Tag Archives: social networks

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:


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.

Personalised echo chambers

John’s column in the Observer this morning is a good one. Extract:

This doesn’t mean that YouTube’s owner (Google) is hell-bent on furthering extremism of all stripes. It isn’t. All it’s interested in is maximising advertising revenues. And underpinning the implicit logic of its recommender algorithms is evidence that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with – or perhaps to incendiary content in general.

So YouTube (like Facebook) is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it’s embarrassed by the way in which it is being exploited by unsavoury actors (and also possibly worried about the longer-term threat of regulation); on the other hand, its bottom line is improved by increasing “user engagement” – ie, keeping people glued to YouTube.

The world’s biggest reality-distortion field


Everywhere, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Actually, now I think about it, that’s not really true. On Facebook, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Yes, it’s certainly had its downsides: the Brexit vote was a disappointment and may prove rather inconvenient if it ever actually happens, and the Trump election makes you realise that there’s no need for Spitting Image any more, because it just couldn’t live up to reality. But, in real life, these things don’t absorb much time when chatting to friends in the pub, or to customers in the meeting room, or to fellow dog-walkers in the wood, or to neighbours in the street.

Now, I’ve often joked that the word ‘fury’, at least outside the realms of Greek mythology, is only found in the headlines of the tabloid press and local newspapers. You know the kind of thing: “FURY AT COUNCIL GRASS-CUTTING SCAM!” This artificial heightening of emotions, or the publicising of one or two unbalanced individuals’ feelings as if they were a general reaction of the populace at large, is one of the oldest sales tricks in the book.

But Facebook, it sometimes seems to me, encourages this tendency from all of us: it’s a place for users to vent their opinions — I’m not immune — and the more extreme expressions tend to get extra attention from others and so be rewarded by the FB algorithms, with the result that on some days I go to the site and it feels as if I’m walking along in the middle of a protest march.

Protest marches are all very well in their way, because they allow those with strong feelings on a particular topic, or insufficient faith in democracy, to let off steam from time to time and feel they’ve accomplished something, without inconveniencing others too much. But these outbursts are clearly segregated from the rest of life, which is important if a civilised society is to continue. Someone who brought their protests or their political campaigning into the workplace would be a bore, and rightly ostracised. But Facebook is a broadcasting medium to which people turn when they get upset about anything, without having to wait for someone to organise a protest, and before even knowing that they have a sympathetic ear. There’s no easy way to tell it, for example, “I like Fred – he’s a witty and intelligent guy – but I don’t want to go on any of his protest marches.” If the line between outbursts and normal conversation is not clearly defined, you can get a rather distorted view of somebody, and of how much you might have in common with them. And the problem with Facebook, unlike, say, Twitter or an RSS reader, is that even if I subscribe to Fred’s feed, I may only see a subset of the things he writes. Facebook decides what appears in my stream, not Fred. So how accurately can I even judge my friends’ opinions? Facebook may well decide that it’s not in your best interest to see this post either, now I think about it.

Facebook can be a place for useful discussion, but the general newsfeed may not inspire very balanced or considered debate. It’s worth remembering, for example, that whichever way you may have voted on Brexit, or in the presidential elections, almost exactly half of the populace voted the opposite way to you. Is that balance accurately reflected in your Facebook feed? Did you really get a fair chance even to consider the other point of view? Jenna Wortham’s article is a nice discussion of this:

I’ve spent nearly 10 years coaching Facebook — and Instagram and Twitter — on what kinds of news and photos I don’t want to see, and they all behaved accordingly. Each time I liked an article, or clicked on a link, or hid another, the algorithms that curate my streams took notice and showed me only what they thought I wanted to see. That meant I didn’t realize that most of my family members, who live in rural Virginia, were voicing their support for Trump online, and I didn’t see any of the pro-Trump memes that were in heavy circulation before the election. I never saw a Trump hat or a sign or a shirt in my feeds, and the only Election Day selfies I saw were of people declaring their support for Hillary Clinton.

If you believe that half the population are just idiots, and only the smart people are your friends, then you’ve already fallen into this trap.

