Mining Mobile Youth Cultures

We are very excited that some of our initial results have already been published! In October 2014, Dr. Tobias Blanke travelled all the way to Washington to attend the IEEE conference, where he presented our article: “Mining Mobile Youth Cultures”. This short paper discusses the co-research we have been involved with over the past year with our YRS participants. Here you can read about the MobileMiner app that we designed with the help of the 20 young people we were working with. The app’s primary function has been to capture the data that is regularly leaked from mobile applications. Specifically, it looked at the number of times in which data was exchanged from the mobile and the various apps that our research participants happened to be using. The MobileMiner then captured the data that gets regularly harvested by third parties to investigate how digital culture is tracked and captured in mobile environments.

Briefly, the MobileMiner uses the Android API, which provides functions that return the total number of bytes transmitted and received by a given app. It does so by polling the APIs every half second and then logs the moments when there is a notable increase. We could not develop the MobileMiner as an iOS app because of the highly proprietary and restrictive environments of the Apple ecosystem. The very fact that we were not able to access even limited data off this highly popular operating system is perhaps a valuable finding, albeit not entirely surprising. However, what were able to create for the Android system proved to be successful, in part due to the enthusiastic collaboration with our YRS participants who continuously strived throughout the project to improve upon MobileMiner’s open source code.

Some of the most notable highlights we uncovered from the MobileMiner are that when it comes to the apps that we download, there are some significant differences in the amount of data that gets captured about users. For example: Three of our young coders played the game ‘Don’t Tap the White Tile’, a popular app with over 130 million downloads. From our records it accessed its server 46, 53 and 42 times over a period of 21, 2 and 3 days for each of those users. According to some marketing blogs, our findings are what could be considered ‘normal’. However another game called: ‘The Line-Keep In’, which only boasts 12000 downloads and has no privacy agreement for the user to accept, accessed its server 1760 times over a period of 27 days, with significant activity found even when the user was asleep!

The paper also highlights some of the finding from our focus groups, which targeted the complex relationship young people have in relation to their online privacy. Here we tried to raise a series of questions around how much control users feel that they actually have and examined if privacy is something they feel they experience individually or collectively. The questions also sought to understand why young people are willing to share so much about themselves online by seeking their attitudes towards information sharing. In our future research, we will work with the YRS communities to co-develop a set of analyses that will utilize the big social data for humanities research in the digital culture.