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Category: life online (Page 2 of 31)

Another Reminder of the Downside of Free

View From The Dugout

To the marketing departments of the photographic industry, I am classified as an “enthusiast”. Someone who buys a DSLR camera, a couple of steps above a point-and-shoot, without trying to make money with it. If you’ve seen the occasional Photo Posts on this site, you’ll understand why I’m in that “not making any money” category.

In addition to posting images here, I’ve also been a member of the photo sharing site Flickr since 2005, an eternity in Internet time. Once the king of photo sharing, they have been eclipsed in recent times by Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, and other services.

It is from these two perspectives that I’ve been very interested in reactions to recent announcements from Flickr’s new owners about how they plan to change things.

Spoiler alert: people get very upset when a company cuts back on the features of their “free” product in order to make a sustainable business.

The company that bought Flickr1 plans to limit free accounts to storage and display of only 1000 images. Which is a substantial drop from the one terabyte of storage Flickr began offering five years ago. Pro users, those of us who pay $50 a year for the service (up from the grandfathered rate of $25 for old-timers), will get “unlimited”2 storage, plus no ads and other benefits.

In the age of everyone carrying a smartphone with a lot of memory, one thousand photos is not a lot. You probably have at least half that many on your device right now. Your kids are likely storing many more. But how many of those pictures are worth displaying? Be honest. How many are actually good enough to show the world, not just your relatives and friends?3

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens to Flickr going forward. More than anything I would like to see more and better activity in their communities. There are a couple worth an occasional visit but most I’ve seen have been inactive or full of spam for years.

However, even if you don’t use or care about Flickr, this should serve as another of your increasingly frequent reminders that free is not a valid business model. Someone has to pay for the bandwidth, lots of equipment, and all the people supporting it (and you).

Almost always, at the “free” level of any web service, your cost is going to be limited functionality and a whole lot of uncertainty.


Image is one of my more than one thousand images in my Flickr account, a view of Nationals Park in DC from the home team’s dugout.

1. Who bought it from Verizon, which obtained it as part of buying the remains of Yahoo. Both owners largely neglected both the site and its community.

2. I’m always a little suspicious of anyone offering unlimited anything. Just read the fine print on your phone company’s “unlimited” data plan to see the limits on unlimited.

3. Who probably don’t want to see them either but are too polite to tell you. :)

Good Citizenship, Digital or Otherwise

The Art of Social Media

Last week was Digital Citizenship week, something anyone associated with a school was likely well aware of. Even those of us with only a tenuous connection had some idea the – do we call it an “event”? – was happening.

The overly-large school district for which I used to work and our local high school sent several messages to let us in the community know that they were right on top of teaching kids to be good digital citizens. During that week. I wonder what the focus is this week.

Anyway, ignoring my usual cynicism regarding the longevity of focus on issues like these in schools, I’ve always found the concept of “digital” citizenship rather odd. How is the behavior of someone considered a good citizen different in the digital world than it is in the physical world? Has the concept of a “good” citizen changed since the internet?

According to the district webpage1, digital citizenship incorporates a collection of nine topics, most of which are hardly exclusive to online activities.

Creative Credit and Copyright2
Cyberbullying
Digital Footprint and Reputation
Information Literacy
Internet Safety
Privacy and Security
Self-Image and Identity
Social Networking

I would argue that being a good citizen in the digital age is no different from someone who lived in the previous century. Or the one before that.

Certainly the means of communications is different. With instant publishing platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest of social media, it’s far easier and faster to threaten someone or for students (and teachers) to foul their reputation.

But a large part of that list for being a good member of a civil society still comes down to making sure your public actions and statements represent the best of what you can be. As mother used to say, think before you speak.

So, do we still teach ethics and appropriate behavior in school, other than during Digital Citizenship Week? I’m sure some of that remains in elementary schools, just from the need to create a working community among kids who are new to the idea.

I’m not so sure it continues into secondary schools, outside of the usual collection of rules that every student gets during the first week of every year. And there is tremendous evidence to believe that ethics has been completely eliminated from business and law schools.

