Posts Tagged ‘social networks’

Tweet-a-Prisoner: Social Media and Prisoners

A friend of mine called Mark Alexander is in prison, wrongly convicted of murdering his father. I know Mark from my IBM days, which means our mutual friends include the wonderful Andy Stanford-Clark and Matt Whitehead.

He’s been in prison for quite some months (good lord, they went fast :/ ), and we’ve primarily been staying in touch via a service called Email a Prisoner. You type your letter into an online form, pay 30p and hit ‘send’. It gets printed in the prison in question, popped into an envelope and delivered to the prisoner, who of course can reply by snail mail.

(Andy and I have been discussing related issues of latency — for  example, hearing bad news by phone one day and receiving a happy letter from before that news the next. I believe he may write about this shortly.)

Email A Prisoner is a nice service, and has been complemented by us visiting Mark, and by phone calls between Mark and Andy (in which Andy often ends up relaying greetings!). Still, these communication mechanisms are a world away from the fast-paced world of social media, even if Email A Prisoner does make things easier: as an expat living in the Netherlands, I have much more contact with my online British friends than the offline ones.

So I was absolutely delighted when Andy and Matt implemented Tweet A Prisoner! As you might imagine, it rather does what it says on the tin — Mark has a Twitter account (tap_MA), and with a bit of technological and social jiggery-pokery is able to update it from prison. Andy’s written an excellent explanation of how the system works.

I wanted to share a few words about the relevance of this to my EngD, where I focused on the redesign of digital experiences for non-digital contexts. As Andy observes in his write-up, in this case we were forced to use non-digital media for parts of the system, yet unless you’re Matt (i.e. the ‘social component’ of the system — the person who is so kind as to close the loop and upload tweets written by Mark) that’s effectively invisible. If I didn’t know Mark’s situation (or read the content of his posts!), I could easily assume he just happens not to log into Twitter on a daily basis.

I’ve yet to chat with Mark about his personal point of view, but this certainly gives him a new way to interact with a bunch of people: he can stay in touch with friends and ex-colleagues, and share his experiences more widely. I’m intrigued as to how his visceral experience of Twitter is changed by this rather unusual set-up.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a dearth of work on prisoner engagement and social media, but I wonder if this isn’t a topic for conversation: social media can help prisoners reconnect with healthier environments. Would that now have an impact in areas such as mental health and rates of recidivism?

On a personal note, I was absolutely thrilled when I saw the first set of Mark’s tweets. Thank you Andy and Matt!


On returning to Facebook (and, did they really delete my data?)

So I’ve been back on Facebook for a few days. Comments:

I haven’t engaged with it much, at least not for reading/writing updates. This is as I’m yet to Implement My Plan: I shall make two lists, one for ‘people whose updates I’d really like to read’, one for ‘people to whom I’m happy to broadcast my updates’. The former list is what I’ll probably skim once a day, the latter of course is my filter. Until those lists exist, I don’t find Facebook very usable as a tool for reading or writing updates within my network of contacts.

(I find it slightly strange blogging about this, as of course anyone can read this post, and so Facebook friends who don’t see material from me may consequently feel offended. Well, I guess I’ll cross bridges as I come to them!)

I have used Facebook to exchange messages with a few people. Personally, I far prefer email (it’s non-proprietary; it’s more secure; I can write offline)… but lots of people initiate messages from Facebook. I can see why, I think: it’s convenient, you don’t have to remember someone’s email address.

I have used Facebook to re-initiate conversation with the friend I mentioned in a previous post, the person who is important and yet for whom I only had Facebook as a contact mechanism. I’ve been really glad to re-establish that connection.

Although I didn’t plan to wipe the previous account, that happened, and I’m not totally bothered by it: I’m down to 55 Facebook contacts at the moment, and that’s kind of nice. I didn’t have the heartache of defriending many people!

I do suspect that Facebook have figured out who I am — by which I mean, kept data on my old account and linked it internally with the new account. Why? Well, they’re suggesting I may know a person I was friends with last time, but with whom I share no mutual friends… so why else would they suggest her? Dodgy!

