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Roger Clarke's 'Consumer-Oriented Social Media'

Consumer-Oriented Social Media:
The Identification of Key Characteristics

Draft of 11 February 2013

Roger Clarke **

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The term 'social media' refers to a cluster of applications and online services that support human interaction, and content broadcasting and sharing. Current services are isolated islands or 'walled gardens', and are based on a business model that is highly exploitative of individuals and their data. An alternative, consumer-oriented approach is feasible. Consumer-oriented social media require an open architecture featuring inter-operability and portability, fair terms and privacy-sensitivity. Privacy aspects of current services are catalogued, in order to identify opportunities for alternative schemes based on much less manipulative and far more consumer-friendly business models.


1. Introduction

Social media is a collective term for a range of services that support users in interacting, and exchanging content and pointers to content. Some social media services have proven to be short-lived fads. Some appear to be instances of longer-lived genres, although, even in these cases, waves of specific services have been crashing over one another in quick succession. Some aspects may mature into long-term features of future services, because they satisfy a deeper human need rather than just a fashion-driven desire. At any given time, which services belong in which of those categories is hotly-debated and highly unclear. During the first decade, 2004-14, social media has been a cauldron of innovation and early death.

Social media services have stimulated a revival of the aura of excitement that preceded the boom c. 2000. Many have no discernible business model beyond the presumption that 'there must be a way to monetise this somehow'. Other services, however, are predicated on the propositions that:

The targeting of advertisements is based on the profile-data that users have supplied, the content they have donated, their online behaviour while using the service, and in some cases their online behaviour more generally.

A proportion of users understand that they are being exploited by social media service providers. The boldness and even arrogance of many of those providers have given rise to a growing body of utterances by influential commentators, which has caused a lot more users to become aware of the extent of the exploitation. Consumer and privacy issues are legion, and give rise to doubts about whether sufficient trust exists for the recent momentum in social media usage to be sustained.

The research reported on in this paper was motivated by the need to move beyond mere criticism of existing social media services, and to identify key features that would be exhibited by desirable alternatives. The research builds on a substantial prior program of research and publication in related areas. The approach adopted was to review the (to date, limited) critical literature in order to identify areas in which improvements are needed. One of these was then selected and examined in greater detail.

The paper commences by classifying social media features, distinguishing genres, and describing the dominant business model underlying current services. This leads to the identification of three broad clusters of characteristics that would together deliver the desired orientation towards consumer needs. One of these, privacy, is then examined in greater detail, and a catalogue is developed of the relevant privacy concerns. This provides the foundation for an assessment of the opportunities that exist for the emergence of consumer-oriented social media, including key features and alternative business models.

2. Social Media

This section reviews the origins and nature of social media services and the means whereby service-providers fund their operations, and develops a classification scheme for service-features.

Searches for formal literature that uses the term 'social media' in the relevant way have uncovered very little prior to 2004. Even the term 'social networking' only emerged about that time - although there is a prior literature on the notion of 'social networks' (e.g. Rheingold 1993, Wilde & Swatman 1999). The 'social media' meme emerged in conjunction with the 'Web 2.0' notion, during 2004-05 (O'Reilly 2005). As shown by Clarke (2008b), there was little terminological clarity or coherence during the first several years of discussion of the approaches adopted by marketers during this period.

Even in 2010, the available definitions remained primitive, e.g. "Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content" (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010, p.61). Those authors did, however, apply theories in the field of media research (social presence, media richness) and social processes (self-presentation, self-disclosure), in order to propose the classification scheme in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: Kaplan & Haenlein (2010)'s Classification of Social Media

The business models of social media service-providers are predicated on re-visits being motivated by voyuerism, and hence are dependent on individuals being stimulated to self-expose, and to expose others. For other consumer marketing companies, the need is to convey corporate image and messages, shape consumer opinions, and build purchase momentum. The Kaplan & Haenlein classification scheme is a good fit to the perspectives of both kinds of corporations. On the other hand, through its commitment to the mass-marketing, 'consumer as prey' tradition, it fails to adequately reflect the interests of the users who social media exploit.