Anyway, the problem with setting aside one week out of the year to emphasize the traits of being a good citizen, digital or otherwise, is that the issue is minimized or ignored the other 51 weeks. It also sends a message, to both students and adults, that the idea is something we pushed last week. This week we’re worrying about something different.

There’s that cynicism about lack of focus coming through again.


Image: The Art of Social Media. Posted to Flickr by mkhmarketing and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Which is not essentially different from many other district and organizational approaches to digital citizenship.

2. I have several issues with the way copyright is usually explained to students and the approach taken here is especially odd. But that’s a rant for another day.

No, Google Is Not Free

One of the 800-pound gorillas at ISTE, of course, is Google. They are “gold” sponsors (meaning they kicked in more money than the silver and bronze level companies) and have a huge presence on the vendor floor, both in their own booths and in the booths of dozens (hundreds?) of other companies that connect to them in some way. Plus many, many sessions and posters deal with their various education-related products.

And one term commonly associated with all of this Googley goodness is free. Educators love free, and they don’t pay to use GSuite, Classroom, Expeditions, Maps, Earth, ChromeOS, Photos, storage, and, of course, Search.

Except these services really are not free.

Instead of sending Google money, education users and their students, like the rest of us, are contributing labor and data to the company. In Google’s own words:

The Google Privacy Policy describes fully how Google services generally use information, including for G Suite for Education users. To summarize, we use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer users tailored content, such as more relevant search results. We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services. [emphasis mine]

Another way to look at our relationship with Google comes from an essay in Slate about another free product that’s been in the news lately, Facebook.

There are at least two alternative ways of viewing our relationship to Facebook… The first is to view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money. This implies greater responsibility on both sides.

The second is to view ourselves as part of Facebook’s labor force. Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook.

Swap Google for Facebook in those statements. We help their marketing department by putting their name and products in front of students, often for many hours a day. We also provide the labor to help develop and test products that will make them a lot of money.

And do not assume students are protected by working in a “closed” Google Education environment. Unless your network never connects to the outside world, there are many ways for Google (and others) to connect your “anonymous” students to advertisers, now and in the future.

Anyway, even with all that, I’m not trying to convince you to quit using Google’s products, either personally or in the classroom. I use some of them myself (although not as much as I used to). I even present conference sessions and workshops encouraging teachers to use Google Earth and Google’s other geo-related resources for their instruction.

However, everyone needs to understand that the cost of “free” admission to Google (or any other services that don’t charge at the door) is your data. Data that is stored, analyzed, connected with other data, and occasionally sold, stolen, or otherwise distributed to third parties. With your permission, since you agreed to the terms of service you probably didn’t read when registering for that first Gmail address.

So, by all means, continue using Google and other free services. But, in the wise words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, let’s be careful out there.


If you’ve never seen the classic cop show Hill Street Blues, you’ve missed some good TV. At least for the first three or so seasons. I think it’s available on Hulu and maybe other streaming services.

The Problem Is Greater Than Facebook

Following up on the previous post, a few more random thoughts related to the current Facebook data security mess.

First, the problem with the collection and use of personal data extends far beyond Facebook. Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp1, SnapChat, and many other social media companies all offer services you don’t pay for.

All make money through selling you, their “members”, to advertisers. All have long, legally detailed terms of service, which you agreed to (even if you didn’t read it), that allow them to use your contributions and data in pretty much any way they want. Which brings up copyright issues that are a whole ‘nother rant.

But it’s not just social media collecting your data. Plenty of companies that charge for products and services – Apple, Samsung, Amazon, your phone and cable companies, your supermarket, gas station, and big box stores (remember your loyalty card?) – collect valuable data on your buying habits. And pretty much anything else they can find. Information they can use to make even more profits.

It will be interesting to see whether Europe’s new data security laws, which take affect in May, will impact the behavior of Facebook and the others. One major goal of the legislation is to give users more control over their data, including the ability to have some of it deleted. Facebook and other data-driven companies, on the other hand, are dependent on users willingly giving over their information and not caring what happens next. 

