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This week, Facebook has been in the news as it is going to move from being a private company to public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO). Over the past week, I have heard many comments about Facebook and they have raised a concern that has irked me for years. It seems that people, society, accept the Internet, not for what it is, but, for what it is not. What do I mean by this? Why is Facebook so popular and worth so much money? Why aren’t people more concerned about their personal information being used for purposes they are not aware of?

Take this comment I heard on the radio this week. Someone stated something that I have heard many times before leaving me to believe that it is a generally accepted truth. People seem to think that the Internet contains information and information is knowledge. To me, as someone who has been using computers for nearly 25 years, the Internet for over 15 years and who has studied the field of education to the level of a Masters Degree, I feel I can make a comment or two on this matter in an attempt to clear up some misconceptions.

Information is not knowledge. Information is information and knowledge is what you know. Well, now that is clear. No? Then let me give you an example. I have an interest in vintage jazz music and with nearly 40 years of interest in this genre of music, I know quite a bit about it. If I were to tell you everything I know, you would have information and perhaps some of the information might become, to some degree, knowledge. However, if I were to spend time engaging you in listening to jazz music and discussing it, you would begin to have an experience with it and make it familiar to you. That is learning and learning results in you acquiring knowledge, that is, you are able to use and apply the information. There, you can see, is a huge difference.

To truly turn information into knowledge, one must engage and have experiences with it. This is the purpose of education. The richer the engagement and experiences, the better the education and the resulting ability of the learner to be able to use and apply what they know. This is a concern I and many educators have about online learning. It does not, and can not, provide the same rich learning experiences that a classroom or other real life situations can. One would never want a surgeon with an online degree to operate. Well, that is a sort of extreme example, yet, you should get the point.

It seems to be an ongoing quest of purveyors of the Internet to relate it to real-life applying common nomenclature to new purposes. Even before the World Wide Web (WWW), with only text interfaces to the Internet, people searched for ways to make users feel comfortable with the service. In the early days, we operated bulletin board services (BBSs), initially with a text interface and later with a graphical user interface (GUI). As you can see, the idea of naming the service a bulletin board makes it somewhat easier for people to become familiar with it. Most people have seen and even used a real bulletin board. Some services offered methods to type back a forth in real time. This was and still is known as chatting. Chats on particular topics were called chat rooms. Not a room at all. Not really a chat either.

When graphics began to be used to enrich the online environment, designers made images that looked like real surfaces and controls with textures and buttons and knobs. These were and are fake. Why not invent something completely different. Perhaps because, the goal is to help users be and feel familiar with the environment, an environment that does not really exist.

Consider other terms used to sell users into the online world. Adapting already familiar words to digitally represented images, allows people, or users, as they are referred to, to be able to perform tasks in the digital environment. Is a window a window? Is a page a page? Do you actually go somewhere when to enter an address. Not really, These things and places do not really exist. It is all an illusion. As users, we really need to be careful that we understand what the digital environment is, what the services are and who we are in this new world. Traditional terms and understandings take on new meanings. Often, people take on a completely different persona online.

Let me return to the example of Facebook. Facebook has literally rocketed into ubiquity in our lives and I don’t think most people understand what it really is. On the surface, it looks like a way of allowing people to connect with each other and share information. That seems like a simple service and a great contribution to society. In fact, it is referred to as a social network. Yet, a comment I heard this week reveals the true nature of Facebook. Someone pointed out that, while Facebook makes people think they are customers of a service, in reality the users are the product of Facebook. So many people freely upload vast amounts of information about themselves and all that information is stored online and the privacy of that information is supposed, by the users, to be under their control and private. The true customers of Facebook are the people who can use that information and pay for it. That means advertisers. That’s correct, Facebook is providing a service where you give them information about yourself, tell them who your friends are and what you and they like. They even ask you to ‘like’ things to make sure they know what you like and to make more connections. They then sell you to corporations for money, and a lot of money.

Facebook does state that they do not sell your information. Perhaps not directly, however, what do you call it when they have a system that can use your information to show you ‘relevant’ ads. By placing an ad through Facebook, an advertiser is paying for Facebook to make sure the ad is shown to users who would be most likely to be interested in the product or service. The ad may then be shown to your friends. So, while your information is not sold for use outside of Facebook, it is part of the structure of selling advertising. The question is, how safe is your information? Can an advertiser find out who viewed and showed interest in a particular ad and then use that information to advertise outside of Facebook?

