Beginnings and Ends

Well, it’s the last blog post that will be posted on forever.

So I guess it’s only fitting for me to start where I began.

Let’s look at what Facebook has become — not what it is, but what it means to us as humans and what it means to as a society. Facebook is not simply a social network, it is The Social Network, with capital letters. It is much more than the sum of its parts – more than just Profiles and Wall Posts and Pictures and Likes and Pokes. It has become almost necessary in society and has become an expected staple of our lives. If all of Facebook’s servers were to suddenly blow up and Facebook were to vanish, I’m pretty sure that the world would just fall apart. This is why I joined the class.

Because Facebook has finally succeeded where traditional forms of communication like mail or phones have not: it has succeeding in connecting us in something greater without depending on the real world. Before, you could talk to people through a variety of mediums. You could mail someone, and send physical object from one person to another. You could call someone, bridging miles or even thousands of miles instantly. There even was this new emerging technology found in the World Wide Web and email. But the problem with these forms of communication was that it was relationship-based. In other words, it was a conversation between two people, not a recreation of a group of people interaction, not of a society.

Sure, there were many attempts to try to raise societies in the communications world. There were forums, imageboards, forwarded emails, Myspace, Xanga, IRC, newgroups, and listservs. But outside of certain localized communities such as certain gaming communities, they never accurately created a society. There was never one single form of communication that could connect many people from many places. Take forums for example. Like Facebook, it has a bunch of people together on a site discussing and taking and fighting and joking around. But it was more like a conference call than a society.

The difference Facebook had was that it plunged you into the flurry of activity from friends, family, and acquaintances. All you have to do is type “” in the url bar and hit enter and you enter a virtual world where interactions between the people you know flow around you. People interacted with each other now, able to declare things to the world with status, express their likes with “likes”, and talk to each other.

Whether by intention or by accident, Facebook’s connecting power has changed our world forever. We see other communities such as Twitter and Reddit spring up, creating communities of their own. We even see attempts to emulate Facebook’s connecting power in other realms as the buzz word “social” visits every intellectual corner known to humankind. Video games today must have a social aspect. New web startups try to incorporate “social” into everything they do. Even site such as Grockit tries its hardest to be social and create a community centered around standardized test prep.

And on top of all of the common rabble stands Facebook, the originator and the most powerful and most encompassing social network. And because it revolutionized modern society, it hold a certain responsibility to the society it helped shape. And it was this responsibility we looked at in class.

You know, I could go ahead and begin to look at everything we learned this semester and explicate all of our blog posts and readings and ignite presentations. But who am I kidding. How could I ever cover a semester of work along with last flood of information from all of you, my peers? I would have to talk about Facebook experiments, about federal policy, about gamification, about the Facebook IPO, about good app design, about RenRen, about a million more bits of information. What we have learned has gone beyond what a mere 500 words can express, especially when I’m already approaching 700.

So I leave this here, as a note of endings.

This blog was the work of FRS 101, under the guidance of our two awesome mentors, Professor Ed Felten and Stephen Schultze.

Thank you.

This has been on my mind all day, and since it is our last blog post, I felt that it would be appropriate to write about it, and I will tie this into Facebook/social networks a little as well.

I live only 30 minutes away from Newtown, CT, and I cannot even begin to imagine what that community is going through, let alone the families of those who lost loved ones.  This is a tragedy of enormous proportions, and it is so hard to imagine what the people who were affected by this were going through.  This has been the only thing on the news all day, the only thing people around where I live are talking about, and it is bound to be on the cover of the New York Times tomorrow, and rightly so.  It has sparked much debate over the second amendment, but I think that this transcends any gun laws.  There have been way too many occurrences like this in recent history, and the horrifying thought is that there is no solution to it.  In my opinion, it really isn’t a gun problem; it is a human problem.  It is terrifying to know that things like this do happen, and that stricter gun control wouldn’t solve anything because sick, deranged people, it seems, will always be able to find a way to do what they set out to do. This has really hit home that much harder for me since it took place only a couple towns over from where I live.

