Category: Life online (page 1 of 4)

Are we nearing the end of the Facebook era?

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” So perhaps I should have rephrased the title of this post.

However, I did find this post by Gina Bianchini interesting about what people are using instead of Facebook:

The three most obvious alternatives people are turning to are:

  1. Private Messaging Platforms. We’re already seeing people move conversations with their family and close friends to iMessage, Houseparty, Marco Polo, Telegram, Discord, and Signal for their most important relationships or interests.
  2. Vertical Social Networks and Subscription Content. Watch as time spent on The Athletic, NextDoor, Houzz, and other verticals goes up in the next year. People want to connect to content that matters to them, and the services that focus on a specific subject area will win their domain.
  3. Highly Curated, Professional-Led Podcasts, Email Newsletters, Events, and Membership Communities. The professionalization of creators and influencers will continue unabated. Emboldened by the fact that their followers are now willing to follow them to new places (and increasingly even pay for access), these emerging brands will look to own their engagement and relationships, not rent them from Facebook.

As ever, people will say that Facebook will never go away because the majority of people use it. But, as Bianchini points out, innovation happens at the edges, among the early adopters. Many of those have already moved on:

Growth halts on the edges, not the core. Facebook’s prominence is eroding as the sources of creativity and goodwill that gave it magic, substance, and cultural relevance are quietly moving on. The reality is that Facebook stopped giving creators a return on their time a long time ago.

[…]

Big brands will be the last to leave. Unlike creators and Group admins, big brands will stick with Facebook for as long as possible. Despite CPMs jumping 171% in one year, big brands have institutionalized Facebook ad buying and posting not only with budgets but with dedicated teams. They’re too invested to acknowledge the writing on the wall, despite objectively diminishing returns.

This all comes from a renewed interest in ‘quality’ time. I was particularly interested in the way Seth Godin recently talked about how the digital divide is being flipped. Bianchini concludes:

As more people become conscious of how we spend our time online, we will choose differently. We will seek to feel good about what we’re contributing and what we’re getting out of our time invested. There will emerge new safe, positive places governed not by algorithms and monolithic companies, but curated by real people who have a passion for inspiring and uplifting other human beings.

It’s really interesting to see this change happening. As she says, it’s not ‘inevitable’, but cultural differences and personal values are as important in the digital world as in the physical.

Also, as we should always remember, Facebook the company owns WhatsApp and Instagram, so they’ll be find whatever. They’ve hedged their bets as any monopoly player would do.

Source: LinkedIn

Asking Google philosophical questions

Writing in The Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini reflects on a recent survey which asked people what they wish Google was able to answer:

The top 25 questions mostly fall into four categories: conspiracies (Who shot JFK? Did Donald Trump rig the election?); desires for worldly success (Will I ever be rich? What will tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers be?); anxieties (Do people like me? Am I good in bed?); and curiosity about the ultimate questions (What is the meaning of life? Is there a God?).

This is all hypothetical, of course, but I’m always amazed by what people type into search engines. It’s as if there’s some ‘truth’ in there, rather than just databases and algorithms. I suppose I can understand children asking voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri questions about the world, because they can’t really know how the internet works.

What Baggini points out, though, is that what we type into search engines can reflect our deepest desires. That’s why they trawl the search history of suspected murderers, and why the Twitter account Theresa May Googling is so funny.

A Google search, however, cannot give us the two things we most need: time and other people. For our day-to-day problems, a sympathetic ear remains the most powerful device for providing relief, if not a cure. For the bigger puzzles of existence, there is no substitute for long reflection, with help from the great thinkers of history. Google can lead us directly to them, but only we can spend time in their company. Search results can help us only if they are the start, not the end, of our intellectual quest.

Sadly, in the face of, let’s face it, pretty amazing technological innovation over the last 25 years, we’ve forgotten what it is that makes us human: connections. Thankfully, some more progressive tech companies are beginning to realise the importance of the Humanities — including Philosophy.

Source: The Guardian

Decentralisation and networked agency

I came to know of Ton Zylstra through some work I did with Jeroen de Boer and the Bibliotheekservice Fryslân team in the Netherlands last year. While I haven’t met Zylstra in person, I’m a fan of his ideas.

