Thinking Critically About Facebook

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Middle School Workshop

What do middle school students need to know about Facebook? On January 13, Middle School head Paul Andrichuk and information technology staff members Daisy Steele and Richard Kassissieh led an afternoon workshop with Middle Students to encourage critical thought about personal information and the corporate entities behind the popular social network site.

Click on the links in this outline to see examples shared with the students.

What is a social network?

Facebook is the leader of social network sites, but many more exist. If we broaden our view to social media sites, in fact dozens exist. Social network sites represent a significant development, because:

1. Ordinary users contribute most of the content.
2. Companies have little control over site content.
3. They appeal to people's sense of community.

Adoption is widespread. Alexa estimates that 30% of their users worldwide visit Facebook every day.

So much about social networks is new. People and organizations are less able to keep tight control over their website presence. Even giant companies are still figuring it out. Individuals have gained the possibility to use social media to gain unprecedented visibility.

How will the use of social networks change how people communicate? Facebook's CEO thinks that it is changing social norms. Many disagree. How will students use social networks for good? What will Facebook do next? What will succeed Facebook?

The goal of today's workshop is to apply our critical thinking skills to our use of social networks.

Students proceeded into three breakout groups by grade level. They then participated in three sessions led by Paul, Daisy, and Richard. Paul and two upper school students introduced sixth grade students to the process of setting up a new Facebook account. Daisy examined privacy settings with seventh and eighth graders. Richard investigated how Facebook applications access personal information. Below, please find notes from the apps workshop.
 

All About Apps (seventh and eighth grades)

A Facebook application ("app") is a piece of software that adds functionality to your Facebook page. Most are games or information-gathering devices (e.g., polls).

Most apps are built by companies other than Facebook. Installing an app shares your profile information with that other company.

To view your list of installed apps and uninstall one, go to the Applications link in the lower left-hand corner of the Facebook interface and click Edit Applications.

You may recognize status updates generated by applications from their nonstandard icons, the "via" text, and phrases like "Click here to help."

Though I am sure you are a very helpful person, clicking on that link will lead to the installation of a new app.

Note that Farmville will gain access to your profile information, photos, and friends information, at the very least. Are you okay with this?

During the workshop, students completed a role play activity to learn more about the movement of personal information between a user, Facebook, and Zynga (the maker of Farmville). Download the handout.

After the role play, the group discussed the following questions.

  • What information does Zynga now have about you and your friend?
  • Did Zynga need this information for the game to work?
  • What else might Zynga do with your personal information?
  • What would prevent Zynga from doing something unethical with your information?
  • What could Facebook do to ensure that application developers keep your information safe?

The presenter then provided the group with more information about Zynga.

Clicking Allow indicates that you agree to the Farmville Terms of Service, which would should read and understand! Just one part of the TOS is fairly illuminating.

Section 4c

You grant to Zynga the unrestricted, unconditional, unlimited, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual fully-paid and royalty-free right and license to host, use, copy, distribute, reproduce, disclose, sell, resell, sublicense, display, perform, transmit, publish, broadcast, modify, make derivative works from, retitle, reformat, translate, archive, store, cache or otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content [emphasis added] to which you have contributed, for any purpose whatsoever, in any and all formats; on or through any and all media, software, formula or medium now known or hereafter known; and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed and to advertise, market and promote same.

Can you trust Zynga with your personal information? Founder and CEO Mark Pincus speaks in the following video about the measures he took to raise money for the company. The video sheds some light on the character of Zynga, its founder, and its reasons for existence. This may help you make an informed decisions about whether to share your personal information with this company.

Other companies have come under scrutiny for their security practices. RockYou improperly handled and inadvertently exposed 32 million usernames, passwords, and email address. Another company produced a "Secret Crush" application that didn't actually reveal a secret crush but instead installed unwanted advertising on their computer.

We encourage student to think critically about Facebook apps and understand how personal information is handled when you play one of these games.