Facebook’s Privacy Q&A: An image of public participation?

A really exciting project I’m working on this term is an analysis of Facebook’s Site Governance page and the voting and commenting process that takes place there. In fact, this is research YOU might be able to take part in, so head over here to check it out.

Part of my research includes looking at visual material found on this site. While there are not a lot of photos, a kick-off video featuring Mark Zuckerberg himself was posted back in 2009 and there is a recent recording of the Livestream Q&A that took place during the most recent user consultation process. These, along with an examination of the page layout and features constitute most of the visual data analysis material I’ll be using (in combination with documents, site text, and e-mail questionnaires).

Now, I won’t subject you to a full-out visual analysis session but I do want to try out some of the ideas I’ve been reading about in Rose’s (2007) book on visual methodologies. In particular, she set up a framework for approaching visual material that looks at three ‘sites’:

  1. The site of production;
  2. The site of the image itself; and,
  3. The site of the audience.

Then each of these can be examined through three different aspects or what she calls “modalities”:

  1. Technological
  2. Compositional
  3. Social

Let’s use these criteria to have a look at the visual content of the Q&A while not yet tackling any of the informational content. Here’s a screenshot of the opening scene:


Some background: While it’s not present on the Site Governance page today, the copy of the site that I took a few weeks back using Evernote has the ‘status update’ explaining the situation. Rob Sherman (middle) from the Facebook privacy team and Katharine Tassi (right) from Facebook Ireland are being asked questions by Sarah Feinberg, Director of Policy Communications at Facebook (left) about proposed changes to the Data Use Policy and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities – site policies that pretty much govern everything relating to users.

To simply give an excerpt of the larger analysis I’ll be doing, I’ll share just a few thoughts about one modality of each site:

1. The site of production – Technological Modalities

  • The decision to hold an ‘interactive webcast’ – although we are not quite sure whether the questions being read are indeed audience questions, this approach provides the most participatory feel in that essentially users should be part of the production as well;
  • The decision to provide video content instead of simply audio or textual – perhaps all the additional information that comes with video gives an impression of transparency.
  • The decision to hold it on Livestream, a site outside of Facebook – this makes me wonder if Facebook simply did not have the ability/time/resources to build their own interactive page or if they have a partnership with Livestream. Also of interest is the fact that videos cannot be downloaded and saved from this site whereas videos on Facebook can be if you have the right plug-ins for Chrome.

2. The site of the image itself – Compositional modalities

  • Where on earth are these people? Presumably somewhere in DC, since this is the “Facebook DC Talks” Livestream page but this venue has none of the slick trappings of Facebook HQ as captured by the Building Graph Search video. In fact, it looks like this set was created just for the Q&A – otherwise what office has a green drape in the background? Also, are those crates or lockers on either side of the drape? It’s nice that they have different chairs for the ‘guests’, a good visual cue of who is supposed to be answering the questions, but none of the furniture matches so it was likely just pushed together. This makes me feel like this might have been last-minute or rushed, which goes along with users only being notified about the webcast the day before.

3. The site of the audience – Social modalities

  • I’m really not sure who the audience is/was for this video. The questions are asked by people throughout the U.S. and the U.K., though we aren’t given any information except their names. The thing is, I’m not convinced that the average Facebook user would have tuned into this, even with enough notice, because it is really a whole 35 minutes of people talking in front of a camera. This is in contrast to Facebook’s visually rich promo videos. So I would guess that the people who actually got through the whole thing are likely policy-makers, leaders of organizations opposed to Facebook’s policies, rival site owners, and people like me who have an extra special interest. What gets me is that from all the other analysis I’ve done, it does seem that Facebook truly wants to dispel myths surrounding their policies (e.g. that they sell your photos) in the wider population of users so I don’t understand why they wouldn’t dole out their myth-busting information in a more accessible manner.

Whew, well that’s enough analysis for now! Clearly, I’ve got a lot to delve into, especially once I start looking at the video alongside its audio content. Once again, if you want to help lend your perspective about the way Facebook is doing participatory governance, please visit my research page!

Also, check out the book for more details about this visual analysis methodology:

Rose, G. (2012). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials (3rd Edition). London: Sage.

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