Facebook/Cambridge Analytica — the meerkat moment for platforms and people

This has been a long time coming. Platforms have utilised the easiest business model they could and closed their eyes and crossed their fingers that it would be too annoying, too complicated or too late by the time people started wanting to take control of their own data. That business model being that platforms make money by selling your data to organisations public and private for marketing/advertising purposes.

In Facebook’s case they use what they know about you through your data to offer targeted marketing, whilst they retain the deep data knowledge, a pyramid of access, but it still the same model. It is old fashioned but it works. (I know that Cambridge Analytica take this data and do monstrous things with it, but I am talking specifically of the source: the platform).

The irony that such ‘disruptive and innovative’ social platforms that purport to drive the future of the digital revolution are actually just old stuff dressed up in fairly shouty and shiny new clothes is easily lost.

For years I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to people wanting ownership over their own data, so that they can *choose* when to share what information with whom and in exchange for what.

I thought this moment would come with health information. In the UK certainly, the NHS struggles with communication between surgery, hospital, clinic and other medical establishments, meaning that whoever is treating you never has the whole picture. It is a relatively simple solution, that I know doctors and surgeons across the land would love to happen, and that is for every patient to own their own records, keeping them under digital lock and key and sharing that information with the relevant medical practitioners at the right time. Much less frustrating all around.

Of course once this information is held and controlled by the individual, the smarter developers, researchers and platform owners would then have to come to you and ask for access, you can then choose to give access to all, some or none of your data — and for what in return. I believed this would be the tipping point and people would then start collecting their data from everywhere and so the tide would turn.

However it was not to be. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have managed to scare the bejesus out of everyone — leading to a mass exodus, kind of, and a lot of finger pointing and noise, but not very much substance.

Does this fundamentally break the trust between people and social platforms? It has certainly rocked it to the core and I am not sure that Mark Zuckerberg has gone far enough to reassure or to reboot that relationship. But neither does just leaving Facebook solve anything — unless of course you were just fed up of it anyway, but leaving in fear worries me.

It would be good if we could use this opportunity to persuade the social platforms to change their business model. To be grateful that they have got away with it for so long, they must have known this day would come.

Social platforms should give everyone their own data, they should not have it — it should be held in a digital account that a person would own and manage as they would their bank account, (or personal health records if we had got that far yet!).

New platform business models should be built around that premise, making it simple and unerringly transparent for people to share or trade their data.

We all know that there is a multi billion — if not trillion — dollar market in worldwide data trade, if you want to get geeky on this look up the Annual Revenue Per User (ARPU) figures. In 2017 this just tipped over the $5 mark for Facebook alone and it was growing at an increase of 26% in that year, with users in Canada and the US having an ARPU of $21.20. That’s fine, don’t cut it off, just be smarter about it: give people control over their own data, a fair price for use of it — and make the whole transaction simple and transparent.

Here are a couple of links to explore how you can request your medical health records https://digital.nhs.uk/article/6851/How-to-make-a-subject-access-request and here https://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1309.aspx?categoryid=68

Digital life story

Recently people have been surprised at my reticence to rave publicly on stage, in interview or over coffee about social media.

“But”, they cry, “you are so active on twitter”.

To my slight shame I did do an email interview with a kind lady from New York about the Internet, social media and democracy today – but that was because she was nice – not because I considered myself any kind of expert – I just put in my 2pth and I did point out that she should be talking to those with political science degrees who were also active online – rather than me.

I thought it might be easier if I just explain through a story why I feel the way I do.

The story

During the Easter holidays I took my children to Morocco on holiday. I didn’t book online as I had had a disastrous experience doing so previously; and anyway I have a friend who is a whizz travel agent and can always beat any online deal, she knows me and what I like and always comes up trumps. I called her, she emailed me the holiday choices, I emailed back my preference, pay online, get the e-tickets, check in online and we fly away.

Whilst in Morocco, I read books that I had bought on Amazon and go to hotel notice boards to choose the trips we might like to take. I check on my iphone to see whether these trips have been reviewed and find out which ones are the best value and most exciting and appropriate for the girls and I. Excursions chosen, with additional insight from others who have been on them before, I wait for a rep in reception at a designated time to book said trips, talk through in person what is involved, pay by card, and turn up at an agreed time to go on the selected adventure.

On the coach I meet a family who have children with similar ages to mine. Whilst the children bond over their DSs and Facebook stories, I talk to the parents: Rachel and Chris. It is through them that I discover a volcano has erupted (they knew from watching Sky News) and that our journey home might be affected. Having my iphone with me I check the BBC website and call out on twitter for updates.

The information and feedback I could find in a few minutes from twitter on that bus ride intrigued and amused Chris, who was aware of twitter, but not of its value. This triggered a discussion about the world I was involved in with government and digital engagement, that later (months later) leads to me helping him find a value in twitter, simply by monitoring what customers are saying about the brand he works for.

The children become firm friends over the course of the holiday and spend some time on Facebook on our respective smartphones – building new friendships through their own contacts and mates – introducing their friends to each other online as they discover more about their lives and realise connections or common interests, even as we are away. (They also spent 90% of the daylight hours in the pool shrieking with laughter and the occasional spat – whilst us adults snored on loungers with our books from Amazon and blue drinks from the pool bars).

My super travel agent lady, meanwhile, is texting me and emailing updates on what is happening, also following how happy/worried I am from my Facebook updates. Twitter and Facebook keep me sane: I can keep colleagues, friends and family updated on what is happening where we are, and roundly take the inevitable slacker jokes – and can even crowdsource an escape route should we need one.

When we get home, we swop all contact details with Rachel, Chris and family – including home, mobile, Facebook and twitter details. The children, unsurprisingly, are online to each other the minute they all get home and onto Broadband. I share a few texts with Rachel and Chris but we are Facebook friends, so I can see without interacting what fun they are having and vice versa.

We all decide that we should see each other again a few months after the holiday, and so organise over the phone when would be a good date. Thereafter, Facebook planning between the kids went into overdrive – with bemused interception from us grown-ups. Rachel, Chris and I only communicate by phone – but again, we talk about things that we have noted the other is doing from Facebook profiles – which is nice – not stalkery.

A great weekend is had, during which I taught Chris twitter and got him set up; Rachel was not interested but enjoyed seeing what we were discovering through twitter. But it was a balance, real life, windy beaches, lovely food, friendship and stories, yes – some of which were fuelled by Facebook knowledge and inevitable discussions about the value of twitter, sometimes.

A few weeks later and I am running Young Rewired State. Seeing as a centre is based in Norwich, not a million miles away from Rachel and Chris, I get in touch through email to see if I might stay with them for a night so that I can visit the Norwich centre – as well as catch up with them. Again, they knew all about Young Rewired State through Facebook – and the children were now even more close, so it was perfect.

That visit was awesome, and we had a lovely evening talking about real life things as well as events and happenings that we already knew about each other through the third party window of social media.

And so they were a great part of YRS, an extra bonus.

Since then I have been remiss in even looking at Facebook, or catching up with anyone to be honest. Tonight I was struck by a feeling that it was time to have a catch up with Rachel and Chris again. It was an automatic reaction for me to firstly swing by Facebook to see what they had all been up to before I got in touch; for a variety of reasons, mainly to check that they were about, to check that there was not anything dreadful going on that I might interrupt and also to show that I had actually taken notice of what they had chosen to share; it’s a natural etiquette for me now.

Tomorrow I will call Rachel – and confess I have written a blog post about them – and we can all organise the next meet (this will be at mine I think, my turn, Rachel and Chris, no?!)


So, you see, it is not any hatred of social media that makes me yawn when people start asking me to speak about it – it is just that it is such an interwoven part of my life now – and I wouldn’t expect to speak about my use of the telephone (which is dreadful) nor would I particularly like to try to unravel the value of social media. It is a part of life, it is the digital part – but hey, we are all part digital now, whether we like it or not.


