Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On Danah, Facebook and Wales.

Danah at apophenia has written an excellent blog essay, (a rough work in progress paper) which she has called "Viewing American Class Divisions through Facebook and MySpace."

Its an excellent read, far better than many of the press articles describing its contents.

Regular readers of Danah's blog are I think aware of the way she works. She finds her own observations "disconcerting". It is interesting to note how many of those who commented on her thoughts, choose to criticise her rather than her observations which suggest that
"Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made."
I need time to think about her observations as I'm not certain how her theories might translate to the UK, or to Wales. I'm not convinced that the urge to Facebook or MySpace is as central to UK student life as it is in America, but it is growing. In the last week I've noticed several relatively prominent Welsh bloggers writing about the use of Facebook by politicians (locally and nationally) and by journalists seeking copy.

Here are a set of notes made by a blogger who heard Danah speak at Harvard.
The blog provides a good example of how a blog can be used to present notes taken at a lecture, seminar or tutorial.

Out of curiosity I've explored Facebook this morning and looked at the regional and college statistics for Wales. These figures are correct as of today.

The WALES network has 65,952 members.

In hierarchical order the college networks (in Wales) have the following numbers of members.

Cardiff, 15,104
Swansea, 6,447
Aber, 5,995
Bangor, 4,145
Uni Glam, 2,243
UW Institute Cardiff, 1,653
UW Newport, 716
Swansea IHE, 481
Lampeter, 469
Trinity, 333
RW College of Music and Drama, 332
NEWI, 356

A total of 38,274 facebook memberships.
(How many students are there in Wales?)
(How old are these networks?)

To make sense of these figures, some statistical work will be required to show the number of facebook memberships as a percentage of the student population of each of the colleges, as we are not really comparing like with like here. (I suspect that Cardiff on Facebook includes the College of Medicine.)

I wonder if I can find similar figures for Bebo or MySpace?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Notes on Facebook (2)

In an earlier post I referred to Privacy International's consultation report "A Race to the Bottom: Privacy Ranking of Internet Services" in which Google is categorised as engaging in "comprehensive consumer surveillance" and as having an "entrenched hostility to privacy". Facebook does little better and is described as "displaying substantial and comprehensive privacy threats." In fact the same description was applied to six other companies; AOL, Apple, Hi5, Reunion.com, Windows Live Space, and Yahoo!

Facebook's position close to the bottom of the Privacy International rankings is surprising as the the two well publicised principles of Facebook state that :-
"You have control over personal information. and You have access to information others want to share."
Privacy International's report led me to read the small print and to consider what I read. In relation to "user content posted on the site" the second paragraph of the terms of use states :-
"When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site. By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content."
Read that again, slowly and out loud if it helps and concentrate on the sentence that says when you post something (anything) on the site you grant
"to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing."
Which means, I think that once you write something on Facebook it is no longer yours, it's theirs. If you value your thoughts, Facebook is not the place for exploring or discussing original ideas.

In their Privacy Policy, Facebook describe very clearly and plainly the information they collect about users. This falls into two types, personal information disclosed by the user within the Facebook and Web Site use information collected as users move around in Facebook. There is a mass of information collected here, IP addresses, cookies, email addresses etc. and Facebook are very open in their description of what they collect and how they use that data to feed their advertiser's appetite for audience demographics.

What particularly interested me about this section was an additional sentence which states
"Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience."
That's a third type of information they might collect, information that they might actively go out and search for based on what they know about you already.

It seems that signing up to Facebook implies granting permission for the possibility of data mining and data matching. Social networking in cyberspace comes with risks that might equal those found in meatspace.

In Facebook's defence none of this information is hidden. Their terms of service and privacy policy are easily found on their front page. But who reads it? I certainly didn't.

In the world of social software Facebook has an impressive record of growth, an enormous and growing user group, and with its recent changes of policy the opportunity to become far more than a facilitator of networks. The Facebook garden is a truly beautiful thing to see, we must take care that we don't get trapped behind it's walls.

It is my belief that we need to think carefully about Facebook. As a provider or enabler of social networking it does just what it says on the box, as providers or facilitators of formal and informal learning we need to consider whether to open the box.

