Tag Archives: social networking

The Old School Social Network Returns

Not too long ago newbies to a community might first have met their neighbors face-to-face by knocking on each others’ front doors, through strolling around the neighborhood or at browsing at the local, communal market or store. But busy schedules, privacy fences, garage doors, a car-centric culture and a general fear of strangers have raised barriers and successfully isolated us. So, it’s wonderful to see the digital tools of our modern age being put to a more ancient use — meeting the neighbors, and breaking down some barriers — many of which seem to be caused by our technologies. Long may the old school (face-to-face) social network prosper!

From NYT:

When Laurell Boyers, 34, and her husband, Federico Bastiani, 37, moved in together in Bologna in 2012, they did not know any of their neighbors. It was a lonely feeling.

“All my friends back home had babies, play dates, people to talk to, and I felt so left out,” Ms. Boyers, who moved from South Africa, said on a recent afternoon. “We didn’t have family or friends connections here. We knew people occasionally, but none in our same situation.”

So Mr. Bastiani took a chance and posted a flier along his street, Via Fondazza, explaining that he had created a closed group on Facebook just for the people who lived there. He was merely looking to make some new friends.

In three or four days, the group had about 20 followers. Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.

“Now I am obligated to speak to everyone when I leave the house,” Ms. Boyers said jokingly. “It’s comforting and also tiring, sometimes. You have to be careful what you ask for.”

The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.

Bologna, a midsize northern city, is known for its progressive politics and cooperatives. It is home to what is considered Italy’s oldest university, and it has a mix of a vibrant, young crowd and longtime residents, known for their strong sense of community.

Still, socially speaking, Italy — Bologna included — can be conservative. Friendships and relationships often come through family connections. It is not always easy to meet new people. In large cities, neighbors typically keep to themselves.

But today, the residents of Via Fondazza help one another fix broken appliances, run chores or recharge car batteries. They exchange train tickets and organize parties.

About half of Via Fondazza’s residents belong to the Facebook group. Those who do not use the Internet are invited to events via leaflets or word of mouth.

“I’ve noticed that people at first wonder whether they need to pay something” for the help from others, said Mr. Bastiani, referring to the experience of an 80-year-old woman who needed someone to go pick up some groceries for her, or a resident who sought help assembling a piece of Ikea furniture.

“But that’s not the point,” he added. “The best part of this is that it breaks all the schemes. We live near one another, and we help each other. That’s it.”

The impact of the experiment has surprised almost everyone here.

It “has changed the walking in Via Fondazza,” said Francesca D’Alonzo, a 27-year-old law graduate who joined the group in 2013.

“We greet each other, we speak, we ask about our lives, we feel we belong here now,” she said.

The exchanges usually start virtually but soon become concrete, allowing residents to get to know one another in person.

Everyone on Via Fondazza seems to have an anecdote. Ms. D’Alonzo remembers the party she gave on New Year’s Eve in 2013, when her then mostly unknown neighbors brought so much food and wine that she did not know where to put it.

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy,” she said. “You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

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Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Apparently, in this day and age of ubiquitous technology there is no excuse for not having evidence. So, if you recently had a terrific (or terrible) meal in your (un-)favorite restaurant you must have pictures to back up your story. If you just returned from a gorgeous mountain hike you must have images for every turn on the trial. Just attended your high-school reunion? Pictures! Purchased a new mattress? Pictures! Cracked your heirloom tea service? Pictures! Mowed the lawn? Pictures! Stubbed toe? Pictures!

The pressure to record our experiences has grown in lock-step with the explosive growth in smartphones and connectivity. Collecting and sharing our memories remains a key part of our story-telling nature. But, this obsessive drive to record every minutiae of every experience, however trivial, has many missing the moment — behind the camera or in front of it, we are no longer in the moment.

Just as our online social networks have stirred growth in the increasingly neurotic condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out), we are now on the cusp on some new techno-enabled, acronym-friendly disorders. Let’s call these FONBB — fear of not being believed, FONGELOFAMP — fear of not getting enough likes or followers as my peers, FOBIO — fear of becoming irrelevant online.

From NYT:

“Pics or it didn’t happen” is the response you get online when you share some unlikely experience or event and one of your friends, followers or stalkers calls you out for evidence. “Next thing I know, I’m bowling with Bill Murray!” Pics or it didn’t happen. “I taught my cockatoo how to rap ‘Baby Got Back’ — in pig Latin.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Against all odds, I briefly smiled today.” Pics or it didn’t happen!

It’s a glib reply to a comrade’s boasting — coming out of Internet gaming forums to rebut boasts about high scores and awesome kills — but the fact is we like proof. Proof in the instant replay that decides the big game, the vacation pic that persuades us we were happy once, the selfie that reassures us that our face is still our own. “Pics or it didn’t happen” gained traction because in an age of bountiful technology, when everyone is armed with a camera, there is no excuse for not having evidence.

Does the phrase have what it takes to transcend its humble origins as a cruddy meme and become an aphorism in the pantheon of “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Seeing is believing”? For clues to the longevity of “Pics,” let’s take a survey of some classic epigrams about visual authority and see how they hold up under the realities of contemporary American life.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a dependable workhorse, emerging from early-­20th-­century newspaper culture as a pitch to advertisers: Why rely on words when an illustration can accomplish so much more? It seems appropriate to test the phrase with a challenge drawn from contemporary news media. Take one of the Pulitzer Prize-­winning photographs from The St. Louis Post-­Dispatch’s series on Ferguson. In the darkness, a figure is captured in an instant of dynamic motion: legs braced, long hair flying wild, an extravagant plume of smoke and flames trailing from the incendiary object he is about to hurl into space. His chest is covered by an American-­flag T-­shirt, he holds fire in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, a living collage of the grand and the bathetic.

Headlines — like the graphics that gave birth to “A picture is worth a thousand words” — are a distillation, a shortcut to meaning. Breitbart News presented that photograph under “Rioters Throw Molotov Cocktails at Police in Ferguson — Again.” CBS St. Louis/Associated Press ran with “Protester Throws Tear-­Gas Canister Back at Police While Holding Bag of Chips.” Rioter, protester, Molotov cocktail, tear-­gas canister. Peace officers, hypermilitarized goons. What’s the use of a thousand words when they are Babel’s noise, the confusion of a thousand interpretations?

“Seeing is believing” was an early entry in the canon. Most sources attribute it to the Apostle Thomas’s incredulity over Jesus’ resurrection. (“Last night after you left the party, Jesus turned all the water into wine” is a classic “Pics or it didn’t happen” moment.) “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Once Jesus shows up, Thomas concludes that seeing will suffice. A new standard of proof enters the lexicon.

Intuitive logic is not enough, though. Does “Seeing is believing” hold up when confronted by current events like, say, the killing of Eric Garner last summer by the police? The bystander’s video is over two minutes long, so dividing it into an old-­fashioned 24 frames per second gives us a bounty of more than 3,000 stills. A real bonanza, atrocity-­wise. But here the biblical formulation didn’t hold up: Even with the video and the medical examiner’s assessment of homicide, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Time to downgrade “Seeing is believing,” too, and kick “Justice is blind” up a notch.

Can we really use one cherry-­picked example to condemn a beloved idiom? Is the system rigged? Of course it is. Always, everywhere. Let’s say these expressions concerning visual evidence are not to blame for their failures, but rather subjectivity is. The problem is us. How we see things. How we see people. We can broaden our idiomatic investigations to include phrases that account for the human element, like “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” We can also change our idiomatic stressors from contemporary video to early photography. Before smartphones put a developing booth in everyone’s pocket, affordable portable cameras loosed amateur photographers upon the world. Everyday citizens could now take pictures of children in their Sunday best, gorgeous vistas of unspoiled nature and lynchings.

A hundred years ago, Americans took souvenirs of lynchings, just as we might now take a snapshot of a farewell party for a work colleague or a mimosa-­heavy brunch. They were keepsakes, sent to relatives to allow them to share in the event, and sometimes made into postcards so that one could add a “Wish you were here”-­type endearment. In the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” Leon F. Litwack shares an account of the 1915 lynching of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tenn. “Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene. .?.?. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling at the end of the rope.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Picture-­card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.” Pics or it didn’t happen.

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Online Social Networks Make Us More and Less Social

Two professors walk in to a bar… One claims that online social networks enrich our relationships and social lives; the other claims that technology diminishes and distracts us from real world relationships. Professor Keith N. Hampton at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information argues for the former positive position. While Professor Larry Rosen at California State University argues against. Who’s right?

Well, they’re both probably right.

But, several consequences seem to be more certain about our new, social technologies: our focus is increasingly fragmented and short; our memory and knowledge retention is being increasingly outsourced; our impatience and need for instant gratification continues to grow; and our newly acquired anxieties continue to expand — fear of missing out, fear of being unfriended, fear of being trolled, fear of being shamed, fear from not getting comments or replies, fear of not going viral, fear of partner’s lack of status reciprocity, fear of partner’s status change, fear of being Photoshopped or photobombed, fear of having personal images distributed, fear of quiet…

From the WSJ:

With the spread of mobile technology, it’s become much easier for more people to maintain constant contact with their social networks online. And a lot of people are taking advantage of that opportunity.

One indication: A recent Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. found that 71% use Facebook at least occasionally, and 45% of Facebook users check the site several times a day.

That sounds like people are becoming more sociable. But some people think the opposite is happening. The problem, they say, is that we spend so much time maintaining superficial connections online that we aren’t dedicating enough time or effort to cultivating deeper real-life relationships. Too much chatter, too little real conversation.

Others counter that online social networks supplement face-to-face sociability, they don’t replace it. These people argue that we can expand our social horizons online, deepening our connections to the world around us, and at the same time take advantage of technology to make our closest relationships even closer.

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says technology is distracting us from our real-world relationships. Keith N. Hampton, who holds the Professorship in Communication and Public Policy at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, argues that technology is enriching those relationships and the rest of our social lives.

Read the entire story here.

 

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Social Media Metes Out Social (Networking) Justice

Before the age of Facebook and Twitter if you were to say something utterly stupid, bigoted, sexist or racist among a small group of friends or colleagues it would, usually, have gone no further. Some members of your audience may have chastised you, while others may have agreed or ignored you. But then the comment would have been largely forgotten.

This is no longer so in our age of social networking and constant inter-connectedness. Our technologies distribute, repeat and amplify our words and actions, which now seem to take on lives of their very own. Love it or hate it — welcome to the age of social networking justice — a 21st century digital pillory.

Say something stupid or do something questionable today — and you’re likely to face a consequential backlash that stretches beyond the present and into your future. Just take the case of Justine Sacco.

From NYT:

As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:

“?‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

Then, during her layover at Heathrow:

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

And on Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She chuckled to herself as she pressed send on this last one, then wandered around Heathrow’s international terminal for half an hour, sporadically checking her phone. No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers.

Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.

Then another text: “You need to call me immediately.” It was from her best friend, Hannah. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said.

Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

A Twitter user did indeed go to the airport to tweet her arrival. He took her photograph and posted it online. “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”

By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke. Hannah, meanwhile, frantically deleted her friend’s tweet and her account — Sacco didn’t want to look — but it was far too late. “Sorry @JustineSacco,” wrote one Twitter user, “your tweet lives on forever.”

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Narcissistick

The pursuit of all things self continues unabated in 2015. One has to wonder what children of the self-absorbed, selfie generations will be like. Or, perhaps, there will be no or few children, because many of the self-absorbed will remain, well, rather too self-absorbed.

From NYT:

Sometimes you don’t need an analyst’s report to get a look at the future of the media industry and the challenges it will bring.

On New Year’s Eve, I was one of the poor souls working in Times Square. By about 1 p.m., it was time to evacuate, and when I stepped into the cold that would assault the huddled, partying masses that night, a couple was getting ready to pose for a photo with the logo on The New York Times Building in the background. I love that I work at a place that people deem worthy of memorializing, and I often offer to help.

My assistance was not required. As I watched, the young couple mounted their phone on a collapsible pole, then extended it outward, the camera now able to capture the moment in wide-screen glory.

I’d seen the same phenomenon when I was touring the Colosseum in Rome last month. So many people were fighting for space to take selfies with their long sticks — what some have called the “Narcissistick” — that it looked like a reprise of the gladiatorial battles the place once hosted.

The urge to stare at oneself predates mirrors — you could imagine a Neanderthal fussing with his hair, his image reflected in a pool of water — but it has some pretty modern dimensions. In the forest of billboards in Times Square, the one with a camera that captures the people looking at the billboard always draws a big crowd.

Selfies are hardly new, but the incremental improvement in technology of putting a phone on a stick — a curiously analog fix that Time magazine listed as one of the best inventions of 2014 along with something called the “high-beta fusion reactor” — suggests that the séance with the self is only going to grow. (Selfie sticks are often used to shoot from above, which any self-respecting selfie auteur will tell you is the most flattering angle.)