Needless to say, in today’s world, any story of this scale will become a huge thing on social networks.  The only thing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds all day has been people posting about this tragedy and expressing condolences to those affected.  Another thing that has occurred on Facebook is that the brother of the gunman started to update his Facebook page explaining that it was not him, that he was at work, and seemingly was using Facebook to serve as his alibi for when the cops came to question him.

Another part of this that reached social networks took place on twitter. There is an account @Ryan­­_Lanza that has blown up on Twitter.  It is the account of a teenage kid that happens to have the same name as the gunman’s, brother, and hundreds of people have starting following him and tweeting at him, many wondering if it was his account.  It is amazing to see how fast word spreads and how quickly it takes over social networking sites.

There is no other word to describe today’s events than tragic.  Things like this just shouldn’t happen.  It is a horrific tragedy and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected.

Are We Outgrowing Facebook?

I created my Facebook profile at the age of 13 when I was going into high school. At the time, social networking was relatively new – the transition from Myspace to Facebook introduced a new form of online communication. We use Facebook as platform for social interactions, and this behavior is widespread among people our age. Nearly 50% of users are between the ages of 13 and 25, and my particular age group has been with Facebook since it became available to non-university students. However, as we near our 6th year with the site, we must address the question if we’re becoming “too old” for Facebook.

Many of my friends and I had the same experience in our early Facebook years – the scariest possible scenario was having our parents create an account and force us to friend them. Thus, all of our deepest secrets and personal interactions with our friends become available to mom and dad. This obviously wasn’t the most comforting thought, so I changed my privacy settings to hide wall posts and photos from my parents. Quite honestly, I think that my parents only have a Facebook so they can stay involved in their children’s’ lives beyond the household, which leads me to wonder what will happen when I have kids of my own.

Facebook originally spread amongst teens not only because it was an excellent social application, but also because all of one’s friends were on the site. From there, it allowed you to stay connected and involved with the lives of those in your social circle. However, when I graduate college and enter the workforce, what priority will Facebook have in my life? There’s no more reason to use it religiously – the lives of my college friends no longer have as much of an impact on me. Instead of maintaining relationships, I’ll have to concern myself with matters of more importance such as work, bills, and family.

In such, I suppose the professional social network LinkedIn would better suit my purposes once I become an adult. It’s far preferable to maintain corporate relationships between individuals instead of socialized ones that may share inappropriate details. Indeed, the average age of LinkedIn users is over 35 while Facebook users tend to range from the teens to early 20s. Judging from the revenue growth that LinkedIn has shown in recent quarters compared to Facebook’s less impressive statistics, it stands to reason that we may see the rise of the professional network in the near future over its social counterpart.

How to Survive in the World of Facebook and Ecosystems

The world was much simpler when you actually had to pick up your phone and call your friend to wish them a happy birthday. Fast forward to today, and everything happens online. Not only that, more of your offline life is being sucked into the online world everyday, voluntarily or not. Case in point, Princeton Class of 2016 had a Facebook group before we even met each other (or, for people like me, seen the campus). As if that wasn’t enough, there are more than one parties out there who seek to get your attention. Suddenly, posting in one social network isn’t enough. Living in this kind of world is driving us crazy. Over the past semester, I have written exactly 10 blog posts running around the same general topic: Facebook is dominating and the competition for your online attention has been stronger than ever. It is only fitting that I end my series of posts for this class with this article: How to Survive in the World of Facebook and Ecosystems.

