The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'social software'


This week I was at The Conference in Malmö; here are a few of the things I learned:

  • People are moving away from social media (like Facebook/Twitter) in favour of 1-to-1 messaging apps (and group apps) like WhatsApp and Slack. This is partly due to messaging being more immediate, and partly due to social concerns such as privacy and the need to be able to engage differently with different people one knows (i.e., your coworkers don't need to see your family photos). In some places, there are businesses which run entirely on messaging platforms: gyms whose only point of contact is a phone number linked to WhatsApp, and property transactions in which the legal documents include screenshots of banking app transfer screens.
  • Minecraft is teaching kids a lot of useful skills, from digital logic (building machines using redstone gates) and computational/design thinking, to social skills from self-organising build teams to designing and enforcing social contracts to protect from griefers. A big part of its success is because it is not a top-down product handed down from the authorities, like, say, Scratch or Swift Playgrounds, but something the kids can do whilst out of sight of grown-ups (much like the Commodore 64 back in the day).
  • There is a lot happening with generative art. The most familiar form, describing a space of potential outputs parametrically and searching the parameter space by one means or another, is common enough, and appears in settings from art installations to web apps Twitter bots. Now, advances in neural networks and deep learning are making an impact. Style transfer (think apps like Prisma, the photo-styling app for mobile phones, but also software for cleaning up rough sketches or colourising black-and-white images) has the potential to democratise or commodify (depending on whom you ask) artistic style. Meanwhile, deep learning with multiple media can produce synaesthetic examples, like the following output of a network trained on the text of romance novels and subsequently fed an image of a sumo match:
  • Smart cities, digitised to the millimetre with LIDAR, surveilled by drone, and managed by app, promise an end to the long nightmare of politics. Now a city can be run from above by impartial, objective algorithms—Plato's Philosopher King rendered in code. Everything in its right place, every space accounted for, all inhabitants managed with the efficiency of an Amazon warehouse, and all the dogs in the city are walked by drone. Until feral ravers disrupt the city's fiducial architecture (the patterned markers which guide the drones), conceal themselves from its managerial gaze with dazzle make-up and asymmetric haircuts, hijack the self-driving taxis and party in the spaces the machine does not see.
  • Then again, one objective true point of view is a myth. The Jesuits found this out when, in an attempt to Christianise China, they tried to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of European-style one-point perspective over the aerial perspective used in Chinese art (which they saw as backward and inferior, for its ignorance of the point of view).
  • The term “Perspective Collision” describes what happens when designed objects inadvertently reveal their designers' limited perspectives. Examples include camera film not showing dark-skinned people properly, or air conditioning in buildings being optimised for men. This is related to the Malkovich Bias, the idea that everybody uses technology the same way one does.
  • Animal-free animal products are starting to appear. There now exist genetically engineered yeasts which, when fed with sugar, produce egg albumen and bovine casein, i.e., egg white and cow's milk. These are identical to the real products on a molecular level, and can be used for all the things real egg white/milk can be used for (as opposed to current animal-product substitutes, which tend to be specific to various uses). Actual animal-free meat is taking a little longer (growing more than thin layers of meat requires some form of structural scaffolding to feed the cells). This is known as cellular agriculture, and, once it matures, will work a lot like brewing: artisans/craftspeople managing a technical process.
  • Stereotypical images used to represent the idea of “young people”: cartoon figures with shaggy/spiky hair and horizontally striped shirts; strobing photographs of wild-looking rock concerts.
  • National Geographic, famous in popular culture for publishing photos of bare-breasted “exotic” non-Western women (something it has been doing since the 19th century), published its first photo of a bare-breasted white woman in 2016
There are videos here; I'll be watching the sessions I missed.

art culture generative art ideas minecraft social software tech 0


We Can Marry You Off Wholesale, a hypothetical piece set in an alternate universe where Facebook is evil and uses its power to monitor and manipulate human relationships to keep its users optimally unhappy for profits:

Facebook knew you were in love a long time before you did. It noticed you scrolling back through her timeline. Every millisecond lingering over the photos of her at the beach was faithfully logged.
On the surface, you two were perfectly suited to each other. But Facebook had detected a problem. At your age, it's hard for Facebook to make money from your love. Sure, a promotion for flowers earns a few bucks. Adverts for romantic dinners can bring in some cash. But here's not much money in that.
So Facebook acted. It "lost" the occasional message you sent her. It made sure that photos of her with other guys were always at the top of your newsfeed. She mostly saw your posts about drinking - and all the girls who had liked your status updates.
With perfect algorithmic efficiency, Facebook found you a beautiful wife who was practically guaranteed to produce a sickly child. Nothing too bad, mind you, but just ill enough to make you spend a little bit more than you would otherwise. A child is a joyous event. Lots of photos posted to Facebook. Lots of likes. Lots of inspiring updates about bravely struggling.
This is, as the author points out, a work of fiction, though once the deep-learning algorithms are given access to all incoming data and control of the entire system, and optimised only to solve one problem (maximise profits, whilst avoiding a list of forbidden tactics that someone has thought of), there may be millions of subtly malevolent scams like this, all of them too complex for any human in a position of oversight to understand. Billions of equations, predicated on complicated models of circumstances and human behaviours, combining into scenarios which result in one or more users becoming slightly better-performing profit centres.

data mining facebook grim meathook future love sex social software surveillance 0


In January 2012, Facebook conducted a psychology experiment on 689,003 unknowing users, modifying the stories they saw in their news feeds to see whether this affected their emotional state. The experiment was automatically performed over one week by randomly selecting users and randomly assigning them to two groups; one had items with positive words like “love” and “nice” filtered out of their news feeds, whereas the other had items with negative words similarly removed; the software then tracked the affect of their status updates to see whether this affected them. The result was that it did: a proportion of those who saw only positive and neutral posts tended to be more cheerful than those who saw only negative and neutral ones. (The experiment, it must be said, was entirely automated, with human researchers never seeing the users' identities or posts.)

Of course, this sort of experiment sounds colossally unethical, not to mention irresponsible. The potential adverse consequences are too easy to imagine, and too hard to comfortably dismiss. If some 345,000 people's feeds were modulated to feed them a week of negativity in the form of what they thought were their friends' updates, what proportion of those were adversely affected beyond feeling bummed out for a week? Out of 345,000, what would be the expected amount of relationship breakups, serious arguments, alcoholic relapses, or even incidents of self-harm that may have been set off by the online social world looking somewhat bleaker and more joyless? And while it may seem that the other cohort, who got a week's worth of sunshine and rainbows, were done a favour, this is not the case; riding the heady rush of good vibes, some of them may have made bad decisions; taking gambles on bad odds because they felt lucky, or dismissing warning signs of problems. And then there's the fact that messages from their friends and family members were deliberately not shown to them if they went against the goals of the experiment. What if someone in the negative cohort was cut off from communications with a loved one far away, for just long enough to introduce a grain of suspicion into their relationship, or someone in the positive cohort didn't learn about a close friend's problems and was unable to offer support?

In academe, this sort of thing would not pass an ethics committee, where informed consent is required. However, Facebook is not an academic operation, but a private entity operating in the mythical wild frontier of the Free Market, where anything both parties consent to (“consent” here being defined in the loosest sense) goes. And when you signed up for a Facebook account, you consented to them doing pretty much whatever they like with your personal information and the relationships mediated through their service. If you don't like it, that's fine; it's a free market, and you're welcome to delete your account go to Google Plus. Or if Google's ad-targeting and data mining don't appeal, to build your own service and persuade everyone you wish to keep in touch with to use it. (Except that you can't; these aren't the wild 1990s, when a student could build LiveJournal in his dorm room; nowadays, the legal liabilities and regulatory compliance requirements would keep anyone other than multinational corporations with deep pockets out of the game.) Or go back to emailing a handful of friends, in the hope that they'll reply to your emails in the spare time left over after keeping up with Facebook. Or only socialising with people who live within walking distance of the same pub as you. Or, for that matter, go full Kaczynski and live in a shack in the woods. And when you've had enough of trapping squirrels for your food and mumbling to yourself as you stare at the corner each night, you can slink back to the bright lights, tail between your legs, reconnect with Mr. Zuckerberg's Magical Social Casino, where all your friends are, and once again find yourself privy to sweet, sweet commercially-mediated social interaction. In the end, we all come back. We know that, in this age, the alternative is self-imposed exile and social death, and so does Facebook, so they can do what they like to us.

