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!

Facebook: The Place Where Marriages Crumble?

Last spring, in May 2012, an Indian woman filed to divorce her husband of 2 months. What was the reason she gave? That her new husband had failed to change his Facebook relationship status to “married.”

When her husband offered to change the status to get her to reconcile, she rejected his gesture, saying that, because he had not put their marriage on Facebook, he could have been doing things behind her back and she could no longer trust him. This example is extreme but it speaks to a phenomenon that is becoming very real in the United States – Facebook has increasingly contributed to the demise of marriages.

The connection between Facebook and divorce is hard to deny. Consider: Facebook was named in a third of divorce filings in the year 2011, which is up from being named in a fifth of the divorce filings in 2009. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 80% of American divorce attorneys report an increase in the number of their cases involving social media. As Connecticut divorce attorney Gary Traystman put it, “I see Facebook breaking up marriages all the time.” He reports that of the 15 cases a year that he takes that involve computers, texts, and email as evidence, 60% deal exclusively with Facebook.

The evidence that there is a link between Facebook and divorce is fairly convincing. The question that now plagues us, is why is there such a link? Is there something about Facebook that simply makes its users loath the confines of monogamy?

Probably not. But Facebook has something that traditional (aka offline) affairs do not – intensified speed and the illusion of privacy.

Traditional affairs might take months to develop – they require secret liaisons, conversations in person, perhaps clandestine notes and telephone calls. But affairs on Facebook can get started with just a few clicks – and they can be with people you may already know. Many instances of infidelity that begin on Facebook involving a married person using Facebook to reconnect with a former high school sweetheart on Facebook, before promptly taking off with said sweetheart. Rekindling that connection – so easily finding a past flame – was hardly possible, or at least much more difficult, before the rise of Facebook. Thus Facebook facilitates infidelity with the speed in which its possible to initiate and arrange an affiair.

Facebook also creates the illusion of privacy. On your Facebook profile, or a comparable social networking tool, you may feel that medium is your space – that it is private and secure. In many instances, you would be incorrect – as many people in divorce court have found out. For while using Facebook to conduct an affair is expedient, it is also incredibly easy to track and document. And as an increasing number of lawyers are using evidence found on Facebook for divorce cases, the social media trail has become very important.

The Art of the Profile Picture

Consider the profile picture. Its ubiquitous. I bet all of your friends have a profile picture, whether it’s a picture of them smiling, an awkward selfie, or a Pokemon character. In Facebook’s words, “Your profile picture is the picture that friends see next to your name everywhere on Facebook. This is how people recognize you.”

But as you all know, the profile picture is hardly a standard head shot used for recognition alone. It comes in many variations. Let’s go over a few novelty ones:

The Selfie: This is a photo in which it is evident that the subject of the photo is standing next to a mirror and holding a camera up to take a picture of themselves. They are typically alone, as the name suggests, and thus there is a certain implication that comes along with this type of profile picture. As Urban Dictionary puts it, “You can usually see the person’s arm holding out the camera in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them.” Although this description is extreme, there is a definite implication that when a person spends their time in front of a mirror taking pictures alone, perhaps their social life is less than fulfilling.

The Couple Shot: It is a standard move for a couple to formalize their relationship via cyberspace with a photo of the two of them looking adorable and/or couply. Typical variations include holding hands, arms around each other, and the classic prom shot. Although there are exceptions, when someone has a picture with them alone touching a member of the opposite sex, its generally a declaration that the two are dating. Standard protocol is for many friends to like the picture and make various comments about how cute the photo is. When i investigated this phenomenon on Urban Dictionary, I discovered a term I had never encountered: “Cupload – An uploaded picture of a couple on Facebook.”

The Pokemon Character: There is reportedly an event along the lines of “Change Your Profile Picture to Your Favorite Pokemon!” that resurfaces from time to time and explains the fact that some of your friends may have spent some time with Pikachu as their primary photo. Still. There is often an unfavorable perception associated with this move. When one of my friend’s received her future college roommate’s name this summer, we immediately logged on Facebook to investigate. When we saw that her profile picture consisted of a cartoon character, a consensus was swiftly reached: “Okay, so she’s weird,” one of my friend’s succinctly declared.

As the variations of profile pictures demonstrate, Facebook, like any other institution, has a set of certain standards and norms governing its use. The way members use Facebook affects the way that they are received by the community at large.



