Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image from top-linked post.
Tag: social networking
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is a US-based non-profit that exists to defend civil liberties in the digital world. They’ve been around for 30 years, and I support them financially on a monthly basis.
In this article by Corynne McSherry, EFF’s Legal Director, she outlines the futility in attempts by ‘Big Social’ to do content moderation at scale:
[C]ontent moderation is a fundamentally broken system. It is inconsistent and confusing, and as layer upon layer of policy is added to a system that employs both human moderators and automated technologies, it is increasingly error-prone. Even well-meaning efforts to control misinformation inevitably end up silencing a range of dissenting voices and hindering the ability to challenge ingrained systems of oppression.CORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)
Ultimately, these monolithic social networks have a problem around false positives. It’s in their interests to be over-zealous, as they’re increasingly under the watchful eye of regulators and governments.
We have been watching closely as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, while disclaiming any interest in being “the arbiters of truth,” have all adjusted their policies over the past several months to try arbitrate lies—or at least flag them. And we’re worried, especially when we look abroad. Already this year, an attempt by Facebook to counter election misinformation targeting Tunisia, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and seven other African countries resulted in the accidental removal of accounts belonging to dozens of Tunisian journalists and activists, some of whom had used the platform during the country’s 2011 revolution. While some of those users’ accounts were restored, others—mostly belonging to artists—were not.Corynne McSherry, Content Moderation and the U.S. Election: What to Ask, What to Demand (EFF)
McSherry’s analysis is spot-on: it’s the algorithms that are a problem here. Social networks employ these algorithms because of their size and structure, and because of the cost of human-based content moderation. After all, these are companies with shareholders.
Algorithms used by Facebook’s Newsfeed or Twitter’s timeline make decisions about which news items, ads, and user-generated content to promote and which to hide. That kind of curation can play an amplifying role for some types of incendiary content, despite the efforts of platforms like Facebook to tweak their algorithms to “disincentivize” or “downrank” it. Features designed to help people find content they’ll like can too easily funnel them into a rabbit hole of disinformation.CORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)
She includes useful questions for social networks to answer about content moderation:
- Is the approach narrowly tailored or a categorical ban?
- Does it empower users?
- Is it transparent?
- Is the policy consistent with human rights principles?
You can’t tech your way out of problems the tech didn’t create. And even where content moderation has a role to play, history tells us to be wary. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do perfectly, and nearly impossible to do well, even under the most transparent, sensible, and fair conditionsCORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)
I’m so pleased that I don’t use Facebook products, and that I only use Twitter these days as a place to publish links to my writing.
Instead, I’m much happier on the Fediverse, a place where if you don’t like the content moderation approach of the instance you’re on, you can take your digital knapsack and decide to call another place home. You can find me here (for now!).
So said Albarran Cabrera, except I added a cheeky question mark.
I have a theory. Not a grand, unifying theory of everything, but a theory nonetheless. I reckon that, despite common wisdom attributing the decline of comments on blogs to social media, it’s at least also because of something else.
Here’s an obvious point: there’s more people online now than there were ten years ago. As a result, there’s more stuff being produced and shared and, because of that, there’s more to miss out on. This is known as the Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO).
While I don’t think anyone realistically thinks it’s possible to keep up with everything produced online every day, I think people do have an expectation that they can keep up with what their online friends are doing and thinking. As the number of people we’re following in different places grows and grows, we don’t have much time to share meaningfully. Hence the rise of the retweet button.
Back in 2006, in the mists of internet time, Kathy Sierra wrote a great post entitled The myth of “keeping up”. Remember that this was before people were really using social networks such as Twitter. She talks about what we’re experiencing as ‘information anxiety’ and has some tips to combat it, which I think are still relevant:
- Find the best aggregators
- Get summaries
- Cut the redundancy!
- Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
- Recognise that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
- Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
- Be a LOT more realistic about what you’re likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
- In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
- Need to know
- Should know
- Nice to know
- Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
The interesting thing is that, done well, social media can actually be a massive force for good. It used to be set up for that, coming on the back of RSS. Now, it’s set up to drag you into arguments about politics and the kind of “black holes” of gossip and celebrity entertainment that Kathy mentions.