As novel as this may seem, this is another instance of the neoliberal settlement, tearing up prior settlements and regulations in favour of a flat, market-based system, rationalised by a wilful refusal to even consider the disparities of power dynamics (“there is no such thing as an unfair deal in a free market, because you can always walk away and take a better offer from one of the ∞ other competitors”, goes the argument taken to its platygæan conclusion). Just as in deregulated economies, classes of participants (students, patients, passengers) all become customers, with their roles and rights replaced by what the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market deals out (i.e., what the providers can get away with them acquiescing to when squeezed hard enough), here those using a means of communication become involuntary guinea pigs in a disruptive, and (for half of them) literally unpleasant experiment. All that Facebook has to provide, in theory, is something marginally better than social isolation, and everything is, by definition, as fair as can be.

Facebook have offered an explanation, saying that the experiment was intended to “make the content people see as relevant and engaging as possible”. Which, given the legendarily opaque Facebook feed algorithm, and how it determines which of your friends' posts get a look into the precious spaces between the ads and sponsored posts, is small comfort. Tell you what, Facebook: why don't you stop trying to make my feed more “relevant” and “engaging” and just give me what my friends, acquaintances and groups post, unfiltered and in chronological order, and let me filter it as I see fit?

ethics facebook neoliberalism psychology social software 0


Google have announced that Google Reader will be shut down in July. Reader, a web-based RSS aggregator, has amassed a loyal user base over its eight or so years of operation, being a good way to keep up with articles from blogs, news feeds and various web sites in one place, and to have one's reading history (and which posts one has bookmarked for future reference) accessible from multiple locations. This audience didn't really fit with the brave new world of Google+, with its gamified social sharing, quasi-totalitarian restrictions on pseudonymity and proven means of monetisation, so Google have done their best to get rid of this audience, firstly by ripping out the social sharing features last year, and now by slapping a CONDEMNED sign on the service. The announcement has been met with shocked disbelief by the considerable number of users for whom Reader is a means for keeping up with blogs, but that's OK, because they're not the sorts of hip, with-it model consumers Google are looking for.

What the few old farts who still know what a RSS feed is, or who pay attention to updates longer than 140 characters, will do when Reader bites the dust, is an open question. Reader wasn't the first RSS aggregator, though it was one of the most popular ones, both for its web-based interface and the fact that it could synchronise with offline reading apps like Reeder, whose authors have promised that it will survive Reader's death.

In my opinion, whatever replaces Google Reader will have to have a more sustainable business model than being provided for free by the benevolent space beings in Mountain View, driven by their ineffable alien altruisms to serve Man. Something with a freemium or subscription-based model, where the users of the service pay an annual subscription which funds its costs, and ensures that it remains viable and its interests are aligned with its users, not other parties, would meet these criteria. Such services already exist; examples include the photo-sharing site Flickr, the Pinboard bookmarking service (which replaced, a free service whose owners decided that Man wasn't cooked quite to their taste), the SoundCloud audio sharing service and, a shiny new ghost town which, on the surface, appears like a pristine, empty Twitter without the sponsored tweets and creeping ad-squeeze.

Actually, may serve as the basis of such a system; while it seems on the surface like a slightly late-to-the-party microblogging site, it is actually a social API, which implements Twitter-like messages, and also gives each subscriber 10Gb of storage; developers are encouraged to build new applications on top of this API. An application that stores a list of RSS feeds, keeps track of new, read, unread and bookmarked messages from them, and communicates both via a web page and an API for Reeder-like clients, whilst hooking into's messaging and publishing features, may well be the killer application needed to provide with a raison d'etre in a world where Twitter already has been done.

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Another consequence of the Zuckerberg Doctrine, the belief that every person has one and only one identity which they use for all online social interactions: doctors in Britain are reporting an increase in infatuated patients pursuing them romantically via Facebook:

Figures compiled by the Medical Defence Union (MDU) show that the number of cases of doctors seeking its help because they are being pursued by a lovestruck patient rose from 73 in 2002-06 to 100 in 2007-11. Patients are increasingly using social media rather than letters or flowers to make their feelings clear, such as following a doctor on Twitter, "poking" them on Facebook or flirting with them online.
A female GP was asked out for a drink by a male patient as she left her surgery. When she declined, he began to pester her via Facebook and sent her a bunch of lilies, which she had listed as her favourite flowers on her Facebook page. On MDU advice, she changed her security and privacy settings on the site so that only chosen friends could view her postings.
Of course, it is unreasonable to ask doctors (and, indeed, other public-facing professionals; teachers, police, social workers and legal aid workers come to mind) to delete their Facebook accounts and not use social software. For one, in this day and age, disconnecting from social software means virtual exile; Facebook refuseniks find themselves out of the loop, relying on the charity of friends with Facebook accounts and free time to keep them informed of everything from party invitations to when mutual friends friends had a baby, got divorced or moved abroad. And then there is the increasing public expectation that well-adjusted citizens have a Facebook profile, and one with normal activity patterns. Already there is talk about governments requiring citizens to log in with Facebook/Google identities to access services, so a normal Facebook record, with the requisite casual-though-not-debauched photos and history of social chatter is increasingly starting to look like a badge of good citizenship, well-adjustedness and general non-terroristicity. And having two accounts, one for your professional persona, and one for your personal life, is expressly verboten by orders of Mark Zuckerberg and Vic Gundotra, as mandated by the advertisers who demand accurate records of eyeballs sent their way and the shareholders who demand steady advertising revenue.

So now, by the immutable facts of neoliberal capitalism in the internet age, we have a world where people have only one face they present to the world, one with their wallet name, career record, list of friends and social activity attached. This face is visible to everyone from old friends to employers to any members of the public one has a professional duty of care to. Perhaps there's a Californian jeans-and-T-shirts casualness to forcibly unifying these facets; to not allowing a distinction between the uniform of professionalism one wears in one's career and the accoutrements of one's casual, personal life; to knowing that your doctor's favourite flower is the lily, your geography teacher was in a moderately well-known math-rock band, or the police officer you reported your lost phone to is an Arsenal fan and known to his mates as Beans; though the downside of the casualisation of professional life is the professionalisation of casual life, a sort of Bay Area take on superlegitimacy. And while in Britain today, that may take the form of doctors self-censoring to avoid the possibility of obsessive patients, in parts of the US, where employers can fire workers for their political or personal views, sexual orientation or even sporting loyalties, the stakes are higher.

Whether the Zuckerberg Doctrine is the inescapable future, in which everyone is coerced into an endless, joyless social game of simulating a model citizen as if under the watchful eyes of an outsourced Stasi, however, is another question. Facebook's unquestionable hegemony is starting to show its first cracks. For now, it remains the default grapevine, the standard channel of social chatter; however, its declining share price seems to be pushing Facebook to more agressively monetise the relationships of its nominally captive audience, pushing more ads and sponsored stories, asking users to pay for their messages to be seen by their friends (whose feeds can only contain so many updates, after all, and there are commercial sponsors to compete with), and, the implication goes, throttling back how much unsponsored chatter a user sees. As this ratchets up, eventually people will notice that their friends' announcements and photos aren't making it to them but instead the fact that their friend ostensibly likes Toyota or Red Bull is and start tuning out. Then Facebook will decline, as MySpace and Friendster did before it, and something else will take its place.

