I’m not great with words so I’ve been looking for someone else to quote that best expressed my views on the recent moves by social media companies to curate the discussions taking place on their platforms. I did not feel comfortable with the knee jerk reaction to simply get rid of the “bad stuff” as such blanket bans could too easily be misapplied and cause collateral damage. But, like others, I was impatient with @jack’s intellectual distancing.
The light bulb finally went off when I read Jeff Jarvis’ piece in The Atlantic, Platforms Are Not Publishers. Jarvis points out that we view the internet through the lens we have for print – a medium where words are published for consumption. Print is broadcast. The internet is, by definition, bi-directional. The internet is not about content, it is about conversations. Conversations are iterative, messy, hard to curate, let alone control. An editorial board is not the solution.
The banning of Infowars from most major platforms is a sign of that process beginning to work. Civilization is winning, at last. Alex Jones went too far and the public, empowered by the same tools of social media he exploited, told the platforms that his behavior is unacceptable in a civilized society. The platforms—like media and like regulators—might prefer to start with a set of rules that can be enforced by government, by social-media managers, or by algorithms. But that’s not how we negotiate our standards. The breach makes the rule. We know pornography, propaganda, trolling, and spamming when we see it, and then write the rules to prevent it. That progress always seems to take too long, but it is prudent that we ban what we see rather than everything we might fear.
The norms of acceptable conduct are still being refined. With each new transgression or outrage such as the Infowars example, we collectively define the line between a provocative debate of a contrarian viewpoint and an attention-grabbing, deceitful and malicious commercial enterprise.
Political discussions used to be along a familiar Liberal – Conservative spectrum in which both sides used agreed upon tools (facts, scientific method) to argue their case. Think of the Federalist Papers or, more recently, the Buckley/Vidal debates during the early days of television.
Today, agreed upon facts have been discarded and shared decorum has gone out the window, replaced by intimidation and violence. Democracy’s unconditional support of free speech has been weaponized and used to justify the distribution and amplification of the outrageous and untrue. The folks at Pod Save America took to their blog to describe how we got to where we are today.
The company’s lip-service defense of free speech is in practice a choice to collapse the distinction between disinformation and news-analysis. The right-wing narrative of social-media censorship is dishonest, but it has also been incredibly effective in pressuring platforms into accepting lies as opinion.
We must return to Jarvis’ framework for the internet as a conversation to better understand how to manage our way forward. “Twitter is not The New York Times. It is Times Square,” says Jarvis. In a public space, no one would tolerate someone screaming and threatening another individual or group with half-baked ideas. To curate a debate that improves our understanding of the world today, we should favor voices that respectfully lay out an argument that is well-researched and moves the debate forward. We have too many hair-raising threats to our existence just over the horizon to waste our time on anything less.
My 7th grade school bus driver was this amazing woman who managed to keep the 50-odd kids on her bus in line during our 30-minute ride through rural Connecticut to John Winthrop Junior High. She had this enormous, panoramic mirror so she could keep an eye on things. Whenever things started to get out of hand, she’d peer up into the mirror and stared into your soul while bellowing, “KNOCK IT OFF BACK THERE!” Justice was meted out equally, without bias or favor.
The social networks need to start acting more like that school bus driver, keeping us kids in line, with a modicum of civility and mutual respect, so no one gets hurt and we can move the conversation forward.
I’m struggling to process the passing of JPB this week. For many that got connected via dial-up in the 80’s he was the soul of the .net. He set the tone. His spirit prevailed as the founding principle of many online communities – his tone of “live & let live and be helpful and nice y’all” was foundation of many of the pinned posts of the early BBS that taught us how to behave in this new world. Whenever we struggled with some great calamity, we would turn to Barlow for guidance. Through it all, he was ever the prankster reminding that no one should take themselves too seriously.
Silicon Valley has replaced Wall Street as the preferred destination of fresh graduates. The pursuit of short term wealth on Wall Street in the 80s is replaced with other short term data points which, when pursued with a singular focus, can skew one’s moral compass.
“If Google’s primary weapons are relevancy and speed, then Uber’s are cost and speed.” What I didn’t say: They are fairly similar in their inability to deal with consumers at a human level. That is the challenge of our times.
In this data-driven world we must keep in mind what is being measured and remember that organizations instinctively optimize for those metrics. During this Thanksgiving break, think of alternative, long term metrics such as Lifetime Customer Value, Renewal Rates, and Net Promoter Score as important KPIs for your business’ success in the long term.
The Facebook “like” is a simple social action loaded with meaning. The act of Liking something online while sitting alone at the kitchen table in your boxers is, on the face of it, a solipsistic act, but it’s really much more complex. One click on that link causes a complex web of behaviors that ripple outwards across your social graph. By Liking something you are not only pushing a social signal to the author of the post, you are also signaling to all others that view the post that follow.
