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.

Advertisements

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.

“Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts And Prayers”

The other day I ran across an interesting piece from a public relations firm called Hennes Communications about how companies respond to horrible events like the recent school shooting in Florida.  The piece is intended to provide some advice and guidance in a world where companies, like just about everybody else, feel compelled to take to social media to express their views on what’s going on — especially tragedies.

276d9b7a9329e9bcdc3465df84cb664f-atheist-meme-meme-humorEntitled “Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts and Prayers,” the piece takes companies to task for rote, mechanical reactions to bad events.  The piece notes that “thoughts and prayers” has become the reflexive response, and states:  “’Thoughts and prayers’ has become a meaningless message, a quick toss-off for those too lazy, and too disrespectful, to stop, turn off their smart phone, close their office door for a minute and think about the tragedy at hand.”  The article notes that other trite, overused reactions are “Our hearts go out . . . ” and “There are no words.”  The article says the latter phrase is “mortifying” and responds to the “no words” reaction as follows:  “Yes there are. You just said four of them. And if you really believe someone’s tragedy is not worth more thought and human emotion than that, then prepare to be pilloried by the always-vigilant, ever-righteous haters who troll social media.”

And, speaking of social media, if you google “thoughts and prayers” you’re going to find lots of “thoughts and prayers” memes like the one I’ve included as the artwork for this post — all of which express the view that sending “thoughts and prayers” is pretty much useless.

It’s an interesting issue, because we’re confronted with the need to react to tragedy with unfortunate regularity.  Occasionally it is a huge calamity, like a hurricane or a mass shooting, but more often it is something that is more personal in scale, like a death in the family or a horrible medical diagnosis or development.  When those bad things happen, and you want to acknowledge the profound loss or anguish that someone has experienced, it is hard to capture the right sentiment.  Words often do seem inadequate.

Both of my parents have been dead for years, so my own experience with being on the receiving end of condolences isn’t fresh — but I know that I appreciated it when people took the time to add a meaningful personal note.  Whether it was recounting some nice personal memory of Mom or Dad, or speaking from the heart about how they dealt with the loss of their own parents, those little personal notes meant a lot, and I still remember them.  When dealing personally with grief, I appreciated all of the good wishes, and I obviously wasn’t grading the condolences I received on the “rote expression” scale, as apparently happens on social media these days — but all I know is that the more individualized notes really had the biggest impact.

So, I agree that words do matter.  Basic sentiments of support are fine, I think, but well-chosen, thoughtful expressions of concern and support can really make a difference.

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.

Goat Yoga

When I first heard there was a “goat yoga” fad, I thought it probably involved yoga fiends doing poses that were . . . goat-like.  Just like, for example, yoga features the classic “downward facing dog” pose, or the camel pose, or the cat pose.

Perhaps goat yoga involves poses that involve standing on all fours, or shaking your head and twitching your ears, or eating a tin can, or making the goatish maaaaa sound?

goat-yoga-2But all of that is wrong.  “Goat yoga” evidently just involves doing yoga poses while goats are in the vicinity and — this is apparently especially important — having your picture taken in a yoga pose with the goat teetering on your back, or otherwise visible somewhere, so you can post the picture on your favorite social media outlet.  This story about goat yoga classes in Dallas notes that, for $36 bucks a pop, participants can get in an hour of yoga while more than a dozen goats from a nearby farm wander around, looking photogenic and selfie-friendly so those crucial snapshots can be taken.  Having been around goats at the petting zoo long ago, I’m guessing goats aren’t part of the mix because they emit a zen-inducing fragrance that is especially conducive to ekagra.  In fact, you’d think that having animals roaming around and potentially nibbling at your clothes while you’re working on getting that pose right might interfere with achieving the state of mind that yoga is supposed to help participants attain.

Why do yoga fans like doing their poses with goats, as opposed to sheep or some other moderately sized farm animal?  For that matter, why an animal at all, as opposed to, say, “cabbage head” yoga, or “abandoned sofa” yoga?  Apparently it’s just because people think goats are cute and look good in the inevitable social media selfies.  And they’re willing to part with 36 bucks for the privilege.

This says something about modern society, but I’m not sure what.

 

Tweety Dick

Sometimes modern life in America is so weird it’s hard to really take it all in.  The increasingly bizarre twists and turns of our politics and political leaders, the corrosive effect of simplistic social media platforms, the constant craving for attention and celebrity status — all combine to create a world where the strange has become routine.

57cc54c17b55c9ceef53dff107138873Consider, for example, how the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reacted to President Trump’s decision to discharge FBI Director James Comey.  Trump’s abrupt firing reminded people of the “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Nixon Administration, in which Nixon’s zeal to discharge Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, resulted in the resignation of the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General.

So what did the Nixon Library do in response to this newfound attention?  Did it supply the press with the actual background facts of the incident that the Washington Post called, at the time, “the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis,” so that people could make their own comparisons and draw their own conclusions?

Nah.  It sent out a tweet that said:  “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”  Ha ha!  Boy, that Nixon Library is a laugh riot, isn’t it?  And a class act, besides!  And it sure helps to be reminded that, before Nixon resigned in disgrace after being impeached, there were some bad and ill-advised things that Nixon didn’t do, doesn’t it?

To its credit, the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers the presidential libraries, issued a statement about the Nixon Library tweet.  It noted that “[a]s a federal government agency, the National Archives does not condone or engage in partisan or political conversations,” added that the tweet “was not representative of the policies of the Library or the National Archives,” and noted that the Archives would be “examining the training provided to employees who post to official social media channels as well as reviewing work flows and approval processes to ensure that our social media efforts engage the public in constructive conversations in line with agency policies.”  Fortunately, there apparently is at least one adult in the room.

It’s hard to imagine that anybody in the Nixon Library gave much thought to the snotty tweet; they probably were reveling in the attention they were receiving in connection with the Comey firing and just couldn’t resist getting in a little dig that would boost the trending line of Tricky Dick and his library.  And that’s really the basic problem these days, isn’t it?  People just don’t think twice, or even try to resist their baser impulses.