it is easy to abuse the trust and lack of awareness of a population for whom the need to connect on a platform surpasses the need to question the platform.
Facebook behaved much like Google and amazon and LinkedIn and yes, academia dot edu do. The solution to the problem is not the elimination of the platforms or a congressional inquiry – the solution is already before us, as Zeynep Tufekci writes in an op-ed in the NY Times.
If nothing else, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook/data privacy issue should incentivize us to become more knowledgeable about the many platforms we use, and before we demonize Mark Zuckerberg, it would behoove us to understand how we contribute to their existence. There was a hilarious moment in the hearing when Orrin Hatch asked MZ how/why Facebook remained free. The look on MZ’s face when he answered “senator, we run ads” was priceless. Yes, Facebook runs ads, and as long as we don’t want to pay for the service, we will be the product.
This does not mean that social platforms like facebook and academic dot edu can’t be valuable social interaction sites – just ask any social movement coordinator or indigenous archivist for whom the free platform is the most effective at connecting their community; but we need to be aware that what is a community from one perspective, is a database from the other [props to Ian Bogost for the best tweet of the week] .
We need to understand that we can “own” our data – whatever that means, but that if we use a free social media platform, our data will be monetized somewhere else. It may be aggregated, it may not be. And we need to understand that social media is not the only place where we are being digitally monitored. That chip in our passport, our credit card, our smart fridge, our cell phone – we now exist on a tidal-wave of bits that constitute the digital infrastructure of our lives.
The alternative is not to throw away all our devices and live in a cabin in the woods, the alternative is to interact with the technology in informed ways, and to ask more from that technology, and maybe, at some point, be willing to pay for it. As Genevieve Bell articulated so clearly in the last of her four Boyer lectures, privacy will be the ultimate luxury in our digital future.
So what should you do with your academia dot edu profile? I am keeping mine super lean, and will post links to my published papers on my own webpage. I am not taking the bait no matter how many emails they send me saying “you may be missing on more than you realize”. Academia dot edu is a for profit social media platform, and it will both use your data and ask you to pay for what it offers – which is not much.