We’ve always had biased news sources, of course — pick your favourite newspaper — but in the past you were at least subconsciously aware that you had chosen your bias, and since the editor’s ideas didn’t correspond quite precisely to yours, you would see dissenting opinions from time to time. But Facebook is everybody’s tabloid. It tells you what you want to hear, and me what I want to hear, and we reward it by clicking little buttons when it does so. It, in turn, rewards us, like pigeons in a laboratory experiment, by giving us more of that kind of food when we tap the button. Dopamine is a powerful drug, and Facebook is a highly-tuned delivery mechanism for it. I’ve started to realise that I’m spending too much time absorbed by it, and have rather too Pavlovian a reaction to its notification bells.

Now, let me be clear that Facebook has lots of good stuff on it as well – I have been much more active on it this year then in the past, largely because of two special-interest groups of which I’m a member. It is a very good discussion forum for those kind of things if they’re well-curated (something that the general newsfeed isn’t). I have also had some of my opinions challenged in a useful way, when I’ve gone out of my way to engage with those who thought differently, and I hope that some others have too. I’ve discovered good stuff, funny stuff, educational stuff.

But in general, have the gains outweighed the negativity? I think not. I could have read the good stuff in other forums without so much of my reading being accompanied by complaints about Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or whichever politician, corporation, or policy is the bête noir du jour, and without the margins being full of “X did Y and you’ll never believe what happened next!”, “The most amazing video you’ll see all year!”, and “10 things you really can’t live without!”. It’s like walking through a circus or amusement arcade while people tell you what a terrible time you’re having! Remember, good news doesn’t sell papers, and it doesn’t in general sell web advertisements either.

True, 2016 hasn’t been the greatest year on record, but, unless you live in Aleppo, it certainly hasn’t been the worst. For the rest of us, let’s keep things in proportion, shall we? Yes, I liked Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen, too, but lots of good people died in 2014 and 2015 as well, and no doubt we’ll lose a few in 2017. Their work lives on. Don’t like the way some vote went this year? Don’t worry, governments and politicians come and go, international treaties change and adapt, and remember that every election result in the past that you did like made lots of other people grumble.

On balance, I was lucky enough to have had a rather pleasant, interesting and productive 2016, and I expect that many of my Facebook friends did so too, if they were to look back and count their blessings in an objective way. And I can’t help feeling that it might have been even more so if I hadn’t had a Facebook account.

So 2017 is going to be Facebook-free. That’s my New Year’s resolution. I won’t actually delete my account, but I’ll change the password to something I don’t know, delete all the apps, disable all notifications and bin all incoming emails. I can’t actually deactivate it completely for a year without too many other adverse consequences if I decide I want to return in the future — see how deep the rabbit hole goes? — but I’m going to get as close as I can. In the interest of fairness, I won’t post anything on Facebook either: if you’d like to keep track of what I’m doing, subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or on LinkedIn, subscribe to my videos on YouTube, check out my website or get emails when I post on my blog.

When I was an undergraduate, I decided to be a teetotaller every other term. I believed that if I ever found that process too difficult, it was an indication that I had a problem, and it was in my own interests to get an early warning! This is probably a good discipline for any product on which one might become dependent. So here’s my recommendation for the New Year: ask yourself how easily you could give up Facebook, or any other addiction of your choice. If the answer is “not easily”, then it’s probably a good idea to consider doing so!

Wishing you all a great 2017, wherever you get your dopamine from!

Facebook as a blogging platform, considered.

Euan Semple and I have been having similar thoughts. In a perceptive post he writes:

…As people have moved into places like Facebook and Twitter the energy has moved away from blogging to some extent. Less comments and less people using RSS to track conversations. I, like many bloggers, used to post links to my blog posts on Facebook or Google+. Then I realised that I was expecting people to move from where they were to where I wanted them to be – always a bad idea.

So I started posting the entire content of my blog posts on Facebook and Google+. The process is the same, I get the same benefit of noticing things that blogging gives me, the same trails left of what caught my eye, but the conversations have kicked off. I love the forty or fifty comment long threads that we are having. I love the energy of the conversations. It’s like the old days…

And I have to agree. Much as I dislike the tabloid-style, ad-infested nature of Facebook, it does seem to be where the conversations are happening. Yes, some of the smarter people are on Google Plus and App.net, but just not very many of them, and I’m letting my App.net subscription lapse this year. I am even starting to tire a little of Twitter’s 140-character limit and, more so, of the difficulty of having real multi-person conversational threads there. And even though it’s now easy to reply to posts here on Status-Q using your Facebook ID, where your thoughts will be preserved for viewing by other readers, many more people prefer to comment on Facebook or Twitter when I post notifications there.