There are now vast, automated networks to harvest all that narcissism, along with lots of personal data, creating extensive troves of user-generated content. The tendency to listen to the holy music of the self is reflected in the abundance of messaging and self-publishing services — Vine, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Apple’s new voice messaging and the rest — all of which pose a profound challenge for media companies. Most media outfits are in the business of one-to-many, creating single pieces of text, images or audio meant to be shared by the masses.

But most sharing does not involve traditional media companies. Consumers are increasingly glued to their Facebook feeds as a source of information about not just their friends but the broader world as well. And with the explosive growth of Snapchat, the fastest-growing social app of the last year, much of the sharing that takes place involves one-to-one images that come and go in 10 seconds or less. Getting a media message — a television show, a magazine, a website, not to mention the ads that pay for most of it — into the intimate space between consumers and a torrent of information about themselves is only going to be more difficult.

I’ve been around since before there was a consumer Internet, but my frame of reference is as neither a Luddite nor a curmudgeon. I didn’t end up with over half a million followers on social media — Twitter and Facebookcombined — by posting only about broadband regulations and cable deals. (Not all self-flattering portraits are rendered in photos. You see what I did there, right?) The enhanced ability to communicate and share in the current age has many tangible benefits.

My wife travels a great deal, sometimes to conflicted regions, and WhatsApp’s global reach gives us a stable way of staying in touch. Over the holidays, our family shared endless photos, emoticons and inside jokes in group messages that were very much a part of Christmas. Not that long ago, we might have spent the time gathered around watching “Elf,” but this year, we were brought together by the here and now, the familiar, the intimate and personal. We didn’t need a traditional media company to help us create a shared experience.

Many younger consumers have become mini-media companies themselves, madly distributing their own content on Vine, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. It’s tough to get their attention on media created for the masses when they are so busy producing their own. And while the addiction to self is not restricted to millennials — boomers bow to no one in terms of narcissism — there are now easy-to-use platforms that amplify that self-reflecting impulse.

While legacy media companies still make products meant to be studied and savored over varying lengths of time — the movie “Boyhood,” The Atlantic magazine, the novel “The Goldfinch” — much of the content that individuals produce is ephemeral. Whatever bit of content is in front of someone — text messages, Facebook posts, tweets — is quickly replaced by more and different. For Snapchat, the fact that photos and videos disappear almost immediately is not a flaw, it’s a feature. Users can send content into the world with little fear of creating a trail of digital breadcrumbs that advertisers, parents or potential employers could follow. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been replaced by less than 15 seconds on Snapchat.

Facebook, which is a weave of news encompassing both the self and the world, has become, for many, a de facto operating system on the web. And many of the people who aren’t busy on Facebook are up for grabs on the web but locked up on various messaging apps. What used to be called the audience is disappearing into apps, messaging and user-generated content. Media companies in search of significant traffic have to find a way into that stream.

“The majority of time that people are spending online is on Facebook,” said Anthony De Rosa, editor in chief of Circa, a mobile news start-up. “You have to find a way to break through or tap into all that narcissism. We are way too into ourselves.”

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The Enigma of Privacy

Privacy is still a valued and valuable right. It should not be a mere benefit in a democratic society. But, in our current age privacy is becoming an increasingly threatened species. We are surrounded with social networks that share and mine our behaviors and we are assaulted by the snoopers and spooks from local and national governments.

From the Observer:

We have come to the end of privacy; our private lives, as our grandparents would have recognised them, have been winnowed away to the realm of the shameful and secret. To quote ex-tabloid hack Paul McMullan, “privacy is for paedos”. Insidiously, through small concessions that only mounted up over time, we have signed away rights and privileges that other generations fought for, undermining the very cornerstones of our personalities in the process. While outposts of civilisation fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.

The past few years have brought an avalanche of news about the extent to which our communications are being monitored: WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal, the Snowden files. Uproar greeted revelations about Facebook’s “emotional contagion” experiment (where it tweaked mathematical formulae driving the news feeds of 700,000 of its members in order to prompt different emotional responses). Cesar A Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the Facebook news feed as “like a sausage… Everyone eats it, even though nobody knows how it is made”.

Sitting behind the outrage was a particularly modern form of disquiet – the knowledge that we are being manipulated, surveyed, rendered and that the intelligence behind this is artificial as well as human. Everything we do on the web, from our social media interactions to our shopping on Amazon, to our Netflix selections, is driven by complex mathematical formulae that are invisible and arcane.

Most recently, campaigners’ anger has turned upon the so-called Drip (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) bill in the UK, which will see internet and telephone companies forced to retain and store their customers’ communications (and provide access to this data to police, government and up to 600 public bodies). Every week, it seems, brings a new furore over corporations – Apple, Google, Facebook – sidling into the private sphere. Often, it’s unclear whether the companies act brazenly because our governments play so fast and loose with their citizens’ privacy (“If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear,” William Hague famously intoned); or if governments see corporations feasting upon the private lives of their users and have taken this as a licence to snoop, pry, survey.

We, the public, have looked on, at first horrified, then cynical, then bored by the revelations, by the well-meaning but seemingly useless protests. But what is the personal and psychological impact of this loss of privacy? What legal protection is afforded to those wishing to defend themselves against intrusion? Is it too late to stem the tide now that scenes from science fiction have become part of the fabric of our everyday world?

Novels have long been the province of the great What If?, allowing us to see the ramifications from present events extending into the murky future. As long ago as 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin imagined One State, the transparent society of his dystopian novel, We. For Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Atwood and many others, the loss of privacy was one of the establishing nightmares of the totalitarian future. Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle paints a portrait of an America without privacy, where a vast, internet-based, multimedia empire surveys and controls the lives of its people, relying on strict adherence to its motto: “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft.” We watch as the heroine, Mae, disintegrates under the pressure of scrutiny, finally becoming one of the faceless, obedient hordes. A contemporary (and because of this, even more chilling) account of life lived in the glare of the privacy-free internet is Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which charts the existence of a lonely writer whose only escape is into the shallows of the web. “The first and last thing I do every day,” the book begins, “is see what strangers are saying about me.”

Our age has seen an almost complete conflation of the previously separate spheres of the private and the secret. A taint of shame has crept over from the secret into the private so that anything that is kept from the public gaze is perceived as suspect. This, I think, is why defecation is so often used as an example of the private sphere. Sex and shitting were the only actions that the authorities in Zamyatin’s One State permitted to take place in private, and these remain the battlegrounds of the privacy debate almost a century later. A rather prim leaked memo from a GCHQ operative monitoring Yahoo webcams notes that “a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person”.

It is to the bathroom that Max Mosley turns when we speak about his own campaign for privacy. “The need for a private life is something that is completely subjective,” he tells me. “You either would mind somebody publishing a film of you doing your ablutions in the morning or you wouldn’t. Personally I would and I think most people would.” In 2008, Mosley’s “sick Nazi orgy”, as the News of the World glossed it, featured in photographs published first in the pages of the tabloid and then across the internet. Mosley’s defence argued, successfully, that the romp involved nothing more than a “standard S&M prison scenario” and the former president of the FIA won £60,000 damages under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Now he has rounded on Google and the continued presence of both photographs and allegations on websites accessed via the company’s search engine. If you type “Max Mosley” into Google, the eager autocomplete presents you with “video,” “case”, “scandal” and “with prostitutes”. Half-way down the first page of the search we find a link to a professional-looking YouTube video montage of the NotW story, with no acknowledgment that the claims were later disproved. I watch it several times. I feel a bit grubby.

“The moment the Nazi element of the case fell apart,” Mosley tells me, “which it did immediately, because it was a lie, any claim for public interest also fell apart.”

Here we have a clear example of the blurred lines between secrecy and privacy. Mosley believed that what he chose to do in his private life, even if it included whips and nipple-clamps, should remain just that – private. The News of the World, on the other hand, thought it had uncovered a shameful secret that, given Mosley’s professional position, justified publication. There is a momentary tremor in Mosley’s otherwise fluid delivery as he speaks about the sense of invasion. “Your privacy or your private life belongs to you. Some of it you may choose to make available, some of it should be made available, because it’s in the public interest to make it known. The rest should be yours alone. And if anyone takes it from you, that’s theft and it’s the same as the theft of property.”

Mosley has scored some recent successes, notably in continental Europe, where he has found a culture more suspicious of Google’s sweeping powers than in Britain or, particularly, the US. Courts in France and then, interestingly, Germany, ordered Google to remove pictures of the orgy permanently, with far-reaching consequences for the company. Google is appealing against the rulings, seeing it as absurd that “providers are required to monitor even the smallest components of content they transmit or store for their users”. But Mosley last week extended his action to the UK, filing a claim in the high court in London.

Mosley’s willingness to continue fighting, even when he knows that it means keeping alive the image of his white, septuagenarian buttocks in the minds (if not on the computers) of the public, seems impressively principled. He has fallen victim to what is known as the Streisand Effect, where his very attempt to hide information about himself has led to its proliferation (in 2003 Barbra Streisand tried to stop people taking pictures of her Malibu home, ensuring photos were posted far and wide). Despite this, he continues to battle – both in court, in the media and by directly confronting the websites that continue to display the pictures. It is as if he is using that initial stab of shame, turning it against those who sought to humiliate him. It is noticeable that, having been accused of fetishising one dark period of German history, he uses another to attack Google. “I think, because of the Stasi,” he says, “the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.”

All this brings us to some fundamental questions about the role of search engines. Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

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Intimate Anonymity

A new mobile app lets you share all your intimate details with a stranger for 20 days. The fascinating part of this social experiment is that the stranger remains anonymous throughout. The app known as 20 Day Stranger is brought to us by the venerable MIT Media Lab. It may never catch on, but you can be sure that psychologists are gleefully awaiting some data.

From Slate:

Social media is all about connecting with people you know, people you sort of know, or people you want to know. But what about all those people you didn’t know you wanted to know? They’re out there, too, and the new iPhone app 20 Day Stranger wants to put you in touch with them. Created by the MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems research group, the app connects strangers and allows them to update each other about any and every detail of their lives for 20 days. But the people are totally anonymous and can interact directly only at the end of their 20 days together, when they can exchange one message each.

20 Day Stranger uses information from the iPhone’s sensors to alert your stranger-friend when you wake up (and start moving the phone), when you’re in a car or bus (from GPS tracking), and where you are. But it isn’t totally privacy-invading: The app also takes steps to keep both people anonymous. When it shows your stranger-friend that you’re walking around somewhere, it accompanies the notification with images from a half-mile radius of where you actually are on Google Maps. Your stranger-friend might be able to figure out what area you’re in, or they might not.

Kevin Slavin, the director of Playful Systems, explained to Fast Company that the app’s goal is to introduce people online in a positive and empathetic way, rather than one that’s filled with suspicion or doubt. Though 20 Day Stranger is currently being beta tested, Playful Systems’ goal is to generally release it in the App Store. But the group is worried about getting people to adopt it all over instead of building up user bases in certain geographic areas. “There’s no one type of person what will make it useful,” Slavin said. “It’s the heterogeneous quality of everyone in aggregate. Which is a bad [promotional] strategy if you’re making commercial software.”

At this point it’s not that rare to interact frequently with someone you’ve never met in person on social media. What’s unusual it not to know their name or anything about who they are. But an honest window into another person’s life without the pressure of identity could expand your worldview and maybe even stimulate introspection. It sounds like a step up from Secret, that’s for sure.

Read the entire article here.

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FOMO Reshaping You and Your Network

Fear of missing out (FOMO) and other negative feelings are greatly disproportional to good ones in online social networks. The phenomenon is widespread and well-documented. Compound this with the observation — though unintuitive — that your online friends will have more friends and be more successful than you, and you have a recipe for a growing, deep-seated inferiority complex. Add to this other behavioral characteristics that are peculiar or exaggerated in online social networks and you have a more fundamental recipe — one that threatens the very fabric of the network itself. Just consider how online trolling, status lurking, persona-curation, passive monitoring, stalking and deferred (dis-)liking are re-fashioning our behaviors and the networks themselves.

From ars technica:

I found out my new college e-mail address in 2005 from a letter in the mail. Right after opening the envelope, I went straight to the computer. I was part of a LiveJournal group made of incoming students, and we had all been eagerly awaiting our college e-mail addresses, which had a use above and beyond corresponding with professors or student housing: back then, they were required tokens for entry to the fabled thefacebook.com.

That was nine years ago, and Facebook has now been in existence for 10. But even in those early days, Facebook’s cultural impact can’t be overstated. A search for “Facebook” on Google Scholar alone now produces 1.2 million results from 2006 on; “Physics” only returns 456,000.