Could it be possible that our society is quite out of control. The idea of Facebook may have been hatched in innocents as a social network, however, it is much more now. Even the term friend seems to have lost it’s true meaning. How many people actually have a hundred or even hundreds of friends. Another idea that is not grounded in reality. How many people have told you they ‘talked’ to somebody on Facebook. How did they actually talk?

Communications seems to have taken on a new sort of connotation. Communications should mean a two way exchange of information disseminated through a rich environment. By rich, I mean one that allows as much information exchanged as possible and reliably, resulting in an understanding of the message. In face-to-face exchanges, over 80 percent of the message is non-verbal. This fact should be kept in mind when we consider the Internet as a communications medium.

Facebook neither has a face, is a face, allows for face-to-face, nor is it a book. It simply does not really exist and neither does the Internet, that is in a physical sense, other than the equipment used to transmit and store the data. This is an important point as the online digital world does exist, since it does affect our physical lives.

Throughout human history we value things with physical substance. Information has traditionally taken it’s value in the physical form it exists in, such as a book. Even with the development of recording techniques, it has been the physical form of the information that has carried the value. This is changing with the world of digital due to the information residing in a non-physical form and in more than one place. This is upsetting how we deal with value, copyright and what is and what is not.

Google arose much like Facebook. As the amount of information grew, so did the importance of being able to search to find exactly what you wanted. Google was not the first search engine service, however, it soon became the most used. Supposedly, it was the best. Search services have several forms. Some catalog information for users to browse through. Others, like Google simply gather information from everywhere and present it to users for them to wade through. Even the term searching is often replaced with Googling. People often say they Google something.

Google, like Facebook, also soon discovered that advertisers would pay for the ability to advertise to a particular user who was searching for something related to their product or service. So, Google could match advertising with users who might be interested or hot customers. This is target marketing.

But, how reliable is the information you Google, or any information found through the Internet? In traditional publishing methods, information is published through reliable sources. With the Internet, anyone can publish information, even those with incorrect, misrepresented, misinterpreted, unsubstantiated information. Some even maliciously attempt to do this.

Sometimes I want to learn about a product or service and use Google to locate information about it. This usually includes some of the many forum areas where other people share information and hold discussions through threaded messages. A thread is a series of messages on a topic where people comment on an initial message and the messages that are comments on another person’s comment stays with that comment in the thread of other messages, despite it’s chronological order. Forums are similar to BBSs.

One would think that a discussion by users of a product would be a reliable place to ask what is the best one to buy. Here is an example. Suppose you want to buy a blender. You can locate a forum of other people who are either users of blenders or are interested in purchasing one. Here you will find almost endless comments and useful information about which blenders are best. However, there may be employees or other people with a vested interest in pushing one particular brand. They might be masquerading as someone they are not.

Then, there are scammers. This is not new, however, avoiding scams is a bit trickier online. Anyone can look like almost anything or anyone. One may get an E-mail from a bank stating that they need to confirm their banking information. Graphics may even include the bank’s logo and that logo could be linked to from the actual bank computer server. I have even had E-mails with links to entire websites that look like a legitimate commercial website, however, many links would not actually work on the website. More of something that is not what it really is.

The point to remember is that the Internet, Google and Facebook are here to stay. They cannot be turned off or deleted. The Internet was devised as a Cold War communications system that could survive an attack on the United States. As I have written before, the Internet is learning about us as we add more information about ourselves. In a sense, we are migrating into the virtual digital world of the Internet. Is this a good thing? This is a question we really do not seem to have time to sort out. There are always people who want to forge forward into the new with complete abandon, wether they truly understand what is happening. Change is happening so fast that, for most people, they simply follow the fads and trends.

I have always been bothered by the notion that information about me personally exists as a sort of growing footprint of my life in the uncontrollable world of the Internet. It is there forever. Is it safe? Is it secure?