Facebook: A Place For Romantic Relationships?

Not long ago, I logged onto Facebook and started browsing through my newsfeed. I was greeted with a post from a girlfriend to her boyfriend that went something like this:

“‘A relationship is like a rose, how long it lasts, no one knows. Love can erase an awful past, Love can be your’s, you’ll see, at last. To feel that love, it makes you sigh, To have it leave, you’d rather die. You hope you’ve found that special rose, “cause you love and care for the one you choose”. –Rob Cella.’ I love you, baby. I want to be with you forever.”

I cringed. The idea of posting a message so intimate and mushy on someone else’s wall, for all the world to see, shocked me. “If she was going to say that, why didn’t she text it to her boyfriend?” I thought. “Or even Facebook messaged him.” Given several other private options, why did this girl choose to display her declaration of love in a public way, on a Facebook wall?

It turns out that the notion of making Facebook a public destination for relationships was not unique to her. Facebook, itself, is keen on the idea.

For any couple listed on Facebook as being in a relationship, the platform now provides a joint page to view the couple’s history. Simply sign in and visit (a telling name) to view your joint page with your significant other. This archive of a couple’s relationship provides their wall posts to each other, photos together, a pool of mutual friends, the events they have both attended, and their shared “likes” and interests on Facebook.

Any friend of both users can view this page by selecting the “View Friendship” option and inputing the names of both members of the couple.

This strikes me as a bit…well, creepy. It feels as if Facebook is forcing a public aspect on Facebook relationships that may make people like me, who think that relationships are a private matter, not a public spectacle, cringe.

Perhaps to many couples, the relationship page is endearing; they may find it cute and helpful. And thats wonderful – but Facebook, in its characteristic way, did not provide the tools to have such a page and allow couples to opt in and opt out. It forced the feature on everyone listed in a relationship.

But if you want to avoid the new feature, you can just end your relationship on Facebook, right? Not so fast. Don’t forget that Facebook does not seem to allow you any mechanism to avoid posting the news of your break up all over your newsfeed. You might not want that headache either.

The girl who posted that mushy paragraph on her boyfriend’s wall was acting of her own volition. But it seems to me that public romantic relationships is something that Facebook really seems to encourage (or force) among its users. Maybe for the spectacle? Perhaps it seeks to make Facebook that much more addictive, by adding the unpredictable spectacle of human relationships to the mix.

Facebook’s Expanding Role in Criminal Trials

Thought certain hallowed aspects of society were free from Facebook’s influence? Think again.

It seems that Facebook and other social media platforms are taking an ever expanding role in criminal and civil litigation.

Of course, on a certain level, its use in civil litigation is quite logical – It’s a natural boon for divorce lawyers to be able to prove infidelity or unsavory conduct with suggestive photos or lascivious posts pulled from Facebook. And apparently, its now routine for civil lawyers to catch people in untruths using social media. The New York Times gave the colorful example of lawyers pulling Facebook photos of “people claiming to have a back injury dancing atop a bar.” The fact is that social media has become a powerful resource for lawyers to find pertinent information relating to civil litigation. As Kenneth Withers, the director of judicial education and content for The Sedona Conference, described the phenomenon: “In the world of electronic information, the amount of potentially relevant information in discovery has exploded…And with social media, there has been an explosion of an explosion.” Thus social media greatly expands the information and potential evidence available to lawyers.  But, as of late, social media might have another role to play in the judiciary – advocacy.

Mark O’Mara, the lawyer defending George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, has embraced social media as a tool to advocate and fundraise for his unpopular client. O’Mara enabled a defense web site, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page advocating for his client’s innocence. As the initial attention that the Trayvon Martin case received spread rapidly through social media networks to reach a scale of national prominence, O’Mara also says he is using social media in order to counter an “avalanche of misinformation” about Zimmermann and the facts of the case. Almost unprecedented in a criminal case, O’Mara’s use of social media reflects the desire of lawyers everywhere to learn how to handle social media’s intersection with the courts. Nicole Black, co-author of “Social Media for Lawyers,” says that criminal lawyers are looking for crash courses for how to use social media to their advantage. As she described it, “There is almost hysteria among the lawyers to understand it and how its affecting their practice.”

