Tag Archives: facebook

Required Reading? Oh yes.

To live in the modern world, you need to understand social networks. That’s not the same as using them; you can understand them without using or wanting to use them, and you can quite happily use them without actually understanding how they work at all. In fact, I would suggest, most people do, and that ignorance is amongst the bigger problems facing the world today.

Fortunately, we have a good antidote to it, in Charles Arthur’s latest book “Social Warming: The dangerous and polarising effects of social media”. I think it is superb.

Arthur is a highly-respected writer and journalist of long standing, but it’s still quite an achievement to produce a book which is nicely written and enjoyable to read, yet simultaneously extremely serious and important.

The title draws an analogy with global warming: there’s no one single massive event that causes climate change: it’s the result of millions of small actions and interactions taking place all over the planet for an extended period. And the mechanisms which drive social networks, which make them tick, also seem mostly harmless at the level of individual interactions, but they too accumulate to have enormous impact. We remain in ignorance of them at our peril… until perhaps one day we’ll find things have gone too far.

The dramatic cover might lead you to think this is going to be a shocker: a breathtaking exposé of corporate evils, which you can only escape by banning Facebook from your life forever. In fact, however, it is a rational explanation of the algorithms social networks have found to be effective in driving ever-greater engagement of the audience (and hence ever-greater revenues for their shareholders). And it’s a journey through numerous examples of the impact these mechanisms have actually had in key situations in different parts of the world.

The phrase “required reading” is a somewhat clichéd one, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, but I think it may be appropriate here. Perhaps, though, I should moderate it a bit. This book should be considered required reading if you post to social networks, read social networks, have any close friends or family who use social networks, read papers or watch media where the journalists get information from social networks, meet people whose approach to global pandemics depends on what they read on social networks, live in a country where voting is heavily influenced by social networks, or have kids growing up in a world dominated by social networks.

The rest of you don’t need to read it.


‘Social Warming’ can be purchased from Amazon and many other sources, with hardback, Kindle and audiobook versions available now, and paperback to follow in the spring.

How to fix social media

Nicholas Carr, writing in The New Atlantis, has a splendid overview of how past regulation of technologies has distinguished between personal communications, which should be private, and broadcast communications, which should be regulated because, as Hoover put it, “The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for public benefit.”

He talks about how regulation of radio was accelerated because of the interference of amateur broadcasters in the rescue efforts when the Titanic went down, and follows the trajectory from there.

With the even more expansive Communications Act of 1934, Congress replaced the FRC with a more permanent body, the Federal Communications Commission, and widened its purview to include the personal communication systems of telephony and telegraphy, and eventually the new broadcast medium of television. By combining the mandate that telephone and telegraph providers operate as common carriers with the mandate that broadcasters act in the public interest, the legislation formalized the two-pronged philosophy that would govern electronic communications for the rest of the century.

The public interest, as we all know, is not easy to define. But that is part of its strength, Carr argues.

As the fraught history of the fairness doctrine makes clear, the public interest standard is not a magic bullet. Its amorphousness means that its interpretation will always be messy, combative, and provisional — as political processes tend to be in a democracy. Some legal scholars and pundits, particularly those with a libertarian tilt, have argued that the standard’s imprecision gives government regulators too much leeway. The standard, writes one typical critic, is “vague to the point of vacuousness, providing neither guidance nor constraint.” But that’s a misinterpretation. The public interest standard is more than just a legal principle. It is an ethical principle. It assures the people’s right to have a say in the workings of the institutions and systems that shape their lives — a right fundamental to a true democracy and a just society. The vagueness of the standard is necessary for a simple reason: public opinion changes as circumstances change.

Exactly how this distinction might be applied to social networks is not clear, he admits.

On a social network like Facebook, conversations feel like broadcasts, and broadcasts feel like conversations.

In addition, some posts which were intended for a small audience go viral and become a large-scale broadcast, whether or not that was the author’s intention. But he makes the point that the networks themselves are very aware of all the statistics about the reach of each individual post, and that this might form the basis of some form of regulatory distinctions.