Knowledge is power. Nowhere is that more evident than today, in the cyber world. Each time you click “Like” on Facebook or comments on a friend’s photo, Facebook learns more about you. Armed with that knowledge, Facebook can then provide advertisers with a way to individually target ads for you. This is big. If you were an advertiser, would you rather pay millions of dollars to run your ads on television where you have no control over who watches it, or would you rather Facebook to find exactly the kind of person you want to target and present the ad? This is exactly why online companies are so reluctant to share user data with each other. In fact, they are trying to keep users to their own ecosystems so that they may know the whole online lives of these users. As I said in my very first blog post, Facebook and Google have been doing exactly this. Each with a different strategy, the two companies want to be the ultimate online extension of your lives.  What I didn’t say, though, was how we as consumers can stop being victims and start being the victors in this battle. It turns out, we can do so in two simple steps.

First and foremost, if it does not need to be online, do not post it online. If knowledge really is power, keep the power to yourself. Do not hand it over to the likes of Facebook. This is the easiest step in making sure that the online world does not take over your offline world. Many of the things we do online today can be done offline, or at least can be done away from the social networks. For example, if you want to start a conversation with your friend, call him instead of posting on his Timeline. If you want to read news, go to the New York Times website instead of signing in to Yahoo’s Social Reader. If you want to listen to music on Spotify, create your own account instead of using Facebook. This is just a preliminary precaution. For those of you who want to take this to the next level, see my blog post on how to protect your online privacy.

When you do use a social media site, there is a single, simple step you can take to make sure that no single online entity knows of your entire life. Do not stick to one social network. These social networks are already reluctant to share user data with each other. In other words, the most secure way to prevent Facebook from getting certain info is to post it on Google+. Use that to your advantage and segregate your online experience. Personally, here is how I manage my social networks. Facebook is the social network where I actually connect with friends. However, I try not to do anything else here, such as read a news article from a Facebook link. That is where Twitter comes in. Because of the nature of Twitter, it is the ideal place for me to see all relevant news. I do not use Google+ that often, but I do launch it whenever I need to take advantage of the Hangout feature. Lastly, I leave all my professional connections, not that there are many, to LinkedIn. This way, no single social network has the complete image of me. Facebook knows who my friends are but does not know what I do in my free time. Twitter knows that, but it does not get to see who I interact with. This same advice can and should be applied to ecosystems (Apple, Amazon, Google, etc.).

Throughout this course, we have taken a look at different aspect of Facebook and social networks, and one thing is clear: they are the future. This also means that it is more important than ever to protect yourself against them. Remember, they are a tool for you, not the other way around.

Critical Mass, Slactivism, and Online Privacy

After these 12 weeks of class, we’ve gone over many different topics. We’ve learned about privacy, companies’ responses to users’ concerns, and what would be the morally or ethically correct thing for companies to do with users data. Yet as we’ve realized, the only thing standing between companies and releasing their data to everyone is a vague law instructing the FTC what to do and the company’s own moral standards, resulting in policies of varying degrees. Those companies in the public view  have better policies; those in the business of staying unknown to the public while collecting data might me more liberal with them.

But how do users of the Internet know that their data is being collected? Are we supposed to automatically assume that any page we visit on the web is tracking us? That shouldn’t be a prerequisite for using the Internet.

There definitely is a vocal minority that wants better privacy controls, and we might just be their newest members, but it has not yet been able to achieve the critical mass needs to to actually effect change. So far, the FTC is the only organization with the power and authority to challenge companies on their privacy policies, though they do so under the auspices of “[preventing] deceptive and unfair business practices” and “[enhancing] informed consumer choice.” While it is great that the government does its research before reporting on violations, criticism does center on the delayed response the FTC often has on matters of privacy, and how decentralized the different privacy policies are.

I feel like therein lies a disconnect between the agency and the day-to-day business of normal Americans. Most people don’t want to read a lengthy report criticizing something and issuing recommendations; they would rather to have things, as Steve Jobs put it, “just work.” As such, it’s especially nice knowing that agreements between the FTC and Facebook and Google have established certain measures of privacy, but what about the other online ad companies? Not much happening there.