A tentative return to Facebook

(My prior posts on this topic: initial departure, reflections one week in, realising I miss close friends)

A couple of weeks have passed since I courted controversy by leaving Facebook. After some reflection, I’ve decided to return. Here’s why:

The big reason I left was the overhead of managing multiple types of contact across a single network. As I bemoaned in my initial post on this topic, I have 295 ‘friends’ from all walks of life, and no idea what value (if any!) the majority place upon our online connection.

What have I learned?

  • It is not necessary to religiously read people’s updates each day. I haven’t missed the activity itself, or (to my knowledge!) missed any critical news. A few close friends have had big news and they got in touch to let me know: Facebook was never the only mechanism for staying in touch.
  • I thought I’d miss material from close friends, status updates in general, and event invites. I was mostly wrong: I did miss material from close friends (more than I expected)… however, the latter two aspects didn’t affect me.
  • I didn’t expect to miss photo sharing, but I did. It’s not just having a platform to share my photos, but being able to see the photos of others… for instance, I graduated on Monday, and I’m going to a wedding tomorrow: it’s nice to see other people’s images from those events.

Before I left, I was reading text updates from everyone and rich updates from close friends. I was broadcasting my own updates to all, which I found problematic.

(An aside: the broadcasting issue may seem a touch paradoxical to those who follow me on Twitter, where I broadcast publicly! However, I’ve always used Twitter as a work tool, and Facebook as a personal tool. I’m comfortable on Twitter because I know what audience I am addressing, and because of the asymmetry of relationships on Twitter: people follow me if they wish, and don’t otherwise. Unlike Facebook, I don’t feel an obligation to tailor my content to ‘suit’ the people who choose to follow me.)

I’m going to restrict my Facebook updates to a subset of my current contacts. I’m not sure how difficult I’ll find it to identify that subset, but I hope it’ll be worth the effort. I’m also going to stop feeling I ‘ought’ to skim updates from everyone!

The IPR and data mining issues remain, and are clearly a negative facet. But Facebook’s usefulness to me seems to outweigh that for now.

Addendum: the account is fully wiped now, which handily removes the issue of “How shall I handle this big old set of contacts?” (It also means all those pictures I was tagged in are scattered to the wind… facial recognition software aside.) I think on balance I’m pleased with this situation, but if I change my mind I’ll let you know!

Facebook: for staying in touch with, er, my next-door neighbour

A further thought on my leaving Facebook: I remarked yesterday that as an expat, Facebook was useful for seeing updates from UK friends. I realised last night, however, that I actually really miss interactions with my next-door neighbour here in Eindhoven!

This reminds me of Barry Wellman’s WebSci’11 keynote on ‘networked individualism’ and how the internet has changed the way we live our lives. One comment was that a large proportion of online interactions are between neighbours (i.e. people who live within 5km of one another). (His paper Does Distance Still Matter in the Age of the Internet? looks at the impact of distance on the frequency of email, phone and face-to-face contact… I’m not certain if there was a publication on distance and social networking specifically: anyone?)

I find it intriguing that one of the links I miss most from the online world of Facebook is in fact someone I see in person all the time. Strong and weak ties, people, strong and weak ties.

Life without Facebook: one week in

It’s already over a week since I deleted my Facebook account: that went fast! Some reflections:

The good

Mostly, I’m not feeling its absence. I used to read Facebook over breakfast each morning, but I still have two other social networks (Twitter, LiveJournal), the news and many RSS feeds to keep up with… I’m hardly stuck for reading material.

I’m really enjoying the freedom of not needing to update Facebook. As per my previous post, the overhead of writing updates for such a confused/diverse audience was getting silly: it’s a real relief to not feel obliged to post updates while worrying about if they’re ‘correct’ in some way.

I received lengthy emails from a couple of friends who shared their feelings about whether they should be on Facebook, privacy concerns and the difficulty of updating for mixed audiences: it’s not just me then! I’m glad I was able to start a conversation about it.

