Social Media – Bane or Blessing?

October 17, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | 4 Comments

Social media is an interesting bird. On the one hand, it’s connecting us globally as never before. It has helped facilitate the Arab Spring and Occupy movements plus many flash mobs. It reconnects us with old friends and makes distances and differences grow smaller.

On the flip side, it’s no replacement for a social life. It depersonalizes social connection and creates false communities. Facebook discovered that users watching “friends” all-positive feeds were getting depressed. They ran experiments to manipulate users moods with fake friends data.

Many free services are funded by advertising. Companies discovered that with better user tracking, they could offer their advertisers more targeted ads. The experiment has largely been a failure but rather than backing off, there has been a sharp increase in the level of tracking. More and more services are being cross-linked and more and more companies are sharing their user data to enhance tracking. While companies have to respect your email address by law, they can do what they like with your activity data. It makes big news when hackers breach security on your purchase data but when they announce another massive data sharing agreement you didn’t approve, you don’t hear a peep.

Another trend is to consolidate services such as at Google, Microsoft, and Apple. This is being driven by the desire to consolidate user data from all services. They’re not interlinking YouTube, GMail, Search, Calendar plus your various accounts for your convenience. If you also use the Chrome browser and have an Android phone, I think you’d be a little startled how much information is being gathered about you. It’s much the same with other services. Facebook invites you to “friend” businesses so your purchasing activity gets added. They actively share info with data consolidation businesses. Did you also let them load your address book? There’s a big reason the government is making record requests of such businesses for user data.

Myself, I don’t think it’s a big deal if a web site knows a little about it’s visitors. Most sites, including this one, track what pages visitors view and how many things they click. Did you look at 3 pages or 5? If you make a comment, they record your IP address. (do you really think comments are anonymous?) Many also subscribe to get notices of new articles. But those are typically managed separately. Subscribers are not tied to page reads or comments here. Newsletters similarly track opens and clicks to see what people respond to but they don’t track web activity.

It may not seem like much when you talk about your dog here, chat about work there, put up a dating profile here, share pictures there, and so forth. But taken together, there is a massive library about many people on-line. It becomes information you often no longer own or control. Plus it can be used against you in court.

If you check out archive.org, you realize a lot of it never goes away even if you close your account or shut down your web site. The Wayback Machine now stores almost half a trillion web pages, including the first version of my original web site and comments I made on a tech site over a decade ago. Facebook doesn’t delete closed accounts. And so on.

The issue arises because this user data is not being used in a respectful way. And it’s being kept. Users are seen as objects to be manipulated. Government efforts to access this data, that they can’t legally collect themselves, is encouraging a new trend – moving the data off-shore to avoid local regulations. The players all have vested interests in expanding the collection.

It’s most prolific form is now on smart phones, the leading edge of device proliferation. Thousands of apps for your phone and many of the recommended ones want excess permissions. Why does a game need your address book and call list? User data.

Social Sharing
And this brings us to a new feature of this site.

As I discussed back in the Plug-in section of setting up a blog, there are three types of social sharing on a typical blog:
1 – Feeding new articles to your social media sites
2 – Offering the buttons to connect with you through the social media sites you use
3 – Offering the buttons to share your article with the social media sites readers use

The last is often the most visible. Below, beside or above many articles is a row of sharing buttons. These allow users to easily click the service of choice and share your article with others.

However, the tools used to provide this sharing are of 2 camps. On one side are services that simply refer the user to their account on the social site. On the other are services that track this process. In other words, they make money from tracking your site visitor activity in exchange for a free service. The shady part is they don’t usually bother to tell you that.

Unlike other features on my main site, social sharing has been one of the more problematic. I’ve tried quite a few tools but they’ve all typically had issues.

Such tools require constant updates due to regular changes to various services. The simple ones I tried often lacked many services, were out of date and thus partly broken, and/or tended to have bugs. The ones that were updated and working well typically included tracking – that’s how they’re funded.