As for O’Mara, he’s ahead of the curve – and unapologetic about it. As he said in court recently when pushing for access to Mr. Martin’s Facebook page for evidence, “This is 2012, and I’m sorry, I used to have the books on the shelf, and those days are long gone,” he said. “We now have an active vehicle for information. I will tell you that today, if every defense attorney is not searching for information on something like this, he will be committing malpractice.” Eager not to get left behind, other lawyers will no doubt utilize similar methods. But whether O’Mara’s strategy will pay off where it counts – in the courtroom – remains to be seen.


The Rules of Facebook

I was late to Facebook. I joined in the end of 8th grade, and by that time all my friends had been on the site for at least a year. So when I did I finally join, I was ignorant to the numerous unspoken rules that governed this online social matrix that was populated with hundreds of my nearest and dearest friends, acquaintances, and those people I sorta knew. One day, a few weeks after my excursion into Facebook began, I wrote a short wall post on my friend’s wall. After I had posted it, I noticed that I had made a spelling mistake. In a simple effort to correct my error (as I am a perfectionist at heart), I deleted the post and replaced it with a nearly identical one, albeit error-free. I had no idea that I had just violated one of Facebook’s tacit social maxims.

Shortly thereafter, my friend inboxed me with a message that said something along the lines of, “Way to delete a wall post! CREEPY.” When I reacted with surprise, she proceeded to inform me that deleting a wall post before someone saw it was a no-no. She explained that the person gets a notification that you posted on their wall before quickly changing your mind, and therefore it makes it look like you posted something weird or suggestive that you decided to take back.

This interaction was my first indication that Facebook was governed by certain social norms – that there was an implicit set of social standards that dictated conduct on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, a big part of the social standards of Facebook, is that it is not acceptable to not be on Facebook. In middle school, when my friends all had Facebook accounts and I did not, I was constantly harassed by them as to why I did not have a Facebook. Mind you – this was 5 years ago. At that time, most of my friends had had Facebook accounts for little over than a year. Facebook had around 30 million users, compared to its 1 billion users of today. 5 years ago, the social pressure to join Facebook was significant. But today, I imagine that it must be overwhelming. Indeed, there is definitely a certain stigma to not being on Facebook. I noticed this when my high school friends were checking out their roommates on Facebook before going to college. When one of my friend’s couldn’t find her roommate on Facebook, everyone concluded that she must not have one and was probably very weird.

But the rules don’t stop once you’re on Facebook. There are specific norms to adhere to. The most obvious one is the notion of being “Facebook Official,” meaning that when a couple changes their relationship status on Facebook, the relationship is codified. It is on Facebook, therefore it exists. Similarly, if a user sets his or her profile picture to a photo exclusively with a member of the opposite sex, it probably means that they’re dating.

And then there is Facebook stalking. It’s acceptable (and everyone does it) as long as the other person doesn’t catch on to the fact that you’re going through all their photos. Then that would be creepy.

While these rules may seem bizarre or arbitrary on some level, on another, there couldn’t be anything more natural. Every institution – from schools to parties to libraries – have certain social norms to govern behavior. Why should Facebook be any different?


The Story of Facebook: Fact and Fiction

To view The Social Network Trailer: watch?v=lB95KLmpLR4

As we are watching the Social Network in class next week, I thought I would write a post evaluating how accurate a portrayal the movie creates of Facebook’s real beginnings. WARNING: This post will discuss plot details. Readers who have not seen the film before and wish the plot to remain unknown before seeing it on Tuesday, should refrain from reading this post before Tuesday’s class.

          Upon doing some research, it became clear to me that most experts agree that film creators Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher took some liberties with the truth in “The Social Network.” As Aaron Sorkin himself put it in a New York Magazine profile, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”

Much of the accuracy controversy relates to Zuckerberg and his dealings with his former business partner Eduardo Saverin. For people are interested in further exploring this debate, there are two books that give two very different views of the situation. The book Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich is a source of much of the information that was used to create the movie. It was written with the heavy cooperation of Zuckerberg’s former friend (and ousted business partner) Eduardo Saverin. It portrays a generally negative view of Zuckerberg, elements of which can be seen in “The Social Network.” The polar alternative tale is told by David Kirkpatrick in his book, The Facebook Effect, which was written with the cooperation of Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Many participants in the accuracy debate assert that whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of real events is inconsequential. They believe the movie to be a work of art, and an entertaining one at that. But it does matter for our purposes in this class – an accurate understanding of Facebook’s beginnings and the subsequent impacts on its culture and business model are integral to our overall impression of Facebook.