I do miss seeing updates from close (and not-so-close) friends: as an expat, I’m geographically far from many of the people I care about, and Facebook was a good mechanism for closing that gap in a superficial way. But superficial is the key word: reading the odd sentence from someone you care about may make you feel more connected, but I’m unconvinced it makes a real difference… so, maybe this isn’t so bad as it seems. (People are still remarking to me: “Wait, you left Facebook?” Clearly, Facebook connections are not so valuable that their absence is instantly noticed.)

The bad

I’m feeling a bit of a gap regarding photos. Facebook was my repository for photos, and I liked tagging images with me and friends. I’m currently pondering what to do instead (assuming, of course, that I don’t return to FB!): options include using Google (but they have so much data on everyone already…); Flickr; or self-hosting. I don’t know. (Comments welcome!)

By deleting my Facebook account, I deleted the associated updates… including the annoucement that I was going to leave! I left relatively fast, so the status update and link to the explanatory blog post was only up for an afternoon. This means that a bunch of those 295 people still don’t know I’ve left: many of them won’t care (rightly so!) but it’s still a somewhat confusing scenario.

I can only think of one connection I really regret losing, because it was someone meaningful for whom I have no email or phone details. I deleted relatively fast, and it was after deletion I realised my error. Still, I can get in touch via a mutual contact, so although it’s inconvenient, it’s fixable.

Mike Jewell wrote some thoughtful comments about the nature of shared/community resources: in summary, when I left Facebook, so did a good chunk of ‘his’ photos. With retrospect, I’d liked to have taken the opportunity to say to people who are tagged in photos “Hey, would you like a copy of this before I leave?” (Of course, I’m relatively easy to find online, so I hope anyone who does want such a thing will get in touch.)

So with retrospect, maybe I should have taken it more slowly: perhaps waited a week with the status update, explanation and offer of copies of material to those who want it. That would have solved three of the above four issues!

The ugly

I wasn’t the only WebSci summer school participant to leave Facebook, and I was happy to retweet the comment of a companion who had also left:

Freedom from Facebook!

It was a fun tweet, and it was nice not to feel obliged to look through statuses. But later on, a close friend got in touch to ask if I really felt that checking Facebook was an uninteresting waste of time, if I felt that way about what she had to say on there. Of course, the answer was no: her activities are interesting and important to me. So — it’s important to be clear about where the feeling of relief is coming from: for me, this is about freedom from feeling obliged to read updates from everyone, from not really knowing how or when to post updates, and from the privacy/copyright concerns.

Summing up

I find it weird how hard I found it to step away from Facebook given my research interests in the area and my awareness of the privacy issues: then again, it is of course an emotional as well as a logical decision.

Right now, I’m still feeling pretty happy off-Facebook. I’m not sure what to do about photo-sharing, but that’s not the biggest deal in the world. I may yet return to the network, but if I did I feel I’d need to manage my connections differently, and that sounds like a very big job.

One final thing: to my knowledge, I haven’t yet missed any invitations to hip and happening parties… 😉

Enric Plaza at the WebSci summer school

The talk was entitled ‘The Web of Human Experience’: I spent a lot of my doctorate looking at User Experience issues, so this was always going to interest me 🙂

Enric was interested in the reuse of other people’s experiences in the context of ‘case-based reasoning’ (learning from experience). Examples of relevant experiences include: a restaurant review; a music playlist; a ‘how to’ guide. The web is a good platform for sharing this kind of content, of course, but he felt that despite the a wealth of experience online, it isn’t modelled explicitly on the web. Additionally, we don’t necessarily understand how people browse, filter and use results.

Queries are, of course, deeply context-dependent: the answer to the question “Which are Barcelona’s airports?” depends on your purpose and community of practice — do you want to know about the tiny budget airport that’s miles out of town?