Remember Pandora.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Notes on Facebook

Facebook is one of the social networking sites, bringing together "friends" in linked networks. In its original American form to join users had to be part of an institiution of higher education (which provided the primary network), being described as student, alumni, faculty or staff members. At the present time joiners to facebook are allowed to join networks based on schools, colleges, workplaces and regions. In the UK in May there were 1.4 million active users. Once in a network (and you can join up to five) users can form interest groups, creating networks within networks just like in the real world. What we do in cyberspace reflects what we do in meatspace.

Facebook is addictive.
Once users enter the world of Facebook it is not long before the word addiction slips into our conversations. Facebook does not facilitate work, it gets in the way. When we should be working we're checking on where our friends are, what they've done,whether they're online, what applications they've installed.

Facebook illuminates the actions of ones friends, it displays personal information about them that is difficult to ignore. By nature inquisitive, we want to know as much as we can about our "friends", colleagues or family both on and off line. Non users of facebook when shown the site almost immediately ask "Is person x on facebook? Search for him / her. Show me their profile"
Facebook feeds the voyeur in us.

Facebook teaches us about our friends, yet we only get to observe what our friends want us to see. Facebook is one giant coffee table book. Users construct their profiles carefully, knowing that friends will read them with equal care. The choices made in profiles may tell us less about what they are and more about what they might wish us to think they are. Reader beware.
Facebook feeds the exhibitionist in us.

During the last few months Facebook has developed in two areas. Firstly membership is now open to school and college students aged between 13 and 18, and to anyone else anywhere with an email address. This provides Facebook with a new user base. While many current users of Facebook lament this, it makes commercial sense. Secondly, Facebook has opened the Facebook platform to third party developers without revenue sharing. Facebook has therefore become an application progamming interface within a closed social network.

Its easy to see the advantages of this for Facebook, for the third party developers, for the advertisers and at first glance for the users. Imagine Facebook.com as your homepage, the start point of all your on line activity, links to all your favourite applications, news feeds etc. etc.......

But Facebook is a closed system, to use it you have to be in it. Not much comes out of Facebook, the curiously named news feed won't feed my favourite news reader. While Facebook Platform makes it possible to access Google from within Facebook, you can see out but Google's bots can't see you.

Why is that?

Monday, June 18, 2007

On Solar power at the Googleplex

Google have fitted solar panels on the rooftops of eight of their buildings and two of their car ports at the Googleplex

According to Google, this installation
is projected to produce enough electricity for approximately 1,000 California homes or 30% of Google's peak electricity demand in our solar powered buildings at our Mountain View, CA headquarters.
As befits a company that guides us through digital space, Google has made a serious commitment to solar energy production.
Monitor their day to day production of electricity here.

I wonder how many coffee makers there are in the Googleplex?

On email, addiction and statistics.

A poll by ICM research (prepared for Nasstar) presents some new statistics about email use in the UK. It appears that up to half of us depend upon email or are addicted to email.
I'm really not certain that the survey shows evidence of email addiction, but it makes for a good headline and who am I to criticise how the BBC might use language?

41% of teenagers indicated that they were reliant on email
50% of 25 - 34 year olds indicated that they were reliant on email
44% of 35 - 44 year olds indicated that they were reliant on email

I can't locate full set of figures but the press release suggests that email usage is lowest in Wales with only 34% of people saying that email was vital to them, as compared to 43% of people in the South East. No surprises there, just a little more evidence of the growing digital divide in our country.

These dependency figures probably say something about digital natives.
Some might argue that teenagers as digital natives don't send emails, I don't think the average teenager has much need to send emails. Communication between teenagers is far more likely in the form of short texts, instant messages, or twitter like communiques within social networking sites.

The 25 - 34 year olds are more likely to be in the sort of environments where emails are essential for work and business. In fact I suspect they may well be using email in addition to other methods of "electronic communication".

As is ever the case statistics never tell us the whole story.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On GCSEs and a cure for Plagiarism (perhaps!)

