Category: Life online (page 1 of 4)

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

On the cultural value of memes

I’ve always been a big fan of memes. In fact, I discuss them in my thesis, ebook, and TEDx talk. This long-ish article from Jay Owens digs into their relationship with fake news and what he calls ‘post-authenticity’. What I’m really interested in, though, comes towards the end. He gets into the power of memes and why they’re the perfect form of online cultural expression.

So through humour, exaggeration, and irony — a truth emerges about how people are actually feeling. A truth that they may not have felt able to express straightforwardly. And there’s just as much, and potentially more, community present in these groups as in many of the more traditional civic-oriented groups Zuckerberg’s strategy may have had in mind.

The thing that can be missing from text-based interactions is empathy. The right kind of meme, however, speaks using images, words, but also to something else that a group have in common.

Meme formats — from this week’s American Chopper dialectic model to now classics like the “Exploding Brain,” “Distracted Boyfriend,” and “Tag Yourself” templates — are by their very nature iterative and quotable. That is how the meme functions, through reference to the original context and memes that have come before, coupled with creative remixing to speak to a particular audience, topic, or moment. Each new instance of a meme is thereby automatically familiar and recognisable. The format carries a meta-message to the audience: “This is familiar, not weird.” And the audience is prepared to know how to react: you like, you respond with laughter-referencing emoji, you tag your friends in the comments.

Let’s take this example, that Owens cites in the article. I sent it to my wife via Telegram, which an instant messaging app that we use as a permanent backchannel).

90s kids

Her response, inevitably was: 😂

It’s funny because it’s true. But it also quickly communicates solidarity and empathy.

The format acts as a kind of Trojan horse, then, for sharing difficult feelings — because the format primes the audience to respond hospitably. There isn’t that moment of feeling stuck over how to respond to a friend’s emotional disclosure, because she hasn’t made the big statement directly, but instead through irony and cultural quotation — distancing herself from the topic through memes, typically by using stock photography (as Leigh Alexander notes) rather than anything as gauche as a picture of oneself. This enables you the viewer to sidestep the full intensity of it in your response, should you choose, but still, crucially, to respond). And also to DM your friend and ask, “Hey, are you alright?” and cut to the realtalk should you so choose to.

So, effectively, you can be communicating different things to different people. If, instead of sending the 90s kids image above directly to my wife via Telegram, I’d shared it to my Twitter followers, it may have elicited a different response. Some people would have liked and retweeted it, for sure, but someone who knows me well might ask if I’m OK. After all, there’s a subtext in there of feeling like you’re “stuck”.

Owens goes on to talk about how that memetic culture means that we’re living in a ‘post authentic’ world. But did such authenticity ever really exist?

So perhaps to say that this post-authentic moment is one of evolving, increasingly nuanced collective communication norms, able to operate with multi-layered recursive meanings and ironies in disposable pop culture content… is kind of cold comfort.

Nonetheless, author Robin Sloan described the genius of the “American Chopper” meme as being that “THIS IS THE ONLY MEME FORMAT THAT ACKNOWLEDGES THE EXISTENCE OF COMPETING INFORMATION, AND AS SUCH IT IS THE ONLY FORMAT SUITED TO THE COMPLEXITY OF OUR WORLD!”

Amen to that.

Source: Jay Owens

Clickbait and switch?

Should you design for addiction or for loyalty? That’s the question posed by Michelle Manafy in this post for Nieman Lab. It all depends, she says, on whether you’re trying to attract users or an audience.

With advertising as the primary driver of web revenue, many publishers have chased the click dragon. Seeking to meet marketers’ insatiable desire for impressions, publishers doubled down on quick clicks. Headlines became little more than a means to a clickthrough, often regardless of whether the article would pay off or even if the topic was worthy of coverage. And — since we all know there are still plenty of publications focusing on hot headlines over substance — this method pays off. In short-term revenue, that is.

However, the reader experience that shallow clicks deliver doesn’t develop brand affinity or customer loyalty. And the negative consumer experience has actually been shown to extend to any advertising placed in its context. Sure, there are still those seeking a quick buck — but these days, we all see clickbait for what it is.

Audiences mature over time and become wary of particular approaches. Remember “…and you’ll not believe what came next” approaches?

Ask Manafy notes, it’s much easier to design for addiction than to build an audience. The former just requires lots and lots of tracking — something at which the web has become spectacularly good at, due to advertising.

For example, many push notifications are specifically designed to leverage the desire for human interaction to generate clicks (such as when a user is alerted that their friend liked an article). Push notifications and alerts are also unpredictable (Will we have likes? Mentions? New followers? Negative comments?). And this unpredictability, or B.F. Skinner’s principle of variable rewards, is the same one used in those notoriously addictive slot machines. They’re also lucrative — generating more revenue in the U.S. than baseball, theme parks, and movies combined. A pull-to-refresh even smacks of a slot machine lever.

The problem is that designing for addiction isn’t a long-term strategy. Who plays Farmville these days? And the makers of Candy Crush aren’t exactly crushing it with their share price these days.

Sure, an addict is “engaged” — clicking, liking, swiping — but what if they discover that your product is bad for them? Or that it’s not delivering as much value as it does harm? The only option for many addicts is to quit, cold turkey. Sure, many won’t have the willpower, and you can probably generate revenue off these users (yes, users). But is that a long-term strategy you can live with? And is it a growth strategy, should the philosophical, ethical, or regulatory tide turn against you?

The ‘regulatory tide’ referenced here is exemplified through GDPR, which is already causing a sea change in attitude towards user data. Compliance with teeth, it seems, gets results.

Designing for sustainability isn’t just good from a regulatory point of view, it’s good for long-term business, argues Manafy:

Where addiction relies on an imbalanced and unstable relationship, loyal customers will return willingly time and again. They’ll refer you to others. They’ll be interested in your new offerings, because they will already rely on you to deliver. And, as an added bonus, these feelings of goodwill will extend to any advertising you deliver too. Through the provision of quality content, delivered through excellent experiences at predictable and optimal times, content can become a trusted ally, not a fleeting infatuation or unhealthy compulsion.

Instead of thinking of your audience as ‘users’ waiting for their next hit, she suggests, think of them as your audience. That’s a much better approach and will help you make much better design decisions.

Source: Nieman Lab