For example, the service I originally used had many service links, was low key and promised no tracking. But with no budget, it gradually went down hill. The next one was was simple and lightweight but wasn’t getting updated or fixed. I couldn’t configure it how I was supposed to be able to and support questions went unanswered. Another very popular one is prone to bog down your site.

During another round of research, I tried another decent one but it was showing in places I didn’t want and it uses a List item structure (even though not a list). This caused it to inherit the themes List settings inappropriately. Again, no fix available.

AddtoAny
I then discovered the potential of AddtoAny. It allows you to select the number of displayed icons, select a range of looks, and has a sub-menu with dozens more social media services. When I made suggestions to improve a recent update, they quickly came back with an even better option.

In checking it’s background, I found they also offer the service for web sites and many other platforms like Blogger, Typepad, Joomla. The big surprise though was one for free WordPress.com, like this site. The free WP.com doesn’t have a plug-in architecture so few such services are available for it. You get what WordPress offers. In this case it adds a few settings to Settings, Sharing. It lacks the customization of a full plug-in and it appears removing all enabled services would be the only way to “remove” it. But it’s a pretty big improvement for a free blog. The only bug I’ve seen so far is its not showing on the most recent posts. Just ones a bit older. Odd, that.

The big issue it raises is user tracking. The full plug-in shares data with your Google Analytics but the company itself tracks much more. Some of these sharing services even track activity on your site, even if a reader doesn’t click on a share icon. Just loading the plugin does it.

While they don’t bother to tell you this, it becomes very obvious if you use a browser plug-in like DoNotTrackMe. Personally, I found the plug-in overzealous and it blocked too much functionality, but it certainly gives you a sense of how much user tracking is going on. You might be surprised how much tracking your own web site is doing without your knowledge. Larger sites commonly have numerous entities, all tracking users.

To their credit, when asked AddtoAny did offer the switch to turn off tracking. However, as this article notes, AddtoAny has since been bought by another company which has added further tracking.

This page offers another illustration of how far it’s gone. It will show you how many member companies are tracking you. And this is only member companies. They check the tracking of hundreds of companies on your computer in a few minutes. The irony is that if you use an Ad Blocking plug-in (like AdBlock Plus), you don’t see the ads (whew) but they’re still tracking you. I talk about other safe browsing tools here.

Advertising does support many free services but targeted advertising has been crossing a line. They say they’re not tracking user-identifiable information but often that’s bullocks. The more they track and the more they compare notes, the bigger the picture they have of you. Would the government be asking them for records if there wasn’t traceable data?

In the meantime, it’s a balancing act. Providing the service and convenience on the one hand and  trying to mitigate the abuse on the other. You can’t really avoid it. If you’re going to use the web and email and social media, you’ll be interacting with others who are being tracked.

Be aware and safe surfing.
David

4 Comments »

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  1. Just read of another promising option in development from the EFF. Rather than using blacklists, it monitors activity and if it detects tracking, it blocks that. Tracking focused and a little less aggressive than DoNotTrackMe. They’re also encouraging companies to reform their policies.

    https://www.eff.org/privacybadger

    Scroll down the page form comparisons, etc.

    Like

  2. The Lenovo scandal illustrates another layer of this customer abuse. Preinstalled adware with new computers. Only the adware turns out to be possible spyware and a massive security hole.

    This article summarizes it well and has links to test for it. AV companies are updating to delete it.
    http://www.engadget.com/2015/02/20/lenovo-superfish-cto/

    This article touches on the players and why this may be the tip of the iceberg.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2015/02/lenovo_superfish_scandal_why_it_s_one_of_the_worst_consumer_computing_screw.html

    Like

  3. […] their users as a commodity to be monetized. Not that the other platforms are above this. Some of the worst aspects of the modern Internet have become concentrated on the cell platform. The “swiss army […]

    Like

  4. […] The key – diversify your sources and pay attention to reputable international news sites that bring an out-of-country perspective. You can also use a tool like DuckDuckGo to search Google while reducing some of the tracking. […]

    Like


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