Keeping Social: From dating to data mining

Computer Science Professor Julita Vassileva

Computer science professor Julita Vassileva has spent the past couple of decades peering at the Internet from all angles: working on systems and infrastructures, studying the ethics of digital technology, and encouraging participation in online communities. As she sees it, virtual connectedness has broadened community but perhaps also made it shallower.

Everything on the Internet happens at lightning speed and Vassileva has witnessed how the interaction between users and their platforms continues to evolve. Vassileva has seen some infrastructures appear then fade away (such as online discussion forums)— to be replaced by such dominant players as Facebook. “Defining what kind of functions the site has, what people are able to do with it, to a big extent defines whether people will storm to use it, or they will just hang on and start checking it less and less frequently and then finally fade off,” she explained.

She agrees that how people use Facebook is as individual as the people themselves. She uses her account to share interesting articles on the future of technology with her colleagues near and far, and to keep in touch with friends in her native Bulgaria. After 20 years of living in Saskatoon, when she goes home to visit, “I don’t feel like a stranger. I jump right in to the middle of the action. I’m current to my friends’ lives.” And yet, what some Facebook users may not know is that each of our friends may be seeing quite a different portrait of us through the social media platform.

It’s both the upside and the downside of the site’s capacity to personalize content, Vassileva explained. Facebook filters away the things each user finds uninteresting. Your one friend’s continual posting of cat videos might not be even in your news feed because you have never liked any of them. Facebook’s algorithms learn from your behaviour and reorders the stream of events on your feed. “If you didn’t engage with her posts for some time you stop seeing them,” Vassileva explained. “That’s what Facebook does.” So, if you and someone else have the same friend, “you and this other person will see completely different things in their stream, because it’s based on what you like, on what you read, what you forward.” It saves you time, but also takes away your ability to do your own filtering.

Nearly eight years ago, one of Vassileva’s students designed an application that allowed users to see their Facebook streams unfiltered. “And people were amazed to see how much they don’t see in their normal stream because it’s hidden away from (them on) Facebook,” she recalled. It’s how Facebook can lead to radicalization, Vassileva explained. “If you hear only confirmation of your views, you’re confident that your views are correct. You believe the whole world agrees with you, but it’s not the case.” Lately there have been reports of the link between social media and depression. Vassileva believes an unrealistic impression that other people’s lives are so much better than one’s own is only part of the explanation. “(Social media) is still a surrogate, it’s not a real interaction. A real interaction has a lot of unselected noise, and this noise is healthy,” she explained.

Much has been made of Internet “trolls,” the people who make hateful comments under the cover of anonymity. But Vassileva sees another side to anonymity: the ability to express minority views without fear of backlash or reprisal. Some governments aim to outlaw anonymity because they want to stifle dissent, she notes. Similarly, the participative web’s persuasiveness and addictiveness can be used for ill or for good. On the positive side, the reward features of games (such as progress bars or levels) can be used to encourage healthier habits. So can competitive features such as leader boards. Where Vassileva sees enormous danger is in data collection (so necessary for personalizing social media streams), shifting the balance of power hugely in the favour of the companies that amass it.

Now, Vassileva and one of her students are developing a platform where users can decide with whom they want to share their data. Using blockchain technology, they can say what data will be stored, who can access it, for what purpose, and how long it can be kept. Users can then make money from their own data, charging for the use of it, with payment in cryptocurrency. The project is expected to be completed in two years’ time. The challenge then is in persuading digital powerhouses such as Google and Facebook to adopt the platform. Perhaps it can be promoted as a good business practice, taken on by corporations that want to be seen as ethical, Vassileva says. Although examples abound of digital technologies being put to malevolent uses, “they have always been developed with good intentions, to improve things,” she stressed. It will be an ongoing effort to counteract corrupt uses, Vassileva acknowledges, all the more difficult in a world where the speed of innovation is “neck-breaking.”

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