social media

Do people really care about online privacy?

There’s an interesting lawsuit against Facebook snaking it’s way through the legal system. Here’s the gist of the complaint:

The lawsuit alleges that Facebook’s photo-tagging system violated user privacy by creating faceprints — geometric representations of a person’s face — without explicit consent. Those faceprints are typically used to identify users to suggest tags for uploaded photos. According to the complaint, that’s a violation of Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which forbids the collection of biometric identifiers like fingerprints or faceprints without a person’s explicit consent. As Alvaro Bedoya of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law described it, “If you run a bar, the law doesn’t prevent you from picking up my used pint glass, but it prevents you from pulling my DNA off it.”


What is this about? Do you know how you upload an image to Facebook and it sometimes will ask, “Is this Adam McLane?” That’s happening because Facebook scans all of the images of you that you’ve tagged as yourself to determine unique biometric characteristics of your face to detect images of you all over Facebook. That biometric scanning, originally developed for military and law enforcement purposes, is now being used for commercial purposes by Facebook.

Social media principle #5 says, “You aren’t the customer of social media companies, you are the product they are selling.” If you read Facebook’s terms of service carefully you’ll see that Facebook reserves the right to use this information to target advertising to you. So you might not say that you are a fan of Nike shoes. But that photo of you wearing Nike shoes? Yup, Facebook can sell Nike (or it’s competitors) information about Facebook users who wear Nike shoes. (They sell information about you which you freely give them!)

That’s a rather benign example. But what about things which might not be so benign?

We care about privacy but we don’t

I find that people care deeply about their personal privacy. They will vehemently defend their legally protected rights to privacy, are offended by breaches of privacy, and can articulate “the line” clearly.

That’s in theory, of course. In practice people don’t really care that much about their personal privacy much. Here’s a small sample of what they might post online:

  • Physical location
  • Location of their home
  • First, last names
  • Names of children, pets
  • Names of employers
  • Names of friends, co-workers, family members
  • Contact information, email, phone numbers
  • Photos and videos, themselves, their spouse, the children, their friends and relatives (including biometric information like their voice)
  • Writing samples
  • Religious information
  • Employment history
  • Educational background
  • Personal ideologies, aspirations
  • Purchase history
  • Travel patterns
  • Medical information

These are the things that we post openly on the most popular social networks. (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Periscope, etc) So many people will say they care deeply about privacy but they really don’t.

Their behavior is mismatched with their actions.

What apps are tracking me?

To further this claim that most people don’t actually care about their privacy, they just say they do, let’s take a look at who you are sharing even more personal information with your smartphone.

A June 2015 report from Nielsen showed that the average number of apps American users access per month is steadily increasing, about 26 apps per month. (Source)


The study also says, “Over 70% of the total usage is coming from the top 200 apps.

Here’s the question I find very few people seem to be asking: Who owns the top 200 apps, what types of data are they collecting about me, and what are they doing with that data?

Here’s the Top 20 free iPhone App as of right now. Can you answer the above 3 questions for each of them? (Source)

  1. Hungry Shark World
  3. Snapchat
  4. Messenger
  5. Fitbit
  6. Facebook
  7. Instagram
  8. YouTube
  9. Running Man Challenge
  10. Trumps Wall: Build it Huuuge
  11. Hovercraft: Takedown
  12. Houseparty: Group Video Chat
  13. Pandora
  14. Color Switch
  15. Google Maps
  16. Best Friends
  17. iTunes U
  18. Uber
  19. Layout from Instagram
  20. Spotify

Each of these apps, as well as the rest that you have on your phone right now, each collect information about you. Do you know who owns that data? Do you know what’s being collected? Do you know what they are doing with your private information?

Should you? 

The example of location

Right now, my iPhone has 65 apps that ask to track my location, 16 of which are listed as tracking my location “Always.” Why do you think they want this information? Some of it is to make the app work properly, for sure. But some of it is to collect, aggregate, and use that information for their own purposes.

While not always visible when you post something online… if you’re using an app that accesses your GPS location

How accurate is that information? The iPhone is accurate to about 8 meters. There’s a noticeable difference in the geolocation data in pictures that I take at my house between the front yard, my bedroom, the kitchen, and my office.

The device itself

IMG_7072Of course, let’s not forget that while apps are tracking and reporting back all sorts of information about you all the time, your device itself is tracking even more.

Location… always means always. Here’s a fun fact that I don’t think most smartphone users realize. Your phone’s GPS only turns off if the phone is off. For instance, I kept my phone on Airplane Mode for my recent trip to Haiti so I wouldn’t use any international data. But pictures I took with my iPhone while it was on Airplane Mode… they are still geotagged. See, your phone is tracking you all the time. Don’t believe me? Open up the Health App for iPhone. It’s tracking your steps, your altitude, and your level of activity all the time. If you use Apple Pay you better believe they are keeping track of your spending habits, too.

