Tag Archives: social networks

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.

Maintaining the social balance

I remember a discussion with a good friend of mine, a co-founder of some of my past companies. He was a bit of a perfectionist, and often pointed out to other employees when they didn’t live up to his exacting standards.

“That’s fine”, I said, “but people will remember the times when you criticise them ten times as clearly as when you praise them. So if you want to maintain even a basic equilibrium, make sure you go out of your way to find good things to say to people ten times as often as bad things.”

I was thinking about this as I switched off my Twitter app this evening. Actually, I didn’t close it down: my phone did. At the start of the pandemic, I was worried I might spend too much time on social media, so I used Apple’s rather good Screen Time system to set a limit for social networking apps. In my case, that means Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and my combined use of all of those networks, on all of my devices, shouldn’t exceed 15 mins per day.

This limit has worked very well. I often don’t hit it, and when I do, I almost always let the system do its thing and switch off the aforementioned apps for the rest of the day. The result is that I’ve got out of the habit of checking Twitter on a regular basis; I look at it perhaps every second day, when I happen to think about it.

And I think this is a good thing. Twitter and Facebook are the world’s biggest tabloids, and a big part of their business model involves convincing you that the world is more broken, angry, shocking and angst-ridden than it actually is in real life. And, as with my employee-relations example above, negative comments about anything are often more memorable: we all know how a media critic can come up with a short, clever, cutting remark about a dramatic work over his cup of coffee, and so devastate months of work of dozens of creative people. If you spend too much time with social networks, you can come away with a very negative view of life, and I think it’s important to keep a careful eye on that balance.

So what is the right balance? Well, for me, 15 mins of social networks for every 23 hours and 45 mins of ‘no social networks’ seems about right, to keep things in perspective. Recommended.

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.

The Hymn of Acxiom

This is haunting, beautiful, and spooky. And it’s from 2013, but I’ve only just discovered it.

It’s by Vienna Teng, and it’s most fun to watch her introduce it live:

But if you want the lyrics more clearly, someone’s done a nice transcription.

Android: How the other half live

I have had an epiphany. Living on a small boat with four strangers for five days is a great way to discover many things (including, in my case, what good company they were). One of the less aquatic things I learned, though, was probably very obvious and I should have realised it years ago.

One day, we were sharing photos of our adventures, and I sent a few of mine to a fellow shipmate. “Oh!”, she said. “You’ve sent them by text! You can use WhatsApp if that’s easier.” To which I responded that I had recently deleted my WhatsApp account.

This casual announcement, to my surprise, was met with blank astonishment.

Deleted WhatsApp?! Why on earth would you do that? I explained that I wanted to distance myself a bit more from Facebook (for reasons I would have hoped were reasonably obvious by now) and, having not missed my FB account since binning it a few years ago, I had decided to do the same with WhatsApp. They were kind and considerate, but I was clearly regarded as something of an oddity; much more so, say, than if I had announced I was a vegan. And it wasn’t until just after the trip, that I realised why.

You see, I, and almost everybody I communicate with regularly, are Apple users, and so for the last decade or so we’ve had access to iMessage, the chat service behind the ‘Messages’ app (formerly known as iChat).

For those not in this world, Messages basically provides a chat interface which sends and receives SMS text messages if your recipient isn’t an Apple user, but seamlessly switches to using internet-based messaging if they are. You use the same app, but SMS texts are shown in green whereas internet-based iMessages are shown in blue. As well as being completely free, of course, the latter allows Messages to provide group messaging, to work seamlessly across all my Apple devices, to provide delivery confirmation, and so forth.

So when WhatsApp arrived, I didn’t really see the point of it. I installed it, yes, because I had a few friends and family who used it, but it always seemed an inferior solution; in particular, it didn’t really work well on my desktop machine, laptop or iPad. You could do it, but this was clearly a botched afterthought and involved regular re-confirmation using your phone. Why, I wondered, would you want to type text-based messages on a little phone keyboard if you were sitting at a desk with a better one? Why would you want to make a Faustian pact with Mark Zuckerberg simply to send chat messages? And so on.

Here’s the thing, you see: never having used Android, I had just assumed there was some equivalent service built in to that system. After all, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger were long gone, so I just assumed that Android had always included an iMessage-like system of its own that everybody else was using. It probably had a Windows interface too, but I hadn’t really used Windows this millennium either, so didn’t know what people did there. I just assumed the the Microsoft/Google fans had some Android Chat system of their own, and only used WhatsApp because it picked up their Facebook contacts or something. In contrast, if I want to start a group discussion with, say, my mother, wife, and niece, I just use the same app as if I were sending them an individual text. It’s built-in, it’s the default, and they all have it on all of their machines and could answer anywhere.

