Think Before You Write

The on-line world once seemed like a fun, open place where you could easily and happily keep track of your friends’ trips, kids, and birthdays.  But as it has developed it seems to get angrier, and weirder, and creepier every day — to the point where many of the thoughtful people I know have decided to retreat completely from “social media” and avoid the on-line world like it’s a dangerous dark alley in the low-rent part of town.

7c7c8b97667c29573fc3c794bc33d0ca-night-time-night-photographyWhy have they decided to abandon Facebook and remove themselves from the internet to the maximum practicable extent in today’s on-line world?  Consider this story, about a woman who posted a negative on-line review of a local tavern where she’d gone for a bachelorette party.  She says she and her friends were well behaved and were inexplicably treated rudely by the bartender, so she gave the bar a bad rating, and some highly critical comments, on Yelp.  Other patrons of the bar, and the bartender, say the bachelorette party group was drunk and disruptive.

If we simply had a disagreement about what actually happened at the bar when the bachelorette party arrived, there would be no story here — we all know that there are two sides to every story and people’s perceptions of events can differ.  But this story took a sick and twisted turn when some people started reacting to the bad review by posting ugly, sexually explicit comments about the reviewer, found her Facebook page and where she worked, and even went on her wedding website and RSVP’d that they would be attending.  It’s a classic example of over-the-top, alarming cyberbullying that, unfortunately, has become increasingly common on-line.  And you never know what might trigger such behavior; a comment that you consider to be fair under the circumstances might push a cyberstalker over the edge and make you their target.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s not bad advice to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to write something negative on-line.  These days, who knows where a few harsh words might lead?

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Off The Hallmark

Walking home from work yesterday, I saw a new sign on the side of a building on Third Street, just across from the Ohio Statehouse.  I greeted the sign with an audible groan and a mixture of horror and resignation — horror, because I’ll now have to endure the building equivalent of a Hallmark card every day for weeks to come, and resignation, because that’s just the way the world is these days.

What’s next — a sign saying that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” or maybe a picture of some cute kittens with a supposedly clever saying about work?

It used to be bad enough with greeting cards, where some anonymous writer labored in a back room to draft trite, generic sayings attempting to capture the sentiments evoked by important events like marriages, birthdays, and deaths, but with the internet and social media we’ve reached a whole new level.  You can’t go to Facebook or other social media sites without seeing some meme or posting that is like a bad Hallmark card writ large, and always with the “share if you agree!” command.  And now, apparently, even buildings are going to serve as platforms for vapid platitudes that presume to reduce complicated, multi-layered, quintessentially human concepts like friendship and love into a single banal saying that’s supposed to make us nod knowingly and perhaps feel a throb deep inside.

And what’s really appalling is that the tag line at the bottom of the sign is “#AMillionLittle Things.”  That’s apparently the name of a new ABC TV show that I won’t be watching.  But does that mean that, after this sign is taken down, I’ve got 999,999 more hackneyed sayings to go?

By the way, I don’t care if this is shared or not.

Facebook Changes The Rules

For years, I’ve had our WebnerHouse blog set up so that when I published a post on the blog, it would automatically be posted on my Facebook page.  On August 1, however, Facebook changed the rules.  Effective on that date, third-party platforms like WordPress can no longer automatically post to Facebook pages.

Why did Facebook make that change, exactly?

b9-bWell, apparently because . . . it’s Facebook and it can do whatever the hell it wants.  One website posits that the change was made to respond to the Cambridge Analytica debacle and is part of an effort “to remove re-sharing functionality for many apps . . . in order to limit the activities of auto-posting spammers.”

So, apparently Facebook lumps the WebnerHouse blog in with other bot-driven junk that has been filling Facebook pages for years.  Hey, has Facebook actually read any of the WebnerHouse content?  If they had, they would know that no bot or artificial intelligence could possibly come up with the dreck that poor readers find on our family blog.  Really, it’s an insult to Russian bots, Chinese bots, and every other bot out there.

So now, if I want to put a post on Facebook, I’ve got to do it manually.  It’s a pain, to be sure, but I guess it’s worth it to protect those Facebook pages from the Great Bot and Spam Invasion.

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.

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.