Let us consider banking. Many people, including myself, use online banking services. Yet, we occasionally hear of hackers stealing information and even digital money funds. I am convinced that we only hear of a very few instances. If we truly knew how often systems storing valuable information are hacked into, we would lose faith in the systems we have built our lives around. Our society suffer some severe impacts. Of course, one might say, bank robbers have existed as long as banks. Yes, however, the point here is that the amount and value of money or information is huge and the procedure of tracking the perpetrators down so complex.

You may be asking, if I have such concerns, why do I participate in and use such services. Well, it is difficult not to. There are many reasons. The services and systems are interesting and fun to tinker with, I suppose. For most people, one reason might be, that everyone is doing it and, in some cases, it is necessary. In some ways we are forced to use computer and online services either by companies and organizations requiring one to access information this way or through traditional methods becoming more expensive.

A company might find it easier and cheaper to put their brochure online. There are many perceived benefits to this. They can include more information, more types of information, such as video, and they can make changes at any time. So, now it is up to the customer to access the information and search for what they want or need to know. This can take time. What if you need to actually talk to a real person? While most companies do include a phone number, this is becoming increasingly rare, just as physical stores, in some cases, are less abundant. Some companies can do more business online. So, you may not be able to go to a physical place to have a full communication session with a real person, but, may have to communicate through less reliable means that might take extra time, due to the asynchronous nature of these methods. A reply to an E-mail may take a day or more.

For years now, I have heard many explanations for what is happening and what the digital online world means to humankind. Perhaps, the virtual reality is becoming a reality, that our online footprint is becoming who we really are, and that may well be different than who we are in the real physical world. Many people have different characteristics online than they do as a real person. Some people would even say that we are in the process of migrating into a digital existence. That we should shed our physical skins to live forever in a virtual world. Could we still be human? This is certainly extreme and I doubt it will ever happen.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday, and he mentioned that, throughout history, mankind swings from one direction to another. It is hard to imagine the technological trend changing or even swinging the other direction. We always seem to add more technological innovations into how we live. It is also difficult to imagine unplugging from the Internet. We are there in some way and can never be erased. I guess we could change who we are in real life, become a different person to evade our online persona. Sort of like a witness protection program. One would have to disappear.

For some people, worrying about these matters is simply of less importance than actually plunging in and letting what may happen go ahead and happen. At this stage, they seem to be leading the way for everyone else. Is it possible to participate to some degree and still maintain control? Or, is it too late? Have we lost control? What could possibly happen that could be so bad?

What about genetics and DNA? It is now becoming possible to discover what diseases one is predisposed to. This raises some huge concerns. What if insurance companies knew you were going to get a disease or die. How would they insure you? Would they refuse you altogether?

There is a growing concern about the possible misuses of personal information. Many people have had a bad experience resulting from too much of their personal information getting into the wrong hands. We really do not know who knows what about us now. We often do not know who is hacking into our information. Problems can range from irritating inconveniences to personal disasters. I won’t go too far into this right now, however, I’m sure many, even most readers have experienced an inconvenience or two.

One day I decided to check my Facebook account. My attempt to log in failed. I received a message stating that someone tried to log in and the system had determined that it was not me. I had to reset my account. The reset process did not work the first time, or the second. After wasting a couple of hours, I managed to get back into my account, determine that someone not even in Canada, but, somewhere in the mid-west of the U.S. had tried to hack into my account. I then decided to minimize what I show on Facebook, tighten up my security settings and to not use Facebook very often. I even considered deleting my account, but, remembered hearing about how much trouble other people have had trying to get their account deleted.

Facebook is not the first social network, as these services are referred to, however, for some reason, it has become the largest. I remember many people using MySpace before Facebook. I’m sure there will be more, such as LinkedIn. Even Google is in the game now. I wonder why Facebook has become the defacto? Perhaps, it is because, at this stage anyway, Facebook is about advertising masquerading as a social network. Could there be a larger, more important reason? I would not doubt it. As I have pointed out, they seem to be perceived as something that is not what they really are. We should be concerned about the acceptance of things, not for what they are, but, for what they are not.

Refs for further reading & exploration:
Facebook — Wikipedia
Information — Dictionary
Information — Wikipedia
Knowledge— Dictionary
Knowledge — Wikipedia
Facebook advertising
Personal information — Consumer Reports
How safe is PI on FB — Avoid Facebook