Who are you in cyberspace?

Identity has taken on a strange stage with its relationship to the internet. It’s as if you can be anyone. Who you are can change as quickly as the clothing you wear everyday. For some even more. As well as how many identities you become, and how different they are from each other, seems to be totally in your control. Whether it be an alias, some anonymity, an avatar, or a mask you can take out because you’re in a certain mood. It can even be the styles and how you express your identity in cyberspace. It is without a doubt that the malleability and diversity of identity in cyberspace far outweighs the potential in real life.

Human identity is a complex thing to understand already. Sometimes I feel I wake up every morning with an existential crisis, wondering “well who am I and where am I going”. However it is even more curious on the internet. With the huge proliferation of internet identities, social network sites, and collections of community based websites all around the idea of an identity, what exactly is an identity? Or rather, to push the hard problem of identity aside (sorry any philosophy buffs reading), what is the current state of internet identities and where may it be going?

Connectivity on steroids

This “hyperconnectivity,” by many sources, is considered to be one of the roots of the modern internet identity. That is, more and more people are uploading, sharing and distributing more data everyday. We also know data is being collected and used by private and public sectors. But, how does this affect identity? Research in the UK has shown identity in cyberspace is really different form the classical visions of identity we usually catalog: race, age, religion, job, etc. According to the study, hyperconnectivity changes the way identity operates. For young people, a “true” identity is said to emerge, versus something fictional, around interactions in social media and role playing video games. Immediately a red flag goes up, and I think “wait a second, how can a non-fictional identity come from role playing games?” However, the study argues that people feel more freely to express themselves and it seems “exfoliate” their identity. Especially with social activism…

…in fact the increhyperconnectivity-p38-base of radicalization and extremism in the fight for social identity seem to be contingent on this social plurality. A result of connectivity on steroids. Virtual and physical environments both have become a battlefield for political struggle. The attacks on privacy and ownership of digital identities is something that is changing the struggle and shape of youths’ internet identity. These effects of hyperconnectivity are also creating challenges for marketing firms to understand their consumer. With the rise of distortion in internet identities, in conjunction with social plurality, a real identity is proving sometimes hard to put together. We see these splits of offline and online identity. Digital and real life. Maybe right now at this step we don’t know where hyperconnectivity will take internet identities. However with all this curiousity and mystery behind “true” identity online, what happens to identity in reality? How does identity online impact identity in reality, and vice versa?

The split: online vs. reality

I think its no elephant in the room that real life and virtual environments are blurring together with this immense amount of hyperconnectivity. When someone can just go to your Facebook page, read that you like watching X-men, and then BAM “surprise” you irl with the X-men series. One thing we got to ask is: does everyone who “likes” watching X-men really identity with watching X-men irl? That is, how much does an online identity share with a real-life identity? Turns out psychologists discovered that personality traits inferred from a social profile match pretty closely to that of. Using sample of individuals on social media websites in a cafe. They even found that people who played the online role playing game World of Warcraft didn’t think their online identities matched their irl dramaones. When in fact they matched more closely than the players actually self-perceived.

Another way to look at it is like a battle or tension between online and offline identities. To return to a political note again, anonymity is really important when it comes to internet activism and organizing. Now when we think anonymity on topics like this I always think about the virtues of online anonymity. However with identities reaching so closely together, its not longer online but offline anonymity that may be exacerbating. With facial recognition and spatial tracking technologies developing, collecting and cataloging information irl about a stranger in public space may no longer be anonymous. It’s as if the transparencies of online identities want to sublimate offline identity into being transparent. Virtual literally prying open the doors of information in reality.

Even when I think deeper into this tension between online and offline identities, I sometimes feel at this point in time we’re having trouble scientifically coming up with an explanation. Some have argued that the tendencies or types of media we use with our online identities can take control and subvert our offline ones. Others have gone as far as saying that how we use our virtual identities physically impacts all parts of our lives including our offline identity. Sometimes I feel our offline and digital identities are tangling. By this I mean, even in our attempts to pry them from each other, we’re always left with fragments of our identity manifesting either on the web or irl.