To that end, here is a “The Social Network” accuracy crib sheet:


–       Eduardo Saverin was a complete victim to Zuckerberg’s villain: False.

  • The film fails to mention that Facebook was starved for cash when Saverin was in New York, it got so bad that Zuckerberg’s family had to take out loans for servers.
  • Despite the reversed portrayal in the movie, Saverin partied frequently while in New York. In one uncovered IM, Zuckerberg writes to Saverin about he and his coworkers in Palo Alto, “In general we don’t do fun things. But that’s OK because the business is fun.”
  • Saverin also put up free ads for his own start up on Facebook without clearing it with Facebook’s other founders.
  • While Saverin did invest $1000 of his own money in Facebook initially, Zuckerberg also invested significant amounts of his personal funds in the young company.
  • After suing and settling with Zuckerberg, Saverin received sufficient stock to own about 5% of Facebook – equal to about 1.4 billion dollars.
  • He was not Zuckerberg’s best friend or original collaborator on Facebook – that was actually Adam D’Angelo, Facebook’s first CTO.

–       Sean Parker was arrested for cocaine possession: True.

  • But, contrary to the movie’s depiction, not in California and not during the fall of 2004.

–       Zuckerberg is an angry, insecure, egoist whose creation of Facebook was initially motivated by a desire to get the attention of a previous girlfriend: Probably False.

  • By many account, Zuckerberg is an even-tempered fellow who is overall self-confident, if prone to bouts of silence and awkwardness.
  • Although Zuckerberg is shown pining over an ex-girlfriend and hooking up with Facebook groupies, he actually began dating his current wife, Priscilla Chan, before founding Facebook and has been committed to her during most of Facebook’s existence.-       The movie accurately depicts all characters who were important to Facebook’s beginning: False.
    • The movie includes the character of “Dustin Moskovitz,” but declines to portray his crucial part in founding and expanding Facebook.
    • According to Zuckerberg, Facebook probably would not have taken off without the efforts of Moskovitz yet in the film he receives much less attention than the realistically less important character of Eduardo Saverin.

    –       The Winklevoss twins hired Zuckerberg to create software for a social network they wanted to invent called Harvard Connection: True.

    • It seems that Zuckerberg probably did misled the Winklevosses and their friend Divya Narenda about his intentions and failed to tell them that he was not creating their software until the launch of his own website was imminent.
    • The twins did compete in the Olympics in men’s rowing and they did enlist their father’s corporate lawyer to help them complain to Harvard about Zuckerberg stealing their idea.

    Enjoy the show!







For VP Debate Day: How Candidates Use Facebook

According to a recent poll, most voters would prefer Barack Obama as a Facebook friend. Based on the results of the Esquire and Yahoo! News survey, of the 1,000 respondents asked, 48% replied that they would pick Barack Obama as their Facebook friend, as compared to 25% who would want Romney to be their friend. This seems to be an indication of the like-ability of the respective presidential candidates – for another 54% of the respondents said that they would prefer to take a road trip with the President compared to 29% who would prefer to hit the road with Mitt Romney. These results, overwhelmingly favorable for Barack Obama, are not indicative of how the population feels about who would make a better president – on that question, the public is much more narrowly split. Today’s Gallup Poll finds that registered voters are divided 50% for Obama and 45% for Romney with a 1% margin of error.

The fact that voters would prefer to road trip or have Barack Obama as a Facebook friend, despite maybe not preferring him for president, is a fascinating statement about how voters see Facebook. To them, Facebook appears to be a social space – one that they would prefer to fill with people whose company they enjoy, not necessarily who’s policies they support.