Perhaps the best thing to hope for is that whatever fills the niche occupied by Facebook will be not so much a service but a decentralised system of independent services, each free to set its own terms and policies. They could be based on a protocol such as Tent or Diaspora*, and, as the servers interact, allow for great diversity; some servers will be free to use but spam your eyeballs with ads until they bleed, others will charge, say, $25 a year and offer ad-free unlimited hosting; some will have Zuckerbergian wallet-name policies, others will allow users to choose the pseudonyms of their choice (as, say, LiveJournal did back in the day, and community-oriented web forums often do), with some uptight silos only federating with others with wallet-name policies, and being seen by those outside of those as terminally square. And, of course, unlike on Facebook, there will be nothing stopping someone from having multiple accounts. Of course, there will be nothing preventing people from running their own silos, though any system which depends on people doing this will become a ghetto of deep geeks with UNIX beards who enjoy setting up such systems, to the exclusion of everyone else.

culture facebook privacy social software society superlegitmacy unintended consequences 3


An article in the Guardian presents a scenario on the privacy risks even the most careful social media output could pose when analysed with data-mining software descended from that currently in existence:

"Tina Porter, 26. She's what you need for the transpacific trade issues you just mentioned, Alan. Her dissertation speaks for itself, she even learned Korean..." He pauses.
"But?..." Asks the HR guy.
"She's afflicted with acute migraine. It occurs at least a couple of times a month. She's good at concealing it, but our data shows it could be a problem," Chen says.
"How the hell do you know that?"
"Well, she falls into this particular Health Cluster. In her Facebook babbling, she sometimes refers to a spike in her olfactory sensitivity – a known precursor to a migraine crisis. In addition, each time, for a period of several days, we see a slight drop in the number of words she uses in her posts, her vocabulary shrinks a bit, and her tweets, usually sharp, become less frequent and more nebulous. That's an obvious pattern for people suffering from serious migraine. In addition, the Zeo Sleeping Manager website and the stress management site HeartMath – both now connected with Facebook – suggest she suffers from insomnia. In other words, Alan, we think you can't take Ms Porter in the firm. Our Predictive Workforce Expenditure Model shows that she will cost you at least 15% more in lost productivity."
Of course, if employers (and health insurance companies and the police and organised criminals and advertising firms and psychotic stalkers) can data-mine a tendency to get migraines from the fluctuation of the vocabulary of one's posts, one might suggest that those with a healthy amount of paranoia should avoid social media altogether, beyond having a simple static page that gives away absolutely nothing. Except that not having an active social media profile is increasingly seen as suspicious in itself; if you're not tweeting your TV viewing or Instagramming your sandwiches and leaving a statistically normal trail of well-adjusted narcissistic exhibitionism, there's a nonzero probability that you might be the next Unabomber; and, in any case, the HR department who knocked Tina Porter back for her carefully concealed migraines would certainly not even look at the CV of the potential ticking timebomb whose online profile draws a blank.

So, if this sort of thing comes to pass (and whether that sort of data could be extracted from social data with few enough false positives to be useful is a big if), we may eventually see an age of radical transparency, where everyone knows who's likely to be marginally more or less productive, along with possible laws regulating when this may be taken into account. Either that or the evolution of Gattaca-style systems and techniques for chaffing one's social data trail and masking any deficiencies which it may betray, in an ever-escalating arms race with new analytical techniques designed to detect such gaming.

(via MeFi) data mining facebook privacy risks social software society 1


The Observer has an article about the phenomenon of “friend clutter” on social network services; in short: while it's easy to “friend” people, removing someone from one's circle of acquaintance is inherently a hostile act; there is no cultural provision for severing notional ties with people one has no actual ties with on a no-fault basis. (At least, this is the case in England, where making a scene is something impetuous foreigners do, and Just Not Done; it'd be interesting to see whether people are quicker to sever online acquaintances in more brusque locales—say, Berlin, Moscow or Tel Aviv) And hence, we end up with friend lists full of strangers:

Even "unfriending" someone on Facebook, the closest equivalent to Bierce's proposal, feels like delivering a slap in the face (and not even a well-timed slap, since you can't be sure when they'll find out). Facebook itself hates unfriending, for commercial reasons, and thus makes it easy to hide updates from tiresome contacts without their knowing – a deeply unsatisfactory arrangement that leaves you at constant risk of meeting someone face-to-face who assumes you must already know they've got engaged, or had another baby, or been dumped, or fired, or widowed.
If that sounds a heartless way to think about other people, consider the parallels. Physical clutter, as a widespread problem, is only as old as modern consumerism: before the availability of cheap gadgets, clothes and self-assembly furniture, it wasn't an option for most people to accumulate basements full of unwanted exercise bikes, games consoles or broken Ikea bookshelves. We think we want this stuff, but, once it becomes clutter, it exerts a subtle psychological tug. It weighs us down. The notion of purging it begins to strike as us appealing, and dumping all the crap into bin bags feels like a liberation. "Friend clutter", likewise, accumulates because it's effortless to accumulate it: before the internet, the only bonds you'd retain were the ones you actively cultivated, by travel or letter-writing or phone calls, or those with the handful of people you saw every day. Friend clutter exerts a similar psychological pull. The difference, as Bierce understood, comes with the decluttering part: exercise bikes and PlayStations don't get offended when you get rid of them. People do. So we let the clutter accumulate.
And while the psychological impact of severing a friendship (even one that only exists as a row in a database, in which neither party remembers who the other actually is) can be mildly traumatic (there have been neurological studies that showed that social/romantic rejection stimulates the same parts of the brain as physical pain; I wouldn't be surprised if awareness of a severed connection worked similarly), another factor is the business models of social software services, such as Facebook, whose balance sheet depends on as many people as possible seeing which brands other people they “know” in some sense or other liked, hence another layer of polite hypocrisy is invented: the hidden, passive “friendship”, in which one doesn't have to see anything about the life of one's notional acquaintance, but can avoid the minor agony of forever writing them out of one's life. (And unfriending, it goes without saying, is forever, or at least without a damned good apology.)
The more profound truth behind friend clutter may be that, as a general rule, we don't handle endings well. "Our culture seems to applaud the spirit, promise and gumption of beginnings," writes the sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her absorbing new book, Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, whereas "our exits are often ignored or invisible". We celebrate the new – marriages, homes, work projects – but "there is little appreciation or applause when we decide (or it is decided for us) that it's time to move on". We need "a language for leave-taking", Lawrence-Lightfoot argues, and not just for funerals. A terminated friendship, after all, needn't necessarily signal a horrifying defeat, to be expunged from memory. One might just as easily think of it as "completed".
Mullany recommends a friend-decluttering exercise that she admits sounds "weird", but that she predicts will become more and more widely accepted. She advises making a public proclamation on Facebook in which you specify the criteria by which you'll henceforth be defining people as "friends". Maybe you'll resolve only to remain Facebook friends with people you've met at least once in real life, or maybe you'll use a stricter standard, such as whether you'd invite that person to your wedding. Explain, in the same proclamation, that the consequent defriending shouldn't be taken personally, and that you're doing it to a number of people at once. Then start clearing out the clutter.
If Zuckerberg's insistence that everyone should be friends with everyone prompts us, out of necessity, to winnow our lists to a smaller group of people we truly cherish, he'll have done something admirable, even if it's the opposite of what he intended.
Indeed; though whether it prompts people to circle the wagons and insist on only remaining attached to people they have met recently or would go for a drink with is another question. Part of the utility of services like Facebook and whatever succeeds it would be to keep in low-level ambient contact with people whom one is not friends with in the classic sense of friendship: old school buddies, ex-coworkers, people one met a few times some years ago, and so on. Of course, the amount of attention these people might have for one is probably somewhat limited, so updates would be limited to the major things: changes of location, marital status, sex, and that sort of thing. Which strikes me as quite distinct from the interactions one has with one's active online friends: the stream of updates about one's life peppered with amusing links, usually involving cats.

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The limits of the Zuckerberg Doctrine, which states that everyone is to have one identity, publicly linked to their legal “wallet name”, which they use for all interactions, have been tested with the curious case of an impeccably connected young man named “Spike Wells”, who, until recently, had a Facebook profile:

He has more than 400 friends, including some of Britain's richest young men and women, and appears to have an impressive appetite for partying both in Britain and abroad.
Yesterday, however, it was claimed that Wells is in fact a pseudonym used by Prince Harry, whose nickname is Spike - even his Scotland Yard minder is known to call him Spike - to keep in contact with his friends.
The “Spike Wells” profile disappeared after a recent tabloid incident involving Prince Harry, and was largely locked down beforehand, leaking only the information that, under the Zuckerberg Doctrine, is public, but even that was enough to give the game away: given sufficient eyes, pseudonymity is shallow.
While Mr Wells used high privacy settings, until last week a limited version of his page was available for all the world to see, with every update discussed and debated on the internet by fans of Prince Harry.
Mr Wells's profile says he is from Maun, Botswana, a town visited by the Prince and his former girlfriend Chelsy Davy in 2007. Like Prince Harry, he also lists his interests as "all sports".
In July, Prince Harry went to the Womad Festival in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where he was pictured wearing a hat based on the popular mobile phone game Angry Birds. Mr Wells's Facebook profile featured five people wearing similar hats, although their faces could not be seen.
Which suggests that even if one takes care to lock down one's profile and refrain from posting anything publicly that reveals one's identity, the very act of making social sites useful will, over time, leak out enough information to give one away, given sufficient eyeballs. If you're a young, single prince in a celebrity-obsessed society, sufficient eyeballs can be taken for granted. If not, the lack of a hungry public can be made up for by the more targeted interest of a smaller number of parties; business rivals, extortionists, obsessive stalkers, vindictive ex-partners (business or romantic), and others all could be very interested in piecing together a party's identity from a succession of large numbers of fragmentary clues. Which is why Scotland Yard's Royal Protection Branch have warned those with a high profile to forswear social software altogether:
However, Dai Davies, a former head of royal protection for Scotland Yard, said that a Facebook page for a member of the Royal family would pose a security risk. "From a security point of view I would never recommend anyone high profile to have a Facebook account," he said.
Of course, telling the world's richest and most influential people that they should, due to their status, restrict themselves to 20th-century modes of social telecommunication is not without its problems. (Telling the children of such people that there's no Facebook, no Instagram, no Pinterest for them, ever, by virtue of who their parents are could be even more problematic.) Hiding in plain sight on Facebook, however, has its problems, with information leakage. (One could imagine, after a few royals protested, members of the Royal Family being issued pseudonymous accounts, whose public profiles and publicly visible activity are “chaff”, deliberate disinformation posted by handlers from a specially established department of the security services, and whose personal updates are visible to friends only, with the cover identities (the “legends”, in intelligence parlance) of the accounts being known only to a trusted few, so, for example, only a few dozen people from old money and a handful of Qatari princelings would know that, let's say say, “Melva Bellamy”, ostensibly a 43-year-old veterinary nurse in Sheldon, Iowa, is really Prince Charles. At least until someone talked to the tabloids or Mrs. Bellamy started haranguing people about architecture or homoeopathy or something. I suspect that the handlers in charge of keeping Prince Phillip's account—or, rather, accounts—under the radar wouldn't have an easy job of it.)

