Now that we’re moving from our second to our third week of COM/SOC 375: Social Networks, some of you may be starting to wonder why a body would want to study social networks in the first place. Yes, we can draw up networks and represent them in different ways, but what’s the point? The first answer, as I suggested in Lecture 1, is that social networks are stylistically stimulating and intellectually interesting. It’s fun to play with them in graphic form, messing around with shape and arrangement to try and best deliver meaning. Networks have geek appeal, sparkling colorful objects that represent underlying matrices with panache. But that appeal isn’t enough. Networks can be practically useful, too.
One use of social network analysis is highlighted by the Collusion extension you can add to your Chrome or Safari internet browser…
… so as I was saying, the Collusion extension for Chrome and Safari browsers makes use of social network analytic techniques to share useful information about websites that let your data leak out to third parties:
If you install the Collusion extension in your Chrome or Safari browser, then visit a website, it will create a network graph (or “sociogram”) depicting an ego network with that website at the center taking the role of ego. The alters in that network are the other websites, social media sites and tracking bots getting data whenever you visit that site. Every time you visit a new website, Collusion adds a new ego network with its own set of alters, adding it to the old ego network, and noting when two websites leak your data to the same third-party alter.
That might sound a little abstract, so let me make it concrete. Consider the mini-industry on the internet of “Print-On-Demand” apparel. On websites like CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened, you can browse through thousands of t-shirt designs made up by people like you. If you find a design you like, you can put it on a t-shirt that fits your style, order that shirt, and have it printed up and sent specially to you. The printer gets a cut of the profits, the designer gets a cut of the profits, and you get just the shirt you want.
While these print-on-demand services are offering you a service that makes them a little money, are they harvesting your data on the sly? To find out, I activated the Collusion extension in my browser and visited the CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened websites. Collusion produced the sociogram below as a result:
Skreened sends your information to a service called “GoogleAdServer” that, you guessed it, delivers on-website advertising. Zazzle collects its own data in-house through a service called Zcache. CafePress, on the other hand, not only delivers your information to GoogleAdServer but also to another 15 websites and tracking tools that manipulate and combine your website behavior with other online behaviors from previous sessions, then save that information so they can try and predict what you’re going to do next.
If privacy concerns motivate your consumer behavior, this sociogram goes beyond looking pretty to tell you something useful: Zazzle and Skreened are more secure stewards of your online data, but CafePress leaks all over. Would knowing this network information change your behavior? If so, how might networks otherwise change the way you see the world?