Category: Life online (page 1 of 4)

What did the web used to be like?

One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’ve been online for the last 20-plus years is that not everyone is in the same boat. Not only are there adults who never experienced the last millennium, but varying internet adoption rates mean that, for some people, centralised services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are synonymous with the web.

Stories are important. That’s why I appreciated this Hacker News thread with the perfect title and sub-title:

Ask HN: What was the Internet like before corporations got their hands on it? What was the Internet like in its purest form? Was it mainly information sharing, and if so, how reliable was the information?

There’s lots to unpack here: corporate takeover of online spaces, veracity of information provided, and what the ‘purest form’ of the internet actually is/was.

Inevitably, given the readership of Hacker News, the top-voted post is technical (and slightly boastful):

1990. Not very many people had even heard of it. Some of us who’d gotten tired of wardialing and Telenet/Tymnet might have had friends in local universities who clued us in with our first hacked accounts, usually accessed by first dialing into university DECServers or X.25 networks. Overseas links from NSFNet could be as slow as 128kbit and you were encouraged to curtail your anonymous FTP use accordingly. Yes you could chat and play MUDs, but you could also hack so many different things. And admins were often relatively cool as long as you didn’t use their machines as staging points to hack more things. If you got your hands on an outdial modem or x.25 gateway, you were sitting pretty sweet (until someone examined the bill and kicked you out). It really helped to be conversant in not just Unix, but also VMS, IBM VM/CMS, and maybe even Primenet. When Phrack came out, you immediately read it and removed it from your mail spool, not just because it was enormous, but because admins would see it and label you a troublemaker.

We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.

We just didn’t foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.

I’ve already detailed my early computing history (up to 2009) for a project that asked for my input. I’ll not rehash it here, but the summary is that I got my first PC when I was 15 for Christmas 1995, and (because my parents wouldn’t let me) secretly started going online soon after.

My memory of this from an information-sharing point of view was that you had to be very careful about what you read. Because the web was smaller, and it was only the people who were really interested in getting their stuff out there who had websites, there was a lot of crazy conspiracy theories. I’m kind of glad that I went on as a reasonably-mature teenager rather than a tween.

Although I’ve very happy to be able to make my living primarily online, I suppose I feel a bit like this commenter:

This will probably come across as Get Of My Lawn type of comment.
What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.

Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.

I’m not saying that’s bad. I think it’s awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I’m only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was “in the know” or I can’t put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.

Maybe it’s the same feeling as liking something before it’s popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)

Another commenter pointed to a short blog post he wrote on the subject, where he talks about how things were better when everyone was anonymous:

When it was anonymous, your name wasn’t attached to everything you did online. Everyone went by a handle. This means you could start a Geocities site and carve out your own niche space online, people could befriend and follow you who normally wouldn’t, and even the strangest of us found a home. All sorts of whacky, impossible things were possible because we weren’t bound by societal norms that plague our daily existence.

I get that, but I think that things that make sense and are sustainable for the few, aren’t necessarily so for the many. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and telling stories about how things used to be, but as someone who used to teach the American West, there is (for better or worse) a parallel there with the evolution of the web.

The closest place to how the web was that I currently experience is Mastodon. It’s fully of geeks, marginalised groups, and weird/wacky ideas. You’d love it.

Source: Hacker News


Old web screenshot compilation image via Vice

Rules for Online Sanity

It’s funny: we tell kids not to be mean to one another, and then immediately jump on social media to call people out and divide ourselves into various camps.

This list by Sean Blanda has been shared in several places, and rightly so. I’ve highlighted what I consider to be the top three.

I’ve started thinking about what are the “new rules” for navigating the online world? If you could get everyone to agree (implicitly or explicitly) to a set of rules, what would they be? Below is an early attempt at an “Rules for Online Sanity” list. I’d love to hear what you think I missed.

  • Reward your “enemies” when they agree with you, exhibit good behavior, or come around on an issue. Otherwise they have no incentive to ever meet you halfway.
  • Accept it when people apologize. People should be allowed to work through ideas and opinions online. And that can result in some messy outcomes. Be forgiving.
  • Sometimes people have differing opinions because they considered something you didn’t.
  • Take a second.
  • There’s always more to the story. You probably don’t know the full context of whatever you’re reading or watching.
  • If an online space makes more money the more time you spend on it, use sparingly.
  • Judge people on their actions, not their words. Don’t get outraged over what people said. Get outraged at what they actually do.
  • Try to give people the benefit of the doubt, be charitable in how you read people’s ideas.
  • Don’t treat one bad actor as representative of whatever group or demographic they belong to.
  • Create the kind of communities and ideas you want people to talk about.
  • Sometimes, there are bad actors that don’t play by the rules. They should be shunned, castigated, and banned.
  • You don’t always have the moral high ground. You are not always right.
  • Block and mute quickly. Worry about the bubbles that creates later.
  • There but for the grace of God go you.

Oh, and about “creating communities”: why not support Thought Shrapnel via Patreon and comment on these posts along with people you already know have something in common?

Source: The Discourse (via Read Write Collect)

Baseline levels of conscientiousness

Baseline levels of conscientiousness

As I mentioned on New Years’ Day, I’ve decided to trade some of my privacy for convenience, and am now using the Google Assistant on a regular basis. Unlike Randall Munroe, the author of xkcd, I have no compunction about outsourcing everything other than the Very Important Things That I’m Thinking About to other devices (and other people).

Source: xkcd

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