Over here in the US, despite calls for investigation and pending lawsuits, our current laws probably don’t cover this situation. It’s also very unclear what new regulations on Facebook and other social media companies would look like, considering the long tradition of free speech rights in this country. Plus, if actual data breaches of the past are any indication, there isn’t a lot of political will to do anything related to consumer protection.

I’ve seen many calls on Twitter and elsewhere to delete your Facebook accounts. That’ll show them. Except it probably won’t since the people who actually follow through is a very, very small fraction of their overall membership. Plus, Facebook will still have your data and has the infrastructure in place to continue following you around the web.

On top of everything else, Facebook makes it very difficult to actually delete an account. Bill Fitzgerald, my go-to guy for understanding data security and privacy issues, has some recommendations for people who want to try. If you’d rather continue using Facebook, check out Wired’s guide to the complicated world of their privacy and security settings.

Finally, when Mark Zuckerberg’s name comes up in the news, does anyone else picture Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Considering Zuck’s shall we say “relaxed” attitude towards the privacy of his customers, I’m beginning to think the portrayal of him in that film wasn’t all that far from real life. Maybe he needs to hire Eisenberg to front him and get Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Certainly would be more entertaining.


Cartoon is by the wonderful Randall Munroe, posted at his site xkcd and used under a Creative Commons license. Check out his book What If? in which he answers absurd hypothetical questions with real science.

1. Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook.

Selling Your Personal Data Is Their Business

Grid

You probably noticed that Facebook was in the headlines again this week.

Social media, TV pundits, and politicians were outraged over high profile investigative reports in the New York Times and the Guardian claiming that personal information on 50 million Facebook users had been harvested by a researcher in 2014 and used to create targeted political ads for the trump campaign.

The details, of course, are far more complicated.1

For one thing, too many reports are calling what happened a “data breach”, often comparing it in some way to the Experian story from last year. But the term breach implies that someone outside of Facebook, in this case a researcher for the UK-based data analysis company Cambridge Analytica, broke in and stole the information.

In fact, the researcher followed Facebook’s rules and only collected information from something like 270,000 users, all of whom consented to the process. Then, thanks to the Facebook terms of service and API2 that applied in 2014, he was also able to harvest data from all of their friends, which brings us to the 50 million number most often quoted.

So, rather than having personal data stolen, Facebook gave it away. Or more likely, sold it.

Because that is their business model. It’s why the company has a market cap of around half a trillion dollars and CEO Zuckerberg has a net worth north of $60 billion.3

Facebook is very successful at collecting data from it’s more than two billion active members and then selling it to advertisers. Cambridge Analytica was one more advertiser and it didn’t matter that their ads were misleading and dishonest (at best). As long as the funds transfer went through.

Whatever you call this particular abuse of member data, it’s only the latest in a long string of arrogant and clueless decision the company has made over it’s short history. And, even with new privacy laws in Europe and Congress critters fighting over the opportunity to hold hearings, it probably won’t be the last.

And this is as good a time as any to again point out two facts about Facebook that anyone with an account should remember (but probably doesn’t):

1. Facebook is a multinational corporation not a community. Communities are built by people and, while it’s possible to create one using an online platform, the company itself is not going to make it happen.

2. Facebook membership is free. Which means you are not the company’s customer; you are the product they sell to advertisers. Monetizing your content and data is their first, maybe their only, concern.


I’m not sure the image has anything to do with this story.

1. In addition to the two articles linked above (the Times piece is probably a little better), Wired has done some of the best analysis of this story. This piece is a good place to begin.

2. API is application programming interface, the rules established by tech companies that allow outside code to communicate with their systems. In most cases, companies like Facebook provide very specific instructions as to what can be done with APIs.

3. Both took a big hit on Monday when Facebook’s stock dropped hard after investors spent the weekend digesting the Times and Guardian reports from Friday.

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