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They See You When You’re Shopping…

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Sign posted in participating malls, alerting shoppers to the mobile phone tracking system.

In a recent news article, CNN reported that two U.S. malls – Promenade Temecula in Southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Virginia – will be tracking customers’ movements during the holiday shopping time period by monitoring signals from their mobile phones.

The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, operates through a series of antennas positioned throughout the mall that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone and track its path from store to store. The intent of this tracking system is to shed light on how long customers stay in a store or near a certain product in that store to see which stores and products are most popular and which are not. The system also attempts to highlight shopping patterns. For instance, do customers who shop at Nordstrom also visit Starbucks? How long do customers linger at Barnes & Noble? The information gained could potentially be very useful to retailers in figuring out what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, and catering their business to the right customer.

U.S. malls have been tracking how customers move throughout their stores for a while now, but this is the first time they’ve used mobile phones to do it. Previous tracking methods have relied on customer purchases, but by using mobile phones, stores can now track customers who don’t make a purchase at all. If they see that shoppers are visiting a store and spending lots of time near a certain product, but no one actually buys it, stores can use this information to help figure out what’s going wrong.

While this tracking system could be very beneficial to both retailers and customers, it still comes with the inevitable privacy concerns. The management company of both participating malls, Forest City Commercial Management, insists that personal data is not being collected. The system doesn’t take photos of shoppers or collect their name or phone number from their phone. “We are not looking at individual shoppers, but rather patterns of movement,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City Commercial Management.

Okay, but consider this. The article from CNN notes that the identification number assigned to each mobile phone, the one used to track its owner’s path throughout the mall, can be likened to the IP address of a computer. And we all know that the information on a computer is only “private” until someone hacks into it through the IP address. So, the tracking system isn’t specifically looking for personal information about shoppers, but it’s still there, isn’t it? Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research, asks, “What happens when you start having hackers potentially having access to this information and being able to track your movements?”

Forest City Commercial Management has notified customers of the tracking system by hanging signs throughout the malls, telling shoppers that they can opt out of being tracked by turning off their phones. I wonder, first, how many bustling shoppers are actually going to notice these signs, and second, how realistic is it to ask people to turn off their cell phones while they’re at the mall? Good luck telling the next tween to come out of Hollister that she can’t text message her friends for the next 20 minutes.

Retail analysts note, however, that personal data like this is already being collected. Online shopping sites record customers’ names and purchase information, and then target them with online ads even after they’ve left the site. It’s a great way to drive business and to identify and pursue the best target audience, but invasive, nonetheless.

The bottom line is that consumer targeting and mobile technology are at the forefront of the digital media and online marketing world. When you combine the two, the result is likely to be a lucrative and efficient business opportunity, but with it comes an inevitable invasion of privacy. But, this is the direction we’re headed in.

“I’m sure as more people get cell phones, it’s inevitable that [mobile tracking] will continue as a resource,” Mulpuru said. “I think the future is going to have to be opt in, not opt out.”


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The Pros and Cons of Citizen Journalism

November 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Twitpic by jkrums, minutes after the plane landed in the Hudson River.

One of the defining characteristics of social media is that it allows everyday people to join the conversation on virtually any topic they choose. Online vehicles such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogging create an opportunity for the public to express an opinion, contribute knowledge, and engage in debate with other social media users. This online freedom and universal access has given rise to a sort of online journalism, more commonly referred to as citizen journalism.

Citizen journalism, as defined by Wikipedia, is “the concept of members of the public playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” Social media aids in this process by equipping the public with highly accessible, real time methods of accessing and reporting news. Popular examples of citizen journalism at work are the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the day an airplane carrying 150 passengers landed in the Hudson River. When the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, it wasn’t news journalists and reporters who captured the scene as it played out, but rather New York City residents and tourists who just happened to have their cameras handy. When the airplane landed in the Hudson, NBC did not have professional journalists on hand to break the news of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” No, it was an innocent bystander with the Twitter name jkrums, who minutes after the plane splashed down tweeted, “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy!” The rest of Twitter nation quickly followed suit and the social media site practically blew up with news of the event. And this was all before the folks at NBC even knew what was happening.

These examples highlight some of the advantages of citizen journalism. Professional reporters cannot be everywhere and cannot cover every event taking place, especially those that are unplanned. Citizen journalists can alert the media to breaking news, and provide information and visual documentation of events that can help to inform news stories. Marc Wadsworth, editor of The Latest website, believes that people who participate in citizen journalism “have the hand on the pulse of what’s really happening out there.” Some newspapers and news sites, especially smaller ones who may have limited staff, rely on citizen journalists to contribute comments and blog posts about their stories in order to broaden the news they cover and make the stories more interactive. Some believe that citizen journalists present a fresh and more exciting angle on a story, making the news more engaging and “less stuffy.”

The added excitement and story angles that citizen journalists provide can also be seen as disadvantages. One of the primary aims of journalism is to be objective and present a fair view, a code by which citizen journalists do not always abide. They can sometimes let their personal opinions seep in, resulting in slanted versions of the truth. When professional journalists receive information, they routinely fact check against a number of credible sources. Citizen journalists, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, check their facts and there’s often no way of knowing if they have or not. The lines can be blurred between them and professional journalists and the public might not distinguish between the two.

With the rise of citizen journalism and the high prevalence and accessibility of social media, I would also argue another significant disadvantage. Stories that make the news tend to be more negative in their scope. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and a passenger plane landing in the Hudson River are cases in point. It’s one thing to accidentally find yourself on the scene of events such as these and seize the opportunity to provide first-hand, real time media coverage, but to purposefully put yourself in dangerous situations in order to document them to the world is something else all together. Citizen journalists in Egypt and elsewhere in The Middle East have been doing this since the early 2000s. They attended demonstrations against then-President Mubarak, blogging and reporting out to the public. Not only did they put themselves in harm’s way, but many were also arrested and put in jail for speaking out against political figures and parties, all at the expense of being first on the scene to report the news. More recently, citizen journalists have utilized Twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests and share information in the continued campaign to oust Mubarak. A “Facebook revolution” ensued as protesters to spilled over into the streets of Cairo, and Egyptian authorities were forced to block Facebook and Twitter before the situation escalated any further. Similar social media revolutions powered by citizen journalists have played out during the recent riots in London and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations here in the U.S.

Sure, professional journalists put themselves in harm’s way every day to cover news around the globe, but they have been trained to handle potentially dangerous situations and are equipped with the resources and staff to protect themselves as best they can. This is not the case for citizen journalists. There is certainly much to be gained from having everyday people in the midst of breaking news stories, documenting them as they play out from a first-hand view, but at what price? I support citizen journalism as a complement to professional journalism, especially in the world of social media that we currently live in, but I also believe there is a line to be drawn. How much are people willing to risk for the truth?


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Sentimentality in Social Media

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

My Nana, about 80 years ago.

I admit I’m somewhat of a late bloomer when it comes to social media. I have a Twitter account, but rarely use it. My LinkedIn profile is far from up-to-date. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I become the last of my generation to purchase an iPad. Vehicles for social media seem to create clutter in my life. Not physical, but mental clutter. They can be complicated and confusing at first try, which I think is why I’ve resisted becoming a regular and invested user. 

Well, as it turns out, a recent event in my personal life has helped me to see through the clutter and realize just how useful and productive social media can be. My grandmother (“Nana”) passed away about two weeks ago at the age of 98. Sympathy cards, flowers, hugs and kisses all served to remember and honor my Nana, but it was a blog post, of all things, that paid the most moving tribute.

A writer from the Somerville Journal, who knew my Nana and spent time with her during the last years of her life, wrote a beautiful piece of remembrance and posted it to the Journal’s online blog. She remembered Nana as a feminist who stood up for what she believed in and for whom she believed in, who were oftentimes the other strong women in her life. Making these character traits the focus of the blog post, the writer, who attended the funeral, called attention to the fact that the honorary pallbearers that day were not the young men in Nana’s family, but her granddaughters and granddaughters-in-law, one of whom was nearly nine months pregnant. It was a moving tribute that captured who my Nana was and the way she lived her life, and painted a beautiful picture of her funeral services.  

Unfortunately, not everyone who knew and loved my Nana was able to attend the funeral that day. But, this blog post allowed these friends and family to feel as though they were there. Friends from Saint Ann’s Parish in Somerville could read the piece and picture the scene taking place in the church. One of her grandsons, who lives in Alaska, could envision his female cousins in their role as honorary pallbearers, as he could not be there to see it himself. And I was able to share the blog entry with friends who never had the chance to meet my Nana, but after reading the piece could glean some sense of who she was.

It’s ironic that a tool for social media would be used to honor my Nana, who never once in her 98 years even used a computer. But, it was a beautiful way to remember her and could be shared with friends and family, both near and far. Social media doesn’t need to create clutter – it is what you make it. It’s meant to provide useful information in an efficient and cost-effective manner to the people who care. There are lots of people who cared about my Nana and thanks to the Somerville Journal’s blog and this particular writer, they were all able to share in remembering and loving and in the “conversation” about her.  

This experience has helped me to see social media as a bit less complicated and come to appreciate it for its simple benefits. If my Nana knew what a blog was, I’m sure she would have approved, too.


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