And…

It’s worth remembering that Congress’s decision to license radio operators after the Titanic disaster was about more than just allocating scarce spectrum. It was about bringing those who speak to the masses out of the shadows and into the daylight of the public square. It was about making broadcasters, whether individuals, businesses, or other organizations, visible and accountable.

A very nice piece and worth reading in full. Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

It only takes one bit of data…

A few days ago, I created a new Facebook account. Not for myself, of course; I’m not stupid! (I deleted my own account many years ago and haven’t looked back.) No, it was because my company was writing some software that connected to Instagram, and doing that requires you to have a Facebook account in order to get ‘Developer’ access and for testing.

So, I set up a new email address and registered with a somewhat fake name, logged in and started browsing a generic here-are-some-feeds-you-might-be-interested-in type of experience. No personal details… all nice and anonymous.

The following day, I couldn’t log in. “Your account has been blocked.” Had I been rumbled? Ah, no, they just wanted to check I was really a real human by sending a text to my phone. I put in my phone number, got the text, filled in the code, and I was back in again. Jolly good. I logged out and went back to work.

A few days later…

The following Tuesday I logged in again, and there was a picture of my cousin, listed as someone I might want to connect with. Nice picture, I thought. And then, “Wait a minute! How do they know about her?”

I scrolled down, and sure enough, there were my friends, family, past work colleagues… dozens of ’em, all just waiting to welcome my ‘anonymous’ account into the fold. And then I remembered…

I still have a WhatsApp account. I seldom use that, either, but it’s there. And so, I presume, the act of entering my phone number for a security confirmation on my test account gave Facebook access to my entire graph of social contacts. Or, and perhaps in addition, lots of people with Facebook apps on their phone will have my phone number in their contacts. Facebook know exactly who I am, and all about me. Sigh. Should have used a ‘burner’ phone! Meanwhile, my friends have probably all received invitations to befriend a strangely-named new account and thought that the Facebook algorithms had gone a bit squiffy. Oh no. They’re working perfectly.

There is, however, something that still intrigues me. A noticeable aspect of the front page was the range of dog-related material. If this came from WhatsApp, how did they know I liked dogs? I guess it might be an Instagram link, but I really don’t have many dog pictures there either. Mmm.

No, I suspect this must be because I used my spaniel Tilly as the profile pic on the company account, just for fun. (Her modelling fees are very reasonable, and can be paid entirely in Bonios.) Anyway, if that is how they made the connection, then I can’t help wondering what other analysis they might be doing of people’s profile photos…?

Of course, I thought, I may be imagining it; they may just have decided that dogs were a cute and safe bet for the populace as a whole.

But I notice that there weren’t any pictures of cats on my page.

The Opposite of a Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
24 Feb 2021

The Global Online-Traders’ and Community-Hosters’ Association

CAMBRIDGE, UK — Today sees the launch of a new industry body for major technology companies in the online-shopping, social-networking and other related fields. The Global Online-Traders’ and Community-Hosters’ Association (GOTCHA) exists to protect the value of news stories about its members, and ensure fair compensation of those whose activities actually generate the news.

“This is a problem which dates back to the dawn of the industrial revolution”, said William Boot, the organisation’s chairman and CEO. “Newspapers and other media have always been fascinated by the activities of large companies and the personalities who lead them. It is fair to say, in fact, that a significant proportion of their revenues are derived from such stories, and today you can barely open a newspaper or visit a news website without reading about the wealth of an Amazon chairman, the activities of a Facebook CEO, or the supposed iniquities of a Google algorithm.”

Boot, a low-paid former journalist himself, says that he gradually became persuaded of the lack of fairness in the current system and determined to do something about it by joining the other side and forming a campaigning organisation on behalf of those who actually feature in the news.

“Nobody is saying that articles shouldn’t be written about these organisations and entrepreneurs”, he explained. “However, we are clearly living in an unbalanced world when media organisations can make significant amounts of money simply by writing a few words about those who do the hard productive work. These technologists give up years of their life creating services that provide value, products that enrich people’s lives, and platforms that dramatically reduce the friction of global trading. It seems only fair that, when an article is written about a major technology corporation or one of its officers or investors, some portion of the revenue derived from that story should go to the company or individual concerned, since, without their success, there would be no story to write. GOTCHA will be campaigning tirelessly on behalf of its members and will be facilitating the resulting payments made by the traditional media outlets.”