So what do I do?

I suppose the smartphone has become the ultimate accountability partner. And, in some ways, that’s a good thing. The phone you keep in your pocket tracks your every move, what you’re thinking, what you are spending your money on, what you listen to, when you sleep, where you drive, and who you talk to.

My point is that you can’t do all of these things and then claim you care about privacy. You say you do. But you don’t.

social media

Intentionally Disconnected

Here are two competing, intertwined questions rolling around the free spaces of my life lately like a driverless steamroller.

Success, Pursuit or Arrival: Which Satisfies?

Question One: What does a successful life look like? 

A few years ago a friend said to me, “You live at a rare intersection where you love what you do, you’re good at what you love, and what you love pays you well.” And while I could banter and argue that this isn’t always true or that it’d be great to make a little more or work a little less or I’m more in the pursuit of what I love than working inside of what I love… the friend was right. Very few people have the opportunity to live at this intersection.

I’m fortunate man. My privilege is not lost.

But, like all ambitious people, I’m always wanting a little bit more of those three things. And, because I’m the poster child for a liberal arts education, there’s about 200 other things I’d really like to explore and get good at… maybe fall in love with the same way. 

So some could look at me and assume that I see myself as somewhat successful [whatever that means] and yet I only look at myself and see areas I’d like to see more satisfaction and if there’s success is muted by day-to-day realities. The truth is I sometimes feel much more unsuccessful and dissatisfied than I am overcome by an awareness that things are going well.

Add to this a long-held observation from Kristen. She says I’m happiest when I have too many things to do… that I’m kind of miserable when I’ve only got one thing to do for too long, that I get bored easily.

And so that leaves me left to wonder: What does success really look like? Is success (for me) constantly chasing something new, 500 plates spinning. Or do I find success and satisfaction in enjoying the benefits of “right now“?

Is success found “out there” in the future or is it found “right here” in the present? Or both? Or neither?

Unintended Distraction

Question Two: Because I can be accessible 224/7/365 do I want to be?

Earlier this month I did something I’d never done on an international trip. I didn’t turn on international data for my phone. Admittedly, this was driven by the ridiculousness of AT&T charging more and more for less and less international data through their plan. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay $100 for 5 days of bad internet just so I could post to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and text with my wife.

So I didn’t.

And it was great.

I turned my phone to Airplane Mode as the plane roared down the tarmac in Miami and four days later I turned it back on. And no one cared. It made no difference. The earth still spun. Stuff still got done. Stuff still happened. And the world didn’t need me, my opinion, permission, or even knowledge. 

It wasn’t just great. It was delightful.

But I already knew this because it wasn’t the first time I wasn’t accessible by choice.

You see, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with something forbidden in our day. Even though I have a device that allows me to be accessible 24/7/365 virtually anywhere I go in the world— it has an off button.

Just because you can call or text or email or Facebook message me any time you want doesn’t mean I have to answer. I own an iPhone 6, it doesn’t own me.

And the fact that this seems somehow revolutionary as a concept is exactly why it’s so important.

The economy is driven by distraction. Facebook’s stock skyrocketed this week, not just because of ad revenue, but because users are giving the app more and more of their attention. Each day millions of dollars are spent by companies trying to learn how to best divide your attention. Maybe make the app more crass? Maybe make it 3D? Maybe entice you to turn on devilish notifications? Maybe tell users the screen dims just a little so they’ll take it to bed with them? Maybe make it more playful so you’ll say, “Hey Alexa…

In order to get more and more of your attention these devices are tapping into more and more subconscious, primal instincts. The devices goal is to own you! I need more information. I need to know something sooner than everyone else. I need friends to know I’m paying attention to them. I need to check my bank account, did I turn off the lights at work, did Jay-Z cheat on Beyoncé? I need to know these things and this device is going to tell me all of that.

Your economy is driven by attention. If the economy of today and tomorrow is defined by companies ability to sub-divide your time… your greatest access to success is to control your attention. To do this you’ll need to fight primal instincts to know stuff.

Intentional Disconnection

Here is where question one and question two meet: I have decided that success to me— at least right now– looks like the freedom to disconnect. If I’m successful I can turn work on and I can turn work off. Kristen and I can take the dogs to the beach and leave our phones in the car. I can turn everything off and play board games with my kids. If my phone vibrates or buzzes or whatever while we’re having dinner with the kids, I can ignore it. I don’t care if a bomb went off or a presidential candidate said that or even a good friend just wants to chat. To be successful is to pick your spots of disconnection.