One of the problems is that we have a cult of ‘busy’ which people mis-attribute to a Protestant work ethic instead of rapacious late-stage capitalism. I’ve recently finished 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary where he makes this startlingly obvious, but nevertheless profound point:
Because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience.Jonathan Crary
[S]ince no moment, place, or situation now exists in which one can not shop, consume, or exploit networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life.Jonathan Crary
In other words, you’re busy because of your smartphone, the apps you decide to install upon it, and the notifications that you then receive.
The solution to FOMO is to know who you are, what you care about, and the difference you’re trying to make in the world. As Gandhi famously said:
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.Mahatma Gandhi
I’ve recently fallen into the trap of replying to work emails on my days off. It’s a slippery slope, as it sets up an expectation.
The same goes with social media, of course, except that it’s even more insidious, as an ‘action’ can just be liking or retweeting. It leads to slacktivism instead of making actual, meaningful change in the world.
People joke about life admin but one of those life admin tasks might be to write down (yes! with a pen and paper!) the things you’re trying to achieve with the ‘free’ apps that you’ve got installed. If you were being thorough, or teaching kids how to do this, perhaps you’d:
- List all of the perceived benefits
- List all of the perceived drawbacks
- List all of the ways that the people making the free app can make money
Tim Ferriss recently reposted an interview he did with Seth Godin back in 2016 about how he (Seth) manages his life. It’s an object lesson in focus, and leading an intentional life without overly-quantifying it. I can’t help but think it’s all about focus. Oh, and he doesn’t use social media, other than auto-posting from his blog to Twitter.
For me, at least, because I spend so much time surrounded by technology, the decisions I make about tech are decisions I make about life. A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled Change your launcher, change your life where I explained that even just changing how you access apps can make a material difference to your life.
So, to come full circle, the best place to be is actually where you are right now, not somewhere else. If you’re fully present in the situation (Tim Ferriss suggests taking three breaths), then ask yourself some hard questions about what success looks like for you, and perhaps whether what you say, what you think, and what you do are in harmony.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Last week, Motherboard reported that an unannounced update by Apple meant that third-party repairs of products such as the MacBook Pro would be impossible:
Apple has introduced software locks that will effectively prevent independent and third-party repair on 2018 MacBook Pro computers, according to internal Apple documents obtained by Motherboard. The new system will render the computer “inoperative” unless a proprietary Apple “system configuration” software is run after parts of the system are replaced.
As they have updated the story to state, iFixit did some testing and found that this ‘kill switch’ hasn’t been activated – yet.
To me, it further reinforced why I love and support in very practical ways, Open Source Software (OSS). I use OSS, and I’m working on it in my day-to-day professional life. Sometimes, however, we don’t do a good enough job of explaining why it’s important. For me, the Apple story is a terrifying example of other people deciding when you should upgrade and/or stop using something.
Another example from this week: Google have announced that they’re shutting down their social network, Google+. It’s been a long-time coming, but it was only last month that, due to the demise of Path, my family was experimenting with Google+ as somewhere to which we could have jumped ship.
Both Apple’s products and Google+ are proprietary. You can’t see the source code. You can’t inspect it for bugs or security leaks. And the the latter is actually why Google decided to close down their service. That, and the fact it only had 500,000 users, most of whom were spending less than five seconds per visit.
So, what can we do in the face of huge companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (GAFA)? After all, they’ve got, for all intents and purposes, almost unlimited money and power. Well, we can and should vote for politicians to apply regulatory pressure on them. But, more practically, we can ignore and withdraw from these companies. They’re not trillion-dollar companies just because they’re offering polished products. They’re rich because they’re finding ever more elaborate ways to apply sneaky ways to achieve vendor lock-in.
This affects the technology purchases that we make, but it also has an effect on the social networks we use. As is becoming clear, the value that huge multi-national companies such as Google and Facebook gain from offering services for ‘free’ vastly outstrips the amount of money they spend on providing them. With Google+ shutting down, and Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, the number of options for social networking seems to be getting ever-smaller. Sadly, our current antitrust and monopoly regulations haven’t been updated to deal with this.
So what can we do? I’ve been using Mastodon in earnest since May 2017. It’s a decentralised social network, meaning that anyone can set up their own ‘instance’ and communicate with everyone else running the same OSS. Most of the time, people join established instances, whether because the instance is popular, or it fits with their particular interests. Recently, however, I’ve noticed people setting up an instance just for themselves.
