Jamie's Notes

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Ana, on tech-savvy privilege

Ana Rodrigues has written a lovely monologue on the problems that consumers of the internet face, and of how tech-savvy people, like you and me, are reaching the wrong conclusions on how we can fix it – if we can fix it at all.

…the “rage quit social media” is a privilege. I tried it once for three months and we were miserable. The moment we don’t have the same apps to communicate, things like MMS don’t seem to work well between different operating systems of phones. They just want to communicate with me like… everyone else is communicating with everyone else. They are not going to be involved in a discussion about ethics and privacy of social media. I can’t blame them. Why would they?

Having a blog is tech-privilege. I can make one. You can probably make one too. We are a tech-savvy minority. Sure, you could say that anyone can go and get one from WordPress. Easy, right? It’s not. I’ve watched people at work struggle to insert pictures in a word document. It involves knowing about WordPress, learning how to navigate through the sign-up, setting themes, post titles – the list is endless. Why do that when you can sign-up to Facebook, quick as a flash, and all your mates are there. Owning your content is hard. We do it because we can. Most people can’t.

I don’t have a Facebook account because I think they are a treacherous bunch of scumbags. It’s a moral stance, and arguably the right one – but in the grand scheme of things it makes fuck all difference to Facebook, and makes it harder for people to contact me who don’t even have the choice.

..when my parents bought that phone and were forced into a Google account, apps like Facebook and whatsapp were already installed. The majority of the people who didn’t grow up with the internet, especially those who don’t speak english, don’t know about browsers. To most people it is: “Look up on the internet”. And the internet is this thing and no app on their phone is called “internet”.

The problem is more complex than we think, and the solutions not what we think they are.

..things won’t be fixed by only creating your own blog and sending your RSS feed to your parents. Things won’t be fixed either by burning all the evil websites. The problem is much deeper as it isn’t just websites: it’s operating systems, it’s protocols, it’s hardware, it’s software, it’s design, it’s internationalisation and more.

Ana, you are so right.

Read the entire thing. It’s wonderful.

Twitter got Hacked

Major problems at Twitter this morning. At the time I write this all verified accounts have been prevented from tweeting because hackers have, presumably, gained access to internal tooling that allows them to take over accounts at will.

High profile accounts are being used to work a Bitcoin scam – which has netted the hackers about £92k so far.

I am grateful that this was the height of their ambition. Can you imagine what would have happened if Trump had tweeted “Just authorised a tactical nuclear strike on China. #BESTWEAPONS #MAGA!”

Scary.

Social media, where human feeling goes to die

Neil Steinberg, reflecting on an angry Twitter exchange about cake, sums up most of the problems with social media:

I did notice something though. When I was being jerkily defensive, the Block Club folks leapt to thrust and parry. When I paused, reconsidered, realized I was in the wrong and sincerely apologized, they just shrugged and ghosted me. That’s social media, where human feeling goes to die. It’s like, if you’re not being snarky, they can’t hear you.

Neil

His introductory words are ‘this grew surprisingly unpleasant’ – which seems to accurately and succinctly sum up the whole Web 2.0 endeavour.

The Greatest Propaganda Machine in History

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 societies.

Delete Facebook

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 dies.

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.

Replacing Goodreads

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 Twitter accounts.

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.

The scripts are available from Jamie’s github repository. Take a look.

Here’s some sample output:

Year                                                    Books Pages
2017 ###############################+#+########           42  19732
2016 #####@#@#@########@####+#@####@#######@@#####        45  20584
2015 ##################################                   34  14494
2014 ##########################################           42  18537
Total                                                    163  73347

Statistical Summary
===================

Reading goal for 2017: 50
Years: 4
Books: 163

- Paper (+): 3
- Ebook (#): 152
- Audio (@): 8

Avg books/year: 40
Avg pages/year: 18336
Avg pages/book: 449

So, one more social network scrubbed off my list, I managed to export my data, and I’ve got a nerdy way to keep it up to date going forward. I’ll chalk that one up as a win.