This is also indicative of a successful social media strategy employed by the Obama Campaign. For the idea is to be hip on Facebook. In many ways, it’s similar to the practice social advertising that we discussed on Tuesday – users are more likely to click on an advertisement if a friend is associated with it. And individuals are much more likely to like the Obama or Romney campaigns on Facebook if they get the impression that all their friends are on board. Last year, I had the opportunity to interview a former Clinton White House communications operative about the changes social media is making to the way that campaigns work. He referred to social networks as having a “virtual water cooler effect.” As he described it, campaigns can involve people in their operations on social media by making casual connections via their friends. In other words, if you see that your Facebook friends are sharing links or memes about Barack Obama on Facebook, it’s akin to having a casual conversation with a coworker by the water cooler in the office. You learn about it from people you know (much better than conversing with an unknown campaign operative over the phone), and you are much more likely to jump in.

As part of this strategy, campaigns use social media to highlight the more popularly appealing sides of candidates. Barack Obama’s Facebook Page is home to compelling family photos and personal stories of meeting with supporters. These endearing images are much more likely to spread across social networks, engendering support from friends as they go.


Facebook: An American Enterprise

In my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay for my American Studies class about why I felt that Facebook was a distinctly American institution. I used a quote from Lewis Lapham’s Essay, “Who and What is American? The Things We Continue to Hold in Common,” as a starting point. I chose an excerpt from quote from Lapham that casually defined the American condition: “Grant the existential terms and conditions of the American enterprise (i.e., that we are all bound to invent ourselves).”

Using Lapham’s idea as a basis, I reflected that Facebook was much like America in that individuals are all bound to “invent themselves.” In my class, we discussed how being an American citizen is unique in the world for the degree that people must form their own identities. Here, according to our code of ideals, family history and class station do not define an individual. That gift (or burden) is left up to the individuals themselves. Much the same way, Facebook gives each user an identical blue and white square to fill. Then it is up to each user to use that square to fashion an identity using whatever groups, photos, or posts they so choose. As we have discussed in our seminar, many people utilize this power to create idealized virtual portraits of themselves.

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Facebook & The Use of Pseudonyms

Facebook has often been criticized for its failure to allow its users to employ pseudonyms on their accounts. Unlike Twitter, its policy requires that users have a real name associated with their account. To many foreign dissident or reformers who use Facebook to communicate with supporters, providing a real name can have fatal consequences.

Last year, I read Revolution 2.0, the autobiography of Wael Ghonim, who anonymously administered the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page for the duration of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. The page rallied Egyptians in protest around the death of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian who was tortured and beaten to death by the Egyptian police. For weeks, Ghonim organized anti-government protests via the Facebook page. Under his guidance, it functioned as a point of community and organization for Egyptian activists. He did not administer the page under his real name because of the threat of kidnapping and torture from the Egyptian police, who were not known for their kindly treatment of political protesters. Shortly before a large protest that Ghonim was organizing was due to begin, Facebook shut his page down because it was associated with a pseudonym. Leaving protesters without information or a location for the protest, Facebook nearly prevented the demonstration from occurring. Fortunately, Ghonim was able to arrange for a friend who was living in America (and thus safe from the Egyptian police) to take on nominal responsibility for the page to placate Facebook. Naturally, the experiences in this book made me question the ethics of Facebook’s real name policy.

So when I stumbled upon an article with the headline “Facebook to Allow Pseudonyms For Verified Accounts,” I happily assumed that Facebook had decided to accommodate dissidents in danger from oppressive governments by allowing the use of pseudonyms. In fact, Facebook is making the change not to aid government protesters, but rather to court celebrities. Apparently, the move is intended to be of service to “prominent users” who are known better by a stage name than a given one, such as Lady Gaga or Madonna.  Users can apply for a verified account by providing a government issued photo I.D. and Facebook will manually approve or deny their request. This policy change will not alter the plight of dissidents who use false names because users are still required to provide their real name to attain an account.

While I recognize that Facebook has an interest in having users employ their real names in the interest of preserving integrity and safety on its service, I am also keenly aware of the fact that the real name policy is far from strictly enforced. I have many acquaintances that changed their Facebook names to ludicrous pseudonyms (perhaps the most notable was “Sal-Sal Wood Nymph”) to hide their accounts from colleges last fall. Their accounts were never suspended for having fraudulent names. With this in mind, is it so wrong to suggest that perhaps Facebook should simply turn a blind eye to the use of pseudonyms when it seems to do otherwise would jeopardize the safety of a user? Its an unconventional approach, but if Facebook is willing to revise its actions for the sake of celebrities, then why not in the name of free speech?


Facebook To Allow Pseudonyms For Verified Accounts [News]