A classification scheme was accordingly sought that is oriented towards the interests of the users of social media. No appropriate model came to light in the literature. The approach adopted was therefore to search for and inspect lists of services described as social media, and identify their key characteristics from a user's perspective. During the process, reference was made to a related scheme developed 18 years earlier in Clarke (1994). This included a large number of the concepts evident in the 'social media' cluster. Ideas that were not evident two decades ago were glogs, wikis, crowdsourcing, folksonomies, indicator-sharing, high-quality animation, and the voyeurism-based business model. The classification scheme arising from that study is depicted in Exhibit 2. It is based the cardinality of the relationship among the parties and the nature of the exchange.

Exhibit 2: A Participant-Oriented Classification of Social Media

Exhibits 3A, 3B and 3C present the currently-available service-genres in the approximately chronological order in which they emerged. The classification scheme distinguishes functions. A great many social media services - especially those that have survived longer than 1-2 years - have adapted and expanded, and hence offer multiple functions. Any given social media service may therefore appear as an example in multiple categories.

Within each of the major categories, a variety of tools are available. These differ in terms of the a/synchronicity of the communications, the nature of the exchange - including syntactic aspects such as whether it comprises text, sound, image and/or video, and semantic aspects such as the purpose of the content - and the key functionality that they offer. Some are inter-personal messaging tools, whereas others are content-publishing tools - many of which also offer content-preparation functionality. Some are applications of 'crowdsourcing' (Howe 2006), enabling large-scale aggregation of, in some cases, substantial content (e.g. Wikipedia), but in many cases much more limited signals such as a declaration of approval or disapproval, or an action in an online game.

Exhibit 3A: 1-with-1-and 1-with-Few INTERACTION Tools

Exhibit 3B: 1-to-Many BROADCAST Tools

Exhibit 3C: 1-with-Many SHARING Tools

Throughout the network-based telecommunications era, each person's network address has always been visible, as a necessary element of the services. Subsequently, each person's physical address, or geo-location, has progressively become available, and in some cases (e.g. cellular phones) is intrinsic to the operation of the networking service. Location-based services can be valuable to individuals, e.g. for navigation assistance and in emergencies. Novelty apps have attracted attention, such as notification services when someone in the person's address-book is in their vicinity. The primary use of geo-location, however, is in consumer marketing, and a further major application of person-location and tracking capabilities is law enforcement and national security (Clarke 1999b, Clarke & Wigan 2011, Michael & Clarke 2013).

Social media are adapting to take advantage of geo-location, with Foursquare and Google Latitude being current, high-profile examples. Since the late 2000s, 'born mobile' entrants have been challenging established players by having geo-location intrinsic to their services and small-display-areas as their native form. It is clear that such entrants have been perceived by the established industry organisations to be threats to their dominance, with Dodgeball acquired by Google and subsequently closed down, and Gowalla purchased by Facebook and abruptly killed. During early 2013, Facebook declared itself to be in transition to a much stronger orientation towards mobile users (Womack 2013).

3. Characteristics of Consumer-Oriented Social Media

The social media services that emerged during 2004-2010 benefited from what transpired to be massive user enthusiasm for the services' mix of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and the thrill of being 'connected' with 'friends'. The widespread and rapid adoption brought with it a range of problems. By 2011-12 considerable concern was evident among commentators, and increasingly among users (e.g. O'Connor 2012).

There is a considerable lag before critical articles appear in the refereed literature. For example, in the Bled Proceedings, 'social networking' appeared for the first time in 2008 - 4 years after the term entered mainstream use - and during 2009-12 the term appeared in the Abstract of only 9 papers (5.3%). The phrase 'social media' first appeared only in 2010, with 9 papers during 2010-12 using it in the Abstract (7.1%). Mentions in the text have, however, risen from 6, to 11 to 25 (i.e. 35.7% of papers in 2012). Moreover, a comprehensive review of the above Bled papers found that all adopted a business perspective, and none addressed the topic focussed on in the present paper. In developing a framework for social media services that are consumer-oriented rather than consumer-exploitative, it has accordingly proven necessary to rely primarily on articles in the technical media combined with extensions to analyses previously undertaken as part of the author's long-running research program in related areas.

Three broad areas have been identified in which features of existing social media services are at least unsatisfactory in terms of their fit to consumers' needs, and are arguably seriously detrimental to consumers' interests.