Of course, this is only as secure as the weakest link, and there are many ways the secret online identities of the super-famous could fall into the hands of a delighted tabloid press. If the Queen (in her guise as Bolivian scrap merchant “Levi Villalobos”, or something to that effect) posts a comment on a photo taken by property tycoon Lord Reynold Mooney-Bagges on one of his yachts in Barbados, mentioning a similar trip she took some years ago, or how the dogs in a photo look a bit like her Corgis, or any one of a number of bits of innocuous fluff, this will be visible to all of Lord Mooney-Bagges' friends. And even if the Queen's (sorry, Señor Villalobos') online contacts are vetted by MI5 prior to being approved, Lord Moneybags' friends aren't. And they include three emotionally unstable narcissists, one fabulist and compulsive liar and two senior executives at News International. Oops!

Another option would be for the Royal Family to have its own social network built, for them and the few they socially connect with. This site (undoubtedly built by a military contractor at huge expense) would be accessible by invitation only; the invited would be vetted by the security services and given key fobs, like more ornate versions of the ones used by online banking services, for logging in. The theory is that Prince Harry could then have anyone he wished to socialise with invited to the service, forming a virtual royal court in cyberspace. Meanwhile, similar sites may crop up outside of the court; private social networks founded by groups of the super-wealthy and organised along the lines of private clubs.

The problem with such forums, though, is that they would be siloes, separated from the rest of online activity. If you're the Royal Family, you may be able to get away with sticking to your own forum without it turning into a ghost town; this, however, might not scale well to those less famous or whose fame is not guaranteed by constitutional law. And such siloes, by definition, would separate what happens within them from what happens outside; within, there are different identities, a different social graph, and their own discourses, photographs, events and the like. Which may be suitable for a traditional royal court who can bestow the honour of attendance on those sufficiently well connected, but it does preclude one from interacting with the outside world other than by inviting selected members of it into one's sphere. Perhaps the online royal court would flourish, or perhaps it'd become an expensive white elephant, but I doubt it would remove all need for those in the gilded cage to venture outside of it.

Perhaps the solution is a sort of delegated, federated social software, where each realm has its own identity scheme and privacy rules, but protocols exist for federating between them. (After all, Facebook is no less a walled-garden silo than such a virtual court would be, merely one that's many orders of magnitude larger.) When the credentials from one realm could be used for interacting with other realms (and granting access to private content, though issues of trust would have to be worked out), we could go from a one-size-fits-all Zuckerbergian walled garden to a multitude of interacting social spaces—some jealously private, some as public as Twitter; some free and ad-supported, some paid for with premium services, some enforcing a Zuckerbergian wallet-name policy, some encouraging pseudonyms or handles—without users being restricted to interacting only with those in one's own space.

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Apropos of the previous post, a few tidbits from research on what information one can determine from someone's Facebook profile, without even looking at their activity:

People who tested as "extroverts" on the personality test tended to have more friends, but their networks tended to be more sparse, meaning that they made friends with lots of different people who are less likely to know each other.
The researchers also found that people with long last names tended to be more neurotic, perhaps because "a lifetime of having one's long last name misspelled may lead to a person expressing more anxiety and quickness to anger," according to the study, which is being presented this week at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Vancouver.

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In the US, employers are paying increasingly close attention to candidates' Facebook accounts; demanding that they hand over their Facebook passwords, allowing them to investigate their profiles, their past activities and the company they keep to determine whether they are of sufficient moral fibre:

In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall. Previously, applicants were asked to surrender their user name and password, but a complaint from the ACLU stopped that practice last year. While submitting to a Facebook review is voluntary, virtually all applicants agree to it out of a desire to score well in the interview, according Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann.
And some universities are requiring students to friend official accounts and monitoring their social network activity:
Student-athletes in colleges around the country also are finding out they can no longer maintain privacy in Facebook communications because schools are requiring them to "friend" a coach or compliance officer, giving that person access to their “friends-only” posts. Schools are also turning to social media monitoring companies with names like UDilligence and Varsity Monitor for software packages that automate the task. The programs offer a "reputation scoreboard" to coaches and send "threat level" warnings about individual athletes to compliance officers.
(I imagine that the assumption here is that those on athletic scholarships are not bright enough to set up friend lists and segregate their posts. After all, Facebook doesn't tell you whether you see all of a user's posts, a small portion, or in fact, whether they put you on their “Restricted” list (i.e., the “pretend-to-be-this-schmuck's-friend-but-don't-show-them-anything” list).

Demanding Facebook passwords is of dubious legality, however, if a court rules in favour of this practice, companies answerable to shareholders and concerned about legal liability may start adopting it as policy. One option is to not have a Facebook account, or deny having one; however, this could be a liability, marking one out as some kind of antisocial loner (studies have found that evidence of a social life can boost one's employability rankings, and if everyone's on Facebook, the one guy whose name draws a blank could look too much like potential spree-killer material to be worth the risk.)

If employer (or school, or governmental) Facebook surveillance becomes widespread I can see a new version of the clean-urine-for-drug-tests business model emerging, in the form of clean-but-plausibly-active-looking Facebook profiles for presentation to officials. Fill in a form giving details (what political/religious views it should espouse, where it should be between gregariously easy-going and Stepfordesquely clean (in most cases, inserting a few minor flaws for versimilitude is recommended, though the optimum degree of flaws will vary case by case; your case advisor can offer you guidance), what sorts of people, institutions and social situations your perfect doppelgänger should be seen to associate with, &c.), put in your credit card number and, presto, an army of third-world data-centre workers will assemble a profile you can show to any authority figure without fear. For a monthly fee, they'll even run your parallel life in the background for you, keeping the illusion up, posting anodyne comments about TV shows and sports matches, attending church mixers, liking big, uncontroversial brands and even giving you your desired level of a simulated social life with a network of convincing yet utterly unimpeachable sockpuppets.

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Writing in the Pinboard blog, Maciej Ceglowski tears apart the concept "social graph", saying that it is neither social nor a graph, but a sort of pseudoscience invented by socially-challenged geeks and now peddled by hucksters out to monetise you and your relationships:

Last week Forbes even went to the extent of calling the social graph an exploitable resource comprarable to crude oil, with riches to those who figure out how to mine it and refine it. I think this is a fascinating metaphor. If the social graph is crude oil, doesn't that make our friends and colleagues the little animals that get crushed and buried underground?
The first part of his argument has to do with the inadequacy of the "social graph" model for representing all the nuances of human social relationships in the real world; the many gradations of friendship and acquaintance, the ways relationships change and evolve, making a mockery of nailed-down static representations; the way that describing a relationship can change it in some cases, and various issues of privacy and multi-faceted identity, things which exist trivially in the real world, even if they're in violation of the Zuckerberg Doctrine.
One big sticking point is privacy. Do I really want to find out that my pastor and I share the same dominatrix? If not, then who is going to be in charge of maintaining all the access control lists for every node and edge so that some information is not shared? You can either have a decentralized, communally owned social graph (like Fitzpatrick envisioned) or good privacy controls, but not the two together.
This obsession with modeling has led us into a social version of the Uncanny Valley, that weird phenomenon from computer graphics where the more faithfully you try to represent something human, the creepier it becomes. As the model becomes more expressive, we really start to notice the places where it fails.
You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong. Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender. Our industry abounds in people for whom social interaction has always been more of a puzzle to be reverse-engineered than a good time to be had, and the result is these vaguely Martian protocols.
Of course, whilst the idea of the social graph may not be good for modelling real-life social interactions with naturalistic fidelity, it has been a boon for targeting advertising; the illusion of social fulfilment is enough to keep people clicking and volunteering information about themselves. From the advertisers' point of view, the fish not only jump right into the boat, they fillet themselves in mid-air and bring their own wedges of lemon:
Imagine the U.S. Census as conducted by direct marketers - that's the social graph. Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.
There is some good news, though: while general-purpose social web sites with the ambition of mediating (and monetising) the entirety of human social interaction may fail creepily as they approach their goal, special-purpose online communities can thrive in their niches:
The funny thing is, no one's really hiding the secret of how to make awesome online communities. Give people something cool to do and a way to talk to each other, moderate a little bit, and your job is done. Games like Eve Online or WoW have developed entire economies on top of what's basically a message board. MetaFilter, Reddit, LiveJournal and SA all started with a couple of buttons and a textfield and have produced some fascinating subcultures. And maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long - image, timestamp, text. Now tell me one bit of original culture that's ever come out of Facebook.
I wonder whether there is a dichotomy there between sites and networks; would a special-interest site that used, say, Facebook's social graph as a means of identifying users (rather than having its own system of accounts, usernames, profiles, and optionally friendship/trust edges) be infected by the Zuckerbergian malaise?

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Google+ technical lead Joseph Smarr answers questions about Google's new social site, its development, and planned features:

Will users be able to create hierarchies of circles (circles made from multiple circles)?
There are definitely good use cases for this, but we worry about the complexity it would introduce. This might be a great "power-user" feature to build using our APIs (once they're ready, heh).
What were the most difficult specific technical challenges you faced?
Trading off consistency vs. availability is always challenging, and even more so in social applications where your actions affect other users, often in other data centers. For instance, adding/removing someone from a circle impacts (among other things): which posts they can see, the counts of people on your (and their) profile, suggestions (for potentially many people), and so on. Clearly some of these changes need to happen immediately/ASAP, whereas others could be a bit stale and that's ok. Picking the right trade-offs so our systems are fast and robust but users rarely notice any problems was (and continues to be) challenging, and in some cases required some very clever tricks in the backends.

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There may be (vast multitudes of) zombies among us online: leaked emails from US defense contractor HB Gary have revealed the existence of a system for managing large numbers of fake identities across social networks; the identities are created en masse with realistic pseudonyms and plausible character profiles and kept on life support with an automated or mostly automated system; the software has them retweet others' posts, or perhaps even uses natural-language processing to have them chime in minimally to comment threads ("I agree!"). Then, when they're needed, these zombie profiles can be pressed into service, flash-mobbing a forum with a dissenting view coming from a large number of real-looking people with authentic-looking histories, befriending real users on social networks for intelligence-gathering purposes, or similar; the operators have access to the record on the particular profile they're using, in order to avoid embarrassing faux pas:

To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter,‭ ‬blogs,‭ ‬forums,‭ ‬buzz,‭ ‬and myspace under created names that fit the profile‭ (‬satellitejockey,‭ ‬hack3rman,‭ ‬etc‭)‬.‭ ‬These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds,‭ ‬retweets,‭ ‬and linking together social media commenting between platforms.‭ ‬With a pool of these accounts to choose from,‭ ‬once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name,‭ ‬lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected‭ ‬#‭ ‬of previously created social media accounts,‭ ‬automatically pre-aging the real accounts.
Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas
HB Gary has been selling these to the US Government, presumably to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies; its imagined uses could range from allowing agents to infiltrate distributed protest groups for intelligence-gathering purposes to COINTELPRO-style disruption operations and psychological warfare. However, it's not unlikely that some version of this or similar software (either from them or another company) would end up in the hands of private corporations or other interests. Recently, HB Gary and two other defense contractors did recently pitch their services to the Bank of America, proposing disinformation attacks against WikiLeaks and its supporters. It could be argued quite robustly that collusion between the US intelligence establishment and corporations is a long-established tradition, dating back to ITT's involvement in the Chilean coup and the United Fruit Company's involvement in establishing the Guatemalan junta, so to imagine such tools in the hands of, say oil companies or agribusiness, being used to disrupt popular opposition, disrupt the organisation of trade unions, or even manufacture Tea Party-style pseudo-oppositional groups which support deregulation, is not a huge stretch. In the wild, it becomes just another tool to discreetly keep labour and environmental costs down. And then there's what happens when this filters down to the marketing departments. Or some guys in Russia make a clone of this and start selling it to scammers.

What about on the internet? Once the cat's out of the bag, people are going to be less trusting of strangers online. Until now, identifying a sockpuppet had been easy: if someone just joined a site, made no comments or a few content-free comments and then weighed in about why, let's say, smoking doesn't cause cancer or Silvio Berlusconi is the only honest man in Italian politics and the victim of a conspiracy, they were obviously a tentacle of some ham-fisted propaganda operation. Now, such a tentacle may have accounts on all major news sites, social networks and other services going back years, and a history of bland, neutral interactions with the online world. A retweet here, a few holiday photos (cropped/reedited from somebody else's Flickr pool, or a pool of content contributed by contractor employees) there, perhaps a few opinions about football or video games or mobile phones scattered around forums. Detailed conversation would be light, unless the operators pay humans (bound by oaths of secrecy more stringent than Amazon's Mechanical Turk service) to ride these zombies and have them form low-intensity relationships with actual random humans. (More high-intensity relationships could be risky, though given the recent revelations that Britain's secret police agents formed long-term romantic relationships with members of left-wing groups they were infiltrating, perhaps long-distance romances between zombie handlers in fluorescent-lit bunkers under Virginia or Alabama and lonely, emotionally volatile people around the internet could occur; perhaps these could even be exploited for operational uses, in the way Nigerian 419 scammers have done.) But the rest of us would be asking ourselves: what percentage of the people we interact with online—on newspaper forums, music discussion boards, dating sites, or of our Facebook friend circle—are actually real?

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Positivity considered harmful (2): A new study suggests that social software such as Facebook may be making its users unhappy, by causing them to overestimate how contented their peers are with their lives (unlike themselves). The theory goes that, as these sites are self-curated experiences where users present generally positive images of themselves, other users don't get well-rounded views of how an online acquaintance's life is going, but have a cognitive bias to thinking that they do. Consequently, we overestimate our online acquaintances' life satisfaction, compare it to our own, and feel unhappy:

The human habit of overestimating other people's happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are." But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature. And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.
Which makes sense, assuming that one buys the assumption that social software strongly discourages expressions of negativity or unhappiness. This is clearly not the case on all social sites; witness, for example, the (somewhat old) stereotype of the LiveJournal Angstpuppy, characterised by demonstrative levels of self-pity, often encoded into musical and/or sartorial preferences. Granted, that was in an earlier, weirder internet, and might get one unfriended or laughed at in today's more mainstream networks, though one does see a fair amount of kvetching on Facebook. Perhaps the best solution for the collective mental health is to encourage a culture of moderate self-pity and commiseration?

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Data visualisation of the day: if you draw lines between the locations of people connected to each other on Facebook, you get this map of connections:

A few interesting observations:
  • There are notable dark patches: China is an obvious one, between the Great Firewall and the prevalence of home-grown websites. Brazil is also dark (presumably because everyone's on Orkut instead), as is Russia (LiveJournal is apparently the big thing there to this day). The Middle East is also largely Facebookless, with the exception of Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. Africa is also largely dark, with a few, largely self-contained patches of light.
  • The east coast of Australia is more strongly connected to New Zealand than to the west coast.

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Tomorrow is apparently National UnFriend Day: a day for purging your Facebook friend list of people who aren't actual real-world friends (you know, that guy you met at a party two years ago who's in marketing or publishing or something and really into snowboarding, or was it Korean cinema?) without the devastating anxiety non-sociopathic people feel when cutting off contact with another blameless human being, or something.

“NUD is the international day when all Facebook users shall protect the sacred nature of friendship by cutting out any ‘friend fat’ on their pages occupied by people who are not truly their friends,” according to the show’s website.
Meanwhile, the latest new social network's key feature is that you only get 50 friends, who are meant to be your closest friends and family.

While there is something to be said for periodically deleting non-relationships from social sites (i.e., anybody whom you can't remember who they are), the premise of both of these—that social software friend lists should be only for people we consider to be actual friends in real life—goes against the use cases of social software site; one of the things that makes sites like Facebook useful is because they're good at managing weak links; of keeping up with people whom one isn't sufficiently close to to individually spend time with. There is probably less call for a site that is limited to one's 50 nearest and dearest (not to mention the drama it may engender, akin to MySpace's "Top 8" ("You added him but not me; what am I: chopped liver?")) than for one for keeping up with various spheres of acquaintances, buddies, contacts and other weak links, and compartmentalising one's public identity and profile between them appropriately.

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A journalist from the Daily Beast performs an experiment to determine how Facebook determines what updates appear in people's feeds. Facebook has a secret algorithm which determines the status of posts and users, and which ones are deemed interesting enough to push to their friends' feeds; like Google, it keeps its algorithm secret. An experiment, involving a team of volunteers interacting in a directed way, has cast some light on some of the factors which determine whether Facebook thinks you're too boring for your friends to possibly be interested in what you say:

2. Facebook's Catch-22: To get exposure on Facebook, you need friends to interact with your updates in certain ways (more on that below). But you aren't likely to have friends interacting with your updates if you don't have exposure in the first place. (Memo to Facebook newcomers: Try to get a few friends to click like crazy on your items.)
5. "Stalking" Your Friends Won't Get You Noticed.
6. Having Friends Who Stalk You WILL Help Your Popularity.
7. Links Trump Status Updates.
8. Photos and Videos Trump Links.
9. The Power of Comments. If items you post attract comments from a few friends, it clearly raises your visibility overall. When our selected volunteers began stalking Phil, he finally appeared to many users for whom he had been a no-show. But when we stopped the stalking and moved on to the next phase of our trial, directing a different group of users to not only look in on Phil but also repeatedly add comments to his items, he surfaced on the feeds of still more friends.
10. Why Facebook Really is Like High School: After weeks of testing and trying everything from having Phil post videos to getting some of his friends to flood him with comments, by the end of our experiment, a few of our volunteers had still literally never seen Phil appear in their feeds, either Top News or Most Recent. These were the "popular kids"—users of Facebook with 600 or more friends. (Conversely, those with only 100 to 200 friends were among the first to spot Phil.) So the key, as you build your coterie of friends, is making sure to include some without huge networks.

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Facebook has just upgraded its photo sharing feature, increasing the maximum dimension along either axis from a miserly 720 pixels to 2,048 pixels, improving tagging and adding a lightbox interface. Some are saying that the upgrade poises Facebook to challenge Flickr as a serious photo sharing site (Facebook already hosts more than three times as many photos as Flickr does); however, the fact remains that photographs on Facebook still have a distinctive "Facebook style":

A few days ago I ran into one of my nieces whom I hadn't seen for a while. She's a lively, sociable young woman and had recently returned from spending an enjoyable summer in Cape Cod. I asked if she had any photographs. "Sure," she said, launching her Facebook page, where there was an album of 150 images, which on inspection turned out to be a succession of more or less identical images of young men and women wearing silly grins and making faces at the camera.

Two things struck me about this album. The first was that it contained not a single image of Cape Cod. The other was how her photographs reminded me of those which appear on the Facebook pages of my own teenage children – which leads one to conjecture that there is now a "Facebook style" of photography, as distinctive in its way as that of the passport or wedding photograph.

(The Facebook Style is not to be confused with the MySpace Angle, though it's presumably possible for a photograph to meet the definitions of both.)

Among Facebook's 15bn photographs there are, no doubt, some memorable and beautiful images, but to date I haven't seen any. That's not true of Flickr, which continues to be one of the wonders of the world and hosts hundreds of thousands of terrific pictures. More significantly, an increasing proportion of them are published under a Creative Commons licence, which means that they can be freely used for non-commercial purposes.

In any case, while Facebook's photo sharing tools may be improved, it is unlikely to become a Flickr-killing platform for strikingly beautiful photographs, for reasons of culture and function. Facebook is, after all, primarily a social site; its strengths come from the ability to share things meaningful to one's friends, which would be tediously mundane or irrelevant to anybody else. Few people are interested in identical mugshots of strangers gurning at the camera in pubs or backyards, though the family members and chums of the gurners in question probably are.

Flickr, meanwhile, is a site for publishing photographs, where the photographs are the primary focus. It has social features (users can favourite or comment on photos with their pseudonymous Flickr account IDs, and add other information about themselves), but they are secondary to the application of showing photographs. To wit, Flickr not only has keyword tags but also groups, with themes such as "sunsets", "wide-angle photos", "things which are red", or "Paris", where users can send their photos, making them available for viewing by strangers who share an interest in their theme. This is not something Facebook is good at. (Mind you, it goes both ways; Flickr recently added the ability to tag other Flickr users in photos, though that doesn't seem as useful as Facebook's person-tagging feature; unless one hangs out only with keen photographers, one's friends are unlikely to be on Flickr.) I don't think Facebook is going to eat Flickr's lunch any time soon. (Nor, for that matter, is Google's Picasa, nor any of the Flickr-alikes like Zooomr or Ipernity.)

And while we're on the subject of beautiful photos on Flickr, Ffffl*ckr is a new web-based tool which, given access to your Flickr account, will find other photos you are likely to like, by looking at photos your favourited and seeing what their takers favourited.

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Design consultancy IDEO have posted a video presenting three concepts for the future of electronic books. The concepts are: "Nelson", a critical reader intended for politically and culturally influential books, which charts the influence of points within books, links to debates and discussions arising from them presents links validating or repudiating supporting facts and presents books mentioning and mentioned by a book; "Coupland", an enterprise-oriented social reader, which allows books to be recommended within an enterprise, and "Alice", an entertainment-oriented reader which relies on ebooks branching out from the stream-of-linear-text model that they inherited from paper books; by participating in various games, you can unlock hidden chapters of a book.

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danah boyd has a new blog post on social steganography, or ways of encoding double meanings in messages one knows will be overheard.

Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.
Often these techniques depend on shared cultural references; the fact that one's peers (typically within one's generation) have a shared vocabulary of song/movie/videogame/TV/&c. references has the convenient side-effect of providing a cryptolect that is all but parent-proof. (Which is why teens, i.e. those living in the totalitarian surveillance state of being a minor, are into ostensibly lame stuff like Justin Bieber and Fall Out Boy; few 'rents, even (or especially) those hip enough to know all about Joy Division and the Velvet Underground and krautrock and britpop and whatever, are going to study up on the latest godawful racket the kids these days are listening to just to be able to decode chatter most of which is going to be fairly inconsequential social administrivia. From which it might follow to say that when nostalgic adults listen to music from their adolescence, they are, knowingly or otherwise, revisiting the paraphernalia of strategies for mitigating a lack of freedom.) Anyway, boyd cites an example:
When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.
It's debatable whether Monty Python counts as a parent-proof youth-culture reference. I'm guessing that the example story happened somewhere in the US, where Monty Python still has an aura of counterculture about it, and is likely to not be picked up by one's straight-laced 'rents. (Perhaps it happened in a devoutly Christian community, where The Life Of Brian would be virtually punk rock?)

Of course, nowadays Carmen could just have posted the update to Facebook under a filter, excluding her mother from seeing it, and her mother would have been none the wiser. (Unless Facebook has mechanisms preventing minors from hiding content from their parents, which I hadn't heard of.)

(via Schneier) danah boyd deception dog whistles language social software steganography 0


Huffington Post co-founder Johan Peretti has posted a presentation, titled "Mormons, Mullets and Maniacs", on what makes online content "viral", i.e., likely to be passed along by bored people:

One key point: content that goes viral tends to appeal to people's personality disorders, or at least gives them an opportunity to score points, laugh at/put down those they disagree with, or express their obsessions, self-identification or narcissistic attention-seeking tendencies:

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Until now, Google and social software haven't been ideas that went together naturally. The famously engineering-focussed company had experimented with social, though mostly in engineers' 20% time, and with mixed results. Orkut became spectacularly successful in Brazil, but largely bobbed along in the wake of Friendster elsewhere until the vastly technically inferior MySpace came along and seized the market, Google Friend Connect got its lunch eaten by Facebook Connect, and other forays into social made the mistake of being a bit too clever and automatically inferring the user's social graph from their online activity, crossing the line between nifty and disturbing.

