A Map of Popular Connotations for 12 Social Media Sites, Winter 2014

If I say “Facebook is…,” how would you complete the sentence?

The response of any individual person to that question may be idiosyncratic, but when we look at the aggregate patterns that build up across the responses of many people, trends emerge that reflect our cultural beliefs and values regarding social media.  One convenient way to track trends is through Google Autocomplete.  When you enter a term in the Google search bar, have you ever noticed that certain suggestions appear to complete your thought automatically?

Google Autocomplete suggestions in November of 2014 for Facebook Is...

These are not random suggestions.  Rather, they reflect a weighted combination of how often different phrases appear in other Google “users’ searches and content on the web.”  Speaking in sociological terms, they are an indication of the most salient cultural associations with the phrase you’ve started typing.

In the autocompletion of “Facebook is…” that you see above, results are presented as a simple list of items, but it’s possible to obtain richer information than this. First, I’ve nabbed Google’s autocompletion lists for 12 of the most popular English-language social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Vine, Flickr, MySpace, Ello, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and YouTube. To each platform’s name I’ve added the prompting word “is” and found up to 10 most-popular search suggestions (Some new platforms like Ello have low enough search volume to generate few results. Some other platforms have repetitive results I’ve combined — “Flickr is slow” and “Flickr is too slow” are just counted as “Flickr is slow.”). An interesting feature of these lists is commonality. Despite the rich variety and nearly endless possibility of the English language, many words to complete the phrase “_______ is…” appear on Google’s top 10 list for more than one social media platform. For instance, the phrase “______ is slow” is among the top 10 results for Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest and YouTube. The phrase “_______ is dead” is among the top 10 results for a full 9 out of the 12 social media platforms studied here.

To graph commonalities, I’ve created the 2-mode semantic network graph you see below. A 2-mode (or “bimodal”) graph is one in which there are two kinds of nodes indicating two different kinds of objects. In this graph, social media platforms are the first kind of node, and they are indicated in yellow. The second kind of node is a top-10 ending of the phrase “________ is” by Google autocomplete. These are color-coded pink if the phrase completions indicate negative sentiment, green if the phrase completions indicate positive sentiment, and white if there is no clear sentiment expressed with the phrase completion. For some ambiguous phrases such as “YouTube is on fire” and “Pinterest is ruining my life,” a quick browse through Google search results helps to make sentiment more clear (both of these phrases turn out to be complimentary). Finally, a line is drawn from a social media platform to a phrase if that phrase is listed in the top 10 Google autocomplete results for that social media platform.

Social Media Is... Most Common Associations of Popular Social Media Sites as Identified through Google Autocomplete

For the 12 social media platforms, there are 68 distinct phrase completions listed in the Google autocomplete top 10. A large majority of these phrase completions communicate clear sentiment, and a large majority of those sentiments are criticisms. Mentions of slow speed, crashes and unavailability appear common. With the exception of YouTube and Pinterest, all of the 12 social media platforms are popularly depicted as “dead” or “dying.” Predictions of doom for social media platforms appear to be a cultural universal, at least among the socially-distinct set of participants in social media and web searches. Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, Flickr, Ello and Instagram have no positive phrases listed in their autocompletions. A strikingly positive deviation from the negative trend appears for MySpace. This finding is unintuitive, considering how far interest in MySpace has fallen since 2008. Consider the trend in Google search volume for “MySpace” from 2004-2014:

Relative Search Volume for MySpace in Google, via Google Trends, 2004 to 2014

The letters on that graph indicate influential mainstream news articles mentioning MySpace; does the lack of any articles whatsoever since 2010 hint at an explanation? Without newspaper or magazine articles promoting the MySpace network, and with hardly anyone searching for Myspace anymore, who is left but a small group of true believers in the once-great social network? The strongly positive sentiment toward MySpace in its top-10 rankings may be due to positivity in the small set of people who are still paying attention.

What other patterns do you notice in this graph of popular search completions for social media platforms? Do the autocompletions distinguish between different social media platforms, or do they unify?

Track Social Networks… to Find the People Tracking You

As the course designer and instructor for an undergraduate social networks course at the University of Maine at Augusta, I am often asked why students should take the course. I think there are many answers to this question. One answer comes from a humanities standpoint: learning how to represent patterns in relationships with attention to meaningful visual cues can deepen understanding of design and lead to innovation in art. Culturally speaking, networks have geek appeal as sparkling and colorful objects lending panache to infographics. If critical thinking is important to you, you might be interested in network analysis for the challenge of mastering multidimensionality and matrix mathematics; as you work at network puzzles you’ll develop your logical and quantitative reasoning ability. But these appeal aren’t all: the study of social networks can be practically useful, too.

One practical use of social network analysis is highlighted by the Disconnect extension you can add to your Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Opera internet browser…

worried faceI should break in here. Whenever you read "extension you can add to your internet browser," you should begin to get nervous. Many add-ins, add-ons, and add-arounds to your internet browsing or Facebook or Twitter experience are so colorful and fun to play with. But they have a second purpose lurking behind the colorful and fun one: to track your movement across websites so someone can sell data about where you go and what you do. But when consulting Disconnect's privacy policy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Disconnect extension collects information about you only minimally and doesn't sell information to advertisers: "Disconnect never sells your personal info.... Our browser extensions don't collect any of your personal info. Unlike most websites, our site doesn’t collect your IP address."

… so as I was saying, the Disconnect extension available for most internet browsers makes use of social network analysis to share useful information about websites that let your data leak out to third parties:

If you install the Disconnect extension in your browser, then visit a website, it will create a network graph (or “sociogram”) with that website at the center, visually linked to other websites that are given data whenever you visit that site. By bringing those network graphs together for different websites, you can figure out how your personal information might be combined and how that combination might be harmful to you.

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 Disconnect extension in my browser and visited the CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened websites. Disconnect produced three sociograms, which I combine to form the network graph you see below:

How the Skreened, CafePress and Zazzle websites track your visits: February 2014

The above image is current as of February 2014, and represents an change in tracking since the last time I looked at these websites in December of 2012:

Skreened, CafePress and Zazzle website tracking technology habits: December 2012

There are a number of patterns to notice. Consistently and by a wide margin, CafePress has been sending information about you to the largest number of third-party websites. Over time, on the other hand, Skreened and Zazzle (to a lesser extent) have started to catch up, sending more information about you to other companies. Those companies include Lucky Orange (“We don’t just tell you who is on your site, we show you what they are doing”), Monetate (“helping you understand your customers’ situations, behaviors and preferences”), Retention Science (“analyze & predict customer behaviors”), and Tell Apart (“If you’ve ever clicked on an ad for a pair of shoes that seem like they were made for you, Tell Apart may very well have been responsible“).

When the practices of individual websites such as CafePress, Skreened and Zazzle are combined into a network, we can find points of overlap. CafePress and Skreened send their information to three websites in common: doubleclick.net, google-analytics.com, and googleadservices.com. Each of these services tracks users by IP address, so that your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened can be combined: these data mining companies can bring together your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened to figure out aspects of your identity and preferences that might not be apparent if they had access to only one of the websites. All three websites send data to googleadservices.com, leading to even more detailed insights about you. Would you be surprised to find out that doubleclick.net also receives information about visitors from nytimes.com, foxnews.com and amazon.com? Would it surprise you to know that doubleclick.net is owned by Google, bringing this overlap into even sharper focus?

Looking at simple lists of the third-party recipients of your information on a website can give you a rough sense of how leaky an individual website is. Looking at the network overlap in recipients tells you which of those recipients are likely to be learning the most about you, constructing an increasingly accurate virtual you for sale.