I had an interesting week this week. One where my parenting world collided with my work in the digital space. My daughter came back from school in a bit of a state as she and nine of her class had been called to see the deputy headmistress about their behaviour on Facebook.

As she told me, the deputy head had a file full of print outs of the girls’ walls and chats, and was reprimanding them for talking to boys and swearing. I was concerned and parentally confused, whilst accepting that Jess should not be swearing really at 12, she’s fine talking to boys. What most worried me was that Jess is on Facebook behind massive privacy settings, all of her friends are people she knows in real life – I check this – and this is the forum she uses to chat to her friends (for hours), like I did when I was 12, running up massive phone bills for my parents.

Jess was actually more embarrassed than anything, and kept wincing and groaning “oh no” as she thought of more and more things the school might have seen that she had written, and spent the evening cleaning up her wall, sanitising and deleting everything she deemed dodgy were a teacher looking.

I had absolutely no idea how the school had accessed the conversation and walls of these girls, as they too are behind privacy blocks and no one can see what they are saying on walls except the respective friends, and the chats are restricted to only those directly involved in the conversation.

In my view, this is a safe and free environment for them to share their lives and grow close friendships that in some cases will last for life, using a variety of media. And in this safe place, they are free to more or less do as they please: and yes, I know they swear, it’s not like I am so naive that I would think they don’t, and I know they talk to boys there, for one, Jess’s cousin in Australia is a boy. However, so long as they are not bullying anyone, something I would take very seriously, and admittedly if they were slagging off the school that’s probably not on, although in a private environment, that is not viewed easily by anyone – it is unreasonable to expect them to be 100% positive about their place of education 🙂 – but the issue the school had was not with bullying or undermining the school.

Points to note: these conversations all took place outside of school hours on home computers, never at school that has a block on Facebook – and they have no practical need to try to beat that block, as the people they want to chat with on FB are all there at school with them. The swearing was ‘normal’ swearing, not any of those really *bad* words 🙂

I had a bit of a brainstorm on twitter about it, was I right to be concerned? There was a pretty resounding cry of ‘yes’ from the twitterverse.

I wrote to the class teacher, explaining that I was not being a precious Mum, but that I felt there was a violation of privacy here, and a blurring of the school/parenting role. I asked for a full explanation of how the information was received by the school (the 6th formers had filled Jess and her friends’ heads with tales of spying through the school network and what have you). I felt a bit embarrassed, to be honest, but it just felt wrong not to do anything. I also knew that Jess, at 12, actually should not be on Facebook anyway, according to the terms – but they all are… (I know that’s not an excuse, but it meant I was on very shaky ground).

The next night, the deputy head called me – by which time I had convinced myself that there had been a huge violation of privacy, that the school could be in real trouble and would have to revise their policy on social networking and young people etc etc. Here’s where I learned my lesson.

It turned out that what had happened was that one of the parents of the other girls involved had seen her daughters wall, and chat, had then explored all of the other girls’ walls and records of chats and had set about printing everything that concerned them. This parent created the file of print outs and took them to the school, asking that they do something about this. The deputy head said that she had a dilemma, really, she could not do nothing, nor could she really get overly involved. She decided that the best course of action was to call the girls in, to reprimand them for the behaviour that had concerned the other parent, mainly to teach them that 1. they can get caught doing anything online and 2. there is no such thing as completely private in the digital world. She assured me that they had not been cautioned nor had any formal punishment, it was merely a chat; her threat to read some of the conversations out in assembly was made in jest – but she *did* say that it was unnerving how grown up they appeared online, knowing them as she does. She also explained that she had not involved the parents as she really did not want it to be made into a big issue… ah…

I talked through everything with her, all of my concerns that had built up over the previous 24 hours, and she was understanding, but said that if anyone comes to the school with complaints about the pupils behaviour they deal with it, and they have to be able to do so. I can’t say that I disagree but I did ask that next time, I really do want to be given a heads up.

So it ended up with me understanding the action the school had taken. The parent concerned, on the other hand… well, it’s not how I would deal with it. And I think it was an overreaction for swearing teenage girls.

Interesting though.

I have no intention of identifying the school concerned.