Blog - Unity Behind Diversity

Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: social networking

Thumbs Down for “Like” Culture

When the “Like” button was first introduced on Facebook, it was a useful alternative to leaving a comment, another way to show you were paying attention, but it crept from posts to comments and pages, and it now permeates every aspect of the Facebook experience and defines the entire ethos of the site. What was at first a secondary option to conversation has been enshrined as the primary and defining characteristic of Facebook. Not only is it often a superficial way to interact with someone else, by just hitting “like,” but it also influences and shapes what people post and share.

Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.

Now, we rarely “show our true selves” offline either, but it’s not self-presentation that impairs authentic social interaction. It’s when automated, superficial interaction becomes the dominant mode of communication. A “Like” or +1 may be better for Facebook or Google than a comment — a simple binary value is easier for their algorithms to tally — but that’s not the kind of human interaction that drew me to social media.

There is so much more value in online social networking than the popularity contest, than merely pressing digital levers, like lab rats looking for pellets of social affirmation. Social technology can enable intimate and in-depth conversations where time, space and fate might otherwise not allow. Ambient awareness can maintain ties that distance and a loss of common circumstances might otherwise break. The ease of organizing can enable groups and communities to thrive where, offline, they might be dispersed. Yet, I’ve seen less of this in the evolution of Facebook and other social media, and more encouragement of the lab rat lever-pushing type interaction. Deep, rich, intimate and profound interactions — expressions of love, nostalgia, unity, shared memories, the meeting of minds, bonds of friendship or common experience — these are much harder for an algorithm to make use of than a binary +1 or “Like.”

Don’t let thumbs and plus ones be substituted for authentic social interaction online.

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Explaining Distributed Social Networking Services

Via the FreedomBox Foundation, J David Eisenberg has created a great comic introduction to distributed social network services. Distributed systems are an important part of free network services.

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Google+ exists to organize people, but I don’t want to be “organized”

There are many things I like about Google+, but, beyond being yet another proprietary social networking service, something just doesn’t sit well with me about Google’s primary purpose. Comments by Brad Horowitz that Google+ will be connected to everything Google are a good example of what concerns me:

Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are [emphasis added]

Maybe I’m naive or wrong, but it never seemed like the primary motivation behind Gmail was to sell more ads. It felt like an innovative email service that Google was able to monetize with relevant, contextual ads, not merely a means to improve Google’s ad business. But Google+ feels different. Google’s primary interest is to get access to more social information, not to create a better social networking service. Buzz or Google+ are just the means for Google to gather social data.

As Fred Wilson said with respect to Google+ as an identity service:

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Google is often pretty good at aligning its interests with that of its users. For example, the more useful their ads are to users, the better Google does. Or, the better your web browser is, the more you use the Internet, the more Google thrives. But with Google+, it feels like the desire for an identity data mining tool well precedes their desire to provide a useful social networking platform.

Google+ is not first and foremost “a place for friends” or a way for student life to find expression online. From Google’s hyper-engineer perspective, we are just things to be organized in the process of organization the world’s information. They’ve organized web sites, photos, maps, calendars, videos, books — now, they’re just organizing people.

Maybe Google+ is really no different from other Google services. Maybe I’m just different. I don’t want my relationships with other people, my identity, to be treated as ultimately just data to harvest, information to organize, inputs to a proprietary Google algorithm, a way to teach Google about me as some sort of data structure. Google+ seems to exist more for Google than it does for me.

I don’t want to be treated as just a thing to be organized.

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Facebook Suggests Celebrating My First Wedding Anniversary With a Facebook Message… Or Divorce

A week before my first wedding anniversary, Facebook started to remind me and suggested I celebrate by… sending my wife a Facebook message.

Thanks for the reminder, I guess, but I wasn’t exactly planning to spend my anniversary on Facebook. This brought up some similar stories from friends:

When I removed my “In a relationship” status […] all the targeted ads changed from ‘Buy Engagement Rings Here’ to ‘ARE YOU SINGLE AND ALONE?’

The barrage of wedding ads my wife and I received once we were engaged only subsided when we got married — then, she immediately started receiving ads for baby stuff. As my friend put it, “Facebook is like a really pushy, suggestive relative.”

My wife got the anniversary reminder too, but the next day Facebook stepped up its game and served her a divorce ad.

An hour later, the divorce ad and anniversary suggestion appeared on the same page.

… was it because I didn’t send her a message? Well, there’s yet another reason to move away from services like Facebook

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Student On Probation For Expressing A Negative Opinion About An Instructor On Facebook

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

A student at the University of Calgary was put on academic probation for making the following post on a group titled, “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name]:”

[Instructor’s name] IS NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES AT THE U OF C!!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long-term prof? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it .. lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a [instructor’s name]-free legacy for future [law and society] students.

It’s pretty hard to see how this isn’t just an expression of opinion, but the university thinks it qualifies as non-academic misconduct. The problem is, it’s not at all clear how. The only part of the definition that doesn’t involve injury, damage or theft is “conduct which seriously disrupts the lawful educational and related activities of other students and/or University staff.” It’s hard to see how a Facebook post of this nature “seriously disrupts” much of anything (until someone gets put on probation and the Streisand Effect kicks in). But there’s a nice little “includes but is not limited to” that makes the definition non-exhaustive, which is likely what university officials are relying on. You’d think that other instances of misconduct would be similar (hurting people, breaking stuff, stealing, “serious disruptions”), but apparently “expressions of opinion that we don’t like” can qualify…

A computer science professor interviewed said the posts “can be compared to putting up notices all over the university campus” (quoting the article, not the prof). But this is more like putting up a notice off campus (albeit in public). It may not have been nice, but it’s pretty troubling that a student’s right to express an opinion (free speech much?) on a third-party site is overridden without a clear policy violation.