GOTCHA, though founded in Cambridge, England, has yet to announce the final location of its headquarters, though the association has made it clear it won’t be based in Australia.

This is your life

This is either fascinating, useful, or scary, depending on your point of view.

I’m usually logged in to my Google accounts on all of my devices, because I really appreciate the synchronisation of my history, finishing YouTube videos on one device that I started on another, and so forth.

Subconsciously, we all understand that Google therefore knows a lot about us. But if you go to:

https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity

you can see it all laid out before you.

For me, amongst other things, it shows things I’ve searched for, YouTube videos I’ve watched, posts on StackExchange, areas I’ve explored on Google maps, and so on. I generally use Safari, but if I were a more regular Chrome user, there would be a great deal more of my online activity listed here. (If you try this, then switch to ‘Item view’ for a blow-by-blow account.)

This timeline is also searchable, which is very useful for the more forgetful amongst us.

Now, if you subscribe to the ‘Big Companies are Bad’ philosophy, especially in light of recent Facebook news, this would be terrifying, though if you’re of that frame of mind you’d probably not log in to accounts on these services anyway, in which case your record will be less detailed, but you’ll use a lot of benefits too. And Google does offer you plenty of control over what they store, how much ads are personalised, etc. And you can delete your record of past activities.

Wherever you come on the paranoia scale, it is worthwhile and educational, I think, to visit such pages from time to time to develop a clearer understanding of what’s being recorded behind the scenes.

Noel Coward and Facebook

I still find Facebook a bit confusing. Non-intuitive. And I don’t have this problem with other networks. I’m wondering whether this is because I can’t be bothered to spend much time there, so it’s unfamiliar territory, or whether it really is badly designed, or whether I’m just getting old!

I was an early Facebook user and was rather put off by the invitations I would get to sign up for a plethora of pointless apps. “John Smith has just slapped you on the cheek. Click here to add CheekSlap to your profile…” That’s all handled much better now, but I never really got the FB habit.

This is partly because creating blog posts and web sites was already second nature to me by then, and I preferred publishing in a format over which I had more control, and which was more open. Stuff I write here gets found by Google and is accessible to everyone. Stuff in Facebook doesn’t, and isn’t. When I post on my blog, I can notify my FB friends automatically and the post is only one click away. And I can be pretty confident it will still be accessible in decade or two’s time, which is important for me, to the degree that this is a personal diary.

I also started to use Twitter fairly early and my tweets are similarly cross-posted to FB. You can’t conveniently do this the other way around because of Twitter’s 140 char limit. Yes, I suppose you could tweet a link to new FB content, but again, that link would only be of any use to those with FB accounts. Facebook is a closed, walled garden, though admittedly with rather a lot of people inside the walls now! But as Jason Kottke eloquently put it, Facebook is AOL 2.0.

All of this means that I tend to think of FB as a secondary, write-only medium. I actually post quite a bit there, but almost never directly, and I usually only open the site when I get an email notification that a friend has responded. Is this antisocial? People who take from networks and never contribute anything back are sometimes called leeches. What about the other way around?

I prefer to think that I’m just following Noel Coward’s excellent advice about the new medium of his day, television.

Television, he said, is something for appearing on, not for watching.

Well, exactly, dear boy.

Facing the Facebook facts

In the early days of Facebook, I found it rather annoying – there were just too many invitations from people which would have involved installing applications in my account. So I focused on the more streamlined Twitter, and many of my friends seem to have done the same.

But I’m definitely in the minority. Facebook publishes detailed statistics about their users, presumably because they are rightly proud of the numbers. 350M active users, of whom, on any given day, 50% log in, and 10% update their status at least once.

Twitter doesn’t publish any stats, but even the most optimistic estimates suggest they have less than a tenth of these numbers. For all the recent attention, it does seem as if they have a long way to go to be anything like as influential as Facebook, and such graphs as I’ve been able to find suggest that usage has declined over the last six months.

Anyone know of any reliable stats?

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser