NIU faculty explore why Facebook’s ‘user agreement sucks’ and what you can do about it

During the Senate’s grilling of Mark Zuckerberg in April of 2018, one senator – Senator John Kennedy, R-LA – cut through the polite posturing and carefully parsed language, saying, “Here’s what everybody’s been trying to tell you today, and I say this gently. Your user agreement sucks.”

What are user agreements? How do they affect your personal privacy and community life? And what practical steps can you take to better protect and control your own data?

Two NIU professors in the Department of Communication will be presenting their research into this and related topics at a STEM Café on Tuesday, May 15. Professor David Gunkel and assistant professor Andrea L. Guzman will discuss the science and philosophy behind social media and share practical tips to guide social media use.

A global expert on the philosophy of technology, as well as a web programmer and interactive media designer, Gunkel seeks to understand human interaction with technology and its broader social consequences. His most recent publications address the moral significance and consequences of artificial intelligence, big data and virtual worlds.

At the STEM Café, he’ll explain how terms of service agreements structure, organize and control online social activities, and he’ll provide a set of practical guidelines for using and interacting with social networks like Facebook, which Gunkel describes as “a kind of survival guide for responding to and dealing with current problems.”

Guzman, a communication scholar who studies human-machine communication, has presented her research globally on technology design and its implications for privacy and data collection. In February 2018, she was one of a select group of scholars and industry professionals to be invited to a meeting at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, to discuss how the social sciences can help inform the technology sector.

At the STEM Café, she’ll share why communicating via social media is “a conversation with more than my friends.”

“Research has shown that users of Facebook, as well as other social media, intend to communicate with certain people, such as specific friend groups,” Guzman says. “The functionality of these sites often gives the impression that users are in a type of interpersonal interaction with friends, family or colleagues. As we know now, however, the reality is that people’s mere presence on these sites and their actions also are being gleaned for data.”

Guzman says audience members “should expect to learn how to be reflective of their own social media use” so they can better protect and control their data.

Gunkel will argue that the terms of service at Facebook actually constitute a social contract – “what I call ‘Social Contract 2.0,’” he says. “In other words, if declarations, constitutions and national charters were the standard governing documents of the modern era, organizing and legitimizing the nation-state as we know it, then the terms of service documents occupy a similar position in the postmodern era.”

Gunkel and Guzman will share their research at the next STEM Café, on Tuesday, May 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Fatty’s Pub and Grille in DeKalb.

NIU STEM Cafés are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. NIU’s P-20 Center sponsors these events. This event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be available for purchase from Fatty’s.

For more information, contact Judith Dymond at 815-753-4751 or email jdymond@niu.edu.

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