An open Facebook: Sauder PhD student pushes for less secrecy

Tagged: PhD, Research

Sauder PhD student Daniel Papania is trying to prove that making social media networks tell you who has been viewing your profile is good for users and the bottom line.

When Daniel Papania and his family were sworn in as Canadian citizens at a ceremony in Vancouver two years ago, he did what countless others do following one of life’s watershed moments: he posted a photo to his Facebook page.

After sharing the photo, Papania, who researches in Sauder’s Management Information Systems division, started to wonder: Would all his Facebook friends view the photo or would many ignore it? Should he create a group consisting of friends and family in his native South Africa and send it just to them? Could others who aren’t Facebook friends view the photo? Wouldn’t it be nice to know who exactly was looking at it?

Millions of members of social networks no doubt have similar thoughts every day, and those questions have become Papania’s passion.

“Rather than push us into a fake way of interacting, give us the feedback we get in the real world and use the information in a way that’s beneficial to everyone.”
- Daniel Papania, Sauder PhD student

“Many social networks, Facebook chief among them, do not let users know who has looked at their content. We’re not sure if an ex has been checking out our vacation photos, our boss is reading our workplace posts or if no one is even looking.

Who visited your Facebook page today?

But what if we could? Papania is studying what it would look like if a social network became more transparent and gave users information about how their content is being viewed.

He believes that such transparency could benefit both users and the social networks themselves.

“Human communication is pretty complex and the way we present ourselves to different audiences is complex,” says Papania. “Rather than hide from that fact and push us into a fake way of interacting, give us the feedback we get in the real world and use the information in a way that’s beneficial to everyone.”

Papania is beginning to test his theories. In a recent series of interviews, Papania asked a range of UBC students if they would like to find out who viewed their Facebook page. Not surprisingly, most students did, but they didn’t like the idea that others might know that they’ve been viewing their page.

He hopes to dig deeper and explore users’ mixed feelings about social sharing, and hopefully find a middle ground. Drawing from his initial interviews, he has created a survey that will explore users’ thoughts on privacy and perhaps figure out how much transparency is sufficient to increase user engagement. From there, he hopes to create a mock social network to test his theories or, preferably, create a tool that could be superimposed on existing Facebook pages that would give feedback and see how users respond.

Without transparency, users may leave

Papania believes that if users received feedback about who is viewing what, they would get better at targeting their messages to their intended audience. It also might allay fears that there are huge numbers of people viewing their content without their knowledge. All told, Papania suspects that such knowledge would promote more genuine interaction between users.

Such transparency already exists on some social networks. The Chinese social network Renren offers a counter that reveals how many visitors you’ve had. Business network LinkedIn provides limited information about who has viewed your profile, a move that data scientist D.J. Patil described in his book Data Jujitsu as “giving data back to the user.” Patil notes that “engagement is so high that LinkedIn has two versions: one free, and the other part of the subscription package.”

It is unknown whether Facebook itself would launch such a tool, but there are hints that they may be coming around to the idea. Last year, the social media giant quietly released a “seen by” feature for Facebook groups, a sign that the company is at least willing to explore the merits of greater transparency.

Recent reports suggest that Facebook is losing younger users, perhaps over privacy concerns. Opening up Facebook, Papania believes, may encourage users to stick around, a result that would be good for the company’s bottom line.

Papania, an IT veteran who has used the Internet since the days of dial-up modems, hopes that such transparency will take Facebook into the future, but also back to the past when early online Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet newsgroups were a place that fostered the free and open exchange of ideas.

“There are concerns that if the things that made the Internet great in the first place - this openness that allowed everyone to communicate and share information - starts to erode, will it still be able to yield the incredible benefits that it has to date? I think that it can. I think there are compromises between business interests and user interests that can benefit everyone.”