Conversely, if I’m unsuccessful, that means that I can’t disconnect. I don’t have the time to recreate. I don’t have the time to concentrate on the work box when I’m at work, it instead bleeds into other things.

And so I’ll leave with two weekend challenges…

Challenge #1: Intentionally disconnect for 3 hours.

I don’t care where you go, what you do, or when you do it. But give yourself 3 hours to do something with your phone off this weekend. (Don’t fall asleep. And movies don’t count…) The world will wait. No one will actually care if you don’t like their picture on Instagram fast enough. You can text back “lol” later.

Challenge #2: Identify one sacred space

For me it’s the dinner table. If I can disconnect from everything and just have dinner with my family, that’s a sacred distraction free space. But I don’t know what that might be for you. I do know, however, that identifying that thing and making it sacred– a no phone zone– will make a deep impact on you because it’s made a deep impact on me.

social media

COPPA’s Amended Rules and Your Kids

I feel like I’m constantly asked, “When is the right age for my child to get [insert social media app name]?

The answer is really simple: Thirteen.

Why? The Federal Trade Commission says so in a law that governs every social media app and online service. The law is called the Child Online Privacy Protection Rule of 1999.

The point of this post isn’t to convince you of that, I’ve already written extensively about it here.

The point of this post is to point out new amended rules that were enacted in 2013 in direct response to popular social media apps like Vine, Kik, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.

The FTC has added some important clarifications which parents need to know about. And, despite what most parents seem to think, the FTC actually strengthened the laws/rules for online companies… they didn’t weaken them! So as much as your 11 year old seems mature enough to handle an Instagram account or she only exchanges Snapchats with her older sister… it’s still against the rules.

Here’s what has changed: (again, these rules are only for users under 13 years old)

  • Parental consent required to ask for geolocation data. Basically, every social media app asks for geolocation data. (Think tagging an image at a restaurant, etc) Prior rules didn’t require parental consent for this, but now it is.
  • Parental consent is required for photos or videos containing a child’s image or audio files with a child’s voice from a child if that child is under 13. Yup, that means that if your child is uploading anything to the internet the app is required to ask for parental permission. Again, this is why apps age gate and why I think we need a better verification system.
  • A screen or user name is now considered personal information. In the past, this was only considered personal information if that user name included an email address. But now app manufacturers need parental consent to store even the user name. This means that if they know your child has created a screen name to use on say, Instagram, and they don’t have specific parental consent… they are required to delete that user name when it’s reported to them.
  • Persistent identifiers, things like cookies and your device ID, are now considered personal information. Basically, for any child under 13 an online service or app cannot collect ANY information without a parents consent. (That doesn’t mean mom and dad say it’s OK, it has to be an actual consent system… which most social media apps don’t have.)

Read the amended rules here

What’s the story here, Adam?

The story is that COPPA is still in play. The minimum age for most social media apps, gaming sites, things like that…. it’s still 13 years old.

This isn’t about competence. It’s not about parental opinion or ignorance. COPPA is a law that helps keep young children safe from specifically being marketed to or even their personal information being leaked online in a data breach.

Parents! Please parent your kids by asking them to wait until they are thirteen. It’s for their best interest. Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.

social media

Attention: The New Compliment

  • Put it on silent.
  • Leave it in your pocket.
  • Don’t even check the time.

I find myself going through this mental checklist more and more. In some ways it feels like it’s the greatest compliment I can give someone when we hang out.

First, I know it’s not expected. Let’s say I’m hanging out with someone. The assumption is that I’m hyper-connected to all things online so I must be on it ALL-THE-TIME. The assumption is that we’ll hang out but I’ll be on my phone.

I have that expectation. I’d much rather be known as someone who asks good questions, who listens, and who cares than someone who knows anything about online life. I mean… one is virtuous and the other sometimes feels like I should have my own creeper van video blog.

I like to blow up that expectation by never once looking at my phone. I want to forget that I have a phone. Sometimes I even turn the thing off altogether. Yeah, it turns off.

Second, I don’t want them to notice. When you pull out your phone and look at it, even in a glancing way, you are communicating to those you are hanging out with that your attention is divided… that you aren’t really there. Now sometimes that’s the best you can offer– half there– but it’s still half there. Even if someone claims they don’t care, they notice. They know that they are not the most important thing in front of them right now and that’s exactly what I don’t want.

I want someone to know that if we’re hanging out, our time together is important to me. In that moment they are the most important thing completely worthy of my attention.

Third, I’m sick of just texting with my friends… I want more! I text, message, Facebook, email my friends all of the time. In a lot of ways that’s how we hang out. But when we’re really together, I don’t want my stupid phone to get in the way because I really value our time together. I don’t just say I wish we could hang out more, I really believe that we should hang out more, so I want to make the most of our time together.

