Big Zucker

Today I followed my time-honored morning routine.  I got my cup of coffee, pulled out my cell phone, and checked my work email messages.  My Facebook app was showing there were messages there, too, so I clicked on it.

“Good morning, Bob!” the Facebook page read, a little too cheerily.  “Skies are clearing in Columbus today, so enjoy the sunshine!”  It also gave the temperature in Columbus at a spring-like 25 degrees.

03facebook-xlarge1I recognize that, as a 60-something male, I’m not in Facebook’s target audience.  Perhaps 20-somethings feel warm appreciation for the fact that Facebook is so tuned in to their lives that it gives them personalized weather forecasts and wishes them a heartfelt good morning.

Me?  This increasingly cranky old guy gets a case of the creeps that Facebook thinks it knows where I am and presumes to provide weather forecasts for my assumed location and addresses me by my first name.  It also bugs me that Facebook does things like prepare slide shows of Facebook posts that happened in March, or videos celebrating the “anniversary” of the start of a Facebook friendship.  I feel like Facebook needs to back off and butt out.

The fact that Facebook has been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica story heightens the risk arising from the mass of data that Facebook is compiling about the people who use it.  Rather than making me feel warm and fuzzy that Facebook cares about me, Facebook’s little devices, like the weather forecasts and the slide shows, just remind me that Facebook holds all of that data and can use it however it wants.  It’s not an appealing prospect.

Perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 should have been written about huge, data-compiling social media companies like Facebook, rather than the government.  Instead of Big Brother, maybe we should all be worrying about Big Zucker.

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The Sap Test

The story of Cambridge Analytica is an interesting one.  Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how the British firm came to America making big promises to provide in-depth voter profile data and targeted marketing to Republican presidential campaigns — including the Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump campaigns — and not really delivering on its big promises.  Along the way, Cambridge Analytica got Facebook into trouble, because Cambridge claimed to “harvest” Facebook’s user profiles and other data to “exploit” what was known about them and to “target their inner demons.”

d40It’s a good read on several levels.  There’s a bit of a thrill in seeing, again, that political masterminds can be played for saps, and it’s always a rewarding reaffirmation of democratic values to read how people’s contributions to political campaigns are spent — or in this case, misspent — on efforts to manipulate voter views and carefully position candidates to appeal to them.  That the Cambridge Analytica big promises apparently went largely unfulfilled doesn’t alter the fact that political campaigns paid it huge amounts of money precisely to provide the kind of information that would permit the campaigns to appeal to voter biases and prejudices and preexisting views — in short, to “target their inner demons.”  And let’s not kid ourselves, either:  Cambridge Analytica was working for Republican candidates in 2016, but Democratic candidates no doubt hired similar research firms and consultants to try to use data to warp voter views in the opposite direction.  It’s worth thinking about that the next time you’re asked to contribute money in response to the latest in the endless fundraising appeals we get from candidates.

But there’s another good lesson lurking in the Cambridge Analytica story, too — about how apparently innocent “personality tests” and other social media staples can be used to assemble masses of data about millions of Americans that can then be used in totally unknown ways.  Every time you respond to the command on one of those annoying “like if you agree” or “share if you agree” posts, or take a “test” to show that you’re one of the people who would be able to identify TV stars from the ’80s, you are creating data that somebody is storing, accessing, counting, analyzing, and then using to develop targeted ads for products — or, potentially, some kind of targeted political message that is supposed to appeal to your likes, dislikes, and demographic category based on the data that you’ve voluntarily provided.

The Cambridge Analytica story, and what it tells us about the data being provided, is food for thought the next time you’re considering disclosing a little piece of your personal information in response to a Facebook quiz or other social media meme.  It would probably be better for everyone if saps like us keep the information about those “inner demons” under wraps.

Legions Of The Fake Followers

I don’t post on Twitter, and “follow” only Richard’s Twitter feed and perhaps one or two more.  Twitter is always asking me to follow more people and offering up suggestions about who I might find interesting, but I always delete the suggestions.  I don’t have time to “follow” the tweeted musings of dozens of people, and figure I’d spend more time deleting notices of their tweets than actually reading them.

So the statistics that purport to show that tens or hundreds of thousands of people follow the Twitter feed of random celebrities or unknown people whose shtick is simply to react to other social media posts, for example, or that Facebook posts have received thousands of “likes,” astonish me.  I shake my head and wonder:  How can so many people find time in their days to look at the detritus of social media?

wasted-resources-ecommerce-fake-socialThe answer is:  maybe they can’t, and actually don’t.  And maybe the impressive statistics that supposedly show that they do are filled with fake followers, and fake likes, from fake people.