Identity crime

So if we admit that we’re all connected together, very, very, intensely. As well as see that virtual and real-life identity are tangling very, very, close together. How does this impact the ownership and control of identity? If an identity in cyberspace has value, what happens? Untitled-1When the law and legal relations of identity adapt to a virtual world, so too do the types of crime. Identity theft is amoung these crimes to hit cyberspace. This is when someone literally takes on the identity of someone else online, and tries to use it for gain or harm. An identity thieve can do this 2 basic ways: hack into a service and controlling your identity, or pretending to be you in your online relations. Thieves do this for a number of reasons: monetary gain, social status, practical jokes, etc.

Unlike other types thefts, identity theft is one of the most invasive and disrupting experiences to deal with as the victim. I remember falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book back when Myspace.com was a big thing. Phishing. Not fishing. Phishing is when a thief captures your username and password through an assortment of methods. The most classical method is pretending to be the service you’ve built an identity on, and prompting you for your username and password. Without checking the url or carefully looking at what you’re about to do, trigger-finger keystrokes may lead you astray!

Wrapping things up

In today’s day who we are in cyberspace are many things. We are an identity or identities. We are incredibly connected, from our real world identity to our online world identities. Cyberspace provides more freedom to express how we identify, but also changes the ways we act in identifying. It isn’t always the safest place either. The fluidity between offline and online identity can create problems. Like legal problems or impersonation. However at the end of the day we are still seeing what cyberspace has in store for who we are in terms of identity. One day we may even end up tossing terms like ‘internet identity’ or ‘physical identity’ or ‘online vs. offline identity,’ and just be left with identity. On that note readers, I leave you with a video with similar ideas and personal identity discoveries to ruminate on. Enjoy!

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Social media addiction: excessive use, ego boost, drug-like juice?

Whenever the word addiction comes to mind, the most immediate metaphor that speaks to me is a drug. Drug addiction is possibly the most classical form of addiction known. Someone takes a drug for certain reasons. Sometimes these reasons are psychological. There are even sometimes symptoms of use and withdrawal. It is these things and more that reinforce the idea behind drug addiction as pathological. Serious stuff right? Well when making serious claims, one needs to really check out their facts.

Yea sure, many people use social media and exhaust lots of time on it. However is it so serious as to call it addicting? Surely things viewed on screens can’t program mental pathology into humans. I mean, a social media website isn’t a drug you ingest. It is independent from your body unlike an addicting chemical willingly taken in. Or is seeing and participating in it, even behind a screen, simulate this drug-like use and re-use cycle characteristic of any junkie?

Facts and problems

Before jumping ahead and calling social media addicting, one always has to survey the facts. Today, some of the top two social media websites used for social networking include Facebook and Twitter. Each website provides different services and accessibility for its users, including both desktop and mobile access. All of them have a huge user subscription. According to Jeff Bullas, a writer on social media, Facebook recently has passed 1.1 billion in monthly active users. Twitter has seen a 44% growth from June 2012 to March 2013, with 228 million monthly active users. Whereas LinkedIn has only seen an overall 200 million user-base. What I’d like to stress here is that both Facebook and Twitter’s user activity count is in the billions and millions respectively. However a social media site doesn’t just pride itself on its user account, but also its usage.

It is estimated that the average Facebook user spends 6 hours a month on Facebook, and 11 hours a month for mobile users. Whereas the average Twitter user spends 170 minutes a month on Twitter. Personally in contrast to the social networks’ user-base numbers, the average usage isn’t all too bad. In fact, with all the discussion on the excess usage of sites like Facebook and Twitter, I would have expected more gross averages. Seems strange doesn’t it? However, if you and I stopped here and said to ourselves “well I guess the average user doesn’t spend much time on these sites, social media has no chance of being addicting,” we’d be poor investigators.

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There are currently two problems that need to be brought into limelight. Firstly, the type of addiction being investigated here is to social media. This includes social media beyond the scope of just Facebook and Twitter. According to one recent study social media actually exhausts approximately 3+ hours of time in an average American’s day. This includes 3.8 hours a day for 18-34 year-olds on average, dropping only to 3 hours a day for 35-49 year-olds. In fact, if you click on the chart included in this section, a large array of parameters suggests that some users even spend more than 4+ hours daily on social networking websites.