At first, I thought this was a quirky and slightly eccentric thing to do. It seemed like the kind of thing that tech-literate people do just because they can. But then, I read a post by Laura Kalbag where she explained her reasoning:
Everything I post is under my control on my server. I can guarantee that my Mastodon instance won’t start profiling me, or posting ads, or inviting Nazis to tea, because I am the boss of my instance. I have access to all my content for all time, and only my web host or Internet Service Provider can block my access (as with any self-hosted site.) And all blocking and filtering rules are under my control—you can block and filter what you want as an individual on another person’s instance, but you have no say in who/what they block and filter for the whole instance.
You can also make custom emoji for your own Mastodon instance that every other instance can see and/or share.
Of course, many people reading this will think so what? And, perhaps, that seems like a whole lot of hassle. Maybe so. I hope it’s not hyperbolic to say so, but for me, I see all of this as being equivalent to climate change. It’s something that we all know we need to do something about but, for most of us, it’s just too much hassle to think about what could happen in future.
I, for one, hope that we’re not looking back from (a very hot) year 2050 regretting the choices we made in 2018.
Thinking through an approach to building Project MoodleNet that came to me this weekend, using Google search, Amazon filtering, and the Pinterest browser button as mental models.
I come across so many interesting links every day that I can only post a handful of them. Right now, and only a couple of months after starting this approach to Thought Shrapnel, I’ve got around 50 draft posts! This was one of them, from early January.
Telegram is great. I’ve been using it for the past couple of years with my wife, for the past year with my son and parents, and the past three months or so with Moodle. It’s an extremely useful platform, as it’s so quick to send messages. Reliable too, which my wife and I found Signal to struggle with sometimes.
The brothers behind Telegram made their billions from creating VKontakte (usually shortened to ‘VK’ and known as the ‘Russian Facebook’). They’ve announced that Telegram will raise millions of dollars through an ‘ICO’ or Initial Coin Offering. This uses similar terminology to an Initial Public Offering, or IPO, which comes through a company becoming publicly listed on a stock exchange. An ICO, on the other hand, is actually more like equity crowdfunding using cryptocurrency:
Encrypted messaging startup Telegram plans to launch its own blockchain platform and native cryptocurrency, powering payments on its chat app and beyond. According to multiple sources which have spoken to TechCrunch, the “Telegram Open Network” (TON) will be a new, ‘third generation’ blockchain with superior capabilities, after Bitcoin and, later, Ethereum paved the way.
It could lead to some quite exciting features:
With cryptocurrency powered payments inside Telegram, users could bypass remittance fees when sending funds across international borders, move sums of money privately thanks to the app’s encryption, deliver micropayments that would incur too high of credit card fees, and more. Telegram is already the de facto communication channel for the global cryptocurrency community, making a natural home to its own coin and Blockchain.
Whereas the major social networks kowtow to governmental demands around censorship, that doesn’t seem to be the gameplan for Telegram:
Moving to a decentralized blockchain platform could kill two birds with one stone for Telegram. As well as creating a full-blown cryptocurrency economy inside the app, it would also insulate it against the attacks and accusations of nation-states such as Iran, where it now accounts for 40% of Iran’s internet traffic but was temporarily blocked amongst nationwide protests against the government.
I don’t pretend to understand the white paper they’ve published, but:
The claim is that it will be capable of a vastly superior number of transactions, around 1 million per second. In other words, similar to the ambitions of the Polkadot project out of Berlin — but with an installed base of 180 million people. This makes it an ‘interchain’ with so-called ‘dynamic sharding’.
Exciting times. As I was explaining to someone recently, Telegram are taking a very interesting route into user adoption. They couldn’t go with the standard ‘social network’ approach as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter mean that market is effectively saturated. Instead, they started with a messaging app, and are building out from there.
Everyone wants ‘decentralisation’ these days, whether it’s the way we make payments, or… well, pretty much anything that can be put on a blockchain.
But what does that actually mean in practice? What, as William James would say, is the ‘cash value’ of decentralisation? This article explores some of that:
Decentralization is a pretty vague buzzword. Vitalik considered its meaning a year ago. In my estimation, it can mean a couple of things:
- Abstract principle when analyzing general power structures of any kind: “Political decentralization” means spreading political power among differing entities. “Market decentralization” refers to outcomes being produced without being coordinated by a central authority. It’s a philosophical idea that can be interpreted broadly in a lot of different contexts.