The New York Times ran an interesting article over the weekend called “The Follower Factory” about how entrepreneurs, governments, and criminals have created entire legions of fakery.  Some companies have created thousands of fake, automated accounts and sell them to celebrities and businesses that crave followers and retweets to appear more popular on-line.  Facebook recently disclosed that 60 million fake accounts have populated its site, distributing likes and affecting “trend lines” and influencing advertising content.  Twitter and other social media platforms also are affected by fake accounts.  And when part of the power of social media platforms comes from their claims to have millions of people participating in their platforms, how aggressive and effective are the social media sites themselves going to be in policing the fakery?

The Times story quotes politicians who suggest that perhaps the answer to this is to come up with some kind of government regulatory scheme.  To be sure, the government should become involved if the fake accounts cross the line into identity theft.  But short of that, why should the government intervene if some pathetic former pro athlete wants to buy fake followers to puff up his social media profile?  And if the gullible are going to agree with a tweet because the tweeter has lots of fake followers, rather than because of the substance of the opinion expressed, or advertisers are going to accept fake statistics rather than insist on data that can be verified as reflecting the actions of real people, it seems like that is their own problem.  The government has bigger, more important, more concrete things to worry about.

We’d all be better off if people stopped paying attention to followers, and trend lines, and likes, and started to actually think things through themselves.

Facebook Fatigue

Some years ago we were on a trip to Antigua with Richard and Russell where we met a very nice young woman from Great Britain and her parents.  She ended up hanging out with the boys, and after the trip we became Facebook friends.

The other day she posted this on her Facebook feed:

fear-of-missing-out“Has anyone else on here been considering deleting Facebook for a long time, but keeps putting it off? I’ve been toying with the idea for years but can never bring myself to fully do it; it’s an attachment to photos, friends from all over the world I might lose, FOMO of information, and sheer habit. I find it’s become more destructive than good, however. It doesn’t make me feel good, it makes me feel depressed, and in the few times per week I actually check it, I realise I’ve become a robotic scroller, consuming information mindlessly and feeling lousy afterwards. According to statistics, only 9% of Facebook activity per day is to be social, the rest of the time is accidental logging in (how many of you have tapped on the Facebook app without even meaning to, just to ask yourself why did I click on this?), stalking and filling up time. It sucks to acknowledge that you’re addicted to something, and it sucks to realise you’re scared of leaving something inanimate. Does anyone else have this feeling?”

[For the aged among us, like me, “FOMO” is short for “fear of missing out” and is internet slang for feeling a sense of anxiety that you’re missing something interesting that people on social media are talking about or experiencing, like the recent solar eclipse.]

Her post captures a mood that I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are fed up with Facebook and other forms of social media.  They’re finding it to be a bit empty and unsatisfying, they dislike the ads and the nagging prompts to update their profiles, they really hate the angry political debates, and they question whether the amount of time spent endlessly scrolling is worth it — so they drop off Facebook.  Some are happy that they have done so; others get that FOMO feeling, because once a social media connection is made it’s really hard to sever it, and they come back, presumably feeling a bit sheepish about the experience.

I can see her point, but I think the benefits of Facebook and other forms of social media outweigh the downsides — so long as you avoid obsessing, control your exposure, keep your temper, and recognize its limitations.  In fact, my contact with this young lady exemplifies why I think Facebook is a good thing.  She was an interesting person, and being Facebook friends has allowed me to see what she’s up to from time to time, wish her happy birthday, and congratulate her on getting a new job.  The world is a smaller place than it once was, and Facebook facilitates a sense of staying in touch with friends, acquaintances, family members, and former colleagues who are now far away.  And if you happen to be traveling to a place where one of your Facebook friends lives, it’s a handy way to see whether you can set up a meeting over coffee or dinner and really catch up.

I think Facebook has obvious downsides, and there’s a Big Brother element to it that is bothersome, but on the whole I think if Facebook didn’t exist it would need to be invented.

Considering “Universal Basic Income”

Mark Zuckerberg is the latest of the Silicon Valley quadzillionaires to espouse the concept of “universal basic income.”

mark-zuckerberg-harvard-speech-01-480x270In a commencement speech at Harvard last week, the founder of Facebook called for the creation of “a new social contract.”  “We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” Zuckerberg said.  Zuckerberg noted that, because he personally had a safety net to fall back on, he had the confidence to try projects like Facebook, and he thinks everyone should have the same financial wherewithal.