Fourth, I don’t want to give them permission. Our phones are designed to be so stimulating that one person looking at their phone automatically gives everyone else who sees that permission to also look at their phones through the power of suggestion. (Test this out in a public place. It’s hilariously true!) So one of the things I’m thinking about when I am hanging out with someone is that if I pull out my phone to check the time then I’m giving them permission to pull out their phone and check their texts and then we might as well not hang out at all.

In short, I think that in an age where we are so distracted by our devices one of the greatest compliments you can offer is 60 minutes of undivided attention. 

p.s. I don’t really think this is a new compliment, more like an old one re-phrased. 

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5 Tips for Securing Your Home Wireless Network

As we’ve been adding more and more devices to our home network I’ve been less concerned about monitoring who is doing what on our home network and more concerned about who has access to our home network.

Way back in 2007 I wrote about adding our first password to our wifi to keep the creepy guy from using our wireless to do his creepy back-of-the-van browsing. But now, with so much of our lives revolving around internet connected devices, I really want to make sure that our system is as secure as I can reasonably make it without obstructing normal day-to-day use… at the very least, we don’t want to be the easiest target on the block.

Why does this matter? It’s actually fairly easy for people to get on your network, access your computers hard drive, and grab stuff. That might not seem like a big deal… but it is! Do you really want someone finding your folder labeled “Tax Returns” or looking through your bank records? I think not.

So, while not bombproof, here are some practical tips for securing your home wifi.

5 Tips for Securing Your Home Wireless Network

Tip #1 – Password Protection

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.21.15 AM

This is the simplest thing you can do but I’m really surprised by home many people skip this step. Don’t use something that’s a combination of the word “password” and don’t make it the same word as your network… if you want to pick a network password that’s really, really hard to guess, use something like the Strong Random Password generator. Afraid you’ll lose it? Print it out on a notecard, tape the notecard to the back of the router. Sure, that’s not absolutely secure… but let’s face it that you’re wanting to keep people off your network who will never come in your house.

Extra Tip: If you regularly have guests… make a little wifi instruction card for the guest room, it’s much appreciated!

AirPort Extreme - WAN Access to Network Drives
AirPort Extreme – WAN Access to Network Drives

Extra Tip: We use the AirPort Extreme, which both does regular backups for all of our Apple devices and allows us to add cheap USB hard drives for extra network storage. You can easily set this up so that you can access that USB drive anywhere in the world… just make sure you’ve got that password protected, too!

Tip #2 – Upgrade Your Physical Equipment

While there haven’t been giant leaps in wireless routers and modems in the past decade, chances are good that you might have an older wireless router that’s actually slowing things down for your home network AND has outdated security settings. Honestly, when was the last time you even logged into your home wireless router to look to see if there was a firmware update? Probably never!

A couple years back we upgraded our entire system and things got a lot faster AND Apple’s AirPort Extreme has a great little interface you can access from any Apple Device. That makes it easy to login, see what’s up with the router, update any settings, and make sure the firmware has been updated.

Most of the newer routers have a similar interface. The point isn’t that you have to have the newest, fanciest stuff. The point is that you should probably replace this equipment every 3-4 years just to keep things secure.

Extra tip: If your router allows for automatic firmware updates, do it.

Tip #3 – Know Who is Connected to Your Home Wireless Network

Would you know if a new device got onto your network? In most cases, as long as someone enters the password… you’d have no idea that a new device even logged in. (Once a device is logged in they can pretty easily access what’s on the hard drive of other devices on your network. Surprise! They can even spoof your network into thinking their device is your devicedouble surprise!)

You could use the terminal to see who is on your network. But that’s cumbersome and you’ll never really do it.

Instead, I would recommend a couple easy and free options. I use a free app called “Who’s On My Wifi?” (Mac & PC) It gives you a basic look at what devices are on your network, allows you to add labels to them, and then alerts you when an unknown device logs in.


Extra tip: You really don’t need to spend any money on this… there’s a subscription service but a home user really doesn’t need it.

Extra tip: You could step it up a notch by using a software firewall to monitor your home network’s traffic and block unwanted access using software with something like Glasswire. You could step it up two notches by adding a physical firewall that you’d install and configure between your network’s modem and the router.

Tip #4 – Hide Your Home Wireless Network Altogether


We don’t do this. But if I lived in a high density area, say a residential high rise, I’d want to make it a little harder for anyone to even know I had a network… just to make it a little harder for the casual thief. Most routers make this very simple, turn it on, save your changes, presto.

Tip #5 – Set-up a Guest Network


A lot of the newer routers have a built in option to create a guest wireless network using a built-in software firewall that separates guest traffic from your home wireless network itself. I think this is great if you have occasional guests over who you want to allow internet access. (Say, friends of your children!)

