Lots of talk on the internet today about YouTube & Facebook deleting the account belonging to David Icke, the former footballer and TV sports presenter now making a living as a paranoid bullshit merchant who believes a secret cabal of shape-shifting inter-dimensional lizard people run the world. Lately, he’s been wittering on about 5G, Bill Gates and COVID-19. An expert he is not, but he’d be a good case study on the long term effects of having a football kicked directly at your head.
The deletion of his account is seen, by a minority, as an attack on free speech. It’s nonsense, but let’s run with it. The main argument against is that social platforms should be an open field of opinion and that the best will win out. It sounds logical. I can buy into it on an emotional level. The flaw is that it relies on the assumption that people possess critical thinking skills – the ability to analyse a wide variety of sources, separate fact from fiction and come up with an informed opinion. That some people consider David Icke, Alex Jones and Katie Hopkins to be expert sources would indicate that this is not the case. We also know that social media is not a level playing field – because lies spread faster than the truth.
Falsehoods have real consequences. Idiots are burning down phone masts, children are dying from preventable diseases, and now it’s suggested that the government intends to turn the whole population into mindless zombies by including ‘nano-tech’ – designed by Bill Gates, no less – in the COVID-19 vaccine.
If you come to my house and act like a dickhead, I’m going to ask you to leave. Similarly, if Facebook and YouTube believe you are being a dick, in their capacity as private companies, they have every right to prevent you from posting on their platforms. It’s nothing to do with freedom of speech, and everything to do with you being a dick.
The biggest publishers on the earth are distorting the truth.
If you haven’t yet seen Sacha Baron Cohen’s remarks to the Anti-Defamation League’s summit on antisemitism and hate in New York – which has been covered extensively in the media – here’s your chance. Well worth watching the full thing.
There’s a couple of things that stood out to me: that Facebook,
Youtube, Google et al are effectively the biggest publishers on earth,
and that with that, and the way they police their platforms, they become
the largest and most effective propaganda machines ever created. He
singles out Facebook as being the worst offender – especially
Zuckerburg’s assertion that they continue to allow politicians to serve
targeted lies because accountability trumps censure.
The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth … As one headline put it, just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.
Sacha Baron Cohen
A few years ago a friend of mine, one of the most compassionate, fair
and reasonable people that I know, shared a post on Facebook created by
Britain First (a fascist pseudo political organisation) which in turn
ended up on my feed. My friend had no idea who the author was and the
post wasn’t actually offensive – it was cleverly designed to amass likes
so that their other content would show higher on peoples feeds – but I
was offended that my friend had been manipulated into sharing it. That
was the day that I permanently closed my Facebook account.
Large social networks are certainly the worst thing to happen to the
internet, and probably one of the worst things to happen to our
Back in the halcyon days of the early web the large internet
portals, like Netscape, Yahoo and AOL, were starting to think about how
their customers would access the ever-growing amount of content being
produced on the internet. The answer they came up with was
‘syndication’. From the user perspective this was as simple as adding a
BBC News or Wired widget on your homepage. If you are as old as me you
might even remember doing it. Behind the scenes these content
transactions were powered by a syndication protocol called RSS (which
stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’ or ‘Rich Site Summary’, depending
on who you ask). Theoretically this was good for everyone: content
providers were able to to reach people they would never have reached
before, users had control over how and where they receive content, and
the portals kept customers on their sites for longer by offering
personalised experiences, like this:
For a while RSS was ubiquitous, but it faltered when the larger
social networks became the main vehicle of syndicated content – and it
didn’t help that it has never been particularly user-friendly. Most
people now get their news from social media but recent years have shown
that this can be problematic: social media platforms are not neutral
content providers. They manipulate how, when and what content is
delivered to end users for their own ends and you have to sift through
all the ads, outrage and general horror of social media to get to the
content you want to see.
It’s not all bad news. In fact there is very good news: RSS never
actually went away. Most websites, whether they advertise it or not,
still provide an RSS feed and you can use it right now to take control
of how content is delivered to you.
Here’s a screenshot of my RSS aggregator this morning:
I subscribe to nearly two hundred feeds. That sounds overwhelming but
while some sites publish multiple times per day, some only put out a
handful a year. I can scan through the headlines of all of these sites
in a few minutes. It would be very difficult to keep track of that
content without RSS.
