Digital Traces in Context| Social Media Giveth, Social Media Taketh Away: Facebook, Friendships, and APIs

Bernie Hogan


The early aughts saw an explosion of interest in social network sites. Many such sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter expanded to become “platforms,” meaning they are both websites and distributors of data. These data would typically be distributed to third parties in privacy-sensitive ways and regulated by the platform. Such access is based on balancing three issues: user privacy, generativity (i.e., capacity for novelty) for third parties, and control for platforms. Platforms appear to be seeking progressively more control at the cost of generativity by severely restricting third-party access to data about the user’s friends. The reductions or outright lack of access means that the insights from our digital traces are no longer as knowable to either third parties or users. This article unpacks this shift by clarifying some of the technical issues involved (particularly APIs, the main means of external data access). The case study of social network visualization is used to exemplify how social network sites seek control at the expense of generativity. The article notes how this shift was done with little oversight.


social networks, Facebook, APIs, visualization, privacy

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