I’ve had direct experience with this sort of thing. A couple years ago, friends of mine at another university were sent ominous emails and hauled into their department head’s office over some comments about a professor on Facebook (jokes, e.g. “crazy drunk [instructor A] is better than boring stoned [instructor B]!”). The department heads argued that the comments were “visible to the community” (similar to the “notices on campus” argument), but they clearly didn’t understand the context (wall post or message? profile or group?) or privacy settings, and they couldn’t even locate the comments on the site (someone had copied and pasted them into an email). They, too, failed to specify how any policies were actually violated (or even which ones), yet they’d gone ahead and notified the professor of the students’ comments and identities (while there was still grading to be done). We convinced them to back down and apologize, but it took a solid week, mid-semester, to deal with the mess.

Universities should understand and develop policies about social networking sites before they take action against students. If they can’t be clear about what qualifies as misconduct, how can students expect to know? What’s the difference between a Facebook group and study group? An email and a Facebook message? What difference do privacy settings make (hopefully some…)? How was this post on a Facebook group different from a review on RateMyProfessors.com? What’s the difference between off-campus speech and speech on non-school websites? Before policing student speech off-site (problematic in and of itself), universities should at least ask these questions and develop policies first. It doesn’t seem like many of them have. It’s pretty ridiculous to just throw social networking under the ambiguous “but not limited to” umbrella.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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UK Online Protest Finds Success In Just 48 Hours

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Using social networking tools to organize political protests is nothing new or surprising, but online protests have been growing increasingly efficient, especially on Facebook. In Canada, for example, a group protesting copyright legislation caught the attention of federal parliament last summer, and another opposing strict restrictions on young drivers had the Ontario Premier considering Facebook consultations in the fall.

The latest story comes from the UK where, in a mere 48 hours, a campaign run through Facebook and TheyWorkForYou.com by mysociety.org helped stop legislation that would have exempted MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act (via the Search Engine). Thousands of emails were sent in the two day period, reaching 90% of MPs, before the opposition parties turned and the government backed down. It’s not so much the scale that’s worth noting, but the sheer speed at which the campaign was successful. The legislation was scrapped before most snail mail would have had time to arrive. Now, the online protest likely wasn’t the only factor, but it played an important role in spreading the message. It seems to be getting a lot harder to sneak stuff through the legislature (though that doesn’t stop people from trying) when it only takes a couple days to build an opposition.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Hired via Facebook? Fired via Facebook

This article originally appeared on Techdirt.

We’ve seen stories of people being fired over email and even text message before, but now there’s a story of a Canadian spa worker fired via Facebook (via Michael Geist). The woman still got dressed and went to into work that day because she thought it was a joke. Using Facebook seems rather harsh, though she admits to being hired over Facebook and the firing was done via private message (as opposed to a wall post…), but it’s no real surprise that a common method of communication eventually gets used this way. That doesn’t mean it’s not cruel, but I wouldn’t expect it to be an isolated case (we’ve already seen legal papers served via Facebook). It’s got to make you wonder what’s next though, fired via Twitter? “@unfortunatesoul btw you’re #fired sry”

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Goodbye MySpace Profiles, Hello Facebook Pages

I’ve ranted before about why I don’t use MySpace, but I admit there have been times when I’ve been tempted. You can get much better technical services through hosting your music elsewhere, but the community exists on MySpace. There’s no social networking aspect to hosting your own website.

But the tides have turned! Facebook rolled out it’s new Facebooks Ads feature earlier this week, geared towards giving businesses access to advertising through the social graph. One of the key features is the new Facebook Pages which allows business to create and maintain profiles. These profiles have their own mini-feeds, are customized for various types of businesses, users can express their love/affiliation with a company or product through membership, and the business can then update those users on new developments. Check out the Facebook blog for a great overview of the new features (and reassurances about what won’t be changing, for any paranoid users or skeptics).

I discovered earlier today that Facebook Pages includes artist pages (musicians, as well as other artists, like comedians or actors)! I’m on the State Radio mailing list, and they alerted me to their new page.

Facebook has done it again! Their musician pages are better than Facebook groups and MySpace profiles combined! It appears that you can upload an unlimited amount of videos, photos and music to a page. Facebook users can click “Add to My Music” to become a fan and then receive updates, each page has it’s own mini-feed, businesses (ie. musicians) can host their own events… the list goes on!

It does the musician profile better than MySpace, and makes groups feel woefully inadequate. Yet it’s nothing terribly complex. That’s what continues to amaze me about Facebook… everything is so simple and well implemented, it just makes so much sense. But no one has ever done it so well before. There’s no single feature which is all that new in a Facebook musician’s page, but the integration of all these features with Facebook’s social graph, tidy interface, and business applications (e.g. Facebook Insights – artists receive information about their pages, such as page views, through the Facebook Page Manager application) customized and catered to musicians, amongst other artists, makes this by far the best online profile I’ve ever set up as a musician. And I’ve set up quite a few! (Take a look at my new page!)

I have no more hesitations about avoiding MySpace. The community is moving to Facebook anyways, if it isn’t already there. Facebook Pages allow me to benefit from the social networking aspects of maintaining an online profile without all the nuisances associated with MySpace.

It isn’t even a fair competition anymore. Facebook is light years ahead of everyone else.

Good riddance to MySpace!

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