Similarly, queries such as “Which hotels in London have a room on these dates?” need different results depending on context: a business traveller is probably interested in the availability of wifi, while a family planning their vacation may be more interested in proximity to attractions and friendliness of staff. (I was a little surprised he didn’t touch on software agents as a possible approach here.)

He also spoke about implicit knowledge, which caught my attention as it links with my previous work. I think his meaning was different to my own, though: I  believe that by ‘implicit knowledge’ he meant knowledge embedded within a community, knowledge that only becomes explicit when multiple people share their indvidual insights.

So, if people constantly trawl the web in search of people’s experiences solving given problems, how can we represent, organise and reuse such content? I don’t think this is a universal problem: for instance, sites such as Tripadvisor provide pretty decent structures as a starting point when planning one’s travels. On the other hand, there really is a lot of unstructured information out there… maybe I need a software agent after all.

Leaving Facebook

I’ve had mixed feelings about Facebook for some time. Some talks at the WebSci summer school — and discussions with Rene Pickhardt — have helped me crystallise my thoughts: my previous post describes just how tough it is to understand one’s online audiences, and I’ve definitely struggled with that at times, thinking “Who will read this?” when I write a status update, wondering whether the tone is right, how it will be read. (Yes: I overthink things.)

And that’s the thing: I have 295 ‘friends’ on Facebook at the time of writing this, and I have no idea how many read my feed, what updates are interesting or dull to them, how they perceive our relationship. (Well: obviously I have knowledge about some, of course. But in general…)

I find it hard to handle that network of contacts online. The overhead is high. Some of my contacts on there are the old school friends I’ve lost touch with, or people I met once at a conference. Which is fine, but… what is the purpose of such connections on Facebook? What, if anything, do they want to get out of being connected with me there?

Spiders web of fury

Are you ensnared in the Facebook web?

It’s about more than that, though.

I have been aware of Facebook’s horrific stance on copyright and IPR for pretty much as long as I’ve been on the site. People are notoriously bad at handling areas such as copyright, and the apathy I (and every other active Facebook user!) have felt in this area is symptomatic of that.

I’m also concerned about data mining. It’s at least a few years since I first heard about work showing you can predict people’s sexual orientation, religious and political views from their networks, and such work continues apace. It doesn’t matter what I share on Facebook, my network of contacts implicitly reveals a lot about me.

Of course, my network of contacts also explicitly reveals a lot about me — am I the only person in the world to find being tagged in photos a little weird?

Also, I just don’t trust Facebook.


I was surprised by the extent of people’s responses on Twitter when I idly tweeted my plan:

I instantly got a wave of replies, including:

  • :O no more Clare on FB?! :O
  • What will happen to your events on there?
  • Why would you do such a thing??!!

Facebook is clearly an accepted part of how we live our online lives!

How I use Facebook and what I am leaving behind

I will be leaving behind 295 connections, and although I have mixed feelings about the Facebook platform, the people are important.

Here’s how I use Facebook:

I read status updates from the full set of connections, minus people that frequently post updates that aren’t interesting to me. However — here’s a secret, internet — I have a ‘close friends’ list too. I want to see those people’s updates in detail, to see their photos and exchanges and activity beyond status updates.

This is the bit where I talk about strong ties and weak ties. Facebook supports weak ties: is that worth the compromises with privacy, self-presentation and so forth?

I don’t know. That’s why I’m leaving. I’m not comitting to leaving Facebook forever. I’m leaving to try out life away from Facebook, to see whether the benefits really do outweigh the downsides. It’s a hard question to answer, and a very personal one, too.

Things I’ll miss:

  • seeing the rich material from my ‘close friends’ lists
  • the odd important (or amusing) status updates from people in general
  • event invitations!

I won’t miss being tagged, or overthinking my updates, or feeling uncomfortable about my privacy and my data.

I’ll keep you posted.

Addendum: a few people have asked if I’ll move to Google+. I might: I’m on there, although I’m not fully engaged with it, and meanwhile I’ll continue using my Twitter and LiveJournal accounts. My focus is not “leaving Facebook for X social network” but “leaving Facebook”.