Its good to read that GCSE home course work will be scrapped, as the powers that be catch up with what the rest of us have known for a long long time.
  • Some parents' have been doing their children's coursework.
  • Some teachers have known that parents have been doing coursework and have been unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
  • Some children have been copying and pasting from the Internet (without acknowledging the original source).
  • Some parents have been copying and pasting from the Internet (without acknowledging the original source).
  • Some teachers have known that children and their parents have been copying and pasting from the Internet (without acknowledging the original source) and have been unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Now, from 2009 coursework will be done in school under supervision, where pupils working on projects alone or in groups will be monitored by teachers with access to printed resources, the Internet and other sources of information being controlled.
The subjects affected by the new measures are, business studies, classical subjects, economics, English literature, modern foreign languages, history, geography, social sciences and religious studies.

Furthermore "coursework or controlled assessment" will be set and moderated by the exam boards, and about time! This is almost a level playing field.

But there is still further work to be done.

Children and teachers in the primary and secondary school systems will need training in how to acknowledge or "cite" the use of someone else's work, particularly when using materials found on the Internet. As the ways we access, sample and mash up digital resources increase it is vital that the present generation of digital natives need to be taught how to reference their sources.

Only then can the problem of plagiarism in Higher Education be properly addressed.

More on Google and Privacy

Back in March, I was pleased when Google said that they intended to anonymise server logs. Records would be kept but user identification would be separated from the search data after a particular length of time, (except for the data of "opted in users" of Search History).

It struck me at the time that Google were attempting to live up to the "Do no evil" mantra. The particular length of time would be between 18 and 24 months after search execution.

Here in the EU the so called Article 29 Working Party asked Google to explain how the period of 18 to 24 months was proportionate under European data laws. Writing on the official Googleblog last Monday Peter Fleischer (Google Global Privacy Counsel) revealed their response and some further information.

Google believe that they have a legitimate interest in retaining search server logs for a number of reasons.

  • to improve our search algorithms for the benefit of users
  • to defend our systems from malicious access and exploitation attempts
  • to maintain the integrity of our systems by fighting click fraud and web spam
  • to protect our users from threats like spam and phishing
  • to respond to valid legal orders from law enforcement as they investigate and prosecute serious crimes like child exploitation; and
  • to comply with data retention legal obligations.

Additionally they announced a new policy, search server logs will now be anonymised after 18 months, but future data retention laws may obligate raising the retention period to 24 months. They also indicate that they intend to redesign cookies to reduce their expiration. Some observers might suspect that the change in policy is not much of a change at all. In plain English, 18 to 24 months is now 18 months (unless laws change somewhere); and one day we might change the life span of our cookies (if we can work out how to do it).

It's probably unfortunate that this statement came two days after Privacy International released their colour coded report. Google do care about issues of user privacy and are very aware of their responsibilities. Now they need to consider how they can best advertise their goal of improving user privacy protection. The words of a lawyer on the official Google blog may not be the best medium for this particular message.

Google is still trying to "do no evil", but is finding it harder to prove it. Conspiracy theorists will search out alternative search engines, informed digital natives will seek out proxy servers; the rest of us will just carry on living our digital life under the kindly panoptic gaze of Google and hope for the best.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On University e-mails, Google and Privacy

It is ironic that two days after Google is described as allegedly having the "worst privacy policy" of popular net firms, it is seen to be "expanding its empire into universities with entire campus e-mail networks switching over to using Google's e-mail service.

Whatever one's feelings about Google (and it is time to start having them) the move to Web based services will make sense to students, tutors and University administrators. Anecdotal evidence from our work at Treforest has shown that communication with students is often confused by their possession of several email addresses and the reluctance of some to check internal emails provided by VLE's such as Blackboard.

Trinity College Dublin, Arizona State University and Linkopings University Sweden are moving to Google Apps for Education. Students existing email addresses will remain the same but behind the scenes the system will be driven by Google. Access will be provided to all the Google hosted online tools, in exchange Google will acquire a new audience for their advertisers and will accumulate further valuable data from the email traffic.

The Director of Information Services at Trinity College Dublin said that there had been debate within the university about privacy and loss of control to Google but that the "partnership was to the university's advantage - outsourcing the need to maintain an e-mail system without any cost.

