Link: New Coalition for Humane Technology

Over at the New York Times, Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built. The article is mostly a press release for some of the efforts the new Center for Humane Technology is doing, but I wanted to call it out because (as may be clear from some of my recent posts in the past few months) it’s a topic I care about.

Loneliness and Technology

There’s been several recent articles about loneliness lately, spurred at least in part by the UK’s recent creation of a Minister of Loneliness to help cope with what’s been called an “epidemic of loneliness.” There are a lot of reasons why the surge in both quantity and severity of loneliness is a bad thing (aside from the mental and emotional impacts, it ends up having physical ramifications as well), and while I’d say it’s too broad a topic to point specific fingers at the causes, I do think modern society certainly isn’t helping. It’s sort of telling that (pulled from the above Medium article):

Research on young people’s loneliness isn’t abundant. But what does exist suggests loneliness might not go away anytime soon as a health crisis: A UCLA Berkeley study published last year found that even though adults between 21 and 30 had larger social networks, they reported twice as many days spent feeling lonely or socially isolated than adults between 50 and 70.

In other words, the generation portrayed as savvy, socially connected people are actually feeling the most alone.

A good book to read on the subject of the role technology has in all these (and I do definitely think it has a role) is Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. When it first came out a few years ago, I didn’t want to agree with her, but as time goes on, I fall more in alignment with her observations. (Here’s her related Ted Talk, which gives a good summary of the problems we’re talking about.) A quote from the Ted Talk that seems particularly relevant (emphasis mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating becoming a Luddite or something. We live in an age of technology, and it’s unrealistic (and ill-advised) to imagine that’s going to change. But I do think we need to change our relationship with that technology. I think we need to foster and teach empathy and emotional intelligence, and help people work through the anxieties of trying to communicate with others and meeting new people.

I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this subject (both loneliness in general, and our current social climate). I need to ponder some more about how best to express it.

Happy February

My month-long hiatus from Facebook and Twitter are officially up at this point. Overall, I think it was a worthwhile exile: I wrote and shared a lot more here, and felt less stressed in general. It’s not some magic cure-all for stress or unhappiness, and I definitely still got into funks, but I do think it moved the needle on my general wellbeing.

I do think I’m not going to bother reinstalling either app on my phone, and frankly I’m not feeling particularly compelled to log in otherwise — though I wouldn’t say I’m officially “done” with either service, nor do I plan to delete my accounts any time soon.

So, yeah. If you’re on the fence about getting off social media (or at least drastically reducing your footprint there), I’d recommend it.

Link: Immortal Myths About Online Abuse

Anil Dash breaks down some of the most common myths about online abuse. The solutions aren’t always easy, but there are solutions to a lot of it.

We are accountable for the communities we create, and if we want to take credit for the magical moments that happen when people connect with each other online, then we have to take responsibility for the negative experiences that we enable.

Link: How to Fix Facebook

Over at Washington Monthly, Roger McNamee discusses How to Fix Facebook – Before It Fixes Us. It’s a good read, and while I may not agree with all of his suggestions, there’s some very astute observations in there:

This is important, because the internet has lost something very valuable. The early internet was designed to be decentralized. It treated all content and all content owners equally. That equality had value in society, as it kept the playing field level and encouraged new entrants. But decentralization had a cost: no one had an incentive to make internet tools easy to use. Frustrated by those tools, users embraced easy-to-use alternatives from Facebook and Google. This allowed the platforms to centralize the internet, inserting themselves between users and content, effectively imposing a tax on both sides. This is a great business model for Facebook and Google—and convenient in the short term for customers—but we are drowning in evidence that there are costs that society may not be able to afford.

I’m going to try and not keep harping on this — there’s plenty of other things to think about and talk about. I’ve been an advocate for the “indieweb” for a long time, and the current realizations over how algorithmic content curation (with no one driving, no less) through single sources might not have been such a great idea certainly help vindicate the desire for a “smaller,” more independent web. That said, I’m painfully aware of some of the gaps in the indieweb space: many tools have an incredibly high bar for getting started, and several parts of the stack frankly just aren’t getting a lot of attention (the state of web galleries is the source of a semi-annual lament). If we’re going to make a serious stab at “making the internet smaller again,” there’s still a lot for us to do.

Breaking Up with Social Media

Or at the very least, “taking some time apart.”

I’ve been thinking for a while about my relationship with social media (in particular Facebook and Twitter). I’ve been pretty tired of Facebook for quite some time, and have increasingly been feeling the same about Twitter — namely, they’re more outrage machines than valued information sources at this point, and frankly cost more in terms of mental and emotional wellbeing than they’re worth to me.