So enlightenment only struck when I found myself on this boat and in the unusual situation, for me, of being in the minority as an iPhone user. I may even have been in a minority of one. So when I sent them all a message full of photos as a group, they all got it as SMS texts, and had no way of replying to the group, or even of knowing that they hadn’t each been the only recipient. (SMS messages have a Bcc-like facility, but not a Cc-like facility.) So it’s no wonder they all used and relied on WhatsApp: the poor things didn’t really have anything else! And it’s no wonder they were all astonished at my giving it up. As far as I can gather, it has done for Android users what iMessage started doing for Apple users all those years before (though still, it seems to me, in a markedly inferior way).

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m ignorant of other messaging systems. I used AIM, ICQ, and then Skype chat for years, Slack for a while, and I currently use Zulip and Signal every day to communicate with other groups of friends and work colleagues. Even Teams, when I have to. I love chat systems. I just hadn’t realised that Android didn’t have a default group-messaging solution built in, or that you had to choose between sending texts and doing something radically different on a third-party app for free messaging or for groups. Now I know, and I understand better why WhatsApp is so much more compelling for others than it ever was for me.

I could, of course, have just emailed them, and that would probably have been the best solution, but I think email has one key disadvantage: it’s still slightly less convenient to share your email address with someone than it is your phone number. If all email addresses were 11-digit numbers, it would be easy to call them out to somebody on the other side of the deck in a stiff breeze, and for the recipient to type them in on a simple numeric keypad while hanging onto a halyard with the other hand. Perhaps the solution, these days, is just to have my email address in a QR code stuck to the back of my phone, which anybody could scan quickly if they wanted to communicate with me…

In the meantime, if you do want to use an end-to-end-encrypted messaging system which supports groups, is based on phone numbers but works nicely on machines with keyboards, works on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows and Linux, and doesn’t involve selling your soul, I’ve been finding Signal to work very well.

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.

Introducing the Windowizer

Favourite quote of the day

We have never experienced a disease that hit the whole planet at this scale, this fast, all at the same time. Well, except for Facebook.

Paolo Valdemarin, on the (splendid) State of the Net podcast.

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.

The WhatsApp Exodus

Apparently, lots of people are leaving WhatsApp, or at least looking for alternatives. (So say articles like this and this, at least.) I’ve only rarely used it, since most of my close friends and family are on iMessage and both my work-related groups use Zulip. It’s only the occasional extended-family discussion that ends up on WhatsApp.

But if you’ve missed the story, this is because they changed their Terms of Service recently, and lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month). Still, that will give them things like my name, phone number and location (from my photos if not from the apps).

In the early days, by the way, WhatsApp traded, as BlackBerry had done before, on the fact that it was secure messaging — encrypted end-to-end at least for one-on-one conversations. My understanding from those who follow these things more closely is that the security services tolerate this because the accounts are so closely tied to phone numbers, which means that, though they can only see metadata, they can get lots of it and related information because of older laws allowing phone-tracing etc. But there may be some people out there who thought that the use of WhatsApp was giving them a decent level of security, in which case this would perhaps be more of a shock.

Anyway, I too now have a Signal account, alongside Telegram, Skype, Messages… and all the others on all my devices. Actually, that was one of the reasons I disliked WhatsApp: the pain of using it on my iPad, desktop and laptop. And who wants to type things on a phone keypad when they have an alternative? You could run clients on those other devices, but (presumably because of the regulatory issues above) they had to be tied to the account running on your phone, and that connection seemed a bit fragile and had to be oft-renewed.

Signal, which I installed last night, works on a similar principle; it’ll be interesting to see whether it does it better! But it looks OK on my iPad; time to go and try it on my Macs… In the meantime, you can find me on Signal, if you know my phone number (like the FBI, GCHQ and Mark Zuckerberg do). If not, they can tell you where to find me.

Those little avatars are actually quite useful

Yesterday, while on a video call, I fired up Twitter to check something, and amongst the stream of inconsequentialities, something jumped out at me: a tweet, just half an hour before, from my friend Lucy Jones saying that her father had died that morning, and how devastated she was.

I was shocked, not least because Lucy was actually on the call with me at that moment. I gasped, and was about to express my deepest sympathy and apologise that we were bothering her with trivia (while secretly wondering, a bit, why she still looked her normal cheery self in the little video window?)

And then I realised that there was something a bit strange about the tweet, and as I peered more closely at the avatar/icon, I realised it didn’t look at all like Lucy!

Well, it turned out that it was actually a retweet, by a friend of mine, of a post by a different Lucy Jones. He only knew one Lucy Jones, I only knew one, but it turned out we knew different ones, and Twitter had injected his Lucy’s news into my news stream. All of which would have been terribly confusing if it hadn’t been for the photos the Lucies had uploaded to their repective Twitter accounts.

So please, people, unless you are blessed with a particularly unusual name, do make sure your online accounts have a useful avatar associated with them. And no, a picture of you as a lovely bouncing baby doesn’t count: it’ll only be recognised by your parents and they’ll probably know whether or not it’s you. Especially if you’re announcing their sudden demise.

P.S. Lucy’s name has been changed.

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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser