Group Project: Tracking Digital Footprints

Friday, May 28, 2010

Help find out what we're sharing on social media and why! Jim Colgan, digital editor of The Takeaway, discusses a project he conducted recently to make a connection with strangers solely using social media, and helps set it up for Brian Lehrer Show listeners.

→ Click here to see how to participate!

+ Step 1: Track Someone Down

On Twitter: Do a search for something you're interested in or use the service Nearby Tweets (or download FriendsAround for the ipad/iphone) to track down someone tweeting near your location.

On Facebook: Find someone NOT in your immediate circle - a friend of a friend or even more removed - and track them down. Send them a message, call them up, post on their wall.

+ Step 2: Have a Conversation

Whether on the phone, by email, or through chat, find out about the person you've tracked down. Be sure to use some of the information you found out about them to begin the conversation. eg "I see you like surfing." or "What brings you to Bryant Park?" Also ask about the experience of making a connection with a stranger, and why are they sharing?

+ Step 3: Report Back to Us by 11:45!

We want to hear from both the "contacters" and the "contactees". Either in the comments section below, by calling in to the show, on Facebook, or by Twitter, report back on your experience. What did you learn about the other person? How was it to make a connection with a stranger this way? Have your thoughts about social media and privacy changed as a result of this little exercise?


Jim Colgan

Comments [10]


Just want to comment on my own status: I have an alter ego on Facebook. I use a name used when living abroad so that I could pass as a native and avoid people practising their English on me.

After seeing the people who reach out to me as a friend of a friend, and the abolsute garbage that comes in on my feed because certain people are my friends, I am mighty glad that I can abandon this persona when I want. The persona is generally useless, because other folks pointless posts create so much static I would never be able to find the interesting or useful ones.

Lastly, I would never want other people to see this feed, and I don't trust that others cannot. There doesn't seem to be a way to explore what others can(not) see about you. I can't imagine ever trusting Facebook with my real persona.

May. 28 2010 12:05 PM

Thanks for taking my call. Yes all settings must set. But twitter can protect the tweets if you set that tweet.

May. 28 2010 11:59 AM
Quentin Jones from Newark NJ - NJIT

Sorry did not say anything about results:
1) People guess often
2) People thought they were still anonymous when they weren't - could not control even from a single conversation their level of privacy
3) That mathematically we could predict the risk and therefore potentially inform people to help them.

May. 28 2010 11:56 AM
Dr Quentin Jones


I worked with Sara the earlier poster.

To explain we ran a number of studies like this but more controlled. Our question was not "why do people make social inferences" but instead "when can people guess, when do they put themselves at risk, and do they understand their level of risk even in a very basic situations".

One of our studies was getting strangers to meet online and see if they could guess the other person to answer our questions.

May. 28 2010 11:52 AM
Sara Motahari from Berkeley, CA

I could identify and track down an acquaintance. She uses a nickname and a cartoon instead of her photo probably because she is a member of Iranian political opposition groups on Facebook. She was one of Facebook friend suggestions. I looked at our common friends and what she had posted on my friends’ wall about a place we all have been to. This information helped me identify her and well of course realize what political groups on Facebook she has signed up for. This is a classic example of what I call ‘social inferences’ and they happen when information associated with social networking applications such as identity, location, activities, social relations, and profile information can be deduces from the information that the users decide to reveal. While most people do not notice it, this is the big threat to their privacy. It is not the information they decide to reveal that hurt them most of the time, but what it implies. What jane doe from New York reported to you, falls under the same category.
The social inference problem was actually the topic of my PhD. I ran a couple of studies of social computing applications on campus with anonymous users and it shocking how often and in what ways subjects were able to identify each other. Here I explain one of the studies:
I am also gonna upload a recent magazine paper on my webpage:

May. 28 2010 11:33 AM

Well, _I_ have taken day off work because I am just about to head to U of DE for a graduation ... and I went and registered as a Fan on Brian's website (I am a montly contributor to WNYC) ... and there was a person who had posted a comment ... said he was a Pakistani ... so I thot, what the hey ... and sent him a message. AND HE JUST REPLIED ... turns out we work for same quasi-gov agency ... very funny ... I personally truly believe in 6 degrees of separation.

Long ago, was at a party and guy I was talking to said, oh, that's just rubbish ... you don't know anyone in .... Nepal, say. And I said, no, I don't, but I bet my landlord's daughter who just came back from Katmandu does ... guy was floored. He pulled Nepal out of hat.

The anthropologist Michael Jackson said "There are no unconnected human beings."

May. 28 2010 11:04 AM
terra from columbus, OH

ick, no thanks. i have lots of twitter friends i regularly talk with and have gotten to know tons about their lives, but that develops over weeks or months, not in two hours!

May. 28 2010 10:47 AM
jane doe from New York

I love listening to WNYC but you made me do a horrible thing!

I tracked down my new boy friend's ex-wife on facebook. He thinks that him and his ex had a very bad a few months then she cheated on him as a result of that. But the facebook postings show that the woman knew that other guy months before that and she was in love with him.

I cannot call the woman to ask her that! I cannot mention this to my boy friend. It made me feel really bad to invade her privacy. I am sure she does not know her information is available to everyone. First thing I did was to go to my privacy settings and change them to make sure nobody except my friends can see my info.

Thanks for doing such a show to make people aware of who they are sharing their personal info. Sorry for not giving you my real name.

May. 28 2010 10:47 AM
Matthew from Astoria

It'll be interesting to see just how open New Yorkers are to this experiment and to being approached.

On the one hand, we're a talkative people, we New Yorkers.

On the other hand ...

Q: How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Who wants to know?
(Alternative answer: None o' your f***ing business.)

May. 28 2010 10:18 AM
dboy from nyc

If privacy is a concern - don't Facebook or Tweet!!!



May. 28 2010 10:11 AM

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