Even though most users of social networking sites do indeed care about their privacy, they aren’t willing to do to much to ensure that they have it. Of course, part of the blame can be attributed to the fact that most users don’t know about the myriad of companies tracking them across the web at any time, but I also feel that “slacktivism,” as Lovia mentioned in her presentation, contributes a great deal. If users first instinct to protect their privacy is to copy-paste a unverifiable paragraph of text into their status instead of doing a simple google search to get the actual answers, then can we really say that users care THAT much about their privacy?

It’s great that we advertising corporations that have come together to make opt-out pages such as this, and that’s probably the best we’ll get in terms of ways to limit tracking and privacy, but did anybody really hear about that site before it was shown in class? (Also, even though I opted-out of tracking that day in class, 20 new companies appeared on my list, so I don’t think it’s exactly effective). Even though we have the tools to protect our privacy, the average American user is a far cry away from actually using them to limit their tracking. Even the FTC chair, Jon Leibowitz, says, “[Users have only] a vague, inchoate understanding of what Websites are doing with their information.”

So while both the FTC and vocal users do argue about privacy, companies aren’t going to care that much until a critical mass of Americans realize what private organizations are doing with their data. Until the FTC chases after shady companies doing who-knows-what with people’s data or app developers with access to secret information as a whole, instead of individually, users will have to be vigilant about where they leave tracks for companies to pick up. It might be difficult, but is still definitely necessary.

And as we end this freshman seminar, I’ve certainly personally learned how laws and privacy apply to the internet. Sharing information, in this age of digital technology, instagram, and a multitude of other social networks and trackers, will become all the more important in the future, and I’m glad I had the chance to learn from some awesome professors about these issues. The discussions have been great, and I’m also glad to have had great discussions with thoughtful analysis. I’ll definitely apply some of this to my future interactions with social networks!

And finally, lets hope everything works out well, so this doesn’t happen!

What I learned In FRS 101

Because it’s my last blog post I felt it would be appropriate to end the semester with a post that highlights everything I have taken away from this course. I have learned many new facets about programming, apps, and the technical side of Facebook and social networking. In addition, to my benefit as an avid Facebook user I became more familiar with privacy settings and the goals and ambitions of the company itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that each week seemed to incorporate a different aspect of Facebook or social networking, ranging from Supreme Court cases to using Facebook for psychological testing. Another great opportunity this course offered was the ability to interact with many guest speakers who are experts in their field. One thing I regretted was forgetting to ask Aneesh Chopra what I should say to his friend, President Obama, when I meet him (The Princeton Field Hockey Team will be visiting the White House in the Spring) =). In addition I felt that although I was extremely nervous and it involved extensive preparation I really enjoyed the ignite style presentations. I felt it helped me improve my public speaking skills, while also being able to learn about many different aspects of Facebook/social networking in a short time span. I really enjoyed Bobby’s presentation because I liked how he compared the possible twitter IPO to Facebook’s disappointing IPO result. Like Bobby recognized, I feel as if twitter seems to be surpassing Facebook as the new innovative social network controlling the mobile sector. Gabriella’s presentation highlighted twitter’s successful evolution into a new networking powerhouse that I really enjoyed as well. I found Lovia’s presentation very interesting and I liked how it contrasted with my presentation. In addition, Aneesh Chopra’s description of the government’s utilization of challenges at highlighted the benefits that I expressed in my gamification presentation. I enjoyed researching and having my presentation reflect success in gamification because, as an athlete, I feel as if it is very successful in my training regiment. Amateur athletes work every day not for material rewards, but rather for the shear recognition of being the best. I also believe in a progress bar/check-in/check list system. I think this enables you to successful complete short-term goals while also working towards your long-term goals. This system can also help you focus on specific areas of improvement and prevent one from being overwhelmed or loosing focus.

I’m very appreciative to my classmates and professors for creating a great learning environment and experience for my first semester at Princeton.