Now, however, this is likely to change. There are rumours afoot that Google have made social software a strategic priority, establishing teams to work on the problem of social as part of their regular 80% job, and that a social platform, possibly named Google Me, is in the works. Of course, as far as social platforms go, Facebook have the area sewn up, with a pretty sophisticated API, leaving little space for newcomers (or even Google) to expand into, unless they find and solve problems in the way Facebook does it.

Which brings us to this slide presentation from Google user-experience researcher Paul Adams. The presentation rigorously examines the social uses of software, and the natures of social connections (Adams mentions strong ties and weak ties, and adds a third category, temporary ties, or pairs of people involved in once-off interactions; think someone you buy something from on eBay) and pinpoints possible shortcomings of simple models such as Facebook's (the fact that people have different social circles and needs to expose different facets of their identities to different circles, and that tools such as Facebook's privacy filters have a high overhead to use satisfactorily in this way), not to mention unresolved mismatches between the way human beings intuitively perceive social interaction working and the way it does in the age of social software (for example, we are not intuitively prepared for the idea of our conversations being recorded and made searchable). All in all, it looks like a pretty rigorous survey of social software, condensed down to 216 slides. (An expanded version may be the contents of a book, Social Circles, which comes out in August.)

If Google, who have not given much weight to social software in the past, are investing in this level of research into it, they may well have a Facebook-beating social platform in the works. Though (assuming that it exists, of course) only time will tell whether Google have finally grasped social enough to pull it off.

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A Facebook intern and PhD student in human-computer interaction has used Facebook to measure the relationship between sharing and wellbeing. Moira Burke's findings, gained by measuring the interactions between Facebook users who filled in surveys, has found, unsurprisingly, that active sharing (such as posting content and sending messages) is more correlated with wellbeing than passive consumption.

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Gay marriage: the database engineering perspective, or how different definitions of the institution of marriage would be reflected in different (relational) database schemas. Not surprisingly, the strictly traditionalist schemas do hideously inelegant things like have different tables for men and women, or mark one gender as subordinate to the other (i.e., have the males table contain a wife_id column), while the most elegant ones reduce marriage to a type of edge in generalised social networking, leaving policy (can you marry yourself for tax reasons? can more than two people be married?) outside of the schema.

I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point, some technically ignorant legislator in some conservative backwater proposed a law requiring databases to have separate tables for men and women or something similarly brain-damaged.

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If you've ever found yourself compelled to keep playing a video game, despite realising that you're not actually enjoying it, you may have been a victim of the Behaviourist conditioning techniques game designers use to get people hooked. Video game designers are applying Skinnerian techniques of behaviour reinforcement to compel players to keep playing, to get hooked early, and to invest more time (and often money) into levelling up. (And playing a game does not necessarily equal enjoying it; the stimulus of getting unpredictable rewards, and the fear of losing one's carefully built-up progress, are sufficient to compel one, even if they might otherwise have preferred to do something else.)

His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered you could control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. He invented the "Skinner Box," a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets. Now, I'm not saying this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skinner box. I'm just saying that he illustrates his theory of game design using pictures of rats in a Skinner box. This sort of thing caused games researcher Nick Yee to once call Everquest a "Virtual Skinner Box."
First, set up the "pellets" so that they come fast at first, and then slower and slower as time goes on. This is why they make it very easy to earn rewards (or level up) in the beginning of an MMO, but then the time and effort between levels increases exponentially. Once the gamer has experienced the rush of leveling up early, the delayed gratification actually increases the pleasure of the later levels. That video game behavior expert at Microsoft found that gamers play more and more frantically as they approach a new level.
Behaviourist game design techniques are becoming more prevalent in the age of online games, where the maker's revenue comes not from once-off purchases but from time (and money) spent in the course of playing the game; hence, game designers have to get their players hooked before the other guy comes along and milks them. And milking is perhaps an apt metaphor, given that one of the leading examples of this sort of game design is the Facebook game FarmVille, which, by all accounts is more of a socially conditioned obligation than a ludic activity:
Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn’t sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?
The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness.[11] We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.
Here's more about FarmVille's use of the Cialdini reciprocity principle, as beloved of grifters. Meanwhile, other gaming companies are using other techniques to keep the marks coming back, like taking advantage of players' loss aversion ("your account is now flagged to have your characters below level 20 deleted as part of maintenance. Please re-activate your account now to ensure that your characters progress and names stay intact").

On a tangent, there is a blog titled The Psychology of Games; some of its content has to do with psychological manipulation techniques to control and monetise gamers, though it also covers examples of game theory (in the Prisoner's Dilemma sense) in games, psychoeconomics, the enjoyment of gaming as an activity, and, indeed, a wealth of psychological phenomena as illustrated through video gaming.

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Please Rob Me is a web site which aggregates Foursquare location data shared by Twitter users and presents it as "new opportunities" and announcements of users having "left home", to demonstrate the risks of sharing location data with strangers.

While Please Rob Me is a proof of concept, and not particularly useful to burglars (you'd have to map Twitter IDs to names and addresses, and also work out whether there was anybody else living at the premises), there is speculation that social web sites offer a wealth of information to burglars, from users' locations to party photos set inside homes and showing off stealable goods. Of course, these days, the dominant web site is Facebook, which, by default, hides users' posts from people outside of their friend list; however, a significant proportion of Facebook users will gladly friend people they don't actually know, undermining this common-sense measure. (Intuitively, the risk of being burgled or spammed must seem insubstantial to them next to the promise of meeting hot chicks or getting invited to cool parties.) An even larger proportion use Windows PCs which are susceptible to viruses. There is already malware which spams Facebook with phishing links; malware which harvests useful information about all of a user's contacts (real names/identifying details, addresses, links to other social sites, &c.) and uploads them to a criminal-owned server could be just as plausible.

Of course, this makes little economic sense if one imagines one team of burglars going to all this effort to identify easily reachable places likely to house unattended PlayStations or plasma screens. However, if one follows the advice of Adam Smith and introduces division of labour (a practice seen in other criminal enterprises, such as phishing gangs and Nigerian 419 scam operations), it becomes more plausible.

Imagine, if you will, a criminal business intelligence service, much like the ones serving marketers, only specialising in selling leads on potential targets to burglars. This business would have a server somewhere with lax law enforcement, algorithms for harvesting and unifying information from a range of sources (possibly supplemented by human intelligence) and a site for offering bundles of this information to prospective burglars, searchable by geographic location, likely richness of pickings (determinable from the target's employment information, credit ratings and such) and likelihood of them being out of town. The algorithms would pick through a number of public sites, such as Twitter, Foursquare and others (photo sharing sites could be useful; if someone's address is in New York and they just uploaded a fresh photo geotagged in Gran Canaria, they're probably not home), and use them to pick out the likelihood of a target matching various criteria. (The algorithms could be fairly advanced, but as we have seen from the botnet arms race, there's no shortage of ingeniously talented coders of, shall we say, above-average moral flexibility.)

Of course, the real rich pickings are in walled gardens such as Facebook, where people have a sense of security and post their real names, locations and photos; while this is not public, a criminal site could harvest it by using malware (in which case, it'd get not just the details of the owner of the infected PC, but of all their friends), rogue viral Facebook apps or by hiring humans to set up profiles and, using a specially modified browser, friend random strangers ("MAKE MONEY AT HOME SURFING THE WEB!", the recruitment ads could read). The data would go into the criminals' data centre and would come out the other end as searchable packages offered for sale ("Your search of current vacationers making $50k+ near ___ has yielded 37 results, for $100 each. How many would you like to buy?")

Given precedents both in computer crime (credit-card fraud is a big one, having both black-market web sites and highly specialised economies with divisions of labour) and social software, I would be surprised if nobody tries setting something like this up.

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Google have just announced their latest bite at the social-software cherry: it's called Google Buzz, is integrated into Gmail (with mobile web-based clients for iPhones and Android phones), and, from the video on the site, appears to be a way of sharing status updates, with optional embedded images, videos or links, to your Gmail contact list; it seems much like Facebook's Publisher, in other words. There seems to be a location-based component, with the mobile clients inferring where you are and optionally sharing that information, and also the ability to see posts from people located geographically nearby. Buzz seems to attempt to identify the actual building or establishment one is in, which could lead to Foursquare-like location-based functionality. It also has some means of interacting with other sites, such as Twitter and Flickr (though, obviously, not Facebook).