But in terms of presence, Facebook is flopping around a bit now. The ever-important “teens” despise it, and it’s not the runaway success, happy addiction, or awe-inspiring source of information it once was. We’ve curated our identities so hard and had enough experiences with unforeseen online conflict that Facebook can now feel more isolating than absorbing. But what we are dissatisfied with is what Facebook has been, not what it is becoming.

Even if the grand sociological experiment that was Facebook is now running a little dry, the company knows this—which is why it’s transforming Facebook into a completely different entity. And the cause of all this built-up disarray that’s pushing change? It’s us. To prove it, let’s consider the social constructs and weirdnesses Facebook gave rise to, how they ultimately undermined the site, and how these ideas are shaping Facebook into the company it is now and will become.

Cue that Randy Newman song

Facebook arrived late to the concept of online friending, long after researchers started wondering about the structure of these social networks. What Facebook did for friending, especially reciprocal friending, was write it so large that it became a common concern. How many friends you had, who did and did not friend you back, and who should friend each other first all became things that normal people worried about.

Once Facebook opened beyond colleges, it became such a one-to-one representation of an actual social network that scientists started to study it. They applied social theories like those of weak ties or identity creation to see how they played out sans, or in supplement to, face-to-face interactions.

In a 2007 study, when Facebook was still largely campus-bound, a group of researchers said that Facebook “appears to play an important role in the process by which students form and maintain social capital.” They were using it to keep in touch with old friends and “to maintain or intensify relationships characterized by some form of offline connection.”

This sounds mundane now, since Facebook is so integrated into much of our lives. Seeing former roommates or childhood friends posting updates to Facebook feels as commonplace as literally seeing them nearly every day back when we were still roommates at 20 or friends at eight.

But the ability to keep tabs on someone without having to be proactive about it—no writing an e-mail, making a phone call, etc.—became the unique selling factor of Facebook. Per the 2007 study above, Facebook became a rich opportunity for “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” connections that are valuable because they are with people who are sufficiently distant socially to bring in new information and opportunities.

Some romantic pixels have been spilled about the way no one is ever lost to anyone anymore; most people, including ex-lovers, estranged family members, or missed connections are only a Wi-Fi signal away.

“Modern technology has made our worlds smaller, but perhaps it also has diminished life’s mysteries, and with them, some sense of romance,” writes David Vecsey in The New York Times. Vecsey cites a time when he tracked down a former lover “across two countries and an ocean,” something he would not have done in the absence of passive social media monitoring. “It was only in her total absence, in a total vacuum away from her, that I was able to appreciate the depth of love I felt.”

The art of the Facebook-stalk

While plenty of studies have been conducted on the productive uses of Facebook—forming or maintaining weak ties, supplementing close relationships, or fostering new, casual ones—there are plenty that also touch on the site as a means for passive monitoring. Whether it was someone we’d never met, a new acquaintance, or an unrequited infatuation, Facebook eventually had enough breadth that you could call up virtually anyone’s profile, if only to see how fat they’ve gotten.

One study referred to this process as “social investigation.” We developed particular behaviors to avoid creating suspicion: do not “like” anything by the object of a stalking session, or if we do like it, don’t “like” too quickly; be careful not to type a name we want to search into the status field by accident; set an object of monitoring as a “close friend,” even if they aren’t, so their updates show up without fail; friend their friends; surreptitiously visit profile pages multiple times a day in case we missed anything.

This passive monitoring is one of the more utilitarian uses of Facebook. It’s also one of the most addictive. The (fictionalized) movie The Social Network closes with Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, gazing at the Facebook profile of a high-school crush. Facebook did away with the necessity of keeping tabs on anyone. You simply had all of the tabs, all of the time, with the most recent information whenever you wanted to look at them.

The book Digital Discourse cites a classic example of the Facebook stalk in an IM conversation between two teenagers:

“I just saw what Tanya Eisner wrote on your Facebook wall. Go to her house,” one says.
“Woah, didn’t even see that til right now,” replies the other.
“Haha it looks like I stalk you… which I do,” says the first.
“I stalk u too its ok,” comforts the second.

But even innocent, casual information recon in the form of a Facebook stalk can rub us the wrong way. Any instance of a Facebook interaction that ends with an unexpected third body’s involvement can taint the rest of users’ Facebook behavior, making us feel watched.

Digital Discourse states that “when people feel themselves to be the objects of stalking, creeping, or lurking by third parties, they express annoyance or even moral outrage.” It cites an example of another teenager who gets a wall post from a person she barely knows, and it explains something she wrote about in a status update. “Don’t stalk my status,” she writes in mocking command to another friend, as if talking to the interloper.

You are who you choose to be

“The advent of the Internet has changed the traditional conditions of identity production,” reads a study from 2008 on how people presented themselves on Facebook. People had been curating their presences online for a long time before Facebook, but the fact that Facebook required real names and, for a long time after its inception, association with an educational institution made researchers wonder if it would make people hew a little closer to reality.

But beyond the bounds of being tied to a real name, users still projected an idealized self to others; a type of “possible self,” or many possible selves, depending on their sharing settings. Rather than try to describe themselves to others, users projected a sort of aspirational identity.

People were more likely to associate themselves with cultural touchstones, like movies, books, or music, than really identify themselves. You might not say you like rock music, but you might write Led Zeppelin as one of your favorite bands, and everyone else can infer your taste in music as well as general taste and coolness from there.

These identity proxies also became vectors for seeking approval. “The appeal is as much to the likeability of my crowd, the desirability of my boyfriend, or the magic of my music as it is to the personal qualities of the Facebook users themselves,” said the study. The authors also noted that, for instance, users tended to post photos of themselves mostly in groups in social situations. Even the profile photos, which would ostensibly have a single subject, were socially styled.

As the study concluded, “identity is not an individual characteristic; it is not an expression of something innate in a person, it is rather a social product, the outcome of a given social environment and hence performed differently in varying contexts.” Because Facebook was so susceptible to this “performance,” so easily controlled and curated, it quickly became less about real people and more about highlight reels.

We came to Facebook to see other real people, but everyone, even casual users, saw it could be gamed for personal benefit. Inflicting our groomed identities on each other soon became its own problem.

Fear of missing out

A long-time problem of social networks has been that the bad feelings they can generate are greatly disproportional to good ones.

In strict terms of self-motivation, posting something and getting a good reception feels good. But most of Facebook use is watching other people post about their own accomplishments and good times. For a social network of 300 friends with an even distribution of auspicious life events, you are seeing 300 times as many good things happen to others as happen to you (of course, everyone has the same amount of good luck, but in bulk for the consumer, it doesn’t feel that way). If you were happy before looking at Facebook, or even after posting your own good news, you’re not now.

The feelings of inadequacy did start to drive people back to Facebook. Even in the middle of our own vacations, celebration dinners, or weddings, we might check Facebook during or after to compare notes and see if we really had the best time possible.

That feeling became known as FOMO, “fear of missing out.” As Jenna Wortham wrote in The New York Times, “When we scroll through pictures and status updates, the worry that tugs at the corners of our minds is set off by the fear of regret… we become afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.”

Even if you had your own great stuff to tell Facebook about, someone out there is always doing better. And Facebook won’t let you forget. The brewing feeling of inferiority means users don’t post about stuff that might be too lame. They might start to self-censor, and then the bar for what is worth the “risk” of posting rises higher and higher. As people stop posting, there is less to see, less reason to come back and interact, like, or comment on other people’s material. Ultimately, people, in turn, have less reason to post.

Read the entire article here.

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Your Friends Are Friendlier… And…

friends-cast

Your friends have more friends than you. But wait there’s more not-so-good news. Not only are your friends friendlier and befriended more than you, they are also likely to be wealthier and happier. How can this be, you may ask? It’s all down to averaging and the mathematics of networks and their interconnections. This so-called Friendship Paradox manifests itself in the dynamics of all social networks — it applies online as well as in the real world.

From Technology Review:

Back in 1991, the sociologist Scott Feld made a surprising discovery while studying the properties of social networks. Feld calculated the average number of friends that a person in the network has and compared this to the average number of friends that these friends had.

Against all expectations it turned out that the second number is always bigger than the first. Or in other words, your friends have more friends than you do.

Researchers have since observed the so-called friendship paradox in a wide variety of situations. On Facebook, your friends will have more friends than you have. On Twitter, your followers will have more followers than you do. And in real life, your sexual partners will have had more partners than you’ve had. At least, on average.

Network scientists have long known that this paradoxical effect is the result of the topology of networks—how they are connected together. That’s why similar networks share the same paradoxical properties.

But are your friends also happier than you are, or richer, or just better? That’s not so clear because happiness and wealth are not directly represented in the topology of a friendship network. So an interesting question is how far the paradox will go.

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Young-Ho Eom at the University of Toulouse in France and Hang-Hyun Jo at Aalto University in Finland. These guys have evaluated the properties of different characteristics on networks and worked out the mathematical conditions that determine whether the paradox applies to them or not. Their short answer is yes: your friends probably are richer than you are.

The paradox arises because numbers of friends people have are distributed in a way that follows a power law rather than an ordinary linear relationship. So most people have a few friends while a small number of people have lots of friends.

It’s this second small group that causes the paradox. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. That’s the reason that, on average, your friends have more friends than you do.

But what of other characteristics, such as wealth and happiness, which are not represented by the network topology?

To study other types of network, Eom and Jo looked at two academic networks in which scientists are linked if they have co-authored a scientific paper together. Each scientist is a node in the network and the links arise between scientists who have been co-authors.

Sure enough, the paradox raises its head in this network too. If you are a scientist, your co-authors will have more co-authors than you, as reflected in the network topology. But curiously, they will also have more publications and more citations than you too.

Eom and Jo call this the “generalized friendship paradox” and go on to derive the mathematical conditions in which it occurs. They say that when a paradox arises as a result of the way nodes are connected together, any other properties of these nodes demonstrate the same paradoxical nature, as long as they are correlated in certain way.

As it turns out, number of publications and citations meet this criteria. And so too do wealth and happiness. So the answer is yes: your friends probably are richer and happier than you are.

That has significant implications for the way people perceive themselves given that their friends will always seem happier, wealthier and more popular than they are. And the problem is likely to be worse in networks where this is easier to see. “This might be the reason why active online social networking service users are not happy,” say Eom and Jo, referring to other research that has found higher levels of unhappiness among social network users.

So if you’re an active Facebook user feeling inadequate and unhappy because your friends seem to be doing better than you are, remember that almost everybody else on the network is in a similar position.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Cast of the CBS TV show Friends. Courtesy of Vanity Fair, CBS and respective rights holders.

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Online Social Networks as Infectious Diseases

Yersinia_pestis

A new research study applies the concepts of infectious diseases to online social networks. By applying epidemiological modelling to examine the dynamics of networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, researchers are able to analyze the explosive growth — the term “viral” is not coincidental — and ultimate demise of such networks. So, is Facebook destined to suffer a fate similar to Myspace, Bebo, polio and the bubonic plague? These researchers from Princeton think so, estimating Facebook will lose 80 percent of its 1.2 billion users by 2017.

From the Guardian:

Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University (pdf).

The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.

The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.

“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,” the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.

“Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other. Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of ‘immunity’ to the idea.”

Facebook reported nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users in October, and is due to update investors on its traffic numbers at the end of the month. While desktop traffic to its websites has indeed been falling, this is at least in part due to the fact that many people now only access the network via their mobile phones.

For their study, Cannarella and Spechler used what is known as the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model of disease, which creates equations to map the spread and recovery of epidemics.

They tested various equations against the lifespan of Myspace, before applying them to Facebook. Myspace was founded in 2003 and reached its peak in 2007 with 300 million registered users, before falling out of use by 2011. Purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580m, Myspace signed a $900m deal with Google in 2006 to sell its advertising space and was at one point valued at $12bn. It was eventually sold by News Corp for just $35m.

The 870 million people using Facebook via their smartphones each month could explain the drop in Google searches – those looking to log on are no longer doing so by typing the word Facebook into Google.

But Facebook’s chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted on an earnings call with analysts that during the previous three months: “We did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.”

Investors do not appear to be heading for the exit just yet. Facebook’s share price reached record highs this month, valuing founder Mark Zuckerberg’s company at $142bn.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Scanning electron microscope image of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

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Younger Narcissists Use Twitter…

…older narcissists use Facebook.

google-search-selfie

Online social media and social networks provide a wonderful petri-dish with which to study humanity. For those who are online and connected — and that is a significant proportion of the world’s population — their every move, click, purchase, post and like can be collected, aggregated, dissected and analyzed (and sold). These trails through the digital landscape provide a fertile ground for psychologists and social scientists of all types to examine our behaviors and motivations, in real-time. By their very nature online social networks offer researchers a vast goldmine of data from which to extract rich nuggets of behavioral and cultural trends — a digital trail is easy to find and impossible to erase. A perennial favorite for researchers is the area of narcissism (and we suspect it is a favorite of narcissists as well).

