‘Zuckerberg Files’ attract instant interest

Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Information Policy Research, doctoral student Jeremy Mauger and first year student Sam, were part of the Zuckerberg Files team. (Photo by Peter Jakubowski)

He knows a lot about us, and now we know a lot more about him.

A digital archive of “all public utterances” by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has just been released. Information policy scientists can thank UWM Assistant Professor Michael Zimmer, his students and research assistants for the online multimedia trove that is the “The Zuckerberg Files.”

The goal of the project, says Zimmer, was to make Zuckerberg’s words accessible to information policy researchers. Since social networking sites like Facebook are increasingly important in contemporary life, adds the School of Information Studies (SOIS) professor, they bring up unique issues of information privacy and the ethics of information sharing.

The Zuckerberg files

“An important step toward addressing these concerns is to gain a better understanding of how Facebook sees its own role within these debates, and how it frames these privacy and ethical issues within its own discourse,” Zimmer wrote in a blog post announcing the site.

Zimmer is director of the UWM Center for Information Policy Research (CIPR) and assistant professor of information studies. The site is hosted on the UWM Digital Commons.

‘Turning the tables’ on Facebook

The project grew out of a conversation that Zimmer, doctoral student Anthony Hoffmann and Australian researcher Kate Raynes-Goldie had during an Association of Internet Researchers meeting in Sweden in 2010. The researchers were talking about the difficulty of tracking down comments of important figures like Zuckerberg.

“Of course, this immediately struck us as amusing,” says Hoffmann. “We scramble to gather Zuckerberg’s statements for our work, while, at the same time, Facebook holds much of our information in centralized databases. Wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if we could turn the tables a bit? More than that, wouldn’t it be immensely useful?”

The Files include transcripts and bibliographic data of all publicly available content representing the voice and words of Zuckerberg since a 2004 interview with the Harvard Crimson, and include blog posts, letters to shareholders, media interviews, public appearances, product presentations, and quotes in other sources.

Anna Jeffries, another member of the team who is now a sophomore, did a first-year research presentation on the Zuckerberg Files project. (Photo by Alan Magayne-Roshak)

The Files have attracted national media attention from the likes of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Business Insider. Zuckerbergfiles.org received 60,000 hits within days of going live.

“The thing that surprised me most is undoubtedly the speed with which mainstream publications ran with the story,” notes David Bloom, a 2010 alum who earned his MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) and  worked as a research assistant on the project. “Considering its intended function as a resource for academics and other researchers, it’s interesting to see how the press covers it for general audiences.”

Doctoral student Jeremy Mauger says the project has changed his perception of social media.

“Over the years and during this project I’ve learned that, despite what social media in general and Facebook in particular might say, we really don’t ‘own’ the data we upload. We’re essentially providing them with personal information that they can then use any way they want – including selling it to advertisers and other third parties.”

What to find in the Files

The transcripts section of the Files includes full-text transcriptions of all the content in the digital archive of Zuckerberg’s public statements. The videos collection includes copies of available video files documenting Zuckerberg’s appearances.

Anna Jeffries, a sophomore majoring in global studies and Japanese, did a great deal of transcription work on the project. “It was tedious, but I’m glad we did it because it’s important,” she says. Like Mauger, she was interested to see Zuckerberg’s views on Facebook and privacy, finding them “amazing and a little scary.”

At the same time, she was impressed with Zuckerberg’s accomplishments. “What he’s done with social media has really shaped the world today.”

For first year student researcher Sam Goerke, working on the project cemented his decision to major in information studies. “Seeing how what I’m learning is applied made me even more excited to be part of SOIS. ”

The files are set up as an open-access public archive. Bibliographic and metadata are available to the public. Because of copyright restrictions, the full-text transcripts and video files are limited to researchers working on relevant studies.

Zooming in on Zuckerberg

“Using the Zuckerberg Files as a tool,” says Zimmer, “we will be better able to engage in dialog on privacy and Facebook, inform design and policy recommendations, and increase user awareness and literacy.”

Because Zuckerberg still has so much control and influence over Facebook, though it’s now a public company, his personal philosophy of information is important to understand, Zimmer recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The project was supported through the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research and SOIS. Graduate and undergraduate researchers involved were Mauger, Goerke, Jeffries, Ashley Schuett, Bloom and Hoffmann. The project started in the summer of 2012; Zimmer plans to continue it as long as he has resources.

The student researchers did get a little tired of listening to Zuckerberg’s voice “I have a roomful of students who can do some really good Mark Zuckerberg impersonations,” Zimmer told the Chronicle.