Extra tip: If you want to do this in a more secure way buy an additional wireless router and a physical firewall. (Say if you rent out a guest room on Airbnb or regularly have people over at your house whom you don’t really know or trust.) You would connect your ISP’s modem to a physical firewall, then connect your home network with one port of the firewall and the guest network to a different port of the firewall. You could then configure the firewall to control access to the internet separately. That physical separation would ensure that your guests would have no access to your home network whatsoever.

Share Your Ideas!

Did I miss something? Have you tried something that’s helped at your house? Let me know in the comments!

social media

You Don’t Really Care About Privacy

Last week, I listened to this podcast interview with Walter Kirn [best known as the author of Up in the Air], largely based on his November 2015 article  in The Atlantic, “If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy.”

As I travel around talking to leaders, parents, and teenagers about mobile devices I get questions from a myriad of different categories:

  • Family life, how mobile devices are positively and negatively impacting the home.
  • Personal life, how mobile devices are positively and negatively impacting the emotional life, mental life, and physical life of individuals.
  • Parental duty, helping teenagers navigate an online life that is healthy for them.
  • Specific apps, information & concerns about specific mobile applications.
  • Specific devices, technology that people have bought, are thinking of buying, or questions about device specific settings.

But I don’t find many people even thinking about the larger question: Do we care that we are carrying a device in our pockets or purses that is tracking our every move? Do we care where that information goes? Do we care that our government is monitoring what we post online? Do we care if other governments or non-government actors are tracking us? Do we care if companies are developing apps that can turn your phone into a listening device, your casual conversations converted to text and that data mined to target you with advertising? Do we care that the camera on your phone or laptop can be used to remotely take photos of you without your permission?

You Say You Care But You Don’t

Here’s what I’ve surmised from hundreds and hundreds of conversations. People say they care about all of this but they don’t really. At least not enough to change their behavior.

Why is that? It’s actually kind of simple.

People are much more worried about protecting their privacy from the people in their lives than they are about an app developer, the United States government, or even non-U.S. governments.

An interpersonal breach of privacy has impact they can see. A remote intrusion, no matter how much more private– say listening to the conversations you have with your spouse or looking at the photos on your phone… has impact that seems inconsequential at the time.

In the end, convenience and cool gadgetry far outweighs any and all privacy concerns. 

Black helicopters, giant data farms in the desert, listening devices posted up in public places and in your pockets and no one seems to care. 

Why? The neuroscientists have won.

social media

Is Facebook Messing With Your Brain?

Among researchers there’s some controversy surrounding a study conducted by Facebook internal Core Data Science Team.

At issue is an experiment conducted to see if adjustments to Facebook’s timeline algorithm, which determines which of your friends status’ to show you, can be manipulated to effect your mood.

Here’s the study, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.

To me, there seem to be two big important questions to process:

  1. From a user perspective, are users made aware that Facebook [the world’s largest social network with more than 1 billion active users] has the ability to manipulate people’s emotions on a massive scale? This means that they have learned that they have the ability to effect what you are thinking about, how you feel about those topics, etc.
  2. From an ethical perspective, is it OK that Facebook conducted a massive experiment impacting the emotions of almost 700,000 people without their consent?

User Perspective

Facebook is not a public utility. It’s a for profit business.

It’s in their best interest to get you to come back to their site as much as possible, to enjoy using the site, to find the site useful for your daily life. Why? Because the more you like Facebook the more time you’ll spend there and the more money they’ll make off of you from advertising.

As I’ve taught for years, it’s important to remember your relationship to Facebook. You aren’t Facebook’s customer, you are their product. Facebook’s customers are advertisers who use the data you freely share to target users who might be interested in buying their products/services.

You’re familiar with the phrase, “Happy wife, happy life.” All this experiment was testing was the idea that they could apply what social science has learned about emotional contagion in the physical to the digital space. Is it “Happy timeline, happy user?” 

As social media researcher Danah Boyd correctly points out, every media company curates content to increase readership/viewership:

Facebook is not alone in algorithmically predicting what content you wish to see. Any recommendation system or curatorial system is prioritizing some content over others (including the one used here on Medium). But let’s compare what we glean from this study with standard practice. Most sites, from major news media to social media, have some algorithm that shows you the content that people click on the most. This is what drives media entities to produce listicals, flashy headlines, and car crash news stories. What do you think garners more traffic?—?a detailed analysis of what’s happening in Syria or 29 pictures of the cutest members of the animal kingdom? Part of what media learned long ago is that fear and salacious gossip sell papers. 4chan taught us that grotesque imagery and cute kittens work too. What this means online is that stories about child abductions, dangerous islands filled with snakes, and celebrity sex tape scandals are often the most clicked on, retweeted, favorited, etc.