From the Atlantic:

It’s not hard to see why the Internet would be a good cave for a narcissist to burrow into. Generally speaking, they prefer shallow relationships (preferably one-way, with the arrow pointing toward themselves), and need outside sources to maintain their inflated but delicate egos. So, a shallow cave that you can get into, but not out of. The Internet offers both a vast potential audience, and the possibility for anonymity, and if not anonymity, then a carefully curated veneer of self that you can attach your name to.

In 1987, the psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius claimed that a person has two selves: the “now self” and the “possible self.” The Internet allows a person to become her “possible self,” or at least present a version of herself that is closer to it.

When it comes to studies of online narcissism, and there have been many, social media dominates the discussion. One 2010 study notes that the emergence of the possible self “is most pronounced in anonymous online worlds, where accountability is lacking and the ‘true’ self can come out of hiding.” But non-anonymous social networks like Facebook, which this study was analyzing, “provide an ideal environment for the expression of the ‘hoped-for possible self,’ a subgroup of the possible-self. This state emphasizes realistic socially desirable identities an individual would like to establish given the right circumstances.”

The study, which found that people higher in narcissism were more active on Facebook, points out that you tend to encounter “identity statements” on social networks more than you would in real life. When you’re introduced to someone in person, it’s unlikely that they’ll bust out with a pithy sound bite that attempts to sum up all that they are and all they hope to be, but people do that in their Twitter bio or Facebook “About Me” section all the time.

Science has linked narcissism with high levels of activity on Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace (back in the day). But it’s important to narrow in farther and distinguish what kinds of activity the narcissists are engaging in, since hours of scrolling through your news feed, though time-wasting, isn’t exactly self-centered. And people post online for different reasons. For example, Twitter has been shown to sometimes fulfill a need to connect with others. The trouble with determining what’s normal and what’s narcissism is that both sets of people generally engage in the same online behaviors, they just have different motives for doing so.

A recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior dug into the how and why of narcissists’ social media use, looking at both college students and an older adult population. The researchers measured how often people tweeted or updated their Facebook status, but also why, asking them how much they agreed with statements like “It is important that my followers admire me,” and “It is important that my profile makes others want to be my friend.”

Overall, Twitter use was more correlated with narcissism, but lead researcher Shaun W. Davenport, chair of management and entrepreneurship at High Point University, points out that there was a key difference between generations. Older narcissists were more likely to take to Facebook, whereas younger narcissists were more active on Twitter.

“Facebook has really been around the whole time Generation Y was growing up and they see it more as a tool for communication,” Davenport says. “They use it like other generations use the telephone… For older adults who didn’t grow up using Facebook, it takes more intentional motives [to use it], like narcissism.”

Whereas on Facebook, the friend relationship is reciprocal, you don’t have to follow someone on Twitter who follows you (though it is often polite to do so, if you are the sort of person who thinks of Twitter more as an elegant tea room than, I don’t know, someplace without rules or scruples, like the Wild West or a suburban Chuck E. Cheese). Rather than friend-requesting people to get them to pay attention to you, the primary method to attract Twitter followers is just… tweeting, which partially explains the correlation between number of tweets and narcissism.

Of course, there’s something to be said for quality over quantity—just look at @OneTweetTony and his 2,000+ followers. And you’d think that, even if you gather a lot of followers to you through sheer volume of content spewed, eventually some would tire of your face’s constant presence in their feed and leave you. W. Keith Campbell, head of the University of Georgia’s psychology department and author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, says that people don’t actually make the effort to unfriend or unfollow someone that often, though.

“What you find in real life with narcissists is that they’re very good at gaining friends and becoming leaders, but eventually people see through them and stop liking them,” he says. “Online, people are very good at gaining relationships, but they don’t fall off naturally. If you’re incredibly annoying, they just ignore you, and even then it might be worth it for entertainment value. There’s a reason why, on reality TV, you find high levels of narcissism. It’s entertaining.”

Also like reality TV stars, narcissists like their own images. They show a preference for posting photos on Facebook, but Campbell clarifies that it’s the type of photos that matter—narcissists tend to choose more attractive, attention-seeking photos. In another 2011 study, narcissistic adolescents rated their own profile pictures as “more physically attractive, more fashionable, more glamorous, and more cool than their less narcissistic peers did.”

Though social media is an obvious and much-discussed bastion of narcissism, online role-playing games, the most famous being World of Warcraft, have been shown to hold some attraction as well. A study of 1,471 Korean online gamers showed narcissists to be more likely to be addicted to the games than non-narcissists. The concrete goals and rewards the games offer allow the players to gather prestige: “As you play, your character advances by gaining experience points, ‘leveling-up’ from one level to the next while collecting valuables and weapons and becoming wealthier and stronger,” the study reads. “In this social setting, excellent players receive the recognition and attention of others, and gain power and status.”

And if that power comes through violence, so much the better. Narcissism has been linked to aggression, another reason for the games’ appeal. Offline, narcissists are often bullies, though attempts to link narcissism to cyberbullying have resulted in a resounding “maybe.”

 “Narcissists typically have very high self esteem but it’s very fragile self esteem, so when someone attacks them, that self-esteem takes a dramatic nosedive,” Davenport says. “They need more wins to combat those losses…so the wins they have in that [virtual] world can boost their self-esteem.”

People can tell when you are attempting to boost your self-esteem through your online presence. A 2008 study had participants rate Facebook pages (which had already been painstakingly coded by researchers) for 37 different personality traits. The Facebook page’s owners had previously taken the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, and when it was there, the raters picked up on it.

Campbell, one of the researchers on that study, tempers now: “You can detect it, but it’s not perfect,” he says. “It’s sort of like shaving in your car window, you can do it, but it’s not perfect.”

Part of the reason why may be that, as we see more self-promoting behavior online, whether it’s coming from narcissists or not, it becomes more accepted, and thus, widespread.

Though, according to Davenport, the accusation that Generation Y, or—my least favorite term—Millennials, is the most narcissistic generation yet has been backed up by data, he wonders if it’s less a generational problem than just a general shift in our society.

“Some of it is that you see the behavior more on Facebook and Twitter, and some of it is that our society is becoming more accepting of narcissistic behavior,” Davenport says. “I do wonder if at some point the pendulum will swing back a little bit. Because you’re starting to see more published about ‘Is Gen Y more narcissistic?’, ‘What does this mean for the workplace?’, etc. All those questions are starting to become common conversation.”

When asked if our society is moving in a more narcissistic direction, Campbell replied: “President Obama took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Selfie was the word of the year in 2013. So yeah, this stuff becomes far more accepted.”

Read the entire article here.

Images courtesy of Google Search and respective “selfie” owners.

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Teens and the Internet: Don’t Panic

Some view online social networks, smartphones and texting as nothing but bad news for the future socialization of our teens. After all, they’re usually hunched heads down, thumbs out, immersed in their own private worlds, oblivious to all else, all the while paradoxically and simultaneously, publishing and sharing anything and everything to anyone.

Yet, others, including as Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, have a more benign view of the technological maelstrom that surrounds our kids. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she argues that teenagers aren’t doing anything different today online than their parents and grandparents often did in person. Parents will take comfort from Boyd’s analysis that today’s teens will become much like their parents: behaving and worrying about many of the same issues that their parents did. Of course, teens will find this very, very uncool indeed.

From Technology Review:

Kids today! They’re online all the time, sharing every little aspect of their lives. What’s wrong with them? Actually, nothing, says Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher who studies social media. In a book coming out this winter, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teenagers aren’t doing much online that’s very different from what kids did at the sock hop, the roller rink, or the mall. They do so much socializing online mostly because they have little choice, Boyd says: parents now generally consider it unsafe to let kids roam their neighborhoods unsupervised. Boyd, 36, spoke with MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein, at Microsoft Research’s offices in Manhattan.

I feel like you might have titled the book Everybody Should Stop Freaking Out.

It’s funny, because one of the early titles was Like, Duh. Because whenever I would show my research to young people, they’d say, “Like, duh. Isn’t this so obvious?” And it opens with the anecdote of a boy who says, “Can you just talk to my mom? Can you tell her that I’m going to be okay?” I found that refrain so common among young people.

You and your colleague Alice Marwick interviewed 166 teenagers for this book. But you’ve studied social media for a long time. What surprised you?

It was shocking how heavily constrained their mobility was. I had known it had gotten worse since I was a teenager, but I didn’t get it—the total lack of freedom to just go out and wander. Young people weren’t even trying to sneak out [of the house at night]. They were trying to get online, because that’s the place where they hung out with their friends.

And I had assumed based on the narratives in the media that bullying was on the rise. I was shocked that data showed otherwise.

Then why do narratives such as “Bullying is more common online” take hold?

It’s made more visible. There is some awful stuff out there, but it frustrates me when a panic distracts us from the reality of what’s going on. One of my frustrations is that there are some massive mental health issues, and we want to blame the technology [that brings them to light] instead of actually dealing with mental health issues.

take your point that Facebook or Insta­gram is the equivalent of yesterday’s hangouts. But social media amplify everyday situations in difficult new ways. For example, kids might instantly see on Facebook that they’re missing out on something other kids are doing together.

That can be a blessing or a curse. These interpersonal conflicts ramp up much faster [and] can be much more hurtful. That’s one of the challenges for this cohort of youth: some of them have the social and emotional skills that are necessary to deal with these conflicts; others don’t. It really sucks when you realize that somebody doesn’t like you as much as you like them. Part of it is, then, how do you use that as an opportunity not to just wallow in your self-pity but to figure out how to interact and be like “Hey, let’s talk through what this friendship is like”?

You contend that teenagers are not cavalier about privacy, despite appearances, and adeptly shift sensitive conversations into chat and other private channels.

Many adults assume teens don’t care about privacy because they’re so willing to participate in social media. They want to be in public. But that doesn’t mean that they want to be public. There’s a big difference. Privacy isn’t about being isolated from others. It’s about having the capacity to control a social situation.

So if parents can let go of some common fears, what should they be doing?

One thing that I think is dangerous is that we’re trained that we are the experts at everything that goes on in our lives and our kids’ lives. So the assumption is that we should teach them by telling them. But I think the best way to teach is by asking questions: “Why are you posting that? Help me understand.” Using it as an opportunity to talk. Obviously there comes a point when your teenage child is going to roll their eyes and go, “I am not interested in explaining anything more to you, Dad.”

The other thing is being present. The hardest thing that I saw, overwhelmingly—the most unhealthy environments—were those where the parents were not present. They could be physically present and not actually present.

Read the entire article here.

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Cut the Buzzwords

Social network LinkedIn has just published a neat infographic showing the use, misuse and over-use of buzzwords in its members’ personal profiles. If your profile included such nuggets as: motivated, multinational and specialized, well, it’s probably time to freshen up the resume.

Our votes for the most overused buzzwords of 2013 would go to: innovation, redemption, sustainable and our favorite — big data.

infographic-linkedin-buzzwordsInfographic courtesy of LinkedIn.

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It’s Pretty Ugly Online

This is a compelling and sad story of people with ugly minds who have nothing better to do than demean others. The others in this story are those that pervade social media in search of attention and a modicum of self-esteem. Which group is in need of most in help? Well, you decide.

From Wired:

Live artist Louise Orwin has created a show—Pretty Ugly—based on her research into the phenomenon of teenage girls discussing body issues on social media.

“OK, guys, this is a serious matter… I want to know whether I’m pretty or not,” says a teenage girl with a high-pitched voice and heavily made-up eyes going by the name of girlsite101.

She goes on to explain with pageant participant peppiness that her classmates say she is pretty and she “wins homecoming queen every year,” but that she’s not convinced. The only way to settle the situation is to ask the impartial commenters of YouTube.

The video has notched up more than 110,000 views and the comments are, frankly, brutal: “Bitch” and “You have an ugly personality and you’re making this shit up. You’re ugly” rank the highest. But there are many, many more: “You look like a bug!”; “You’re ugly as fuck […] You might want to cover up that third eye you twig. And you’re ears are fucking tiny. Like seriously, stick them up your ass. And stop telling lies”; “stupid slut”; “attention seeker”; “a pretty face destroyed by an ugly personality.” There are 5,500 of these comments—the vast majority of them are negative.

Girlsite101’s video is not a one-off. There are almost 600,000 results when you search for “am I pretty or ugly” on YouTube. It’s this phenomenon that live artist Louise Orwin has set out to explore in a performance called Pretty Ugly.

Orwin’s journey started when she came across the “Thinspiration” community on Tumblr, where pictures of slim women—ranging from the naturally slim to the emaciated—are shared as a source of inspiration for those trying to lose weight. “I got obsessed with the way these teenage girls were using Tumblr,” she told Wired.co.uk. “I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

At the same time, Orwin was exploring how teenage girls use social media compared to the outlets she had as a teenager. “When I was a teenager I was writing in a diary; today teenagers are posting onto Tumblr.”

