Jamie's Notes

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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.