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Teaching the Ethics of Social Media in Bentley University’s Graduate Program

When does technology cause more harm than good?

For Xinru Page, Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at Bentley University, this question has been the focus of her research since she was a student at Stanford University.

As our world becomes increasingly digital, its potential impact on humans grows more and more pronounced. We can connect nearly anything to the Internet - our phones, cars, fridges, even light bulbs - and many of us share intimate details of our lives on social media every day.

The benefits of this digitization are obvious: a more connected and efficient world. However, this new technology also raises new ethical dilemmas.

For example, Snapchat recently unveiled a feature called “Snap Maps,” which allows you to see your friends’ exact location on a map, updating their coordinates every time they open the app. Suddenly, your every move is visible to anyone who follows you. And if you don’t set privacy restrictions, that could include your boss, parents, and even strangers.

For those not using Snapchat, its prevalence can leave them feeling left out of important social interactions. Unlike other social media platforms that allow non-users to view public posts by visiting the profile page online, Snapchat requires you download the app and create an account to see anything.

Few understand exactly what is private on social media – when’s the last time you read a Privacy Policy before creating an account? – and there are still a significant number of non-users. In fact, 31% of U.S. adults do not use social media at all as of 2016.

Through her four main research areas - social media, privacy, technology adoption, and technology non-use - Page studies the ethics involved in our expectations between private and public and the impact technology has on both users and non-users. 

Studying Human-Computer Interaction

Before joining the faculty in the CIS department at Bentley, where she teaches in both undergraduate and graduate programs, Page lived and worked out west, where she attended Stanford University for her undergraduate and master's degrees.

She studied computer science as an undergraduate and ended up taking her first class on the interaction between humans and computers.

That class changed her approach to technology. “I started thinking: how is this useful? Not just all the cool things we can do with technology, although that’s really important, but how can you take that and help people?”

Page ended up studying Human-Computer Interaction in graduate school, looking at how people use technology and how IT professionals can make that technology more useful for them. This new focus allowed her to step out from behind the computer screen to engage with people while still using her IT background to impact the designs that helped them.

Bridging the Gap between the Customer and Tech

When a business introduces a new feature, it’s never random. Snapchat adding Snap Maps, Facebook tweaking its News Feed algorithm, and Instagram allowing video sharing: all made these changes in an attempt to enhance the user experience.

Page entered the Human-Computer Interaction industry after graduate school, working as a Lead Interaction Designer and then Product Manager. In these roles, she helped develop a user experience that balanced the customer’s desires and the business’ realities.

First, she would meet with customers, learning about their needs and concerns. She would then go to the engineers to discuss ways to design a new product or feature that would satisfy the customer.

Her background in technology was imperative to this work, as Page was able to understand what a new feature an engineer was explaining to her might look like. Sometimes, if the customer’s desired changes were too expensive or against regulations, Page was able to offer alternative solutions the engineers could execute.

Privacy in a Public World

After several years working in industry, Page began her Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science at UC Irvine.

At the time, social media’s role in our daily life was growing rapidly, with Pinterest, Snapchat, Google+, and Instagram all launching during her studies.

With all these new platforms came new policies regarding privacy, and more opportunities for your private information to become public.

Page began looking at the ethical concerns of privacy - or a lack of privacy - on social media. Does another user have the right to repost your picture on Instagram? Should someone be able to post a video of you on YouTube?  Is it unethical to say you’re somewhere you’re not on Twitter?

And most importantly, what responsibility do companies have to allow for privacy when designing a new feature?

Opting Out of Social Media

Another aspect of social media that fascinates Page is the non-user. Nearly a third of U.S. adults choose to stay off social media completely due to a variety of barriers, including economic, accessibility, and social.

For some, they simply cannot afford a smartphone or live in an area where internet access is slow or nonexistent. Others stay off social media voluntarily, possibly because they find it’s taking up too much of their life or they had a bad experience on it (such as with cyber bullying).

However, these non-users miss out on the benefits of social media, and can even be left out of real world events due to people’s expectation that they’re online.

“Events are being arranged on social media - birthdays, bridal showers even - and they’re missing out on that. And their friends may overlook or forget that they’re not on social media.”

“Designing the user experience actually has a huge impact on the non-user experience,” she continues. In healthcare, for example, those operating in remote areas cannot provide the best care possible if important information is stored completely online.

Designers need to consider: “if we’re building up the user experience, how much responsibility do we have to take care of or understand the non-user experience?”

Human-Computer Interaction Research at Bentley University

All companies nowadays involve technology in some way, and to be an effective leader, you need to know how it works.

“What I really like about Bentley is it’s a bridge between the technical and the business world,” says Page. She’s found that at Bentley, “you have a program that understands that both sides are valuable.”

Page prepares the next generation of business and IT leaders at Bentley by sharing her Computer-Human Interaction approach with them, incorporating the ethics behind privacy and the exclusion of non-users into her classes.

“I really enjoy that because it allows me to reach out and help students understand that the technical aspects are key to understanding business,” she says. Knowing how technology works allows you to think about what’s possible, and avoid problems before they impact your business or your customer.

Of course, companies cannot anticipate everything that will happen with their product. When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, he probably didn’t expect people to broadcast police interactions live. And when Jack Dorsey founded Twitter, he likely didn’t think it would be used to organize protests.

It’s impossible to know exactly what people will do when you put out new features, but by understanding how the technology works and what the customer wants, you can help your company better avoid problems and correct any that do occur.

Technology isn’t slowing down anytime soon. To succeed in business and do right by their customers, leaders in every industry need to understand IT and its ethical implications.

Page’s research tries to “understand the psychological and social influences that emerge from and are implicitly designed into all of this technology around us.” Our values are changing as technology seeps into our daily lives, and researchers, designers, and business leaders need to work together to ensure technology can benefit us all - or at least not harm any of us.

Page is a primary organizer of a new initiative, Bridging Industry and Academia to Tackle Responsible Research and Privacy Practices, supported by Facebook, Future for Privacy Forum, and the Networked Privacy academic community. This initiative brings together industry, academia, and civil society to tackle hard issues dealing with responsible research ethics and privacy practices around user-data, as well as privacy and ethics in the design process and the practicalities of integrating best practices into the corporate environment. Page’s research has been funded by Disney Research, Samsung, Yahoo! and the National Science Foundation. She received a 2014 Yahoo! Best Dissertation Fellowship Award and was also chosen as the 2015 iSchools Doctoral Dissertation Award recipient. Page has worked in the information risk industry, leading interaction design and as a product manager. Page holds a Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science, concentration Informatics, from University of California, Irvine, and B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science, specialization Human-Computer Interaction, from Stanford University.