The first area of concern relates to architectural features of social media services. At least three features need to be considered:

The second area of concern is the Terms of Service under which social media services are made available to consumers, and in some cases even to business enterprises and other organisations. Previous research has identified a substantial set of problems from the perspective of consumers, across the entire range of consumer protection areas (Clarke 2008a, 2011).

The third area of concern is privacy. There has been a great deal of abuse by social media service-providers of their users' privacy, and a great deal of media coverage has resulted. This area was accordingly selected for more detailed examination. The results are persented in the following section.

4. Privacy Aspects of Social Media

This section provides an overview of the dimensions of privacy, and of the range of issues that have arisen during the first decade of social media services. A structured catalogue of features is then developed, in order to provide a basis for consumer-oriented designs.

4.1 Privacy

Privacy can be interpreted in many ways. It is used here to refer to the interest that individuals have in sustaining a 'personal space', free from interference by other people and organisations. Privacy has multiple dimensions. One analysis, in Clarke (2006a), identifies four distinct aspects.

The dimension that is most obviously relevant to social media is the privacy of personal data, also referred to as 'data privacy' and 'information privacy'. Individuals claim that data about themselves should not be automatically available to other individuals and organisations, and that, even where data is possessed by another party, the individual must be able to exercise a substantial degree of control over that data and its use. Data protection laws directly address these concerns, although seldom adequately.

Privacy of the person, or 'bodily privacy', extends from freedom from torture and right to medical treatment, via compulsory immunisation and imposed treatments, to compulsory provision of samples of body fluids and body tissue, and obligations to submit to biometric measurement. It is also relevant to analyses of social media services. One reason is that the availability of locational data creates risks to personal safety. Another is that deveopments in so-called 'facial recognition' technologies are claimed to have brought it to the level of a low-grade biometric. Its application to images passing through and stored on social media sites creates serious privacy issues. This arises both where it is accurate (e.g. if images are auto-tagged with the names of people in them) and where it is inaccurate (e.g. false positives create suspicions, rumours and false accusations).

Privacy of personal communications is concerned with the need of individuals for freedom to communicate among themselves, without routine monitoring of their communications by other persons or organisations. Issues include 'mail covers', the use of directional microphones, 'bugs' and telephonic interception, with or without recording apparatus, and third-party access to email-messages. Social media services that support inter-personal communications give rise to serious questions about retention, and about access controls.

Privacy of personal behaviour relates to the freedom of individuals to conduct themselves as they see fit, without unjustified surveillance, especially mass surveillance. Particular concern arises in relation to sensitive matters such as sexual preferences and habits, religious practices and political activities. Some privacy analyses, particularly in Europe, extend this discussion to personal autonomy, liberty and the right of self-determination. Privacy intrusions have a chilling effect on social, economic and political behaviour.

Heightened concern arises where the dimensions intersect. For example, data privacy is being invaded by the collection of data about what individuals read and view (because they use web-browsers, streaming services and eReaders to do it), and behavioural privacy is being invaded by organisations inferring people's social networks by monitoring who they communicate with. The combination of the two provides a means to infer a great deal about each individual's attitudes, thoughts and even intentions. Tools for harvesting personal data from multiple sources have been developed and deployed (Gallagher 2013). Surveillance tools of such kinds will inevitably be used by national security and law enforcement agencies to monitor the behaviour of activists, and to put pressure on people inferred to be in the activists' social networks; and they will be used by activists to monitor their opponents, and to identify 'plants' among their associates. At least the working lives of undercover agents will be greatly diminished.

4.2 Privacy Issues

At an early stage, commentators identified substantial privacy threats inherent in Web 2.0, social networking services and social media generally (e.g. Harris 2006, Barnes 2006, Clarke 2008b). Although privacy threats arise in relation to all categories of social media, social networking services (SNS) are particularly rich both in inherent risks and in aggressive behaviour by service-providers. This section accordingly pays particular attention to SNS.