For some, like Zuckerberg, universal basic income has become the Great White Whale.  It’s not fair, they think, that only people who come from families that have financial resources can experiment in pursuit of their dreams.  Proponents of UBI believe that, if only everyone had guaranteed funding irrespective of whether they worked or not, all people would have the freedom to follow their dreams, invent new things, and experience personal fulfillment.  Why, the outpouring of creativity and innovation would promote the flourishing of art, literature, music, technological development, and human interaction that undoubtedly would lead to a new Renaissance!

Or, people who got the money would sit around in their place of residence all day, watching TV and enjoying the recreational drug or adult beverage of their choice.

Look, who am I to disagree with Mark Zuckerberg?  But let’s lay aside the gnarly issue of how we could possibly pay for a basic stipend sufficient for every American to live on without working.  (Taxpayers, hang on to your wallets!)  My experience teaches that having a job is a good thing.  Working brings structure to lives.  It allows people to become self-sufficient and to learn the value of a dollar.  It promotes the development of responsibility, punctuality, responsiveness, planning, and other positive personal attributes.  And the labor of every worker also helps to fund things like national defense, Social Security, health care, national parks, and a bunch of other things that might not be as amply supported if the funds are going to pay basic living expenses for a bunch of people who are happily contemplating their navels.  And, if you really think your job sucks, maybe that will motivate you to go out on your own, become an entrepreneur, and follow your dream with the benefit of the real-life experience you’ve acquired.

And don’t call it “universal basic income,” either.  In my book, “income” should be reserved for something that you earn, through work or investment, not something that is handed to you.

So let me respectfully disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg.  If he wants to really help to create a “new social contract,” let him and the other mega-tycoons enter into some actual contracts — with employees working for the new ventures that Zuckerberg and the other filthy rich are in a position to establish and fund with their wealth.  Let’s help more people learn the value of actual work.

Chicken Or Egg

This morning the news is all about the Cleveland “Facebook killer,” who filmed himself killing an elderly man who apparently was chosen randomly, bragged that he had killed a number of other people, and then broadcast the video footage on Facebook.  Police are currently looking for the killer.

screen_shot_2010_06_26_at_7-30-25_pmIt’s just the latest disturbing link between social media and people who commit bad acts.  How often recently have we read about people engaging in live social media broadcasts of beatings, or rapes, or suicides?  For many of us, Facebook and other social media outlets are all about keeping track of other people’s birthdays, kids, puppies, and meals, but for some sick segment of society, social media apparently is seen as a simple, immediately available opportunity to achieve notoriety and display their violent criminal activity to the world.

It raises the chicken or egg question:  what comes first, the impulse to engage in the bad acts, or the desire to be broadcast doing it?  If it weren’t possible to easily upload a video or stream a live broadcast on social media, would the crimes still have been committed, or is the ability to display video evidence of the bad acts to a presumed audience and obtain a few minutes of depraved fame the ultimate triggering factor?

There have always been predators in our midst; violent criminal acts have been part of human history since the dawn of time.  Still, for some people there seems to be some basic and grotesque connection between social media and wrongdoing, and we are left to wonder:  would the poor man murdered by the Cleveland killer still be alive if the social media outlets weren’t available to be misused?

Going Out Your Own Way

There’s a reason — aside from getting helpful birthday reminders — to endure the political stuff and the paid ads and still participate on Facebook:  sometimes you’ll see a story that you missed the first time around.

I saw this article about Norma Jean Bauerschmidt on my Facebook news feed today, thanks to a posting by Dr. Golden Bear.  It’s old news, dating from last year, but the underlying message is timeless and bears repeating.

hotairballoonFor those who missed the story, Miss Norma was 90 years old when she received the news that she had uterine cancer.  Her only treatment option, which wasn’t likely to produce much in the way of positive long-term results, was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  Miss Norma decided to chuck the treatment and live her remaining days traveling the United States.  She ended up on the road with her son, daughter-in-law, and their dog Ringo for about a year, visiting multiple states and national parks, taking her first hot air balloon ride (where the photo accompanying this post was taken), and trying her first taste of oysters, before the disease forced her into hospice and eventually led to her death.  Thousands of people followed her exploits on a Facebook page called “Driving Miss Norma.”  She died on September 30, 2016, and you can see her obituary here.

It’s a great story, and it made me wish that I had the opportunity to meet Norma Jean Bauerschmidt.  When people are faced with such end-of-life decisions, there is no right or wrong answer — you just have to be true to yourself.  Miss Norma chose the path that was right for her, and thousands of people were made a little bit better thanks to her decision.

One part of the story linked above particularly touched me.  During her year of travels, Miss Norma was often asked which spot was her favorite.  She always responded:  “Right here!”  It’s a good reminder about the importance of living in the present.