Just Because it’s Open Source Doesn’t Mean it’s Objective

Today, our guest Aneesh Chopra, the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States, shared with us the ongoing projects that he and others implemented as a part of the Obama Administration’s attempt at a more open government. These include the MyGov initiative,, open-source challenges like the FTC’s RoboCall challenge (which I hope someone can solve), among others.

However, there is an important danger associated with open-source government. The problem is that even though the government claims to be open-source, there is no guarantee that this is completely true. Let me be specific: this need not manifest itself as malicious intent on the part of the government. Indeed, the most insidious problem arises when there is every reason to believe that the government is being genuine, providing false allusion to citizens and developers alike that the open data they see on sites such as is objective and exhaustive. But since it is the government declassifying and providing the data, there is the inherent issue that it is the government’s choice of which data exactly to put out, how to package it, and how to organize it. I call this presentational spin; the term “data” has objective and neutral connotations, but presentation and choice have everything to do with distorting this objectivity. This has a couple of implications. The first is that open government is not truly achieved; we have a situation in which the government is open … because it says it is. The second is that the open data that the government provides is not neutral, and can be used to influence peoples’ perceptions of issues, such as energy and weather reports; the government chooses not to falsify data, but perhaps to organize and publicize it in such a way as to emphasize the key points that would be beneficial to its motives, or to declassify certain data but not others (we can never really know which government data is not open source).

There is no solution to this problem. As long as we rely on government to keep and classify important data sets, we will have to rely on their presentational spin whenever they choose to release data. There is however a practical compromise, which is to institute something of an Open Data Review Board, with power and basis independent of the Executive Agency (perhaps a congressional committee?), which can oversee that presentational spin of data is minimized. This obviously has its flaws, similar to the ones plaguing the notion of, but it is the best solution to ensure that truth prevails, in the interest of the people.

FRS 101: A Reflection

As we ended our last seminar class today, I was nostalgic. I began to reflect on the course as a whole. This class has been a very eye-opening and intellectual stimulating experience for me. The fact that this is our first semester here has only added to its significance because it is one of our first insights into what a Princeton education entails. In recognition of this class’s value, I would like to go over a few of my personal highlights.

Favorite Class Guest: I think the class guests were overall such a great part of the class because it exposed us to experts in the fields we were discussing and in many cases, demonstrated the incredible faculty Princeton employs in all of its departments. My favorite guests were definitely Aneesh Chopra from today’s class and Zeynep Tufekci from the class on political movements. I am very interested in the use of social media for political campaigns and political activism (as will surprise no one), so hearing from these two incredible experts was so interesting. I thought the problem Aneesh Chopra raised about how he seeks to extract social media data and influence, without paying a fortune for targeted ads, was a fascinating puzzle. I found Zynep’s insights on political movements to be really fascinating and I was subsequently delighted to stumble on her recent New York Times‘ opinion piece when I was doing research for my oral presentation.

Most Thought Provoking Class: I thought our seminar about Anonymity and Forgetting was probably the most thought-provoking one for me. I had never really considered the power in being able to forget or delete memories and the implications for a society that does not have this capacity. This guardian piece by Stuart Jeffries was the reading from the class that most surprised me and made me reflect on a new concept.

Best Reading: The reading I probably enjoyed the most was “The Curse of Cow Clicker” by Jason Tanz. I found the attempted satire and twist of fate it detailed very amusing and the implications for gamification and the success of Zynga games were very interesting.

Most Stressful Task: Definitely today’s presentation. I’ve never talked so fast before.

Favorite Blog Posts: I think the favorite post I wrote was this one, about the implicit rules that govern Facebook.  I also really enjoyed the different perspectives that Amanda and I put forth about whether politics belong on Facebook in our blog posts.

Overall: I really enjoyed this class. I have to thank all my classmates for always generating a great discussion and for being willing to clash and debate and explore different topics together. It was great to have so many different viewpoints from such intelligent peers. I also want to thank Professors Felten and Schlutze for putting so much work in generating readings, guests, and stimulating discussions for all our seminars. Thanks again!