All Facebook tested as if they could adjust their algorithms to show you things that’d make you happy, instead of what was popular. (Think baby announcements, job promotions, etc.)

And yet… it does ask a very important question worthy of consideration. As a user am I aware of and OK with Facebook having the power to manipulate what I think about various topics?

This practice reminds me of the movie The Truman Show where the television show manipulated Truman’s day-to-day life in order to manipulate their own ratings.

When you think about this power to manipulate your emotions you have to wonder if Facebook is also testing the capability of testing what they can manipulate you to buy, think about kale, or vote for in the presidential election?

Ethical Perspective

There are always ethical concerns when it comes to research and experimentation. The question yet unanswered by Facebook’s researchers is if they needed informed consent of the 700,000 users they experimented with or was this rather small data set in light of all Facebook’s users somehow covered within Facebook’s existing terms of service.

There’s no doubt that if the interest of the research was market study, they were covered under their normal terms of service. As a Facebook user you’re basically exchanging your free usage of the service for Facebook’s ability to do whatever they want with what you post, share, or read. (Your mom was right. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.)

But there is a lingering question about the purity of the research they conducted, it’s academic viability if it’s not able to be replicated and users may have not had direct consent to being experimented on.

I think an important question to reflect on is… “Should a for-profit business, one with the ability to impact the daily lives of more than a billion people worldwide, be allowed to manipulate the emotions of users without concern for broader concerns?

What Does This Mean for Users?

Again, you need to be aware that because the service is free you are not their customer. Just like any media company, it’s within Facebook’s prerogative to make as much money as they possibly can off of you.

With that said, you also need to be aware that what you are seeing isn’t organic. It’s manipulated by an algorithm designed to make you want to keep using Facebook, to keep that tab open, to comment on that thread, to share that status or video.

Just like notifications are the devil because they mess with your brain at a subconscious level to interrupt whatever you are doing to look at your device, Facebook is moving beyond just the subconscious level to manipulate your day-to-day emotions.

It’s not a warning. It’s simply the case that you need to be aware of how the game is played.

Is Facebook messing with your brain? Of course! 

social media

A Snapchat Interview with an 8th Grade Student

Back in November I heard from an 8th grade student who wanted to interview me about Snapchat for a research project she was writing for school. Her questions were probing, interesting, and excellent!

With her permission, and the permission of her parents, I am sharing that interview today.

J: Why was snapchat created?

Adam: In my post, Why You Should Delete Snapchat, I wrote this: The fact is that Snapchat was created as a sexting app. Like a do it yourself version of Girls Gone Wild. You might not use it that way, but that’s what it was created for.

J: Has anyone’s pictures ever been leaked on Snapchat? If so, how?

Adam: This has happened LOTS. While Snapchat is more secure and better engineered now, they suffered many leaks of account info in their early years. See this post, 200,000 more reasons to Delete Snapchat

J: Would you consider Snapchat safe? Why or Why not?

Adam: Safe is a relative term, right? So I’d wonder what you mean by “safe”? Is your data secure? Yes, it is more secure now than 3-4 years ago. Is it safe for a teenager to use? I suppose that’d be determined by what you were doing with the app, what you were posting, what was being sent to you, etc. I would argue that the vast majority of Snapchat usage at this time is normal social media usage for teenagers. But you also can’t lose sight of 2 facts.

  1. Snapchat’s early, explosive growth was fueled by it’s early sexting app history. Why did it take off? Because of sexting. How is it used now? In both safe and unsafe ways.
  2. While many of the concerns I’ve written about have been addressed by Snapchat, it’s important to remember that they didn’t do that by choice. The app is safer today for users because the United States government forced them to comply with laws. Read more about that here:

J: What age group do you think was intended to use?

Adam: The original intent was college-aged people. (See Why You Should Delete Snapchat post) Currently, 70% of Snapchat’s user base is female. My original argument, based on the founders own words, was that Snapchat was created to sexually exploit college girls. While I’ve softened that argument it is clear that the primary users and target audience of Snapchat remain female. Just look at their marketing, it’s geared towards younger females.

J: Do you think Snapchat exposes kids to online predators?

Adam: I have engaged with law enforcement officers in many places in the United States across many agencies investigating cases of adults targeting underaged women with Snapchat. Up until the FTC ruling, Snapchat has [sic] no way for law enforcement to force Snapchat to share information that’d be useful for prosecuting sexual predators. They had a reputation for not responding, ignoring court orders, etc. However, after the 2014 FTC ruling, Snapchat is in compliance and provides a way for law enforcement to get the data they need to prosecute sexual predators using their app.