The second problem is this focus on ‘average’. A synergistic measure of average daily time spent on social media may help imply a larger-scale “epidemic” for social media addiction, but it cannot easily show what it means for an individual to be addicted to a particular social medium or media. The reason for this can simply be explained by contrasting a coffee drinker with a social media user. A coffee drinker can hit a threshold where they become a coffee addict. Since we know the caffeine in coffee is addicting, we know there exists a coffee addict group. Therefore, an average coffee drinker may not be representative statistically to a coffee addict group in terms of the rate of coffee consumed. The same logic could be applied for a social media addict. If social media addiction were a thing, then it could be the case that the average social media user is not representative of a social media addict. Considering it is difficult to discover a mass statistical interpretation for this hypothetical group, the most effective route of understanding a social media addict is like any other addict: through their signs and symptoms!

Signs and symptoms

Addiction is easily recognized through its signs and symptoms. This includes the signs while addicted to something, and the withdrawal symptoms when abruptly removed from it. It is typically defined as an activity or substance consumed that can be pleasurable, but when chronically done becomes compulsive and disruptive in a user’s everyday responsibilities. Usually when someone is addicted to something they either realize this themselves, or someone else informs them. So hypothetically if you’re addicted to social media, and you’re in denial, tough chance you’ll end up being studied for your symptoms? Actually, no. Surprisingly there are many people who first-hand admit to be addicted to social media and participate in studies.

TwitterAddictOne study found social media like Twitter to be harder to resist than an addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. It took a group of 205 people, and signaled them 7 times a day for 14 hours to check if they were feeling a craving or urge. About 74% of total responses back were the subject experiencing a “desire episode.” Allegedly, since social media is incredibly accessible through desktop or mobile phone. As well as its use does not have any long-term costs both monetary and physically, unlike cigarettes and alcohol, the feelings of “cost” are very low in comparison, making desires harder to resist.

Another study found that the desires to use social media is reflected in how social media essentially programs our brain. That is, how we use social media and what our brain interprets and reinforces this as. According to this Harvard study and the previous research it reviews, up to 80% of social media users use for an ego boost. They want to talk and disclose as much as they can about themselves. This process of use and self-disclose gives the user an emotional reward. In fact, the study looked at subjects’ brains 483712_437065993046643_179350598_nusing a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to see what parts of their brain lit up when disclosing things about themselves versus listening to others. When subjects talked about themselves, the same pleasure regions that light up for sex and food lit up during self-disclosure, but not when listening to others. So even though we just may think talking about ourselves on social media is fine, our brains may treat it something as rewarding as sex.

Finally, believe it or not, withdrawal symptoms have even been observed in social media “addicts”. According to another study, social media addicts retreating from social media express an array of symptoms almost characteristic of some drug withdrawals. They even surprisingly found that Twitter users coped much better than Facebook users in the negative withdrawal symptoms. Although I’ll admit the study sample size was pretty small, giving the results low amounts of power, other sources have reported withdrawal symptoms go even as far as feeling anxiety or physically ill when users are separated from their social media of choice for too long.

Pathological or fictional?

Even with all these reports of signs, symptoms and brain activity, it is still difficult to objectively conclude how addicting social media is, or if it is an addiction in the first place. Today’s future is moving towards more and more socially geared technology that interface closer to reality. This helps us become more socially equipped and productive. Some would even argue that being connected has more pros than cons, and that calling social media addicting is simply derogatory. Personally, as a student of psychology, not only do I feel I have to be very critical on this addiction claim, but also give it some allowance. I mean gambling isn’t a drug we take, but an addicting activity that is reinforced with rewarding responses. However gambling addiction has had more time to be studied than social media addiction.