Who runs the world?

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on the depiction of women in the social network and how that translated to women (or lack thereof) in Silicon Valley. Today, I am returning to that very same topic but unfortunately with worse news. A recent study () done by researchers at UC Davis found that of the 400 largest companies only 13 have female CEO’s. That’s about 3 percent. 3 percent. It’s mindboggling that with all the recent news on how more women are going to college and choosing professional careers that only 3 percent of women claim power positions in our country’s greatest companies.

What I want to focus on however, is the fact that in the tech industry (this includes hardware and software) only 20 percent of women hold directing power. Of the best known companies located in Silicon Valley (Yahoo, Google, Apple etc.) none of them had women amongst their highest paid employees. Combined with the numbers of actual women working in the tech startup of the world, it’s hard not to see Silicon Valley and its counterparts as a modern day boys club.

All of this data is coming out in light of recent news that two women will be succeeding Steven Sinofsky, former head of Microsoft’s Windows unit. This news was exciting for women advocates everywhere because for the first time the company was placing women at the head of their most commercial enterprise. This, similar to when Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo, seems like a win.

With all this information, I find it hard not to be confused about the current position that women hold in the tech industry. On one hand there seems to be immense progress being made but then on the other hand there is disheartening information out there that only 18 percent of engineering graduates are women. Right now, the face of Silicon Valley is that of a white male in their mid 20s. However, that is changing. With women like Marissa Mayer making a difference and putting themselves in the public eye two things are happening. One, the gender inequality in the tech industry is being highlighted and younger girls are getting a role model.

While I don’t have the solution to end this inequality there are some things that can be done. First off, more women need to be highlighted for their achievement. It disappoints me that I would not have found the information about the Microsoft ladies if I hadn’t gone looking. Second, the tech industry needs to be more transparent with their hiring and promotion standards. It doesn’t matter how many women you have in a company, if none of them are being moved to executive positions then the progress is not continuous. Finally, the scrutiny and hate that comes with women who do choose to live their lives in the public eye (ie. Marissa Mayer) needs to be eradicated.

Twitter Fights Back

Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg shocked everyone when he offered to buy Instagram for a billion dollars.  A measly mobile app that’s functionality was limited to editing photos and viewing pictures shared by others, Instagram did not seem to have much to offer Facebook.  Now, it seems the buy was a move towards social networking dominance.

While Instagram was not a very intimidating competitor, it did threaten to take over a sector of Facebook’s functionality, just as Twitter has done.  Twitter has started monopolizing status updates – would Instagram have monopolized photo sharing?  Facebook preemptively struck, not waiting to find out what could have been.

And now, it has used Instagram to start a public battle with Twitter.  As mentioned in my presentation today, Twitter took some functionality from Facebook by moving status updates to a new platform and ultimately making status updates on Facebook less socially acceptable.  It is also rapidly growing, while Facebook seems to be bottoming out.

Instagram announced late last week that it would no longer support sharing through Twitter.  While the CEO claimed this move was solely to increase traffic to Instagram’s website, it is clear this act damages the user experience of Twitter.  Before Facebook bought Instagram, Instagram and Twitter had a great relationship, as Instagram wanted to reach as many social networks as possible.  It worked with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, and foursquare to extend its reach.  Now, it is only interested in promoting Facebook’s interests and fighting Facebook’s battles.

Most commonly, people post photos on Instagram and then opt to also share these photos on Twitter and Facebook, an act that can be done through a simple button.  Now, if people only want to post and edit once, they will need to choose between the Instagram to Facebook combo and Twitter.

The newest update for Twitter includes filters.  This seemingly simple change represents Twitter’s acknowledgement of the impending battle Facebook has started.  It is clear Facebook wants social media domination, and sees Twitter as a threat to that.