J: In your opinion is Snapchat much worse than other social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram

Adam: The ephemeral nature of Snapchat (that the images “disappear” or that things are temporary) does encourage less thoughtful, more whimsical usage. That’s not always bad. In fact, researcher Dana Boyd basically predicted something like Snapchat two years before it was created precisely because teenagers had no where online they could just be goofy without leaving a searchable history. (Like Twitter, Instagram, etc) My reminder to teenagers is that just because the image disappears doesn’t mean that the memory of what you’ve seen does. That’s not the way our brains work! Likewise, I’ve worked with many teenagers who have sent things with Snapchat they regretted. So while the image may only last for a few seconds, the impact of what you’ve sent lives on.

J: What do you think appeals to teens about Snapchat?

Adam: This is a really important question, one which I do my best to get parents to understand at my workshops! In her book, It’s Complicated, Dana Boyd says that teenagers need places to hang out with their peers. However, increased busyness, over-involvement, and over-regulating the freedoms of teenagers (See chapter 1 of Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0 for more on that… his research shows that adult prisoners have more personal freedoms than American teenagers!) creates the need among teenagers for adult-free spaces. This is what she calls “Networked Publics” which is a fancy way of saying “Online places to hang out.

J: What age do you think people must be to use Snapchat?

Adam: Actually, this isn’t about an opinion. In the United States the age is 13. A federal law called COPPA (Child Online Privacy Protection Act of 1993) prevents any online company from collecting personally identifiable information about anyone under the age of 13. I wrote about this here –

J: Do you believe that Snapchat collects information about its users?

Again, this isn’t a belief, this is a statement of fact. Snapchat collects lots of information about their users. They make this clear in their privacy policy. If you’ll read the privacy policy you’ll see two things I’ve taught people about social media since the early 2000s…

  • There’s no such thing as anonymity or privacy online, just the perception that your activity is private and/or anonymous.
  • You aren’t the customer of a social media company, you are their product. You are freely giving them information which they turn around and sell to advertisers, marketers, and other agencies.

They make this perfectly clear in their privacy policy. But marketing is powerful… it is, as Seth Godin says, a lie.

J: Can you think of any positive things about Snapchat?

Most users use Snapchat in a safe way. And certainly most users seem to enjoy using Snapchat. As I mentioned before, I think that Snapchat addresses a real need among teenagers… a place to just be a teenager without the prying eyes of adults. That’s a very good thing. I just wish that Snapchat were a better digital citizen. I think they are getting there, but it’s taking people willing to do the work to force them to be more responsible.

social media

3 Reasons Nextdoor Can Disrupt Facebook’s Dominance Among Adult Users

Over the past several months I’ve worked Nextdoor into my loop of social media sites I participate in.

If you’re not familiar with Nextdoor, here’s how they describe themselves:

Nextdoor is the private social network for you, your neighbors and your community. It’s the easiest way for you and your neighbors to talk online and make all of your lives better in the real world. And it’s free.

Understand this. Nextdoor is still in its infancy. There’s a ton of posts about lost animals and people selling junk and people complaining about stuff.

But if you stick around, if you invest a little, if you squint… you can start to see why I think Nextdoor has the potential to disrupt the dominance of Facebook, particularly among adults.

There’s something culturally interesting that could bring much needed change that’s worth watching here…

Here’s 3 Reasons

  1. Hyper Local Wins Over Hyper-Segmented – Facebook is built around connecting a global world with your now globalized friendships. What I love about Facebook is that I can stay connected with people I’ve known for a long time but aren’t close to my by proximity. Facebook also allows me to gather people around the world around things I care about. But this hyper-segmentation misses something very important– place. Facebook drives communities apart by encouraging people to talk to only who they want to and ignoring the rest. Nextdoor turns that on it’s head, sometimes forcing you to deal with the crazy cat lady on your block instead of complaining about her on Facebook to your college dorm mates. Just like in real life, proximity ultimately wins out because it impacts you on a daily basis whether you chose it or not. You can’t ignore the cat lady forever, right? You think you can… but ultimately you have to face her. Facebook has no mechanism for this. Sure, you could create a closed group for your neighborhood but you’d always have leaking because people might belong to their neighborhood, their old neighborhood, on and on. There’s power in hyperlocal that Facebook has engineered you away from.
  2. Normalizing the Weirdos Among UsNextdoor is in it’s infancy. So there are very annoying things… in some ways it’s become a joke in our house because we’ll see something, say a shopping cart on our block, and we’ll say “I give that a couple hours before someone reports in on Nextdoor.” Certainly, Nextdoor is giving a voice to the, um, more suspicious among us. But the long-term beauty of this is that it’s solving Facebook’s biggest problem among adults… the loud mouth, over-opinionated adults mouthing off without ever having to face the people they are popping off to. With Nextdoor you don’t have that luxury. If you mouth off about your conspiracy theories or post lunacy about Donald Trump or tell people they shouldn’t buy a purebred puppy because there are adoptable dogs at the shelter… there’s a VERY HIGH likelihood you’ll see that person at the grocery store or walk your dog by their house. And that “social filter” is much more powerful than Facebook’s mechanical filter of the “unfollow” button. I believe that as Nextdoor grows in popularity it’s going to normalize the weirdos. While hyper-segmentation has made people passionate about whatever sub-sub-sub-culture they have joined up with… to your neighbors you’re just the guy who doesn’t cut his grass or doesn’t recycle or needs to paint his shutters. When you know you might bump into someone in real life, you’re going to normalize that weirdness. At least that’s my theory!
  3. Governmental Partnerships – Here’s the real secret to why I think Nextdoor will get their foot in the door among adults. They are forming partnerships, most likely paid partnerships, with local government agencies to put government officials in direct contact with the people they are serving. Here in the San Diego area we see posts from a bunch of agencies and in the City of La Mesa the city is actually advertising their involvement. That direct connection to people we need access to is good for everyone, it’s making it so that “everyone” really needs to be on Nextdoor to keep up with what’s going on.