I use RSS to keep track of:
Twitter accounts & hashtags
My feed reader can do clever stuff like filtering out certain key words or phrases. I can, for example, make Boing Boing
tolerable by filtering out posts about Trump or those authored by Cory
Doctorow. I can organise my feeds into folders – so if I want to avoid
the news one day I can just skip that folder, or mark the whole thing
read and pretend nothing happened that day. One of the biggest benefits
for me is that I’m less likely to open my browser and get lost down the rabbit hole.
It’s easy to get started with RSS:
Sign up for an account with one of the many feed aggregators. Some of the more popular ones are:
All of these have mobile applications – some have desktop companions too. I use Readkit on OSX and Fiery Feeds on iOS. Many people like Reeder. There are options for other operating systems too and the web applications don’t care what OS you use.
Subscribe to some feeds. Most readers will automatically find the
feed if you put in the address of the homepage. If you’re short of
inspiration you could take a look at my blogroll.
Marvel at your technical wizardry, the amount of time you save and your new found freedom from algorithmic content delivery.
I opened my email today and found a message from The Listserve, announcing the end of the long running project.
The Listserv was an email based community with a simple premise. Each
weekday a member of the community is randomly selected and asked to
craft a message for distribution to all list members. This was known as
‘Winning the Lottery’ and was something that only a small proportion of
members would experience. Some of the emails were sad, but an equal
amount were optimistic; brimming with compassion, humour & joy. Each
was a privilege to read and I will miss it.
One of my favourite features of Lifehacker is their ‘How I Work’ series of interviews, where they ask people to explain the tools and strategies they use to get shit done.
I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the software that I use
and how I use it – definitely more time than is productive, and I find
it hard to settle on a system without falling into the productivity porn
trap – but nevertheless I’ve managed to put together a list of the
software and services that seem to stick around on my devices. All of
this stuff works really well, so I’ve got no good reason to spend any
more hours looking for a better text editor.
Here it is:
Hardware / OS
Microsoft Surface 3 / Ubuntu
iPad Mini 4
Mailcow provides the family with email, calendars, tasks and contact sync across devices. It works brilliantly.
Nextcloud provides secure file synchronization between devices.
Gogs is a self hosted GIT server, similar to Github. I use it to keep track of bits of code, and even bits of prose.
Facebook is a monster of our own creation. We carried on feeding it
our deepest secrets until it became one of the most powerful and
valuable companies in the world, headed by a guy that once called his users ‘dumb fucks’.
The latest revelations are shocking, but I doubt they will cause it
any long term damage, people have short memories, most people just don’t
care, and no one will leave until all the other people they know do
too. Still, this is the first time that I can recall people seriously
talking about the end of Facebook. Some have asked what should replace
Facebook if it does fall, as if fleeing the platform would leave some
gaping hole in our lives that must be filled or that a new platform
would solve the problems of the old. The truth is that there is no hole,
because Facebook solves a problem that doesn’t exist. The Internet
worked just fine before it arrived, and it will work just fine when it
If you really must have a platform, choose one that’s federated.
Federated networks use open protocols to communicate with distributed
nodes. Admittedly this sounds ridiculously complicated (and that’s also a
barrier to adaption), but this network structure means that no single
entity has control of all the data. Projects like Mastodon are doing great work in getting federated social networks to a state ready for wider use.
Facebook has promised that it will safeguard the information that it
holds and that nothing like this will ever happen again, but none of
their lip flapping solves the basic problem: their sole purpose is to
maximise the profit that they can make from the information that we give
it. The only way to fix Facebook is to tell them to do one. Start
working on a blog. Dust off your email. Call a friend or send them a
text. The world without Facebook really isn’t that bad.
Goodreads is a social book cataloging site. At its most basic level
it allows users to maintain a virtual library of the books they read.
Users can rate and review books & participate in discussion groups.
It was founded in 2007 and has around fifty million users.
I’ve been using Goodreads over the past seven years to keep a record
of the books that I read. Over the past year I have been trying to
reduce my Internet footprint; closing my accounts on all of the major
social networks and in general just trying to keep as much of my data
under my control as possible. Goodreads has been selected as the latest
one to be led to the guillotine. I thought about this one a lot; it’s
pretty harmless, doesn’t suck up mountains of time and I’ve had the
account for years. It was a bigger wrench than closing my Facebook or
I do value the data that I’ve given to Goodreads, and I want to carry on maintaining it once the account is closed. Jamie Todd Rubin
has created some crazy clever python scripts to parse and present data
from a list of books held in a markdown file. I exported my data from
Goodreads, bodged it into markdown format and used my very limited
python knowledge to adjust his scripts so that I can track progress
towards my annual goal.