In a recent post he talks about the problems of generic online social networks:

Discourse disintegrates I think specifically when there’s no meaningful social context in which it takes place, nor social connections between speakers in that discourse. The effect not just stems from that you can’t/don’t really know who you’re conversing with, but I think more importantly from anyone on a general platform being able to bring themselves into the conversation, worse even force themselves into the conversation. Which is why you never should wade into newspaper comments, even though we all read them at times because watching discourse crumbling from the sidelines has a certain addictive quality. That this can happen is because participants themselves don’t control the setting of any conversation they are part of, and none of those conversations are limited to a specific (social) context.

Although he goes on to talk about federation, it’s his analysis of the current problem that I’m particularly interested in here. He mentions in passing some work that he’s done on ‘networked agency‘, a term that could be particularly useful. It’s akin to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s notion of ‘skin in the game‘.

Zylstra writes:

Unlike in your living room, over drinks in a pub, or at a party with friends of friends of friends. There you know someone. Or if you don’t, you know them in that setting, you know their behaviour at that event thus far. All have skin in the game as well misbehaviour has immediate social consequences. Social connectedness is a necessary context for discourse, either stemming from personal connections, or from the setting of the place/event it takes place in. Online discourse often lacks both, discourse crumbles, entropy ensues. Without consequence for those causing the crumbling. Which makes it fascinating when missing social context is retroactively restored, outing the misbehaving parties, such as the book I once bought by Tinkebell where she matches death threats she received against the sender’s very normal Facebook profiles.

What we’re building with MoodleNet is very intentionally focused on communities who come together to collectively curate and build. I think it’s set to be a very different environment from what we’ve (unfortunately) come to expect from social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Source: Ton Zylstra

Is Google becoming more like Facebook?

I’m composing this post on ChromeOS, which is a little bit hypocritical, but yesterday I was shocked to discover how much data I was ‘accidentally’ sharing with Google. Check it out for yourself by going to your Google account’s activity controls page.

This article talks about how Google have become less trustworthy of late:

[Google] announced a forthcoming update last Wednesday: Chrome’s auto-sign-in feature will still be the default behavior of Chrome. But you’ll be able to turn it off through an optional switch buried in Chrome’s settings.

This pattern of behavior by tech companies is so routine that we take it for granted. Let’s call it “pulling a Facebook” in honor of the many times that Facebook has “accidentally” relaxed the privacy settings for user profile data, and then—following a bout of bad press coverage—apologized and quietly reversed course. A key feature of these episodes is that management rarely takes the blame: It’s usually laid at the feet of some anonymous engineer moving fast and breaking things. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that these changes consistently err in the direction of increasing “user engagement” and never make your experience more private.

What’s new here, and is a very recent development indeed, is that we’re finally starting to see that this approach has costs. For example, it now seems like Facebook executives spend an awful lot of time answering questions in front of Congress. In 2017, when Facebook announced it had handed more than 80 million user profiles to the sketchy election strategy firm Cambridge Analytica, Facebook received surprisingly little sympathy and a notable stock drop. Losing the trust of your users, we’re learning, does not immediately make them flee your business. But it does matter. It’s just that the consequences are cumulative, like spending too much time in the sun.

I’m certainly questioning my tech choices. And I’ve (re-)locked down my Google account.

Source: Slate

Internalising the logic of social media

A few days ago, Twitter posted a photo of an early sketch that founder Jack Dorsey made for the initial user interface. It included settings to inform a user’s followers that they might not respond immediately because they were in the part or busy reading.

A day later, an article in The New Yorker about social media used a stark caption for its header image:

Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re like slow-boiled frogs when it comes to creeping dystopia. It’s not happening through the totalitarian lens of the 20th century, but instead in a much more problematic way.

One of the more insidious aspects of [social media’s business] model is the extent to which we, as social-media users, replicate its logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions like outrage and contempt and anxiety tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones.

No wonder Twitter’s such an angry place these days.

The article quotes James Bridle’s book New Dark Age, a book which is sitting waiting for me on my shelf when I get back home from this work trip.

We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge and yet we have not learned to think. In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.

This resonates with a quotation I posted to Thought Shrapnel this week from Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed about how we’re actually creating a more conservative environment, despite thinking we’re all ‘non-conformist’.

To be alive and online in our time is to feel at once incensed and stultified by the onrush of information, helpless against the rising tide of bad news and worse opinions. Nobody understands anything: not the global economy governed by the unknowable whims of algorithms, not our increasingly volatile and fragile political systems, not the implications of the impending climate catastrophe that forms the backdrop of it all. We have created a world that defies our capacity to understand it—though not, of course, the capacity of a small number of people to profit from it. Deleting your social-media accounts might be a means of making it more bearable, and even of maintaining your sanity. But one way or another, the world being what it is, we are going to have to learn to live in it.

Last week, at the ALT conference, those in the audience were asked by the speaker to ‘stand up’ if they felt imposter syndrome. I didn’t get to my feet, but it wasn’t an act of arrogance or hubris. I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m pretty sure no-one else does either.

Source: The New Yorker

What the EU’s copyright directive means in practice

The EU is certainly coming out swinging against Big Tech this year. Or at least it thinks it is. Yesterday, the European Parliament voted in favour of three proposals, outlined by the EFF’s indefatigable Cory Doctorow as:

1. Article 13: the Copyright Filters. All but the smallest platforms will have to defensively adopt copyright filters that examine everything you post and censor anything judged to be a copyright infringement.

2. Article 11: Linking to the news using more than one word from the article is prohibited unless you’re using a service that bought a license from the news site you want to link to. News sites can charge anything they want for the right to quote them or refuse to sell altogether, effectively giving them the right to choose who can criticise them. Member states are permitted, but not required, to create exceptions and limitations to reduce the harm done by this new right.

3. Article 12a: No posting your own photos or videos of sports matches. Only the “organisers” of sports matches will have the right to publicly post any kind of record of the match. No posting your selfies, or short videos of exciting plays. You are the audience, your job is to sit where you’re told, passively watch the game and go home.

Music Week pointed out that Article 13 is particularly problematic for artists:

While the Copyright Directive covers a raft of digital issues, a sticking point within the music industry had been the adoption of Article 13 which seeks to put the responsibility on online platforms to police copyright in advance of posting user generated content on their services, either by restricting posts or by obtaining full licenses for copyrighted material.

The proof of the pudding, as The Verge points out, will be in the interpretation and implementation by EU member states:

However, those backing these provisions say the arguments above are the result of scaremongering by big US tech companies, eager to keep control of the web’s biggest platforms. They point to existing laws and amendments to the directive as proof it won’t be abused in this way. These include exemptions for sites like GitHub and Wikipedia from Article 13, and exceptions to the “link tax” that allow for the sharing of mere hyperlinks and “individual words” describing articles without constraint.

I can’t help but think this is a ham-fisted way of dealing with a non-problem. As Doctorow also states, part of the issue here is the assumption that competition in a free market is at the core of creativity. I’d argue that’s untrue, that culture is built by respectfully appropriating and building on the work of others. These proposals, as they currently stand (and as I currently understand them) actively undermine internet culture.

Source: Music Week / EFF / The Verge

Simple sustainable stories

Some people are easy to follow online. They have one social media account to which they post regularly, and back that up with a single website where they expand on those points.

Stowe Boyd, whose work I’ve followed (or attempted to follow) for a few years now, is not one of these people. In fact, the number of platforms he tried earlier this year prompted me to get in touch with him to ask just how many platforms now had his subscribers’ email addresses.

Ironically, it was only last week that I decided to support Stowe’s latest venture via Substack. However, in a post yesterday he explains that he’s going ‘back to square one’:

I won’t recapitulate the many transitions that have gone on in my search for the ‘right’ newsletter/subscription technologies over the past year. But I have come to the conclusion that I am more interested in growing the community of Work Futures readers than I am in trying to make cash flow from it.

The thing I’ve learned about posting things to the internet over the last twenty years is that nobody cares. People support things that reflect who they believe themselves to be right now. That changes over time.

So if you’re putting things online, you have to make sure it works for you. Even the most fun jobs imaginable can become… something else if you focus too much on what a fickle audience wants.

As I said, I am motivated to take these steps in part by the desire to simplify my daily activities, and shelve work patterns that suck time. But I am equally motivated by making the discourse around these topics more open, while encouraging people to support Work Futures, but in that order of importance.

Openness always wins. You can support Stowe’s work via donations, and my work via Patreon.

Source: Work Futures

Keeping track of articles you want to read

One of the things I like about Hacker News is that, as well as providing useful links to technically-minded stuff, there are also ‘Ask HN’ threads where a user asks a question of the rest of the community.

Ask HN: How do you keep track of articles you want to read?

When I browse HN, I usually pick out a few articles I want to read from the front page, then email the links to myself to read later.

This method works out pretty well for me. I’m wondering if people have other strategies that work better?

I don’t like the ‘inbox as to-do list’ method. Other HN users suggested alternatives, with the top-voted comment at the time of writing this being:

I used Instapaper (https://www.instapaper.com/), then moved to Pocket (https://getpocket.com/) to take advantage of the social features, then moved back to Instapaper for no really good reason. Pocket still looks nicer and the apps are more reliable, in my experience.

They both allow you to save the full text of an article to read later, as well as archiving and organizing articles you’ve already read. They sync to phones, so most of my reading actually happens on public transit. Pocket can also sync to a Kobo ebook reader; not sure about Kindle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked with them, too.

Pocket is great, but I used IFTTT to automatically send RSS feeds there at one point, and now it seems to be in an endless sync loop.

Other HN users said that they pin bookmarks, and so have many, many tabs open at one time. I think that’s a hugely inefficient and resource-intensive approach.

Some kept it super-simple:

I use Org Mode so I have a plain text file called todo-bookmarks.org with a list of links to the articles I want to read.

This caused me to think about what I do. If I want to read something, I actually add the link as a draft post here, on Thought Shrapnel. The best way to ensure I gain value from a potentially-interesting article is to write about it.

I’d rather write about a few links rather than bookmark lots. I’ve all but given up on bookmarking, as it’s almost as quick to search the web for something I’m looking for as it is to search my bookmarks…

Source: Hacker News

F*** off Google

This is interesting, given that Google was welcomed with open arms in London:

Google plans to implant a “Google Campus” in Kreuzberg, Berlin. We, as a decentralized network of people are committed to not letting our beloved city be taken over by this law- and tax-evading company that is building a dystopian future. Let’s kick Google out of our neighborhood and lives!

What I find interesting is that not only are people organising against Google, they’ve also got a wiki to inform people and help wean them off Google services.

The problem that I have with ‘replacing’ Google services is that it’s usually non-trivial for less technical users to achieve. As the authors of the wiki point out:

It is though dangerous to think in terms of “alternatives”, like the goal was to reach equivalence to what Google offers (and risk to always lag behind). In reality what we want is *better* services than the ones of Google, because they would rest on *better* principles, such as decentralization/distribution of services, end-to-end encryption, uncompromising free/libre software, etc.

While presenting these “alternatives” or “replacements” here, we must keep in mind that the true goal is to achieve proper distribution/decentralization of information and communication, and empower people to understand and control where their information goes.

The two biggest problems with the project of removing big companies such as Google from our lives, are: (i) using web services is a social thing, and (ii) they provide such high quality services for so little financial cost.

Whether you’re using a social network to connect with friends or working with colleagues on a collaborative document, your choices aren’t solely yours. We negotiate the topography of the web at the same time as weaving the social fabric of society. It’s not enough to give people alternatives, there has to be some leadership to go with it.

Source: Fuck off Google wiki

 

On blogging

Jim Groom nails it on blogging:

[M]ost folks treat their blog as if it were some kind of glossy headshot of their thinking, whereas the beauty and freedom of blogging was that it was by design a networked tool. Blogging provides a space to develop an online voice, connect with a particular network, and build a sense of identity online in conjunction with others working through a similar process. Scale in many ways became a distraction, one which was magnified to such a degree by the hype around MOOCs in edtech that anything less that 10s of thousands of “users,” “learners,” “participants,” followers,” etc. was tacitly considered somehow less than optimal for effective online learning. It was, and remains, a symptom of the capital-driven ethos of Silicon Valley that places all value on scale and numbers which is rooted in monetization—a reality that has infected edtech and helped to undermine the value and importance of forging an independent voice and intimate connections through what should be an independent media of expression. When scale is the endgame the whole process becomes bogged down in page views, followers, and likes rather than the freedom to explore and experiment with your ideas online. It’s a uniquely web-based version of Hell where the dominant form of communication online is a Medium think piece written by your friendly neighborhood thought leader.

You could accuse Thought Shrapnel of being glossy, but it’s just a shiny version of what’s in my head.

Source: bavatuesdays