I suspect that there is a cost, only time will tell what it really is.

The Privacy International report on Web Privacy makes for interesting reading. Over the last six months they have investigated the privacy practices of key Internet based companies. Their "ranking lists the best and the worst performers both in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 across the full spectrum of search, email, e-commerce and social networking sites." It is important to remember that this is an interim report for consultation, their full report will be available in September

The companies studied were
  • Amazon
  • AOL
  • Apple
  • BBC
  • Bebo
  • eBay
  • Facebook
  • Friendster
  • Google
  • Hi5
  • Last.fm
  • LinkedIn
  • LiveJournal
  • Microsoft
  • Myspace
  • Orkut
  • Reunion.com
  • Skype
  • Wikipedia
  • Windows Live Space
  • Xanga
  • Yahoo!
  • YouTube
The interim results are available as a PDF from Privacy International.
None of these organisations merited a privacy friendly rating but Google was placed at the bottom of the league described as being "hostile" to privacy. .

It must be reassuring for those Universities who have adopted Google as their email provider to read that :-

Google's specific privacy failures include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Google's services must accept that the company retains a large quantity of information about that user, often for an unstated or indefinite length of time, without clear limitation on subsequent use or disclosure, and without an opportunity to delete or withdraw personal data even if the user wishes to terminate the service.
  • Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many US based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view amongst privacy experts that 18 to 24 months is unacceptable, and possibly unlawful in many parts of the world.
  • Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut. Google often maintains these records even after a user has deleted his profile or removed information from Orkut.
  • Google collects all search results entered through Google Toolbar and identifies all Google Toolbar users with a unique cookie that allows Google to track the user's web movement.17 Google does not indicate how long the information collected through Google Toolbar is retained, nor does it offer users a data expungement option in connection with the service.
  • Google fails to follow generally accepted privacy practices such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines and elements of EU data protection law. As detailed in the EPIC complaint, Google also fails to adopted additional privacy provisions with respect to specific Google services.
  • Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.
  • Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.

Google have expressed their disappointment with the report which they believe is based on "inaccuaracies and misunderstandings", furthermore they remind us that "Google aggressively protects their users privacy"

It might not be long before questions asked by prospective students while selecting a university will include
  • Who provides your email service?
  • How private is it?
  • Who provides your VLE?
  • How secure is it?

Monday, June 11, 2007

On "No More Jam"

Back in March the BBC took the decision to suspend BBC Jam its online interactive learning service for 5 to 16 year olds. It was said that Jam had 170,000 users.

At the time there was quite a fuss about the possible loss of jobs and loss of educational provision. I remember that in Scotland and Wales some comment was made about the loss of Welsh and Gaelic language resources. Commercial providers of online interactive learning had complained to the European Commission and the BBC suspended production.

Seb Schmoller wrote to the BBC asking for further information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The data provides much food for thought. As Seb quite rightly states the killer fact is the extraordinarily low average weekly use per registered user. Jam may well have had 170,000 registered users, but they weren't really using the service provided, were they?

Once again we are faced with a set of statistics that show us how difficult / impossible it is to determine the use of an online service. We should also note that service providers who have access to meaningful statistics are reluctant to release all their data. Registered users doesn't mean what it says ........... all too often registered users are people (like me) who register (because we have to); have a look round; decide we don't like it and never go back again. Compare and contrast with the discussions about Second Life users, or the number of blogs in the world.

What was the budget for Jam? How did they spend it? Did it provide value for money?

As an ex provider of primary education (in another life) I found the graph of registered users by school year interesting and revealing. The peaks and troughs are quite telling. A peak at Year One, (why no Foundation Stage), a peak at Year Six (preparation for SATS in England or development of independent learning skills?), then an extraordinary decline as the children join the secondary school system. Jam just wasn't doing what it said on the jar.

The graph showing the number of unique users by week, although difficult to read shows troughs and peaks that presumably reflect the school year, the troughs clearly show holidays, suggesting that most Jam users came via schools. Not much evidence of independent out of school learning here.

