Researcher asks: Who is looking at your Facebook photos?

New Facebook app developed by master’s student tracks location, gender and age of onlookers but respects privacy.

May 2015

A new app developed in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary is inviting Facebook users to relive the shared experience of looking at photos and videos from the “old” days of photo albums, home movies and slide shows. This app will end the mystery of how photos and videos are spread in the social network, say developers, while respecting the privacy of users by not disclosing the identities of viewers.

“We’ve lost out on those great experiences of going through photo albums with friends and family. Now we send those photos or videos out on the Internet and we have no idea who is looking at them. With this app we are recreating the communal feeling of sharing a bit of our world with each other,” says Brad Rougeau, a master’s student in the Department of Computer Science. “Basically, Viewcount enhances Facebook and makes viewing photos and videos a more social activity. It also gives the user a better sense of how to configure permissions to better control the spread of media content.”

Rougeau is the developer behind Viewcount, which is available for download at www.viewcount.ca. It is one of the first Facebook-integrated tools developed on campus. The application is part of his MSc thesis work in assistant professor Mea Wang’s research group on understanding social activities around media content in social networks.

Viewcount users see how their photos and videos are spreading

“Under the current Facebook parameters, users only have access to basic quantitative data on how often photos and videos are liked, shared, commented on, and tagged,” explains Rougeau.

“My tool drills much deeper than the standard quantitative data offered on Facebook because it gives users added information on the gender, age, location, connection and education of those who have engaged with a Facebook photo or video post,” Rougeau says. Viewcount is unique in that it introduces a “media influence” metric based on users' photo and video viewing activities while preserving the Facebook interface of likes, comments, and tags. From the dashboard, registered members can see the demographic statistics linked to each video and photo they have posted.

The data collected in Viewcount is compiled in real-time based on user activity within the application along with information that users have provided to Facebook. The privacy of users is respected by not disclosing the names of viewers and their viewing activities within Viewcount.

“Viewcount takes media content sharing in Facebook to a new level,” says Wang. “Users of Viewcount gain greater insight on their social impact and how their photos and videos are spreading in their social network,” she adds.

To date, Facebook users from as far as Brazil and Indonesia have installed Viewcount. 

Insight into social impact and ways to better use network resources with this app

While Rougeau thinks his app will initially be of interest to individual Facebook users, the overall information gathered by Viewcount could eventually be of interest to researchers in the areas of computer science, digital media, sociology, communication and marketing.

“The more the app gets used, the more I’ll get direct feedback on how to improve it,” Rougeau says. “Greater traffic and usage also means that we’ll be able to gather new and even more substantial data on social media user activities on a broad scale.”

Wang says that from the computer networking research perspective, Viewcount provides the data to estimate redundancy in Internet traffic due to requests for new and popular media content. “It also provides us hints on the correlation between social interaction and demands for certain multimedia content. These insights will enable us to propose new networking algorithms and protocols to better distribute media content and to better utilize network resources.”

“This is the first time we can actually quantitatively measure human interaction,” says Rougeau. “With advanced technology, the opportunity is there to capitalize on this data,” he concludes.

Rougeau is using the Rapid Access Cloud from Cybera to host the Viewcount project. Cybera is a not-for-profit, technical agency that is helping Alberta advance its IT frontiers.

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