The hardest thing to wrap my mind around is when do we call something addicting? When it has the potential to reach a threshold that elicits addicting behaviour? Is there a certain rate for this threshold to be reached? For example, if I get addicted to coffee after 4 cups a day for a week, but I can keep social media to a moderate few brief sign ins a day, does this make it an easier thing to be kept under moderation? Does this make one thing addictive, or even one thing more addictive than the other? The reason I think about this is because a lot of things seem to have the potential to be addictive. The real issue though is when something takes away from our everyday lives on a routine basis that it may be described as addictive. I suppose the real question we need to ask ourselves is not if social media in our use is real or fake. Heck, we’ll find others saying excessive social media use is where technology and people are going. I also don’t want to be spreading any dogmas, chanting to people “social media is addicting! the digital plague is upon us!” If anything, the most humble response I could ask you or any other person unsure of their social media use is simply: does your use reflect the qualities of addiction?

I’m glued to my screen, what do I do?

Well you’re in luck (well not really, that really sucks), because with all the hype on social media addiction, society has brought in ways to remedy you and your friends of your “sickness”. I mean we all sometimes log into Facebook way too many times a day a week. Sometimes we’re Tweeting and Facebooking, dual-wielding both a desktop and mobile access to these sites. So whether you’re life is chronically stuck to your monitor and all you can communicate in is likes or tweets. Or you’re just not getting around to do those important things on your daily list because you’re too busy updating your status. I have some options for you:

  • Try using the app SelfControl—don’t be intimidated by the skull on its icon, it is just trying to spook you into facing the consequences of your gratuitous social sucking use
  • Take baby steps back, set some goals, slowly reclaim the time you feel social media has stolen from you
  • Deactivate or delete your social media account, you’d be surprised what a week or two could do
  • Ceasing your account didn’t work? Feeling anxious and ill? Withdrawal symptoms kicking in? You might need to sign yourself into a social media addiction clinic! I’m dead serious these exist, and if social media is really ruining your life and all your attempts to quit have failed, this could be your last resort!

Until then

Like always, relax, sometimes these topics are serious or immediately concern you. Here’s a video that may make you laugh or shake on something we’re now all too familiar with…

The social way to gather, survey and “process” personal data

In today’s virtual world information is the name of the game. We’ve seen data centers across the globe processing yottabytes of information on people. Technology connecting and interfacing closer with reality. Legislation easing the path to cleave away personal information without you knowing.

I know. It’s as if I’m dreaming up some Orwellian setting to spook you or grab your attention. Well, I’m not. Data may be virtual, but it operates in tandem with a real-world space. However, even with all these things seemingly happening in the periphery, there is an easier way to tango in the information game. Ready? Just start a social networking site that’s free to join, proliferates like no tomorrow, collects as much personal data as possible, and…

Sound familiar? Chances are you’re signed up too. If you haven’t guessed it, I’m talking about the social networking site Facebook. You may be thinking to yourself “well everyone has it and I log on everyday, what’s the big deal?” In some ways, depending on your attitude and how you’re using Facebook, it may not be a big deal. However, it is a fact that the profile data users submit to facebook (i.e. photos, demographics, interests, etc.) gets taken and processed from somewhere to someone. This begs the question: what do they get, how do they get it, and where does it go?

Who are they? They are not necessarily just facebook on the receiving end. However it can be tricky business trying to understand they without knowing what you give them. Instead of beating into you the answers, it is easier to understand who they are by knowing the nature of the relationship between you and what you give Facebook (knowingly or not), then how this briely develops into a case for who they are.

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They know where you are

Facebook uses two main methods of figuring out where you are. Not only does this include where you’ve physically been, but also virtually where you’re surfing the web. It accomplishes this primarily by holding onto metadata, using face recognition, and planting cookies in your web browser.

Metadata is an ambiguous term tossed around in the information game. However, in Facebook’s case, the most supple source of metadata it can take is right out of your own photos. What does this metadata disclose? Things like your physical geo-location. Although Facebook does not publicly display or explicitly “use” geo-locations from user images, that doesn’t mean it isn’t taken or stored. In fact, one of Facebook’s owned companies Instagram publicly and explicitly uses images’ metadata revealing things such as the exact location an image was taken.