Social signals are often misunderstood online so it’s important to remember that a Like is not always just a Like. It could be any one of the following types of Likes.
I Saw It Like – this is the most basic type of Like. You want to let the author know that you saw their 49 photos of their trip to Costa Brava and therefore do not need to be reminded when you see them next. A simple click here allows you to cut off the conversation with a quick, “Oh yes, I saw them,” so you can move on.
Pile On Like – we all tend to swarm around causes. The Pile On adds your name to a long list of people as a way to add weight to someone’s mission. A friend posts how she was indignantly treated by the pizza delivery guy. Quel dommage! This is the perfect opportunity to add your name the pile. Satisfyingly non-commital. We feel your pain.
Like To Remember – we live in a busy world and our newsfeeds are always in motion. How to remember that clever t-shirt folding video that you saw? With this type of Like, it’s more because you want to retrieve it later, not really because you “liked” it. It’s a one-click ReadItLater link.
Lazy Like – this is another common type of Like. Writing something witty, especially when you’re late to the game and the one snappy comeback you had ready was hidden under the View More link – your wrung out but still want to contribute – it’s late, you’re lazy – Like.
Shine a Light Like – it doesn’t happen too often but every now and then something drifts across your feed that you just know no one else will see unless you breath some social air onto it by clicking Like. Maybe it’s that brilliant one-liner from your long lost surfer buddy from Chiba who usually only writes in Japanese. You want your friends to know him and his brilliance. You could Share but that feels like robbing him of something so you click Like.
Like My Shit Like – God Dammit! I was so excited when I finished work on a animated mockumentary takedown of Sean Parker’s Redwood Wedding that I posted it at 3am as soon as it was done. Everyone was asleep so they missed it and now some big sports event is going off so all the conversation has pushed your video even further down somewhere below the copyright notices. It’s a last resort and a real noob move but you’re clicking Like on your own stuff just to put it back into rotation.
Condolences Like – while most times Facebook seems like a Happiness Competition, sometimes sad things happen and people post about them. Everyone knows you don’t “like” the fact that someone lost their job or didn’t get into their top choice school but you are sending good vibes and “I’m thinking of you’s” their way. That’s a Condolences Like, not to be confused with a . . .
Mercy Like – remember that loud PR girl you met in Austin that was discovering social media for the first time? She was so into you and was so grateful for all the tips and tricks you were sharing with her. She took out a little notebook and wrote down a bunch of URLs that you told her and she went home and got that dream promotion she told you about. She’s so grateful, a kid who just got the hang of her bike without training wheels. It’s such an *interesting* world out there! Did you know Samsung paid off their settlement to Apple with 30 trucks of nickels? Even though you know it’s not true, it’s easier just to click Like. Go get ’em kid!
Absence of Like – what does it mean? You know someone saw your post but they didn’t like it when you specifically shared it because you knew they would like it. . .but they didn’t. Existential Cognitive Dissonance.
Thanks to Adam Kazwell for sparking the conversation over lunch and all the folks on the Dev team at GigaOM for the extended exploration of Katy Perry overdubs during a lull in the action.
Sherry Turkle write’s in this week’s Sunday NY Times (The Flight from Conversation) that in the pursuit of connections via technology (email, texting, social media) we are forgetting the slow rhythm and cadence of face-to-face conversations.
FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”
Reading this, I was reminded by an essay I whipped off in Paris last Summer. I was there coming off a two-week holiday. I rented a flat for my family in the Marais district and we spent each delicious day walking the city and drinking in it’s vibrancy. One evening, I think I was amped up on too much espresso and was channelling Keroac, I scribbled the words below, by hand, all in one go. I never even went back to it. But Ms. Turkle’s piece made me think of it again.
I never posted it because I’m a little of embarrassed about it but, hey, it’s a blog so what the heck, indulge me.
The Modern Luddite’s Prayer
The spindled algorithms of our time are optimizing the sinews of humanity. Gnashing life’s great works in the gears of its Engine. These are the Satanic Mills of our generation.
Spitting out matchsticks of knowledge that are mere sulfur-tipped flashes of attention-seeking knowledge, no longer able to light the pyre of change in our mossy, over-grown minds which have been deadened by years of trackpad-enabled twiddling.
We are addicted to the “new” in our Newsfeed but have lost the wisdom of perspective
Supplicants to the superior recall of the internet brain, we slavishly log time on the social media treadmill with a thirst to be first. Dark Times ahead if we continue to blindly submit to the false gods of Real-time and PageRank.
Step away from your monitor, stop stroking your little glass-faced friend. Look into your neighbor’s eyes and wonder at their soul. Smile to the passing stranger on the street and note them for who they are. Feel the warmth and smell of humanity. Marvel at life’s infinite choices.