- Bitcoin, mostly. Lots of credit for the buzzword’s current popularity traces back to cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and I think the term “decentralization” without context is rightfully claimed by the yescoiners and defer to Vitalik’s interpretation for its meaning. I call this “financial decentralization” in contexts where my definition is dominant.
- A second, specific implementation of (1) that I want to talk about.
The author goes on to discuss a specific problem around social networking that decentralisation can solve:
Fundamentally, the problem with the web ecosyste
m is that consumer choice is limited. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech giants “own” a large part of the social graph that both powers the core digital connection goodness and sustains the momentum that they will keep owning it, due to something called Metcalfe’s law. If you want to connect to people on the internet, you have to play by their rules.
So what can we do?
A “web decentralized” system looks like thus. You start with bare-bones replicas of social networking, publishing, microblogging, and chatting. You build a small social graph of your friends. This time, the data structures powering these applications live on your computer and are in a format you can easily grok and extend (Sorry, normies, it will be engineers-only for the next year or two).
The solution is technological standardization. Individuals, mostly engineers, need to expend a lot more effort contributing to the protocols and processes that drive inter-application communication. Your core Facebook identity — your username, your connections, your chat history — should be a universally standardized protocol with a Democracy-scale process for updating and extending it. Crucially, that process needs to be directed outside the direct control of tech companies, who are capitalistically bound to monopolize and direct control back to their domains.
It’s worth quoting the last paragraph:
Ultimately, decentralization is about shaping the the balance of power in digital domains. I for one would not like to wait around while the Tech overlords and Crusty regulators decide what happens with our digital lives. There’s no reason for us to keep listening to either of them. A handful of dedicated engineers, designers, a organizers could implement the alternative today. And that’s what web decentralization is all about.
Source: Clutch of the Dead Hand
I love everything about this post:
Jason eventually got me to see that “Ask Dr. Time” didn’t have to be an advice column in a conventional sense. What if readers had problems that didn’t require common sense or finely honed interpersonal skills, but an ability to make sense of abstruse reasoning? What if they didn’t need a fancy Watson but an armchair Wittgenstein? What if kottke.org hosted the first metaphysical advice columnist? That proposition is still absurd, but it’s absurd in an interesting way. And “absurd in an interesting way” is what Dr. Time is all about. Not practical solutions, but philosophical entanglements and disentanglings. That I could do.
Quoting from the introduction of Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey:
Subsequent studies, building on the work of Parry and Lord, have shown that there are marked differences in the ways that oral and literate cultures think about memory, originality, and repetition. In highly literate cultures, there is a tendency to dismiss repetitive or formulaic discourse as cliche; we think of it as boring or lazy writing. In primarily oral cultures, repetition tends to be much more highly valued. Repeated phrases, stories, or tropes can be preserved to some extent over many generations without the use of writing, allowing people in an oral culture to remember their own past. In Greek mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is said to be the mother of the Muses, because poetry, music, and storytelling are all imagined as modes by which people remember the times before they were born.
What Ong helped conceptualize and popularize, especially in his book Orality and Literacy, was that in cultures with no tradition of literacy, orality had a fundamentally different character from those where literacy was dominant. It’s different again in cultures where literacy is known but scarce.
Answering the question of whether texting and Twitter is a return to a more ‘oral’ form of communicating, Dr. Time answers in the negative:
The only form of genuine speech that’s genuinely visual and not auditory is sign language. And sign language is speech-like in pretty much every way imaginable: it’s ephemeral, it’s interactive, there’s no record, the signs are fluid. But even most sign language is at least in part chirographic, i.e., dependent on writing and written symbols. At least, the sign languages we use today: although our spoken/vocal languages are pretty chirographic too.
So tweets and text messages aren’t oral. They’re secondarily literate. Wait, that sounds horrible! How’s this: they’re artifacts and examples of secondary literacy. They’re what literacy looks like after television, the telephone, and the application of computing technologies to those communication forms. Just as orality isn’t the same after you’ve introduced writing, and manuscript isn’t the same after you’ve produced print, literacy isn’t the same once you have networked orality. In this sense, Twitter is the necessary byproduct of television.t
The author finally gets around to voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri towards the end. I’ve already quoted enough, so I encourage you to check it out in full.