Are you online offline?

For large swathes of the global population, the notion of whether a person is considered ‘Online’ is somewhat of a redundant question.

The relatively rapid migration from dial-up Internet connection, to perpetually connected broadband and mobile wireless high speed data access has had a radical impact on what it means to be ‘online’.

In the not too distant past, the phrase “Are you online?” was a euphemistic enquiry as to whether or not one had entered in to some kind of contract with an Internet Service Provider.

More recently the same phrase could be a question asking whether a person was actually logged in or connected to any given service at that point in time.

Recently I have seen a trend which has confused things further. It seems that the term ‘Online’ is being used to refer to something that happens through a Web browser as if somehow other platforms interacting with remote services over the Internet are in some way not ‘online’.

For instance, it is now quite common for a TV advert to end with a phrase such as “Order online, or use our smartphone app”. This is quite meaningless. Strictly speaking it is the phone itself that is online i.e. the point of connection, but regardless of this arguably pedantic point, neither the advertiser’s Web site or their App can be used for ordering without being ‘online’.

Does the lack of precision on the use of the term ‘online’ here confuse? Do people think that they are not ‘online’ if they are using an app? Does it matter? Possibly not and maybe the less technical term of being ‘connected’ will suffice.

However, there is a very interesting question about perception exposed here. For instance, although a Web page open within a browser may refresh with updated information from time to time or even in real time while it is open (most in fact do not), closing the browser or navigating away from that site severs the communication.

This is not true of an App. Although not all apps will need to exploit the mechanism, a modern smart phone app once opened is often still 'running' and processing in the background even when you switch your attention to another app. Further, modern smart phones tend to have features within the operating system which allow the phone itself to interact with some parts of the app’s online data source even if the app is not currently running. This is the mechanism which for instance provides alert notifications from Facebook or ebay.

This is all further complicated by the fact that many people, whether they realise it or not still have an online presence even if they were in the middle of a forest, out of range of any cell connectivity with all their devices switched off, batteries removed and placed in a lead lined box and buried in a field.

This is because many of the utilities and services with which we engage on a daily basis, are still working on our behalf even when we are not connected to them. For instance, our Facebook profiles are still available for people to read and to post to, your online photo albums are still accessible, your blog posts can still attract comments. ‘You’ can be invited to events, and listed with others on an ‘attendees’ list. Depending on your profile setting you may instantly friend or follow back anyone that requests to connect with you. Recommendation engines from online shops, music on demand services or movie streaming services are churning data preparing lists of content they think you’ll be interested in - they may even automatically send you an email about their findings.

In short, the online ghost of your data and meta-data still reflects your presence and represents your likes, activities and habitual interactions for people and software alike to engage with. When you post a reply to someone’s comment on Facebook, the feeling is more akin to a direct contact with them than for instance sending an email, even if your ‘friend’ isn’t currently logged in to Facebook. This is because the context of the interface personifies your ‘friend’ through their trail of activities. Of course you have a great deal of control over these things if you take a bit of care over your service settings.

Additionally, so much of what happens in the physical world is driven by online data and decisions made online, that the notion of being in a position where you are unaffected by things ‘online’ is fallacy.

From an E-safety perspective it is important that people understand the nature of perpetual connectivity and the fact that direct engagement with a service is no longer the only driver of activity.

Putting up an umbrella may shelter you from the rain but it does not stop it raining, nor does it protect you from the effects of the river about to burst it’s banks a mile away. Likewise, switching off a device does not terminate your online activity, or your involvement in the activity of others.

A recent naive post I saw on twitter suggested that the poster had no “sympathy for those moaning about cyber bullying” because they should “just turn off their computer.” Logging off of a social network does not curtail cyber bullying or neutralise the waves that it causes in the physical world. Like many aspects of E-safety, problems are best tackled by action and education in the real world.

These are tough concepts, but digital communications technology is such a useful tool and has such positive potential that it is worth the effort to understand and to ensure that the first principles are taught to our children so that they can apply the understanding as technology continues to evolve.

Media studies was once derided by many as a ‘Mickey Mouse subject’. However, in a society where mass media has such a profound influence on our perceptions, understanding and opinions, can any rational person really argue against the value of educating people to critically evaluate the messages, meaning, contextualisation and veracity of the information we receive and the motivations of those presenting it?

Likewise, in a world where so much of our interaction and engagement is mediated by communications technology, how can we not recognise the importance of teaching the fundamental underpinnings and the modes and models of the interaction?

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Written by E-safety Support on December 04, 2013 17:31

Facebook Privacy Changes Explained

If you have had a Facebook account for a while, and statistically you probably have, you should have received an email recently explaining some changes that are being made to your account settings.

Facebook had a setting called "Who can look up your Timeline by name". This setting allowed you to control what sort of people would be able to find your profile by using Facebook's 'search' function.
It allowed you to be findable by all users, friends of friends or only friends.

This means that if you wanted your account to be a bit like an ex-directory phone number you could ensure that people with who you were not already connected could not discover you by typing your name into the search box.

Not being discoverable via search however is not the same as being completely undiscoverable or invisible. Your profile page was still available to all users (unless you had specifically blocked them) provided they could get to your page. There are several ways to find you which do not rely on search. For instance if you comment on someone else's profile, your comment accreditation will link to your Timeline. If a friend tags you in a photo, this tag will link to your Timeline. If people search for phrases like "People who like cake" in Graph Search, links to the profiles of any self confessed cake lovers will be served up.

It is for these reasons that Facebook thinks the ability to limit "Who can look up your Timeline by name" is no longer a relevant setting.

Now, one could argue that there are many valid reasons why an individual may not want to be discoverable on Facebook and that actually, not being discoverable in a search would be a useful partial defence in many cases.

Facebook however, would prefer that privacy was maintained at the level of publishing rather than publisher. i.e. not to control who can see that you have an account, but instead control what activity on that account they can see. Facebook provide settings for this in the 'Privacy Settings' section of your account admin.

There is a lot to be said for restricting discoverability but Facebook clearly don't agree and whether that be for usability or for commercial reasons the e-safety focus must be to ensure people understand how and why they should think about their privacy settings.

There is no doubt that many users are mistaken about who can see their activities and the fact that Facebook had settings for both discoverability and content privacy did little to aid comprehension.

By placing focus on the privacy settings around activity, it may make it easier at least to educate Facebook users about the activity trail they are leaving and who can see it.

In short, we should be encouraging people to make informed and considered decisions as to the privacy setting for each of their activities and not just stick with the defaults, which ofter lean towards the less restriction and wider visibility.

Written by E-safety Support on November 05, 2013 17:10

Busting the digital native myth

We are hearing more and more about the ‘digital native’ generation – young people who have grown up with a world of information and technology at their fingertips. But does this culture of being in natural surroundings breed the expectation that this generation are also safe in the environment.

Let’s take a few steps back…

It’s fair to say, my Dad knows a thing or two about computers. He had the opportunity in the 1970’s of operating a computer, which (without exaggeration) filled an office the size of your average classroom. Moving into the early 80’s and we had the raft of personal computers that came onto the market (for the nostalgic, these included the ZX81 through to the Amstrad CPC – we really were cutting edge in our house!). So when the world wide web arrived, we had that too.

Having seen the developments over the years, this generation has also understood the need to proceed with caution. Things didn’t always go right. So as each new technology came onto the market, so did the need to understand the risks and perhaps steer clear. So my Dad, despite being familiar with all the technologies, doesn’t have any social media accounts and is planning on keeping it that way.

Moving onto the next generation (that’s me) and things are a little different. I was lucky enough to have a mobile phone when I was 19, it was a Motorola – the one that looked like a brick (and weighed about the same). You could make calls on it and that was it. I remember life before the internet and actually having to go to the library if I wanted to research something. Now for me, online activity is something that I will happily engage with, but I know to have different passwords, understand that emails asking for my bank details are most likely phishing and I know exactly who all my Facebook friends are.

So what about these digital natives. I recently asked some young relatives how they could access the internet. They spent the next few minutes reeling off a list of phone, TV, Xbox, laptop and so on. So they do understand that they have a vast amount of access to the internet, but now, going back to my Dad, he tells me that he has had to re-install his computer twice because something has been downloaded or accessed by one of the grandchildren that had put a virus on his machine. One of the kids also has a Facebook account, but doesn’t know personally all the people on it (just in case, I got his parents to check out his account), and another is regularly inviting comments about her and her friends on her profile page.

These are the things that indicate that this digital native generation, while completely comfortable in the online world, are not aware of the risks that they are taking, not to mention the digital footprint they are leaving behind. Is this familiarity with the social media world actually putting them more at risk than the cautious generations before them? The technological times are moving so fast, that simply keeping up is hard enough without having to keep up with the dangers too.

Perhaps it’s not a generation of digital natives, but rather one of the digitally naïve.

Written by E-safety Support on June 24, 2013 15:40

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