One of the earliest SNS, Plaxo, was subjected to criticism at the time of its launch (Clarke 2004). Google had two failures before Google+ - Orkut and Buzz - and all three have been roundly criticised for their serious hostility to the privacy of users and people exposed by their users (e.g. Helft 2010, Waugh 2012, Bell 2012). However, it is difficult not to focus on Facebook, not so much because it has dominated many national markets for SNS for several years, but rather because it has done so much to test the boundaries of privacy abuse. Summaries of its behaviour are in boyd (2008), Bankston (2009), Opsahl (2010), NYT (2010), McKeon (2010), boyd & Hargittai 2010, BBC (2011). Results of a survey are reported in Lankton & McKnight (2011).

After 5 years of bad behaviour by Facebook, Opsahl (2010) summarised the situation as follows: "When [Facebook] started, it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice. Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads". The widespread publication of several alleged utterances by Facebook's CEO Zuckerberg have reinforced the impression of exploitation, particularly "The default is social" and "They 'trust me'. Dumb f..ks".

The conclusion reached in 2012 by a proponent of social media was even more damning: "[Social networking services] profit primarily by using heretofore private information it has collected about you to target advertising. And Zuckerberg has repeatedly made sudden, sometimes ill conceived and often poorly communicated policy changes that resulted in once-private personal information becoming instantly and publicly accessible. As a result, once-latent concerns over privacy, power and profit have bubbled up and led both domestic and international regulatory agencies to scrutinize the company more closely ... The high-handed manner in which members' personal information has been treated, the lack of consultation or even communication with them beforehand, Facebook's growing domination of the entire social networking sphere, Zuckerberg's constant and very public declarations of the death of privacy and his seeming imposition of new social norms all feed growing fears that he and Facebook itself simply can not be trusted" (O'Connor 2012).

The three broad categories of social media identified earlier provide one framework within which a deeper understanding of the privacy issues can be achieved. In the case of Interaction tools, users generally assume that conversations are private, and in some cases are subject to non-disclosure conventions such as, in government parlance, 'the Chatham House Rule'. However, social media service-providers sit between the conversation-partners and in many cases store the conversation - thereby converting ephemeral communications into archived statements - and give themselves the right to exploit the contents.

Although broadcasting, by its nature, involves the intentional publication of content, privacy concerns still arise, in several ways. Because social media service-providers leverage off the efforts of content communities, they encourage, enveigle and entice people to publish. Many also enforce self-exposure of profile data. Some use changes to their definitions and defaults to contrive wider publication of content than the originator envisaged would be the case. In addition, service-providers may intrude into users' personal space by monitoring content with a view to punishing or discriminating against individuals who receive particular broadcasts, e.g. because the content is in breach of criminal or civil law, is against the interests of the service-provider, or is deemed to be in some manner in breach of good taste.

A major concern is that the individual who initiates the broadcast may not be able to protect their identity. This is important where the views may be unpopular with some organisations or individuals, particularly where they may represent a threat to the person's safety (GFW 2011, Krotoski 2012). It is vital to society that 'whistleblowing' be possible. There are contrary public interests, in particular the deterrence of unreasonable behaviours, and accountability for serious breaches such as unjustified disclosure of sensitive information, intentionally harmful misrepresentation, and incitement to violence. That justifies the establishment of carefully constructed forms of strong pseudonymity; but it does not justify an infrastructure that imposes on all users the requirement to publish their 'real identity'. Many social media services, on the other hand, have let their self-interest in consolidating, controlling and exploiting rich digital identities dominate the interests of the individuals using those identities, and have imposed what have been widely referred to as 'real name policies' (boyd 2012).

The first form of Sharing - Content Collaboration - overlaps with Broadcasting, but it is oriented towards content arising from interactions among multiple people rather than from a sole source. There are multiple ways in which Content can negatively impact privacy, for both the originators and people it refers to. Even the sharing of Indicators may generate privacy risk for the individual who generates them, such as the casting of a vote in a particular direction on some topic that attracts opprobrium (e.g. paedophilia, racism or the holocaust, but also criticisms of a repressive regime). Similarly, Actions such as those initiated when participating in gaming may raise privacy issues where the nature of the game, or actions taken while playing it, may be in breach of local laws or conventions.