I’ve decided to take the month of January off from both Twitter and Facebook, entirely. After the month is up, we’ll see how I’m feeling on whether they’re reincorporated into my routine, and to what amount. In the past I’ve limited how much time I spent on FB, taking a sort of “vacation”, but it had ways of creeping back in and starting to absorb more of my time again, so this time I’m opting to remove myself from it entirely.

If you need to get ahold of me, there are lots of ways to do so (heck, slide into my DMs on either service and I’ll likely still see it). I’ll also be turning off the auto-crossposting this blog does, so if you do want to keep up with my sporadic posts, I’d suggest subscribing either via RSS or email.

Social Media Fasting

Over at kottke.org, Jason discussed a social media fast he went on. His observations mirror my own “vacations” I’ve taken: no one really notices or cares when you take a break, even if you’re an active social media user (which I’m not), and that a lot of social media (and phone use in general) is more of as a virtual fidget-spinner than any actual need.

My own take: I took an extended break from Facebook last fall, and still haven’t really returned, though it has crept back into use in various ways. It’s still got just enough social utility that I’m not quitting it entirely, but I do plan to continue to not use it much. I probably could fully quit if I decided to — it would just take a few life adjustments and a little preparation. Interestingly, there seems to be a trend of this, folks getting fed up with the bullshit of modern social media, and making the deliberate decision to exit (and at least anecdotally, the people who’ve quit weren’t due to some weird policy change or other outrage machine, but simply because they realized it wasn’t useful to them anymore and was making them less happy).

As for other social media, well. I’ve been on Twitter for a decade, and have it pretty nailed down on what I use it for, who I follow, and what I choose to post there. That said, it still ends up going in fits and spurts: I might be on it daily for a few weeks at a time, and then not log in for a month. This is a far cry from when I was most active (circa 2008-2010), where I was on daily and actually kept up with probably 90% of my feed. The shift is due to a few factors: 1) it’s not my priority; 2) I’m not a fan of some of design changes and loss of client support; 3) the community has shifted, and seems to vacillate between being an outrage machine and a trash fire. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of great content there, but the short form, punctuated broadcasts seem to foster emotional outbursts, miscommunication, and misunderstanding just as much as they provide short, pithy thoughts and entertainment.) The shift towards tweet storms and people just retweeting the start of a 300 tweet thread is also a cause for a lot of eyerolling and disinterest (if you are writing medium-long form text in tweets, go write a blog post and tweet the link, seriously).

I have accounts on a number of other social media sites, but don’t really touch them, whether because they were on a whim (Peach), or inertia (Flickr), they just never grabbed me. I do occasionally log in and check my ello account, though I basically never post — I just think it’s neat to see how they’ve pivoted towards being an outlet for designers and artists. I’m infrequently active on Instagram, though I use very few of their features — mostly I use it because they make it stupid simple to cross-post to other services. I have a Snapchat but don’t use it (I kind of hate the UX, and I’m not using “hate” lightly).

I think a lot about consolidating, and finding ways to self-host everything. I don’t know if it’s really “there” yet, though the tools have come a long way (the Indieweb scene is actively working to make POSSE viable and easy). There are open source, self-hostable versions of many of the services we use every day (as an example, OStatus is a protocol that replicates and even expands on a lot of the functionality of Twitter, with tools like Mastodon, GNU Social, and PostActiv all in active development, and at least ostensibly able to federate with each other). It would be a lot of initial work to get everything set up how I want, and then there’s maintenance and keeping everything secure (it’s just me, so I’m not exactly a shiny target, but that doesn’t really matter to a bot that just probes the internet for any service with one of a list of vulnerabilities unpatched), but I keep coming back to the idea. Maybe I just miss the old internet, when things weren’t so silo’d, and we felt a little less like a product and a little more like a person. Even if I didn’t worry about POSSE, and just posted in one place, I’m not sure how much that would matter — I might not get as many views, but if past experience is any indication, I’d get just as much connection. Something to think about, anyway.

Link: Open for Business

Laura Kalbag nails transparency in business and social media in her post Open for Business over at A List Apart.

In particular, I’d like to note this:

Being open as an individual isn’t just saying everything you think without caring—that’s called being a sociopath! If you want to be transparent, you still need some kind of filter. It’s like how we might not swear in front of our grandmothers; it’s not good manners. Or how we don’t use Twitter to broadcast every meal we eat, because we’d bore our followers. Diplomacy is necessary too. Very few of us want to be honest to the point that we hurt other people.

I sometimes talk about choosing transparency in our lives, and I feel like her explanation here really describes two key points of what I’m trying to say: tact and diplomacy are not antithetical to transparency; transparency does not mean opening a firehose — you can still strive for a good signal-to-noise ratio.