“I was horrified by it”

During the course of her research, she chanced upon one of the aforementioned “am I pretty or ugly?” videos. “I saw a really young girl pouting and posing in front of the camera. Her language was something that struck me. It was really teenage language; she was talking about how boys at school were picking on her but there was one guy who fancied her and she didn’t know why boys didn’t like her,” Orwin explains. The girl on camera then asked whether her audience thought she was pretty or ugly. “I was horrified by it,” said Orwin. “Then you look at the comments below; they were horrific.”

Orwin then spotted the many related videos alongside it. “The thing that struck me is that it seemed like a really brave thing to do. I couldn’t imagine myself posting a video like that because I would have thought that she was opening herself up to a huge amount of criticism.”

After trying to contact some of the girls who made the videos, Orwin decided to post some of her own. She came up with a number of teenage alter-egos: an emo girl called Becky, a nerdy girl called Amanda, and another character called Baby.

“I got torrents of abuse. People were telling me to fuck off and die,” Orwin explained. The emo girl Becky was targeted particularly aggressively. Three weeks after the video was posted, there was a spike of interest and Orwin received 200 comment notifications. One of the comments said: “Your so fucking dumb, yes you are ugly, just because you made this shitty video I think your the ugliest cunt out, take off that eye shadow no girl ever can pull off that much especially not you, and if you really think being ugly is such a surprise to you, life is going to fucking suck for you.”

“I woke up and read all of this abuse and I really felt it in my stomach. I had to remind myself that it’s not me, it’s the character.”

Orwin makes a point about the characters being 15-years-old in her videos (she’s actually 26), but that didn’t stop her from receiving hundreds of private messages, the vast majority from men, many of which were asking for her to send more videos. One man said “I think ur pretty. Don’t let anyone tell u any different OK. Can u do a dance vid so I can see more of sexy u?xx.”

When Orwin sat down to analyze the comments and messages she had received on her videos, she found that 70 percent of the feedback was from men, “and most of them were definitely over 18.” Most of the women who commented were under 18.

One commenter who stood out for Orwin was a user called RookhKshatriya, who wrote under Becky’s video, “You’re a 4 and without glasses you are a 5.” The commenter is actually a London-based academic who works in education and calls himself an “anti-feminist,” believing that the Anglo-American brand of feminism that emerged in the ’60s has an ulterior misandrist agenda. You can check out his blog, Anglobitch, here. “He takes himself very seriously, but he’s going on YouTube and rating 15-year-old girls,” muses Orwin.

One of the things that intrigues Orwin about these videos is that they explore the idea of anonymity as well as performance. “Part of the reason that a lot of them post the videos is yes, they want to know whether they are pretty. But they also see the trend going round and it’s just another subject to make a video on. Which is strange.”

Orwin’s show, Pretty Ugly, follows the trail of her research, looking at the relationships Becky, Amanda, and Baby have with their commenters and the people who messaged them. “Conversations with trolls, friendships… it also covers all the creepy side of it,” she explains.

The show starts with Orwin asking the audience the central question: do they think she is pretty or ugly. “I need to show how irrelevant that question should be. Would you go up to a person on the street and ask them that? I am trying to make this anonymous world into a live face-to-face world.”

Orwin is particularly struck by the way digital media is changing the way we perceive ourselves and each other. “And what does it mean for feminism today?”

When she compares her own teenage years to those being lived out today, she says she remembers getting to a certain age when people were starting to talk about the pressures of the media, which was selling unattainable images of perfection and beauty. “But it was about the media. Now if you look on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, it’s not the media, but the teenage girls themselves perpetuating this myth. They are resharing these images, reblogging. There’s always going to be peer pressure but I think [social media] makes these issues worse.”

Read the entire article here.

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Big Data and Your Career

If you’re a professional or like networking, but shun Facebook, then chances are good that you hang-out on LinkedIn. And, as you do, the company is trawling through your personal data and that of hundreds of millions of other members to turn human resources and career planning into a science — all with the help of big data.

From the Washington Post:

Every second, more than two people join LinkedIn’s network of 238 million members.

They are head hunters in search of talent. They are the talent in search of a job. And sometimes, the career site for the professional class is just a hangout for the well-connected worker.

LinkedIn, using complex, carefully concocted algorithms, analyzes their profiles and site behavior to steer them to opportunity. And corporations parse that data to set business strategy. As the network grows moment by moment, LinkedIn’s rich trove of information also grows more detailed and more comprehensive.

It’s big data meeting human resources. And that data, core to LinkedIn’s potential, could catapult the company beyond building careers and into the realms of education, urban development and economic policy.

Chief executive Jeff Weiner put it this way in a recent blog post: “Our ultimate dream is to develop the world’s first economic graph,” a sort of digital map of skills, workers and jobs across the global economy.

Ambitions, in other words, that are a far cry from the industry’s early stabs at modernizing the old-fashioned jobs board (think ­Monster.com and CareerBuilder).

So far, LinkedIn’s data-driven strategy appears to be working: It turned its highest-ever profit in the second quarter, $364 million, and its stock price has grown sixfold since its 2011 initial public offering. Because its workforce has doubled in a year, it’s fast outgrowing its Mountain View headquarters, just down the street from Google. In 2014, it’ll move into Yahoo’s neighborhood with a new campus in Sunnyvale.

The company makes money three ways: members who pay for premium access; ad sales; and its gold mine, a suite of products created by its talent solutions division and sold to corporate clients, which accounted for $205 million in revenue last quarter.

When LinkedIn staffers talk about their network and products, they often refer to an “ecosystem.” It’s an apt metaphor, because the value of their offerings would seem to rely heavily on equilibrium.

LinkedIn’s usefulness to recruiters is deeply contingent on the quality and depth of its membership base. And its usefulness to members depends on the quality of their experience on the site. LinkedIn’s success, then, depends largely on its ability to do more than just amass new members. The company must get its users to maintain comprehensive, up-to-date profiles, and it must give them a reason to visit the site frequently.

To engage members, the company has deployed new strategies on all fronts: a redesigned site; stuff to read from the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Welch and Richard Branson; new mobile applications; status updates; targeted aggregated news stories and more.

By throwing more and more at users, of course, LinkedIn risks undermining the very thing that’s made it the go-to site for recruiters: a mass of high-quality candidates, sorted and evaluated and offered up.

“I think there’s a chance of people getting tired of it and checking out of it,” said Chris Collins, director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Telegraph / LinkedIn.

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To Phubb or Not to Phubb?

A new verb for a very recent phenomenon. Phubbing was invented by inveterate texters and proliferated by anyone aged between 16-25 years.

Urban dictionary defines “phubbing” as:

Snubbing someone in favour of your mobile phone. We’ve all done it: when a conversation gets boring, the urge to check out an interesting person’s twitter/ Facebook/ Youtube/ Pinterest/whatever feed can be overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, even though the word is probably only a couple of months old, there is a campaign to fight phubbing. It is safe to assume that a complementary verb will soon appear to denote injury suffered while texting and not paying attention to obstacles in one’s immediate surroundings, such as fire hydrants, other people, lamp posts, potholes, cars, lawn mowers, and so on.

From the Guardian:

Age: A distinctly 21st-century problem.

Appearance: A friend’s face buried in a screen.

What are we talking about? We’re talking about phubbing.

Never heard of it. That’s because the word was first used about a month ago.

To describe what? To describe the kind of person who bursts out laughing mid-conversation, making you think you’ve made a brilliant joke, and then says: “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you, I just saw something really funny on Twitter.” Or the sort who think it’s appropriate to check their emails in the pub when you only have each other for company. Or the tedious people who live-tweet weddings.

Those people are the worst. So what does “phubbing” actually mean? It means “The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.”

According to whom? According to the website of the international Stop Phubbing campaign group.

There’s a campaign against it? There is. Or a website for a campaign anyway, set up last month by 23-year-old Alex Haigh from Melbourne. They haven’t actually done all that much campaigning so far.

How can I get involved? You can download “Stop Phubbing” posters for restaurants and “Stop Phubbing” place cards for weddings, browse a gallery of celebrity “phubbers” caught texting instead of talking – including Victoria Beckham and Elton John – and even “Shame a Phubber” from your own social circle by uploading an incriminating photograph to the site.

Sounds pretty serious. Not really. There’s also a list of “Disturbing Phubbing Stats” that includes “If phubbing were a plague it would decimate six Chinas”, “97% of people claim their food tasted worse while being a victim of phubbing” and “92% of repeat phubbers go on to become politicians”.

Ah. So it’s really just a joke site? Well, a joke site with a serious message about our growing estrangement from our fellow human beings. But mostly a joke site, yes.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Textually.org.

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The Death of Photojournalism

Really, it was only a matter of time. First, digital cameras killed off their film-dependent predecessors and then dealt a death knell for Kodak. Now social media and the #hashtag is doing the same to the professional photographer.

Camera-enabled smartphones are ubiquitous, making everyone a photographer. And, with almost everyone jacked into at least one social network or photo-sharing site it takes only one point and a couple of clicks to get a fresh image posted to the internet. Ironically, the newsprint media, despite being in the business of news, have failed to recognize this news until recently.

So, now with an eye to cutting costs, and making images more immediate and compelling — via citizens — news organizations are re-tooling their staffs in four ways: first, fire the photographers; second, re-train reporters to take photographs with their smartphones; third, video, video, video; fourth, rely on the ever willing public to snap images, post, tweet, #hashtag and like — for free of course.

From Cult of Mac:

The Chicago Sun-Times, one of the remnants of traditional paper journalism, has let go its entire photography staff of 28 people. Now its reporters will start receiving “iPhone photography basics” training to start producing their own photos and videos.

The move is part of a growing trend towards publications using the iPhone as a replacement for fancy, expensive DSLRs. It’s a also a sign of how traditional journalism is being changed by technology like the iPhone and the advent of digital publishing.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 1.58.39 PM

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, reporters for Time used the iPhone to take photos on the field and upload to the publication’s Instagram account. Even the cover photo used on the corresponding issue of Time was taken on an iPhone.

Sun-Times photographer Alex Garcia argues that the “idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best.” Garcia believes that reporters are incapable of writing articles and also producing quality media, but she’s fighting an uphill battle.

Big newspaper companies aren’t making anywhere near the amount of money they used to due to the popularity of online publications and blogs. Free news is a click away nowadays. Getting rid of professional photographers and equipping reporters with iPhones is another way to cut costs.

The iPhone has a better camera than most digital point-and-shoots, and more importantly, it is in everyone’s pocket. It’s a great camera that’s always with you, and that makes it an invaluable tool for any journalist. There will always be a need for videographers and pro photographers that can make studio-level work, but the iPhone is proving to be an invaluable tool for reporters in the modern world.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Kodak 1949-56 Retina IIa 35mm Camera. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Kodak.

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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like…

“… But You Can Never Leave”. So goes one of the most memorable of lyrical phrases from The Eagles (Hotel California).

Of late, it seems that this state of affairs also applies to a vast collection of people on Facebook; many wish to leave but lack the social capital or wisdom or backbone to do so.

From the Washington Post:

Bad news, everyone. We’re trapped. We may well be stuck here for the rest of our lives. I hope you brought canned goods.

A dreary line of tagged pictures and status updates stretches before us from here to the tomb.

Like life, Facebook seems to get less exciting the longer we spend there. And now everyone hates Facebook, officially.

Last week, Pew reported that 94 percent of teenagers are on Facebook, but that they are miserable about it. Then again, when are teenagers anything else? Pew’s focus groups of teens complained about the drama, said Twitter felt more natural, said that it seemed like a lot of effort to keep up with everyone you’d ever met, found the cliques and competition for friends offputting –

All right, teenagers. You have a point. And it doesn’t get better.

The trouble with Facebook is that 94 percent of people are there. Anything with 94 Percent of People involved ceases to have a personality and becomes a kind of public utility. There’s no broad generalization you can make about people who use flush toilets. Sure, toilets are a little odd, and they become quickly ridiculous when you stare at them long enough, the way a word used too often falls apart into meaningless letters under scrutiny, but we don’t think of them as peculiar. Everyone’s got one. The only thing weirder than having one of those funny porcelain thrones in your home would be not having one.

Facebook is like that, and not just because we deposit the same sort of thing in both. It used to define a particular crowd. But it’s no longer the bastion of college students and high schoolers avoiding parental scrutiny. Mom’s there. Heck, Velveeta Cheesy Skillets are there.

It’s just another space in which all the daily drama of actual life plays out. All the interactions that used only to be annoying to the people in the room with you at the time are now played out indelibly in text and pictures that can be seen from great distances by anyone who wants to take an afternoon and stalk you. Oscar Wilde complained about married couples who flirted with each other, saying that it was like washing clean linen in public. Well, just look at the wall exchanges of You Know The Couple I Mean. “Nothing is more irritating than not being invited to a party you wouldn’t be seen dead at,” Bill Vaughan said. On Facebook, that’s magnified to parties in entirely different states.

Facebook has been doing its best to approximate our actual social experience — that creepy foray into chairs aside. But what it forgot was that our actual social experience leaves much to be desired. After spending time with Other People smiling politely at news of what their sonograms are doing, we often want to rush from the room screaming wordlessly and bang our heads into something.

Hell is other people, updating their statuses with news that Yay The Strange Growth Checked Out Just Fine.

This is the point where someone says, “Well, if it’s that annoying, why don’t you unsubscribe?”

But you can’t.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Facebook logo courtesy of Mirror / Facebook.

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Death Cafe

“Death Cafe” sounds like the name of a group of alternative musicians from Denmark. But it’s not. Its rather more literal definition is a coffee shop where customers go to talk about death over a cup of earl grey tea or double shot espresso. And, while it’s not displacing Starbucks (yet), death cafes are a growing trend in Europe, first inspired by the pop-up Cafe Mortels of Switzerland.

From the Independent:

Do you have a death wish?” is not a question normally bandied about in seriousness. But have you ever actually asked whether a parent, partner or friend has a wish, or wishes, concerning their death? Burial or cremation? Where would they like to die? It’s not easy to do.

Stiff-upper-lipped Brits have a particular problem talking about death. Anyone who tries invariably gets shouted down with “Don’t talk like that!” or “If you say it, you’ll make it happen.” A survey by the charity Dying Matters reveals that more than 70 per cent of us are uncomfortable talking about death and that less than a third of us have spoken to family members about end-of-life wishes.

But despite this ingrained reluctance there are signs of burgeoning interest in exploring death. I attended my first death cafe recently and was surprised to discover that the gathering of goths, emos and the terminally ill that I’d imagined, turned out to be a collection of fascinating, normal individuals united by a wish to discuss mortality.

At a trendy coffee shop called Cakey Muto in Hackney, east London, taking tea (and scones!) with death turned out to be rather a lot of fun. What is believed to be the first official British death cafe took place in September last year, organised by former council worker Jon Underwood. Since then, around 150 people have attended death cafes in London and the one I visited was the 17th such happening.

“We don’t want to shove death down people’s throats,” Underwood says. “We just want to create an environment where talking about death is natural and comfortable.” He got the idea from the Swiss model (cafe mortel) invented by sociologist Bernard Crettaz, the popularity of which gained momentum in the Noughties and has since spread to France.

Underwood is keen to start a death cafe movement in English-speaking countries and his website (deathcafe.com) includes instructions for setting up your own. He has already inspired the first death cafe in America and groups have sprung up in Northern England too. Last month, he arranged the first death cafe targeting issues around dying for a specific group, the LGBT community, which he says was extremely positive and had 22 attendees.

Back in Cakey Muto, 10 fellow attendees and I eye each other nervously as the cafe door is locked and we seat ourselves in a makeshift circle. Conversation is kicked off by our facilitator, grief specialist Kristie West, who sets some ground rules. “This is a place for people to talk about death,” she says. “I want to make it clear that it is not about grief, even though I’m a grief specialist. It’s also not a debate platform. We don’t want you to air all your views and pick each other apart.”

A number of our party are directly involved in the “death industry”: a humanist-funeral celebrant, an undertaker and a lady who works in a funeral home. Going around the circle explaining our decision to come to a death cafe, what came across from this trio, none of whom knew each other, was their satisfaction in their work.

“I feel more alive than ever since working in a funeral home,” one of the women remarked. “It has helped me recognise that it isn’t a circle between life and death, it is more like a cosmic soup. The dead and the living are sort of floating about together.”

Others in the group include a documentary maker, a young woman whose mother died 18 months ago, a lady who doesn’t say much but was persuaded by her neighbour to come, and a woman who has attended three previous death cafes but still hasn’t managed to admit this new interest to her family or get them to talk about death.

The funeral celebrant tells the circle she’s been thinking a lot about what makes a good or bad death. She describes “the roaring corrosiveness of stepping into a household” where a “bad death” has taken place and the group meditates on what a bad death entails: suddenness, suffering and a difficult relationship between the deceased and bereaved?

“I have seen people have funerals which I don’t think they would have wanted,” says the undertaker, who has 17 years of experience. “It is possible to provide funerals more cheaply, more sensitively and with greater respect for the dead.”

Read the entire article after the jump.

Death cafe menu courtesy of Death Cafe.

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Instagram: Confusing Mediocrity with Artistry

Professional photographers take note: there will always be room for high-quality images that tell a story or capture a timeless event or exude artistic elegance. But, your domain is under attack, again — and the results are not particularly pretty. This time courtesy of Instagram.

Just over a hundred years ago, to be a good photographer one required the skills of an alchemist; the chemical processing of plates and prints was more complex, much more time-consuming than capturing the shot itself, and sometimes dangerous. A good print required constant attention, lengthy cajoling and considerable patience, and of course a darkroom and some interesting chemicals.

Then Kodak came along; it commoditized film and processing, expanding photography to the masses. More recently as technology has improved and hardware prices have continued to drop, more cameras have found their ways into the hands of more people. However, until recently access to good quality (yet still expensive) photographic equipment has played an important role in allowing photographers to maintain superiority of their means and ends over everyday amateurs.

Even as photography has become a primarily digital process, with camera prices  continuing to plummet, many photographers have continued to distinguish their finished images from the burgeoning mainstream. After all, it still takes considerable skill and time to post-process an image in Photoshop or other imaging software.

Nowadays, anyone armed with a $99 smartphone is a photographer with a high-resolution camera. And, through the power of blogs and social networks every photographer is also a publisher. Technology has considerably democratized and shortened the process. So, now an image can find its way from the hands of the photographer to the eyes of a vast audience almost instantaneously. The numbers speak for themselves — by most estimates, around 4.2 million images are uploaded daily to Flickr and 4.5 million to Instagram.

And, as the smartphone is to a high-end medium or large format camera, so is Instagram to Photoshop. Now, armed with both smartphone and Instagram a photographer — applying the term loosely — can touch-up an image of their last meal with digital sepia or apply a duo-tone filter to a landscape of their bedroom, or, most importantly, snap a soft-focus, angled self-portrait. All this, and the photographer can still deliver the finished work to a horde of followers for instant, gratuitous “likes”.

But, here’s why Instagram may not be such a threat to photography after all, despite the vast ocean of images washing across the internet.

From the Atlantic Wire:

While the Internet has had a good time making fun of these rich kid Instagram photos, haters should be careful. These postings are emblematic of the entire medium we all use. To be certain, these wealthy kid pix are particularly funny (and also sad) because they showcase a gross variant of entitlement. Preteens posing with helicopters they did nothing to earn and posting the pictures online for others to ogle provides an easy in for commentary on the state of the American dream. (Dead.) While we don’t disagree with that reading, it’s par for the course on Instagram, a shallow medium all about promoting superficiality that photo takers did little to nothing to earn.

The very basis of Instagram is not just to show off, but to feign talent we don’t have, starting with the filters themselves. The reason we associate the look with “cool” in the first place is that many of these pretty hazes originated from processes coveted either for their artistic or unique merits, as photographer and blogger Ming Thein explains: “Originally, these styles were either conscious artistic decisions, or the consequences of not enough money and using expired film. They were chosen precisely because they looked unique—either because it was a difficult thing to execute well (using tilt-shift lenses, for instance) or because nobody else did it (cross-processing),” he writes. Instagram, however, has made such techniques easy and available, taking away that original value. “It takes the skill out of actually having to do any of these things (learn to process B&W properly, either chemically or in Photoshop, for instance),” he continues.

Yet we apply them to make ourselves look like we’ve got something special. Everything becomes “amaaazzing,” to put it in the words of graphic design blogger Jack Mancer, who has his own screed about the site. But actually, nothing about it is truly amazing. Some might call the process democratizing—everyone is a professional!—but really, it’s a big hoax. Everyone is just pressing buttons to add computer-generated veneers to our mostly mundane lives. There is nothing artsy about that. But we still do it. Is that really better than the rich kids? Sure, we’re not embarrassing ourselves by posting extreme wealth we happened into. But what are we posting? And why? At the very least, we’re doing it to look artsy; if not that, there is some other, deeper, more sinister thing we’re trying to prove, which means we’re right up there with the rich kids.

Here are some examples of how we see this playing out on the network:

The Food Pic

Why you post this: This says my food looks cool, therefore it is yummy. Look how well I eat, or how well I cook, or what a foodie I am.

Why this is just like the rich kids: Putting an artsy filter on a pretty photo can make the grossest slosh look like gourmet eats. It does not prove culinary or photographic skill, it proves that you can press a button.

The Look How much Fun I’m Having Pic

Why you post this: To prove you have the best, most social, coolest life, and friends. To prove you are happy and fun.

Why this is just like the rich kids: This also has an underlying tone of flaunting wealth. Fun usually costs money, and it’s something not everybody else has.

The Picture of Thing Pic

Why you post this: This proves your fantastic, enviable artistic eye: “I turned a mundane object into art!”

What that is just like the rich kids: See above. Essentially, you’re bragging, but without the skills to support it.

Instagram and photo apps like it are shallow mediums that will generate shallow results. They are there for people to showcase something that doesn’t deserve a platform. The rich kids are a particularly salient example of how the entire network operates, but those who live in glass houses shot by Instagram shouldn’t throw beautifully if artfully filtered stones.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Tumblr: Rich Kids of Instgram.

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Shirking Life-As-Performance of a Social Network

Ex-Facebook employee number 51, gives us a glimpse from within the social network giant. It’s a tale of social isolation, shallow relationships, voyeurism, and narcissistic performance art. It’s also a tale of the re-discovery of life prior to “likes”, “status updates”, “tweets” and “followers”.

From the Washington Post:

Not long after Katherine Losse left her Silicon Valley career and moved to this West Texas town for its artsy vibe and crisp desert air, she decided to make friends the old-fashioned way, in person. So she went to her Facebook page and, with a series of keystrokes, shut it off.

The move carried extra import because Losse had been the social network’s 51st employee and rose to become founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal ghostwriter. But Losse gradually soured on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within.

The explosion of social media, she believed, left hundreds of millions of users with connections that were more plentiful but also narrower and less satisfying, with intimacy losing out to efficiency. It was time, Losse thought, for people to renegotiate their relationships with technology.

“It’s okay to feel weird about this because I feel weird about this, and I was in the center of it,” said Losse, 36, who has long, dark hair and sky-blue eyes. “We all know there is an anxiety, there’s an unease, there’s a worry that our lives are changing.”

Her response was to quit her job — something made easier by the vested stock she cashed in — and to embrace the ancient toil of writing something in her own words, at book length, about her experiences and the philosophical questions they inspired.

That brought her to Marfa, a town of 2,000 people in an area so remote that astronomers long have come here for its famously dark night sky, beyond the light pollution that’s a byproduct of modern life.

Losse’s mission was oddly parallel. She wanted to live, at least for a time, as far as practical from the world’s relentless digital glow.

Losse was a graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2004 when Facebook began its spread, first at Harvard, then other elite schools and beyond. It provided a digital commons, a way of sharing personal lives that to her felt safer than the rest of the Internet.

The mix has proved powerful. More than 900 million people have joined; if they were citizens of a single country, Facebook Nation would be the world’s third largest.

At first, Losse was among those smitten. In 2005, after moving to Northern California in search of work, she responded to a query on the Facebook home page seeking résumés. Losse soon became one of the company’s first customer-service reps, replying to questions from users and helping to police abuses.

She was firmly on the wrong side of the Silicon Valley divide, which prizes the (mostly male) engineers over those, like Losse, with liberal arts degrees. Yet she had the sense of being on the ground floor of something exciting that might also yield a life-altering financial jackpot.

In her first days, she was given a master password that she said allowed her to see any information users typed into their Facebook pages. She could go into pages to fix technical problems and police content. Losse recounted sparring with a user who created a succession of pages devoted to anti-gay messages and imagery. In one exchange, she noticed the man’s password, “Ilovejason,” and was startled by the painful irony.

Another time, Losse cringed when she learned that a team of Facebook engineers was developing what they called “dark profiles” — pages for people who had not signed up for the service but who had been identified in posts by Facebook users. The dark profiles were not to be visible to ordinary users, Losse said, but if the person eventually signed up, Facebook would activate those latent links to other users.

All the world a stage

Losse’s unease sharpened when a celebrated Facebook engineer was developing the capacity for users to upload video to their pages. He started videotaping friends, including Losse, almost compulsively. On one road trip together, the engineer made a video of her napping in a car and uploaded it remotely to an internal Facebook page. Comments noting her siesta soon began appearing — only moments after it happened.

“The day before, I could just be in a car being in a car. Now my being in a car is a performance that is visible to everyone,” Losse said, exasperation creeping into her voice. “It’s almost like there is no middle of nowhere anymore.”

Losse began comparing Facebook to the iconic 1976 Eagles song “Hotel California,” with its haunting coda, “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” She put a copy of the record jacket on prominent display in a house she and several other employees shared not far from the headquarters (then in Palo Alto., Calif.; it’s now in Menlo Park).

As Facebook grew, Losse’s career blossomed. She helped introduce Facebook to new countries, pushing for quick, clean translations into new languages. Later, she moved to the heart of the company as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, mimicking his upbeat yet efficient style of communicating in blog posts he issued.

But her concerns continue to grow. When Zuckerberg, apparently sensing this, said to Losse, “I don’t know if I trust you,” she decided she needed to either be entirely committed to Facebook or leave. She soon sold some of her vested stock. She won’t say how much; they provided enough of a financial boon for her to go a couple of years without a salary, though not enough to stop working altogether, as some former colleagues have.

‘Touchy, private territory’

Among Losse’s concerns were the vast amount of personal data Facebook gathers. “They are playing on very touchy, private territory. They really are,” she said. “To not be conscious of that seems really dangerous.”

It wasn’t just Facebook. Losse developed a skepticism for many social technologies and the trade-offs they require.

Facebook and some others have portrayed proliferating digital connections as inherently good, bringing a sprawling world closer together and easing personal isolation.

Moira Burke, a researcher who trained at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and has since joined Facebook’s Data Team, tracked the moods of 1,200 volunteer users. She found that simply scanning the postings of others had little effect on well-being; actively participating in exchanges with friends, however, relieved loneliness.

Summing up her findings, she wrote on Facebook’s official blog, “The more people use Facebook, the better they feel.”

But Losse’s concerns about online socializing tracks with the findings of Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist who says users of social media have little understanding of the personal information they are giving away. Nor, she said, do many understand the potentially distorting consequences when they put their lives on public display, as what amounts to an ongoing performance on social media.

“In our online lives, we edit, we retouch, we clean up,” said Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” published in 2011. “We substitute what I call ‘connection for real conversation.’?”

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Image: The Boy Kings by Katherine Losse.

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You as a Data Strip Mine: What Facebook Knows

China, India, Facebook. With its 900 million member-citizens Facebook is the third largest country on the planet, ranked by population. This country has some benefits: no taxes, freedom to join and/or leave, and of course there’s freedom to assemble and a fair degree of free speech.

However, Facebook is no democracy. In fact, its data privacy policies and personal data mining might well put it in the same league as the Stalinist Soviet Union or cold war East Germany.

A fascinating article by Tom Simonite excerpted below sheds light on the data collection and data mining initiatives underway or planned at Facebook.

From Technology Review:

If Facebook were a country, a conceit that founder Mark Zuckerberg has entertained in public, its 900 million members would make it the third largest in the world.

It would far outstrip any regime past or present in how intimately it records the lives of its citizens. Private conversations, family photos, and records of road trips, births, marriages, and deaths all stream into the company’s servers and lodge there. Facebook has collected the most extensive data set ever assembled on human social behavior. Some of your personal information is probably part of it.

And yet, even as Facebook has embedded itself into modern life, it hasn’t actually done that much with what it knows about us. Now that the company has gone public, the pressure to develop new sources of profit (see “The Facebook Fallacy) is likely to force it to do more with its hoard of information. That stash of data looms like an oversize shadow over what today is a modest online advertising business, worrying privacy-conscious Web users (see “Few Privacy Regulations Inhibit Facebook”) and rivals such as Google. Everyone has a feeling that this unprecedented resource will yield something big, but nobody knows quite what.

Heading Facebook’s effort to figure out what can be learned from all our data is Cameron Marlow, a tall 35-year-old who until recently sat a few feet away from ­Zuckerberg. The group Marlow runs has escaped the public attention that dogs Facebook’s founders and the more headline-grabbing features of its business. Known internally as the Data Science Team, it is a kind of Bell Labs for the social-networking age. The group has 12 researchers—but is expected to double in size this year. They apply math, programming skills, and social science to mine our data for insights that they hope will advance Facebook’s business and social science at large. Whereas other analysts at the company focus on information related to specific online activities, Marlow’s team can swim in practically the entire ocean of personal data that Facebook maintains. Of all the people at Facebook, perhaps even including the company’s leaders, these researchers have the best chance of discovering what can really be learned when so much personal information is compiled in one place.

Facebook has all this information because it has found ingenious ways to collect data as people socialize. Users fill out profiles with their age, gender, and e-mail address; some people also give additional details, such as their relationship status and mobile-phone number. A redesign last fall introduced profile pages in the form of time lines that invite people to add historical information such as places they have lived and worked. Messages and photos shared on the site are often tagged with a precise location, and in the last two years Facebook has begun to track activity elsewhere on the Internet, using an addictive invention called the “Like” button. It appears on apps and websites outside Facebook and allows people to indicate with a click that they are interested in a brand, product, or piece of digital content. Since last fall, Facebook has also been able to collect data on users’ online lives beyond its borders automatically: in certain apps or websites, when users listen to a song or read a news article, the information is passed along to Facebook, even if no one clicks “Like.” Within the feature’s first five months, Facebook catalogued more than five billion instances of people listening to songs online. Combine that kind of information with a map of the social connections Facebook’s users make on the site, and you have an incredibly rich record of their lives and interactions.

“This is the first time the world has seen this scale and quality of data about human communication,” Marlow says with a characteristically serious gaze before breaking into a smile at the thought of what he can do with the data. For one thing, Marlow is confident that exploring this resource will revolutionize the scientific understanding of why people behave as they do. His team can also help Facebook influence our social behavior for its own benefit and that of its advertisers. This work may even help Facebook invent entirely new ways to make money.

Contagious Information

Marlow eschews the collegiate programmer style of Zuckerberg and many others at Facebook, wearing a dress shirt with his jeans rather than a hoodie or T-shirt. Meeting me shortly before the company’s initial public offering in May, in a conference room adorned with a six-foot caricature of his boss’s dog spray-painted on its glass wall, he comes across more like a young professor than a student. He might have become one had he not realized early in his career that Web companies would yield the juiciest data about human interactions.

In 2001, undertaking a PhD at MIT’s Media Lab, Marlow created a site called Blogdex that automatically listed the most “contagious” information spreading on weblogs. Although it was just a research project, it soon became so popular that Marlow’s servers crashed. Launched just as blogs were exploding into the popular consciousness and becoming so numerous that Web users felt overwhelmed with information, it prefigured later aggregator sites such as Digg and Reddit. But Marlow didn’t build it just to help Web users track what was popular online. Blogdex was intended as a scientific instrument to uncover the social networks forming on the Web and study how they spread ideas. Marlow went on to Yahoo’s research labs to study online socializing for two years. In 2007 he joined Facebook, which he considers the world’s most powerful instrument for studying human society. “For the first time,” Marlow says, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behavior at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

Marlow’s team works with managers across Facebook to find patterns that they might make use of. For instance, they study how a new feature spreads among the social network’s users. They have helped Facebook identify users you may know but haven’t “friended,” and recognize those you may want to designate mere “acquaintances” in order to make their updates less prominent. Yet the group is an odd fit inside a company where software engineers are rock stars who live by the mantra “Move fast and break things.” Lunch with the data team has the feel of a grad-student gathering at a top school; the typical member of the group joined fresh from a PhD or junior academic position and prefers to talk about advancing social science than about Facebook as a product or company. Several members of the team have training in sociology or social psychology, while others began in computer science and started using it to study human behavior. They are free to use some of their time, and Facebook’s data, to probe the basic patterns and motivations of human behavior and to publish the results in academic journals—much as Bell Labs researchers advanced both AT&T’s technologies and the study of fundamental physics.

It may seem strange that an eight-year-old company without a proven business model bothers to support a team with such an academic bent, but ­Marlow says it makes sense. “The biggest challenges Facebook has to solve are the same challenges that social science has,” he says. Those challenges include understanding why some ideas or fashions spread from a few individuals to become universal and others don’t, or to what extent a person’s future actions are a product of past communication with friends. Publishing results and collaborating with university researchers will lead to findings that help Facebook improve its products, he adds.

Social Engineering

Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. “Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society,” he says. “Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.” But some of his team’s work and the attitudes of Facebook’s leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users’ behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.

In April, influenced in part by conversations over dinner with his med-student girlfriend (now his wife), Zuckerberg decided that he should use social influence within Facebook to increase organ donor registrations. Users were given an opportunity to click a box on their Timeline pages to signal that they were registered donors, which triggered a notification to their friends. The new feature started a cascade of social pressure, and organ donor enrollment increased by a factor of 23 across 44 states.

Marlow’s team is in the process of publishing results from the last U.S. midterm election that show another striking example of Facebook’s potential to direct its users’ influence on one another. Since 2008, the company has offered a way for users to signal that they have voted; Facebook promotes that to their friends with a note to say that they should be sure to vote, too. Marlow says that in the 2010 election his group matched voter registration logs with the data to see which of the Facebook users who got nudges actually went to the polls. (He stresses that the researchers worked with cryptographically “anonymized” data and could not match specific users with their voting records.)

This is just the beginning. By learning more about how small changes on Facebook can alter users’ behavior outside the site, the company eventually “could allow others to make use of Facebook in the same way,” says Marlow. If the American Heart Association wanted to encourage healthy eating, for example, it might be able to refer to a playbook of Facebook social engineering. “We want to be a platform that others can use to initiate change,” he says.

Advertisers, too, would be eager to know in greater detail what could make a campaign on Facebook affect people’s actions in the outside world, even though they realize there are limits to how firmly human beings can be steered. “It’s not clear to me that social science will ever be an engineering science in a way that building bridges is,” says Duncan Watts, who works on computational social science at Microsoft’s recently opened New York research lab and previously worked alongside Marlow at Yahoo’s labs. “Nevertheless, if you have enough data, you can make predictions that are better than simply random guessing, and that’s really lucrative.”

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Image courtesy of thejournal.ie / abracapocus_pocuscadabra (Flickr).

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Men are From LinkedIn, Women are From Pinterest

No surprise. Women and men use online social networks differently. A new study of online behavior by researchers in Vienna, Austria, shows that the sexes organize their networks very differently and for different reasons.

From Technology Review:

One of the interesting insights that social networks offer is the difference between male and female behaviour.

In the past, behavioural differences have been hard to measure. Experiments could only be done on limited numbers of individuals and even then, the process of measurement often distorted people’s behaviour.

That’s all changed with the advent of massive online participation in gaming, professional and friendship  networks. For the first time, it has become possible to quantify exactly how the genders differ in their approach to things like risk and communication.

Gender specific studies are surprisingly rare, however. Nevertheless a growing body if evidence is emerging that social networks reflect many of the social and evolutionary differences that we’ve long suspected.

Earlier this year, for example, we looked at a remarkable study of a mobile phone network that demonstrated the different reproductive strategies that men and women employ throughout their lives, as revealed by how often they call friends, family and potential mates.

Today, Michael Szell and Stefan Thurner at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria say they’ve found significance differences in the way men and women manage their social networks in an online game called Pardus with over 300,000 players.

In this game, players  explore various solar systems in a virtual universe. On the way, they can mark other players as friends or enemies, exchange messages, gain wealth by trading  or doing battle but can also be killed.

The interesting thing about online games is that almost every action of every player is recorded, mostly without the players being consciously aware of this. That means measurement bias is minimal.

The networks of friends and enemies that are set up also differ in an important way from those on social networking sites such as Facebook. That’s because players can neither see nor influence other players’ networks. This prevents the kind of clustering and herding behaviour that sometimes dominates  other social networks.

Szell and Thurner say the data reveals clear and significant differences between men and women in Pardus.

For example, men and women  interact with the opposite sex differently.  “Males reciprocate friendship requests from females faster than vice versa and hesitate to reciprocate hostile actions of females,” say Szell and Thurner.

Women are also significantly more risk averse than men as measured by the amount of fighting they engage in and their likelihood of dying.

They are also more likely to be friends with each other than men.

These results are more or less as expected. More surprising is the finding that women tend to be more wealthy than men, probably because they engage more in economic than destructive behaviour.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of InformationWeek.

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Facebook: What Next?

Yawn…

The Facebook IPO (insider profit opportunity rather than Initial Public Offering) finally came and went. Much like its 900 million members, Facebook executives managed to garner enough fleeting “likes” from its Wall Street road show to ensure temporary short-term hype and big returns for key insiders. But, beneath the hyperbole lies a basic question that goes to the heart of its stratospheric valuation: Does Facebook have a long-term strategy beyond the rapidly deflating ad revenue model?

From Technology Review:

Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it.

Given its vast cash reserves and the glacial pace of business reckonings, that will sound hyperbolic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

At the same time, network technology allows advertisers to more precisely locate and assemble audiences outside of branded channels. Instead of having to go to CNN for your audience, a generic CNN-like audience can be assembled outside CNN’s walls and without the CNN-brand markup. This has resulted in the now famous and cruelly accurate formulation that $10 of offline advertising becomes $1 online.

I don’t know anyone in the ad-Web business who isn’t engaged in a relentless, demoralizing, no-exit operation to realign costs with falling per-user revenues, or who isn’t manically inflating traffic to compensate for ever-lower per-user value.

Facebook, however, has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn’t advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits. But at a forward profit-to-earnings ratio of 56 (as of the close of trading on May 21), these innovations will have to be something like alchemy to make the company worth its sticker price. For comparison, Google trades at a forward P/E ratio of 12. (To gauge how much faith investors have that Google, Facebook, and other Web companies will extract value from their users, see our recent chart.)

Facebook currently derives 82 percent of its revenue from advertising. Most of that is the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles. Some is the kind of sponsorship that promises users further social relationships with companies: a kind of marketing that General Motors just announced it would no longer buy.

Facebook’s answer to its critics is: pay no attention to the carping. Sure, grunt-like advertising produces the overwhelming portion of our $4 billion in revenues; and, yes, on a per-user basis, these revenues are in pretty constant decline, but this stuff is really not what we have in mind. Just wait.

It’s quite a juxtaposition of realities. On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times’ digital business. (Here’s the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in the New York Times’ declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook’s business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.

On the other hand, Facebook is, everyone has come to agree, profoundly different from the Web. First of all, it exerts a new level of hegemonic control over users’ experiences. And it has its vast scale: 900 million, soon a billion, eventually two billion (one of the problems with the logic of constant growth at this scale and speed, of course, is that eventually it runs out of humans with computers or smart phones). And then it is social. Facebook has, in some yet-to-be-defined way, redefined something. Relationships? Media? Communications? Communities? Something big, anyway.

The subtext—an overt subtext—of the popular account of Facebook is that the network has a proprietary claim and special insight into social behavior. For enterprises and advertising agencies, it is therefore the bridge to new modes of human connection.

Expressed so baldly, this account is hardly different from what was claimed for the most aggressively boosted companies during the dot-com boom. But there is, in fact, one company that created and harnessed a transformation in behavior and business: Google. Facebook could be, or in many people’s eyes should be, something similar. Lost in such analysis is the failure to describe the application that will drive revenues.

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Reconnecting with Our Urban Selves

Christopher Mims over at the Technology Review revisits a recent study of our social networks, both real-world and online. It’s startling to see the growth in our social isolation despite the corresponding growth in technologies that increase our ability to communicate and interact with one another. Is the suburbanization of our species to blame, and can Facebook save us?

From Technology Review:

In 2009, the Pew Internet Trust published a survey worth resurfacing for what it says about the significance of Facebook. The study was inspired by earlier research that “argued that since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased.”

In particular, the study found that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears suggest that new technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone, may play a role in advancing this trend.

If you read through all the results from Pew’s survey, you’ll discover two surprising things:

1. “Use of newer information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the internet and mobile phones, is not the social change responsible for the restructuring of Americans’ core networks. We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.”

2. However, Americans on the whole are more isolated than they were in 1985. “The average size of Americans’ core discussion networks has declined since 1985; the mean network size has dropped by about one-third or a loss of approximately one confidant.” In addition, “The diversity of core discussion networks has markedly declined; discussion networks are less likely to contain non-kin – that is, people who are not relatives by blood or marriage.”

In other words, the technologies that have isolated Americans are anything but informational. It’s not hard to imagine what they are, as there’s been plenty of research on the subject. These technologies are the automobile, sprawl and suburbia. We know that neighborhoods that aren’t walkable decrease the number of our social connections and increase obesity. We know that commutes make us miserable, and that time spent in an automobile affects everything from our home life to our level of anxiety and depression.

Indirect evidence for this can be found in the demonstrated preferences of Millenials, who are opting for cell phones over automobiles and who would rather live in the urban cores their parents abandoned, ride mass transit and in all other respects physically re-integrate themselves with the sort of village life that is possible only in the most walkable portions of cities.

Meanwhile, it’s worth contemplating one of the primary factors that drove Facebook’s adoption by (soon) 1 billion people: Loneliness. Americans have less support than ever — one in eight in the Pew survey reported having no “discussion confidants.”

It’s clear that for all our fears about the ability of our mobile devices to isolate us in public, the primary way they’re actually used is for connection.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Typical suburban landscape. Courtesy of Treehugger.

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Loneliness in the Age of Connectedness

Online social networks are a boon to researchers. As never before, social scientists are probing our connections, our innermost thoughts now made public, our networks of friends, and our loneliness. Some academics point to the likes of Facebook for making our increasingly shallow “friendships” a disposable and tradable commodity, and ironically facilitating isolation from more intimate and deeper connections. Others see Facebook merely as a mirror — we have, quite simply, made ourselves lonely, and our social networks instantly and starkly expose our isolation for all to see and “like”.

An insightful article by novelist Stephen Marche over at The Atlantic examines our self-imposed loneliness.

From the Atlantic:

Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate and B-movie star, best known for her role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, would have been 83 last August, but nobody knows exactly how old she was when she died. According to the Los Angeles coroner’s report, she lay dead for the better part of a year before a neighbor and fellow actress, a woman named Susan Savage, noticed cobwebs and yellowing letters in her mailbox, reached through a broken window to unlock the door, and pushed her way through the piles of junk mail and mounds of clothing that barricaded the house. Upstairs, she found Vickers’s body, mummified, near a heater that was still running. Her computer was on too, its glow permeating the empty space.

The Los Angeles Times posted a story headlined “Mummified Body of Former Playboy Playmate Yvette Vickers Found in Her Benedict Canyon Home,” which quickly went viral. Within two weeks, by Technorati’s count, Vickers’s lonesome death was already the subject of 16,057 Facebook posts and 881 tweets. She had long been a horror-movie icon, a symbol of Hollywood’s capacity to exploit our most basic fears in the silliest ways; now she was an icon of a new and different kind of horror: our growing fear of loneliness. Certainly she received much more attention in death than she did in the final years of her life. With no children, no religious group, and no immediate social circle of any kind, she had begun, as an elderly woman, to look elsewhere for companionship. Savage later told Los Angeles magazine that she had searched Vickers’s phone bills for clues about the life that led to such an end. In the months before her grotesque death, Vickers had made calls not to friends or family but to distant fans who had found her through fan conventions and Internet sites.

Vickers’s web of connections had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us. We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. In 2010, at a cost of $300 million, 800 miles of fiber-optic cable was laid between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to shave three milliseconds off trading times. Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

At the forefront of all this unexpectedly lonely interactivity is Facebook, with 845 million users and $3.7 billion in revenue last year. The company hopes to raise $5 billion in an initial public offering later this spring, which will make it by far the largest Internet IPO in history. Some recent estimates put the company’s potential value at $100 billion, which would make it larger than the global coffee industry—one addiction preparing to surpass the other. Facebook’s scale and reach are hard to comprehend: last summer, Facebook became, by some counts, the first Web site to receive 1 trillion page views in a month. In the last three months of 2011, users generated an average of 2.7 billion “likes” and comments every day. On whatever scale you care to judge Facebook—as a company, as a culture, as a country—it is vast beyond imagination.

Despite its immense popularity, or more likely because of it, Facebook has, from the beginning, been under something of a cloud of suspicion. The depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network, as a bastard with symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, was nonsense. But it felt true. It felt true to Facebook, if not to Zuckerberg. The film’s most indelible scene, the one that may well have earned it an Oscar, was the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking—a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber. We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.

When you sign up for Google+ and set up your Friends circle, the program specifies that you should include only “your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.” That one little phrase, Your real friends—so quaint, so charmingly mothering—perfectly encapsulates the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.

Facebook arrived in the middle of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive. Americans are more solitary than ever before. In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person. Solitary living does not guarantee a life of unhappiness, of course. In his recent book about the trend toward living alone, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, writes: “Reams of published research show that it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness.” True. But before we begin the fantasies of happily eccentric singledom, of divorcées dropping by their knitting circles after work for glasses of Drew Barrymore pinot grigio, or recent college graduates with perfectly articulated, Steampunk-themed, 300-square-foot apartments organizing croquet matches with their book clubs, we should recognize that it is not just isolation that is rising sharply. It’s loneliness, too. And loneliness makes us miserable.

We know intuitively that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Solitude can be lovely. Crowded parties can be agony. We also know, thanks to a growing body of research on the topic, that loneliness is not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state. A 2005 analysis of data from a longitudinal study of Dutch twins showed that the tendency toward loneliness has roughly the same genetic component as other psychological problems such as neuroticism or anxiety.

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Photograph courtesy of Phillip Toledano / The Atlantic.

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Why Do Some Videos Go Viral, and Others Not?

Some online videos and stories are seen by tens or hundreds of millions, yet others never see the light of day. Advertisers and reality star wannabes search daily for the secret sauce that determines the huge success of one internet meme over many others. However, much to the frustration of the many agents to the “next big thing”, several fascinating new studies point at nothing more than simple randomness.

From the New Scientist:

WHAT causes some photos, videos, and Twitter posts to spread across the internet like wildfire while others fall by the wayside? The answer may have little to do with the quality of the information. What goes viral may be completely arbitrary, according to a controversial new study of online social networks.

By analysing 120 million retweets – repostings of users’ messages on Twitter – by 12.5 million users of the social network, researchers at Indiana University, Bloomington, learned the mechanisms by which memes compete for user interest, and how information spreads.

Using this insight, the team built a computer simulation designed to mimic Twitter. In the simulation, each tweet or message was assigned the same value and retweets were performed at random. Despite this, some tweets became incredibly popular and were persistently reposted, while others were quickly forgotten.

The reason for this, says team member Filippo Menczer, is that the simulated users had a limited attention span and could only view a portion of the total number of tweets – as is the case in the real world. Tweets selected for retweeting would be more likely to be seen by a user and re-posted. After a few iterations, a tweet becomes significantly more prevalent than those not retweeted. Many users see the message and retweet it further.

“When a meme starts to get popular it displaces other memes; you start to pay attention to the popular meme and don’t pay attention to other things because you have only so much attention,” Menczer says. “It’s similar to when a big news story breaks, you don’t hear about other things that happened on that day.”

Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia disagrees. “[Menczer’s study] says that all of the things that catch on could be truly random but it doesn’t say they have to be,” says Milkman, who co-authored a paper last year examining how emotions affect meme sharing.

Milkman’s study analysed 7000 articles that appeared in the New York Times over a three-month period. It found that articles that aroused readers’ emotions were more likely to end up on the website’s “most emailed” list. “Anything that gets you fired up, whether positive or negative, will lead you to share it more,” Milkman says.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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You Are What You Share

The old maxim used to go something like, “you are what you eat”. Well, in the early 21st century it has been usurped by, “you are what you share online (knowingly or not)”.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Not so long ago, there was a familiar product called software. It was sold in stores, in shrink-wrapped boxes. When you bought it, all that you gave away was your credit card number or a stack of bills.

Now there are “apps”—stylish, discrete chunks of software that live online or in your smartphone. To “buy” an app, all you have to do is click a button. Sometimes they cost a few dollars, but many apps are free, at least in monetary terms. You often pay in another way. Apps are gateways, and when you buy an app, there is a strong chance that you are supplying its developers with one of the most coveted commodities in today’s economy: personal data.

Some of the most widely used apps on Facebook—the games, quizzes and sharing services that define the social-networking site and give it such appeal—are gathering volumes of personal information.

A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.

Yahoo and Skype say that they seek the information to customize their services for users and that they are committed to protecting privacy. “Data that is shared with Yahoo is managed carefully,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

The Journal also tested its own app, “WSJ Social,” which seeks data about users’ basic profile information and email and requests the ability to post an update when a user reads an article. A Journal spokeswoman says that the company asks only for information required to make the app work.

This appetite for personal data reflects a fundamental truth about Facebook and, by extension, the Internet economy as a whole: Facebook provides a free service that users pay for, in effect, by providing details about their lives, friendships, interests and activities. Facebook, in turn, uses that trove of information to attract advertisers, app makers and other business opportunities.

Up until a few years ago, such vast and easily accessible repositories of personal information were all but nonexistent. Their advent is driving a profound debate over the definition of privacy in an era when most people now carry information-transmitting devices with them all the time.

Capitalizing on personal data is a lucrative enterprise. Facebook is in the midst of planning for an initial public offering of its stock in May that could value the young company at more than $100 billion on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Facebook requires apps to ask permission before accessing a user’s personal details. However, a user’s friends aren’t notified if information about them is used by a friend’s app. An examination of the apps’ activities also suggests that Facebook occasionally isn’t enforcing its own rules on data privacy.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Facebook is watching and selling you. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

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