4.3 A Catalogue

In order to support deeper analysis of privacy as a trust factor, and provide guidance for the design of consumer-oriented social media, some order needs to be brought to the set of issues outlined above. A comprehensive catalogue of concerns is required, and then a way of prioritising the concerns.

The formal literature lags well behind developments in computing services, and at this stage contains very little of specific relevance. The approach adopted in this project was to review media reports over the period 2005-11, and to outline and classify privacy-intrusive features of social media services that have been referred to in those reports. In practice, most of the negative reviews have been of social networking services, and especially those with the highest profiles: Facebook and Google's successive offerings.

By informally comparing, sorting and merging the issues reported by the media, the catalogue presented in Exhibits 6A-6D was developed, comprising 4 major clusters, a dozen second-level clusters, and about 40 third-level issues.

Exhibit 6A: Privacy-Abusive Data Collection and Retention

Exhibit 6B: Privacy-Abusive Service-Provider Rights

Exhibit 6C: Privacy-Abusive Functionality and User Interfaces

Exhibit 6D: Privacy-Abusive Data Exploitation

5. Implications for Research and Practice

Further research is needed in order to distinguish the most important among the issues identified in Exhibit 6, and to document ways in which they can be constructively addressed. Tokenistic empirical research by means of 'surveys of what people say that they do' delivers very little of practical value. Much more important contributions arise from observation of choice behaviours, through field research and the analysis of data-streams arising from the use of services, and from laboratory experiments designed to learn about the trade-offs that different people make between privacy and self-exposure.

The following a priori suggestions are made for high-priority features, on the basis of prior research and practice in related areas generally, and more specifically on the frequency of their treatment in the media and the extent to which they are pre-requisites or enablers of other consumer-friendly features.

The most obvious aspect to attack is the presumption that 'the default is social'. Rather than an 'opt-out' framework, all aspects of collection, retention, use and disclosure of personal data must be consent-based. Consent is not meaningful unless it is informed, freely-given, and granular not bundled (Clarke 2002b). This requires conservative defaults, and careful design of settings management.

A second design aspect is identity protections, including the avoidance of (the pretence of) a 'real names' policy, and, on the contrary, a policy of supporting protected pseudonyms, and multiple identities per person. This is of great significance to the appreciable minority of consumers who are at risk, or who place high value on aspects of their privacy. To protect the interests of all participants, it is important to publish caveats, and to inform users of social norms in cyberspace and of the risk of abuse of those norms.

Particular care is needed in respect of data that is likely to be sensitive to at least a proportion of the service's users. That includes some aspects of what service-providers refer to as 'profile data' (such as gender, age, place of residence, and contact-points), financial data, and consumption data of sensitive goods and services. In many cases, user-provided content is much more sensitive than the user initially realises. Social network data is potentially explosive (as the naive design of the Google Buzz feature called Circles underlined - Matlin 2010). The collection, retention, use and dislosure of location data, particularly in real time, creates considerable risks to users.

Another approach to prioritising features is to examine and experiment with services and prototypes that have been intended to be, or at least are projected as, consumer-friendly. A selection of such projects is in Exhibit 7.

Exhibit 7: Attempts at Consumer-Oriented Social Media Services

Beyond technical and privacy-design aspects, it is important that research be undertaken into the business models that are available to service-providers that offer consumer-oriented social media. There are many possible revenue-sources additional to advertising revenue based on the exploitation of personal data (Clarke 2004b).

6. Conclusions

Consumer-oriented social media services are needed, as an antidote to the exploitative approach adopted by providers during their first decade. The research reported on in this paper has established a foundation. This needs to be further developed, by means of technically-oriented research in the forms of architectural experimentation, design and prototyping, complemented by social science research in the field and in laboratory environments.


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Bell E. (2012) 'The real threat to the open web lies with the opaque elite who run it' The Guardian, 16 April 2012, at

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This paper has been in gestation for 8 years. The primary stimulus for development was an invitation from Hans Christian Juul of Roskilde University in June 2012 to present a seminar on privacy, trust and user-involvement. Subsequent work was presented in a seminar at the A.N.U. in August 2012, in a keynote at the Asian Privacy Scholars' Network Conference in Tokyo, and a Workshop of the JSPS Privacy Project at Meiji University, both in November 2012.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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