For those of us in Wales, the preferred language stats might be of interest. Seven hundred and eighty one registered users declared their preferred language as being Welsh, that's 0.47%!
No registered users declared their preferred language as Gaelic.
(update 22.30 ......... apologies I've just realised Gaelic was not offered as a preferred language)

I'm no statistician.
Someone else can analyse those figures.

On "the Future"

Donald Clark pointed me in the direction of Blaise Aguera y Arcas' talk at the recent TED conference.

It's less than eight minutes long, watch out for Bleak House, The Guardian and Notre Dame.

Watch it and wonder.
It's the future.

The Photosynth technology mentioned in the talk can be found at Microsoft Live Labs.

Reading Data Mining: Text Mining: Visualisation and Social Media I see that the BBC has linked with Microsoft Labs to trial the photsynth technology with images of buildings from the TV series How We Built Britain (requires software download, doesn't work with Macs).

I suspect it provides Google Earth with food for thought.

Friday, June 08, 2007

On Blogging the Assembly

Yesterday I came across this post in the blog of Bethan Jenkins Assembly Member for South West Wales. While attending the first full session of the Welsh Assembly. Bethan blogged the experience.

There are all sorts of things to think of here.......
Is blogging during an Assembly session allowed?
Should it be allowed?

I can't tell when the posting was actually made, though Bethan prepared the post during the session. Her observations are made as a narrative, recording both the content of the Senedd debate and her immediate reflections.

From time to time we have thought about whether students might find it helpful to blog during lectures or seminars.

Instead of taking notes on paper, those with laptops, PDAs etc would make their notes and immediate reflections directly to a blog. Their peers who might also be live blogging, would have access to every one's notes and could leave comments. The theory behind this is simple, the practice far more complex.

Although it is said that digital natives are masters of multitasking I doubt that students in a large lecture would be able to listen, take blogged notes and comment on their peers blogs simultaneously. Having access to notes after the lecture could well be of use, even more so if the use of comments led to the sharing of extra information.

Alternatively I can see that use of something like Twitter could facilitate discussion during a lecture. The Twitter stream or flow of short observations could be easily displayed in a multimedia lecture theatre and could facilitate the sharing of knowledge.

The comments associated with Bethan's blog reflect observations that might be made by some lecturers in relation to blogging students. Some feel uncomfortable when faced students with laptops in lectures. In my limited observations of lectures very few students seem to use laptops for note taking. Encouraging live blogging of lectures or similar activities may depend upon the availability of laptops.

During practical sessions in the labs our students all have computer and Internet access, should we try live blogging of practical tutorials?

In the Senedd Bethan and her colleagues are all equipped with computers and Internet access, I wonder how connected they are one with another during debate?

Monday, June 04, 2007

On Publishing, Politicians and the Simple Life.

The Guardian Weekend magazine carried a fascinating article by Martin Amis.
Amis followed Tony Blair on his world wide farewell tour, recording his observations as he went. Whether you are for or against Blair, Amis' writing offers a revealing insight into the mysterious world inhabited by our politicians.

One paragraph in particular attracted my attention. While the Prime Minister visited Washington, some of his staff talked with some of the President's staff about foreign travel.

"When Blair goes somewhere, he relies on a staff of 30 (and five bodyguards). When Bush goes somewhere, he relies on a staff of 800 (and 100 bodyguards); if he visits two countries on the same trip, the figure is 1,600; three countries, and the figure is 2,400. At the other end, Blair will settle for whatever transport is made available. Using freight aircraft, Bush takes along his own limousine, his own back-up limousine, his own refuelling trucks and his own helicopters. "Mm," murmured a chastened Brit. "You make our lives seem very simple." This was, shall we say, the diplomatic way of putting it."

How many Americans does it take to change a light bulb?

I read the article in the paper based version of the Guardian.
What would Saturday be without a newspaper?

The article is also available online, together with videos and photographs. The additional multimedia materials provide a powerful supplement to the original article.
The footage of Blair flying into Baghdad is particularly telling.

Once upon a time, colour supplements used to complement newspaper reading.
Now the Internet is complementing the supplements.
Publishing in the 21st century has truly changed.