Euan and I have both been blogging for about 13 years. In that time, a variety of other platforms have come and gone. I expect that quality blogs like his and John’s will outlive Facebook, too. At the very least, I expect that I’ll be able to find good past content on them (see my recent post), long after the social network of the day has changed its ownership, its URL structure, its login requirements or its search engine. So I’m not going to be abandoning Status-Q any time soon: it’s not worth putting much effort into anything that you post only on one of these other platforms.

But his idea of cross-posting the whole text of one’s articles is an interesting one. Facebook is clear, at least at present, that you still own it, though they have a non-exclusive right to make extensive use of it – something those of us who occasionally post photos and videos need to consider carefully.

But I also need to consider the fact that I actually saw his post on Google+, even if I then went to his blog to get a nicely-formatted version to which I could link reliably. Mmm.


Yesterday evening, I accidentally tapped a button on my iPad screen. At least, I guess I must have done, because emails started coming back from all those who had accepted my LinkedIn invitation. Eh?

Yes, it turns out that I had accidentally spammed a couple of hundred people asking for a connection. I think it was everyone in my Gmail contacts who was on LinkedIn but not already connected to me. I know you can do such things, but I would never dream of performing so crass an operation deliberately.

And this is all very embarrassing. There are some I know well and would be delighted to connect to: I just hadn’t got around to it yet. But there are many more whom I scarcely know at all, and I can just imagine them scratching their heads and making the same sort of face that I make when complete strangers ask me for a connection. And then there are those I know in a completely different social context: the wife of a casual acquaintance who is probably wondering why on earth I connected to her and not her husband…

All of which makes me ponder: have I ever actually had any benefit from my LinkedIn account (which I’ve had almost since the service started)? I can’t think of any. There have been one or two people who have sent me useful messages, but I’m not hard to find elsewhere on the net, and frankly would much prefer to receive such communications by email. And then there was all that endorsement craziness a little while back.

No, the only positive thing I can really say about LinkedIn is that it doesn’t annoy me as much as Facebook. But then, I do occasionally get some benefit from Facebook.

So I suspect that the right thing to do is to close my account. And yet, as I come to that conclusion, I think of all those distant acquaintances who, having received my annoying message, sigh and say, “Oh well, I suppose I’d better link to him”, and click the button, only to be told that my account is no longer there, so I’d pestered them in vain. Argh!

You see, I can’t win. Social gaffes threaten at every turn… Help! I’m LockedIn…

Hidden Implications of Social Linking

Once, when having dinner at the house of some good friends, I discovered that the other guests, a delightful couple, had a place in New York which they would sometimes rent out to friends and acquaintances. They had a strict rule: they would only let this fine apartment on the Upper West Side to people with whom they had personally had dinner. The rationale for this was simple: they wanted something more than a simple contractual agreement with those who would be occupying their home, and they felt that a certain level of social acquaintance was a good first level of filter, as well as imposing some extra obligations of responsibility on the tenants.

Most people apply similar filters to social networks. At the very least, if you are likely to be reading somebody else’s tweets or posts, you don’t want to read that which is likely to be tedious or offensive. You’re likely to be more forgiving of those who are within your real-life social circle. The concept of a friend, contact or buddy in the online world is open to a wide variety of interpretations, of course, but one network which has traditionally had a clearer definition than others has been LinkedIn.

Linking to someone on LinkedIn has, for me, always implied a little bit more than simple acquaintance. In fact, I think the original site suggested that you should link to people you know and trust, though if that wording is still there, it’s much less obvious now. This was, presumably, because others may use the system to ask you for an onward connection to others; a process which is likely to be somewhat awkward if you don’t really know them, or don’t feel that their acquaintance would be beneficial to your other friends!

So I’ve tended to have a fairly strict rule that I only link to people with whom I’ve at least shaken hands, and ideally had some sort of conversation. I’ve waived the former occasionally for those with whom I’ve had videoconferences, but in general it’s worked well since I joined LinkedIn – gosh! – eight years ago.

But it seems to be going through massive growth recently, and perhaps it’s now more of an address book than something that implies any level of recommendation? Is LinkedIn the new Plaxo? At any rate, I’m starting to get more requests for links from people who are just interested in making contact, they’re in related fields, they say nice things about stuff I’ve done, and they seem like people I would like if I did get a chance to shake their hand. So my resolve is slipping. Should I stick to my principles, or am I being very last-millennium to insist on a physical meeting?

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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser