Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist
1 November 2012

Interesting – I am no expert on EU relations but is Labour’s daft move to join Tory backbenchers to try to cut EU spending merely crude troublemaking or a sign (as the BBC Analysis radio programme this week suggested) that Labour may be rethinking the Europhilia that has characterised its last few decades?

5 October 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media at7:39 pm

When I joined New Scientist in 1995 as Net Editor (and ever since) I wondered why it largely covers the natural sciences not the social sciences. I assumed this was something to do with the ongoing intellectual and ideological struggle between ‘hard’ sciences and ‘soft’ sciences and the related divide between qualitative and quantitative research. Imagine my surprise when thanks to the 3rd October podcast of Thinking Allowed, I discovered that the same people who launched New Scientist had launched New Society as well (50 years ago yesterday), explicitly as a social scientific publication.

I just remember New Society – it was merged with the New Statesman in 1988, a year after I arrived here in the UK (more detailed memories can be found on the podcast and in this recollection in the THES). Wouldn’t it be nice if on the anniversary of New Society’s birth New Scientist might be inspired to broaden its remit and introduce a New Society section? After all there’s no reason to keep off New Society’s patch now…

12 September 2012

I’m all in favour of attempts like that of the World Wide Web Foundation to make in their words “multi-dimensional measures of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations” but to call it the “first” such attempt would seem to be overlooking the strikingly similar ITU “Measuring the Information Society” programme or The World Economic Forum’s “Network Readiness Index” (there are and have been probably others too). There’s plenty of room for all though and each group of scholars has something to contribute (indeed the Web Index draws from ITU figures among others). If you are interested in the digital divide, check them all out!

27 August 2012

One of the chapters of my forthcoming book, “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media” is devoted to the question “What is risky and who is at risk?” and in answering this question the best resource I have consulted by some distance is Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Gorzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the perspective of European children: full findings. It combines the findings of a survey of 25,142 (!) children 9-16 across Europe with a measured, thoughtful review of the research of others. Parents and policy-makers who don’t want or need all the 167 pages of evidence should download EU Kids Online: Final Report and pay particular attention to pages 42-46 which debunk the top 10 myths of online safety and set out some clear recommendations. Here are a few things I have noted, based on my interests and approach:

The survey found that 59% of all European children surveyed have social network profiles, including 26% of 9-10 year olds and 49% of 11-12 year olds (though a proportion of these will be on social networks where under-13s are allowed like Club Penguin). (p. 36-37)

The survey looked at children’s use of privacy settings but (presumably because of lack of space on the very extensive survey) in a fairly blunt fashion. It asked them whether their profiles were public, “partly private” (visible to friends of friends) or private. How concerned you are about what they reveal may depend on how you perceive “partly private”.

From Risks and Safety on the Internet p. 38

Research published by scholars working with Facebook (Ugander et al, 2011) noted that “partially private” users with the average number of friends (100) would have on average 27,500 friends of friends able to view their profiles.

This research also does not evaluate how accurate the respondents’ assessments really are of how well their profiles are protected. The only study I am aware of that compared what people wanted to share on Facebook with what they were actually sharing (Majedski, 2011) found no fewer than 93.8% of participants revealed some information that they did not want disclosed. This is consistent with the earlier qualitative findings of (Livingstone, 2008) who found on interviewing teenagers, “When asked, a fair proportion of those interviewed hesitated to show how to change their privacy settings, often clicking on the wrong options before managing this task, and showing some nervousness about the unintended consequences of changing settings” (p. 406).

On the other hand, the survey does not give much guidance about just how risky letting out public information actually is for young people. They say, “Research thus far has proved contradictory about whether SNSs are more or less risky than instant messaging, chat, or other online communication formats, and it is as yet unclear whether risks are ‘migrating’ from older formats to SNSs” (p. 36) but their list of risks is rather vague – ‘flaming’, hacking and harassment – and the only paper they cite about these risks is (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008) whose scope just covers harassment and sexual solicitation and which seemed rather more unambiguous than the EU Kids Online report suggests. It concluded “broad claims of victimization risk, at least defined as unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment, associated with social networking sites do not seem justified” – though the situation may have changed in the six years since the Ybarra & Mitchell survey.

It is perhaps notable that while online bullying was found to be rare – 6% of young people experienced it in the last year (p. 63) – it is also most often encountered on social network sites (half of all bullying encounters).

It’s unfortunate that the focus of the report (on “the internet”) means it doesn’t cover mobile-phone based risks unless they came via the internet (bullying, ‘sexting’ and other problematic behaviour may be digitally circulated on mobiles but not using the internet).

My biggest problem with the report, however (and one of my motivations to do my book) is that the definition of potential risks in the survey is too narrow. In focusing on the obvious short term issues it overlooks some of the longer term risks of internet use including but not limited to:

  1. Employment harm (“why were you drunk all the time at university?”)
  2. Relationship harms (when your grandmother ‘meets’ your girlfriend online)
  3. Harms from an unanticipated future (“I can’t believe you actually boasted about having a petrol-guzzling car back in the 90s”)
  4. identity theft
  5. Locational crime (you check in at the restaurant, a thief checks out your TV)
  6. The harvesting of personal data for targeted marketing (and possibly ‘redlining’ and exclusion from access to financial products)
  7. Government surveillance using (flawed) risk assessment criteria (one of your 22,000 friends of friends turns out to be a terrorist so you go on a watch list).

I may share more about research I run across that tackles some of these areas in future blog posts. Meanwhile, I would be interested in what you think of this post and (if you’re a researcher) please suggest studies you think do a good job of measuring problems 1-7.

Oh, and perhaps my biggest problem with this report (but one the authors can hardly be blamed f0r) – in common with most internet risk literature it studies only children and teenagers. I would like to redress the balance by noting that many of the problems above will be encountered by adults as well. (So studies about these risks that cover older people would be particularly welcome).

6 August 2012

Evgeny Morozov has recently delivered a scathing (and funny) dissection of a collection of TED ebooks, including most prominently one by Parag and Ayesha Khanna. Leaving aside the superficiality of the ideas he mocks (I have not read the works in question) he points out something rather more disturbing in their work – the anti-democratic streak that appears to run through it eg:

We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.

It gets worse though – after the publication of Morozov’s critique, Vishrut Arya found an interview with Ayesha wherein she reflects on the exciting possibilities that augmented reality glasses would enable people who didn’t like homeless people to simply delete them from their sight. When I read this I assumed it was meant by her as some kind of warning but on listening she follows this with “…so now we have enhanced our basic sense”.

I am not surprised to find TED giving credibility to this kind of pundit – I am, however, disturbed and disappointed to see that my alma mater, the LSE, giving her a platform by making her director of their Future Cities Group (while she finishes her PhD there). Seems like another potential Said Ghaddafi embarrassment in the making. Certainly Beatrice and Sidney Webb would be turning in their graves!

24 June 2012
Filed under:Current Affairs (UK),journalism at2:14 pm

I was listening to a BBC podcast – Newspod for 22 June which covered as its lead story Ed Milliband’s recent speech about immigration. Listen to how it was introduced by Andrew Peach – I’ve highlighted the key words. “It’s rare for politicians to admit they’ve got it wrong but today the Labour leader Ed Milliband, himself the son of immigrants, has done precisely that. He’s made a speech in which he acknowledges that millions of people have legitimate concerns and more needs to be done to address them.” The BBC is of course entitled to say that Labour’s immigration policy compared to that of the conservatives cost them votes but in this introduction using those words Peach is clearly stating that that policy was wrong and that anti-immigrant sentiment is legitimate and must be addressed. In my view this is a clear (if inadvertent) breach of the BBC’s duty of impartiality and provides a good example of how careful journalists must be in choosing their words (assuming no ill intent). Here’s the link if you wish to make a complaint to the BBC.

22 June 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media,research at12:55 pm

I’m writing a book chapter at the moment about the use of “user generated content” by journalists from the traditional media and to justify why I concentrate on the traditional media I thought I’d dig up a statistic or two about how dependent the public remains on traditional media for its news. I went looking for an update of Robert W. McChesney’s “The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants” written in 2000 and found his 2011 updated book The Death and Life of American Journalism. On page 17 I found this striking statement, “Harvard’s Alex S Jones estimates that 85% of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspapers and that he has seen credible sources place that figure closer to 95%”. Thinking this sounded like an interesting study I looked up the source and found Alex Jones’ book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. On page 4 he says, “my own estimate is that 85% of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95%” (emphases mine). In other words either Jones has failed to cite his own research or (more probably) McChesney is reporting second hand and third hand guesswork.

This kind of thing really annoys me particularly when it takes me several minutes to get to the bottom of what turns out to be nothing more than a guess, and particularly when I know that there are a number of studies that discuss the sources of news with a greater deal of rigour. For example, there is How News Happens which argues that in Baltimore in 2009 95% of original news stories came from traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers (although its methodology has come under fire), or Paterson’s fascinating 2007 study showing that the leading online news sources (and to a lesser extent newspapers) are heavily dependent on news agency copy.

8 March 2012
Filed under:Academia,Privacy,social media at4:38 pm

The excellent folks at the Pew Internet and American Life Project have recently released an update of their 2009 report on reputation management and privacy attitudes among US internet users. The ‘top line summary’ says, “Social network users are becoming more active in pruning and managing their accounts” but I would be cautious about suggesting that from the data. True, 63% of them have deleted people from their “friends” lists, up from 56% in 2009 and 44% have deleted comments made by others on their profile, up from 36% in 2009 but since these are measures of “have ever done” one would expect figures to have risen given more than two years have passed.

It’s worth noting that from the report that (consistent with other research) young and old have the same likelihood to set their profiles to be private.

5 March 2012

Of course it has a role for easy, quick communication of relatively unimportant information but I fear that its very availability and ease means that like some kind of online kudzu it is expanding and driving out longer-form online discourse – particularly blogs. This is particularly problematic for academics like myself. It used to be that I would string together 500 words and more about an academic subject or something in the news and post it on my academic blog (okay, I admit I was a grad student with a bit more time on my hands) but now I tend to just tweet or Facebook post about it because the blog form implicitly demands more engagement than I feel I can give. It seems to me that possibly for similar reasons gradually nearly all of the blogs I used to read by fellow academics giving me their insights into trends and papers have died away*, replaced by tweets simply directing me to relevant web addresses.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and pass on the kinds of references to papers and to newspaper articles I get–see my twitter feed– but by the time a tweeter tells you who sent them a web address, very briefly summarizes why you might want to click and perhaps provides a hash tag to indicate its subject all that remains to be said is that said document or image is “enjoyable”, “provocative”, scary etc. A blog posting by contrast does not have to be that much longer but allows the writer to provide at least a little more context for the resource that they are talking about or indeed to provide a small but nonetheless useful addition to scholarly knowledge without all the psychic and administrative burden of turning out an academic paper.

Moreover, I have recently realised thanks to the news about Datasift providing companies with access to archives of tweets back to 2010 that although Twitter has kept everything, if I as a user ever did want to find an insightful tweet from even a week ago unless I had favourited it or I had been using third-party programs to archive a particular user or hashtag I would be out of luck. I always supposed that the limitations of search in tools like TweetDeck or Twitter.com itself were just a coding problem not reflective of an underlying technical problem.

* Mind you, this rant which I have been saving for a while now was inspired in part by the excellence of a Nathan Jurgenson blog post which reminded me that academic blog excellence is not yet dead.

The cartoon below (sorry have lost the original source) presents a number of other good reasons I dislike Twitter…

12 January 2012

I remember this phenomenon from my computer journalism days. I had assumed this was long gone but it’s still around as captured by BBC News Online. Doubly depressing because the CEO of CES seemed to be defending the practice. And triply depressing because I suspect its place at the number one spot of the BBC’s video coverage on News Online at the moment is nothing to do with its critical stance and everything to do with the models being shown to illustrate the story.

Update: And even more depressing than the above – @aleksk tweets i received the worst & most graphic abuse i’ve ever had online when i applauded the ban of booth babes at E3 on Guardian Gamesblog in 2006.

All of which reminds me that on one press trip a major tech vendor took journalists for a ‘jolly’ to the Lido in Paris (like the Folies Bergeres) – you can imagine how the female journalists on the trip felt…

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