My Prediction? Facebook will either acquire Nextdoor or will launch a neighborhood feature in the next 12 months.

Have you tried Nextdoor? (If not, sign up here) Is it big in your area? What kinds of things are you seeing successful? And what kinds of things aren’t working, at all? Let me know in the comments.

social media

The Incarnation and Networked publics

A couple weeks back I went to the Association of Youth Ministry Educators annual conference, affectionately known as AYME.

I was there as an exhibitor for the Cartel. But since the topic of this years conference was Technology and Transformation I got to attend as a learner, as well. (How awesome that they had a conference built around my expertise!) So I had the opportunity to hear from several brilliant minds around the general topics of social media, youth ministry, and how faith formation is being impacted by a social-media-fueled adolescent experience.

I took pages and pages of notes. I bought books on top of books that will take me months to get through. And at the end of it I walked away with two prevailing thoughts that I’ll be exploring over the next several months here on the blog and in work that I’ll hopefully publish somewhere else. (Both of which I’ll not be mentioning here.)

What Does Incarnational Ministry Mean with Networked Publics?

At the end of the day youth workers just need to know what to do. I’m often asked by adults who minister to teenagers about various apps, about ministry best practices, and about ways to market to teenagers effectively.

So let’s cut to the chase: Should youth workers being hanging out with teenagers online the way they used to hang out with teenagers at football games? 

  • Thought One: At the root of most of my [Sonlife informed] youth ministry training is the incarnation of Christ. John 1 provides a model, just as Jesus came into the world as good news in his neighborhood, so should I enter into the lives of teenagers as a youth worker.  So that’s my background and bias…
  • Thought Two: As Danah Boyd points out in her book, It’s Complicated [the premier sociological work on social media and adolescence right now] teenagers have largely had traditional face-to-face publics eliminated and have largely moved to what Boyd calls, Networked Publics.
  • Thoughts Three: Youth ministry, as a profession, is in a place where accountability and professionalism in the relationship with teenagers is important. If we, as a tribe, do not address ways to do this– ultimately to keep teenagers safer and hold adults accountable for the relationships they have with the minors in their ministry– we will continue to see our profession pushed to the margins.

With those three prevailing thoughts in my mind here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t think youth workers should be engaging with teenagers on social in a regular one-on-one basis without accountability, documentation, policies, and training.

In other words, a casual connection or a logistical “Hey, are you coming to the retreat?” is one thing. But I think youth workers would be better off engaging with teenagers in real life, even going back to old-school-incarnational-ministry standards like contact work on the local campus or limiting their relational time to officially sanctioned youth ministry meetings and events.

See, to read Boyd’s work about teenagers networked publics and think to yourself… “If teenagers are there, I need to be there” is a misinterpretation of Boyd’s work. She’s saying that they’ve resorted to networked publics because they can’t find anywhere else that’s adult-free. And not having any place to just be a teenager without adults prying eyes is a big developmental thing… So if you suddenly start butting in to that one place in their entire life where they can talk freely, without the prying eyes of a parent or adult… all you’re doing is forcing them to find another place where they “really talk” without you. It’s a developmental need.

Never mind the fact that– quite frankly, teenagers think adults talking to them or sending them gifs or snaps online is creepy.

So, in my very limited time this morning, this is why I would argue that social media is not a place for incarnation youth ministry. But it is, in many cases, an excellent place for youth ministry communication.

Keep your contacts with teenagers online logistical or promotional. Leave conversations and relationship building for face-to-face.