Face recognition software is another avenue Facebook can use to figure out where you are. According to enterprise performance expert, Bernard Marr, Facebook could figure out where you are indirectly by using your friends’ photos. When photos are uploaded, Facebook prompts users to make “tag suggestions,” identifying friends through their faces. So if your friend uploads a photo of you at the beach, Facebook recognizes a face, and your friend suggests that face is yours, Facebook now knows you were at the beach.

Whether or not Facebook really uses image metadata, or face recognition software to compile geographical data about users can be a debatable topic in terms of how they use it. That they have this information on users is not. A final way Facebook collects data about where you go is through cookies. For Facebook, we can think of cookies as almost like tracking bugs planted in your browser. Whether you’re logged in or not, if you go to any website with a Facebook plugin, app, or like, information about where you are on the web is documented and sent to Facebook. In fact, not only do these cookies inform Facebook where you are virtually, but detail when and where you geographically are.

They know what you like

Sure, clicking a like or two seems harmless. It’s as easy as pressing 1-2-I “like” Justin Bieber (for the record, I don’t). However what can be inferred from a user’s likes? A lot of things! According to a an article featured in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), software can be used to infer things like your intelligence, sexual orientation, even your private views on politics. If we stretch this scenario further, who is to say an entire narrative about you can’t be made solely from your likes?

Well, this scenario doesn’t even have to be hypothetically stretched. The EFF also featured in their article a study done by the University of Cambridge, where participants were asked to complete a handful of Facebook pages, and the results were fed into computer algorithms. Turns out fairly accurate results were predicted just from Facebook likes! This included high predicative rates for gender (95%) and ethnicity (93%). It could even classify your personality.

You are the product, they are the consumer

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With all this personal information flowing through Facebook, and the many ways it is directly and indirectly accessed and surveyed, where does the data flow? Does Facebook hold onto all of it for you never to see the light of day? Well, in the information world of trade data does not come free. They are not letting you off the hook easily with a free social service. They work with Facebook and make Facebook profits. They are sometimes called data brokers.

Data brokers, in short, are companies that deal in the online business of internet data trade-that is, your personal information. These include Acxiom, Epsilon, Datalogix, and BlueKai. They sometimes operate by producing advertisements for Facebook’s pages. Facebook then relays aggregate reports detailing personal parameters (age, gender, how many clicks, etc.) about you to the data broker. This process of communication between the data broker and Facebook’s advertising accelerates with activity, and sometimes you may even see an advertisement geared towards something so familiar it might have even happened in real life!

But that’s not all! Epsilon and Acxiom have been known to operate by extracting publicly available data within the limitations of Facebook’s privacy policies, even though these limitations in-themselves are only vaguely described officially by Facebook. Acxiom has openly even stated it processes social network information across databases compiling customer profiles! Whereas, Epsilon has claimed it does not connect social network information across their databases, but “provide companies with analytics insights” and “help them better understand and interact with their customers.” Personally that sounds like it has a tone of professionalism trying to hide some things under the rug of ambiguity.

In the end companies that deal in data trade will run through hoops, take advantage of Facebook, and always have you, their product, in mind when processing information. They have even worked with government agencies before. Facebook has recently announced a message claiming they are beginning to provide users methods of controlling personal data flow with advertising companies. However, we have yet to see their developed Data Access Tools functionally performing. We can only wait and see if Facebook really does provide their consumer a way out of being a product.

What can I do right now?

There are many things you can do to resist or slow down Facebook, and associated data brokers from ultimately collecting and processing your personal data. Here are a few tips to help get you started:

  • Scrub the metadata off your photos before uploading
  • Erase your browser’s cookies or use only one browser just for Facebook
  • Install DoNotTrackMe into your browser
  • Don’t give Facebook real information about you
  • Remove yourself from tagged photos
  • Change change change your privacy settings after each Facebook update
  • Join a safe and private social networking website that won’t sell your information
  • And for you tech-savvies out there: do not bother with Tor, I’ve tried. Facebook simply deactivates your account for connecting with an “unknown device”

Until then

Cool off, have a laugh, and enjoy this video. This isn’t exactly directly related to what I’m talking about, but it may fondle your thoughts on how you use Facebook.