Buzz is rolling out to Gmail users over the next few days (much in the way that the new Facebook layout took the best part of a week to reach everybody), but from the video and blog announcements, it looks quite nicely designed. Of course, Google haven't had a huge amount of luck with social platforms yet (there was Orkut, which was somewhat of an odd fit for the rest of Google's line, and the OpenSocial/Friend Connect APIs, whose lunch Facebook Connect seems to have eaten), and it remains to be seen whether this time will be any different.

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Life imitates New Waver lyrics yet again: A psychological study at Leeds University has found a connection between depression and heavy internet use:

The authors found that a small number of users had developed a compulsive internet habit, replacing real life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites.
They classed 18 respondents - 1.2% of the total - as "internet addicts". This group spent proportionately more time on sex, gambling and online community websites... The internet addicts were significantly more depressed than the non-addicted group, with a depression score five times higher.
Of course, the whole concept of "internet addiction" is a dubious one, and often tinged with tabloid-style moral panic, so there's a danger that the advocates of the "internet addiction" industry will wave this around as proof, ignoring the fact that the addictive behaviours there are more usefully described as gambling and/or pornography addiction.

The report does not put forward any causal links between heavy internet use and depression. Do specific patterns of internet use weaken social contacts, contributing to depression, or do depressed people use the internet to self-medicate?

Also, the inclusion of online community websites along with sex and gambling websites seems somewhat dubious; while the latter are masturbatory replacements for natural stimuli, especially those one leading an impoverished life may lack, can one really imply that social community sites substitute for and weaken social ties rather than facilitating them? I recall a study from a few years ago which showed that users of social web sites actually have stronger social connections, and improved wellbeing as a result of those. Though it is always possible that various characteristics of particular social websites (which may be influenced by their design and/or emergent from organic patterns of use) influence their ability to facilitate psychologically useful social ties.

depression despair hikikomori internet moral panics psychology social software 3


The boffins at OKCupid have posted another statistical tour of the mysteries of human sexual attraction, this time looking at profile pictures, and what makes them work (or fail). Some of the findings: the "MySpace shot", cheesy as it may sound, does work for women (though only if they're looking for something other than interesting conversation), and if you're male, you're advised to get your shirt off:

dating okcupid psychology sex social software 1


A number of social software systems give their users reputation/trust scores, which can be voted on by other users. This, however, is not without problems: when carelessly designed, the ability of users to vote down other users' reputations can lead to extortion rackets:

It didn't take long for a group calling itself the Sims Mafia to figure out how to use this mechanic to shake down new users when they arrived in the game. The dialog would go something like this:
"Hi! I see from your hub that you're new to the area. Give me all your Simoleans or my friends and I will make it impossible to rent a house.”
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm a member of the Sims Mafia, and we will all mark you as untrustworthy, turning your hub solid red (with no more room for green), and no one will play with you. You have five minutes to comply. If you think I'm kidding, look at your hub-three of us have already marked you red. Don't worry, we'll turn it green when you pay…"
The solution to this is to keep positive and negative feedback separate, and have the latter go through moderators (who, presumably, will spot any shenanigans) before making it public.

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Yahoo!'s Christian Crumlish posits the five principles of good social software design:

  • Pave the Cowpaths
  • Talk Like a Person
  • Play Well with Others
  • Learn from Games
  • Respect the Ethical Dimension
He also puts forward five anti-patterns, or ways in which sites get it wrong:
Briefly, the Cargo Cult means imitating superficial features of successful websites and applications without really understanding what makes them work. Don't Break Email warns against the practice of using email as a one-way notification or broadcast medium while disabling your users' ability to hit reply as a normal response. The Password Anti-Pattern is the pernicious practice of asking users to give you their passwords on other systems so that you can import their data for them, thus training them to be loose and insecure with their private information. The Ex-Boyfriend Bug crops up when you try to leverage a user's social graph without realizing that some of the gaps in a person's network may be deliberate and not an up-sell opportunity. Lastly, a Potemkin Village is an overly elaborated set of empty community discussion areas or other collaborative spaces, created in anticipation of a thriving population rather than grown organically in response to their needs (see also Pave the Cowpaths).

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One of the major problems with Facebook, in the past, has been its one-size-fits-all privacy settings. You could decide, once and for all, who sees your status updates, but could not do so on a post-by-post basis. Which is fine and dandy when all your friends there know you in the same context, but becomes a problem once you have people from different spheres. You might not want to bore your generalist friends with detailed discussion of your more specialised interests, or share your personal life with your coworkers, so the only option is to self-censor down to the lowest common denominator, and hope that those who want more can be bothered with LiveJournal.

Not for much longer, though, because Facebook are soon rolling out post-by-post privacy options, which will let you decide, with each status update who sees it.

The options will include "everyone" (i.e., anyone who goes to your public Facebook page), friends, friends and friends thereof, or, most usefully, custom groups of friends. The devil is, of course, in the details, but it looks like it will make Facebook a lot more useful as a fine-grained social communications tool.

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A website named Double X, which seems to be a broadly feminist publication run by the Newsweek people, has a piece examining the phenomenon of women using photographs of their children as their Facebook profile photos, and what it says about their identity and social position:

These Facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement, a narrowing of our worlds. Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman. Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk about…what?…a book? A movie? A news story? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigor and analytical depth she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her 4-year-old. But still. You notice at another, livelier corner of the table that the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be a 19th-century novel where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child. Are we all sometimes that woman? A little kid talk is fine, of course, but wasn’t there a time when we were interested, also, in something else?
Facebook, of course, traffics in exhibitionism: It is a way of presenting your life, at least those sides of it you cherry pick for the outside world, for show. One’s children are of course an important achievement, and arguably one’s most important achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they are who you are. It could, of course, be argued that the vanity of a younger generation, with their status postings on what kind of tea they are drinking, is a worse kind of narcissism. But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children. And perhaps for their health and yours and ours, you should be other things as well.

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Today, we increasingly live in a world of software-mediated social interaction, and at this moment, Facebook is one of the largest such systems. As more people join Facebook, and it becomes an increasingly indispensible utility for connecting people, and the range of people one is connected to becomes much broader. Whereas once one's Facebook friends tended to be college buddies and close friends, they now include coworkers, family members, old schoolmates, neighbours and others.

Facebook's privacy options, however, haven't kept up with this change. When you post to your Facebook profile, there is no way to make posts visible by only a subset of your Facebook friends. So you're faced with the choice of self-censoring your posts to a level suitable for all users. You might not want your parents or employers to see photos of you partying, or might not want to bore your non-technical friends with talk about specialised subjects a subset of your friends would be interested in. So the end result is that Facebook is reduced to the lowest common denominator of subjects suitable for all audiences; things that won't shock or bore anyone. This leaves no suitable space for a large set of discussions: in-jokes between closely-knit groups of friends; specialist banter about C++ or football or archaeology; or even personal discussions you wouldn't necessarily want to share with your coworkers or casual acquaintances.

There are better ways to do this. The photo sharing site Flickr allows users to tag certain friends as "Family" or "Friends", and make some photos only visible to those groups. The LiveJournal system goes further, allowing users to define arbitrary numbers of friend groups and control who can see each post individually.

Facebook needs something like this if it's going to scale. It need not be an intrusive feature; a checkbox to the right of the "What's on your mind?" box, opening a "Show this post to: Everyone / All my friends / (groups)" drop-down, would suffice quite elegantly. (Something similar, of course, should be added for photos, notes and such, and made available to application developers.) This would make Facebook much more broadly useful as a tool for connecting people across the wide spectrum of social relationships they have in their lives.

Anyway, to wit, I have done the obvious thing about this deficiency and created a Facebook group about it. Perhaps if enough people join, the Facebook developers will listen.

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Some interesting notes from a talk about the scalability of social software delivered at the Web 2.0 Expo last September by Joshua Schachter of

There are 3 Kinds of scale: technological, social, and personal. We’re going to briefly go through the technical stuff... Common access pattern is to have a screen, make a modification, requery the data, and then resend the results. We’re building a lot of these systems to be synchronous which is a huge performance hit. What you need is a queue not a database for processing messages asynchronously. Decouple interactive performance from the rest of the system. Huge win for Delicious. Now that we’ve got technical stuff out of the way…
Don’t go too far and expose too much information. A long time ago you could see how many friends you had and how many followers you had and compare who it was that was following but not a friend. The system allowed me to get angry at two people. People got freaked out by people ‘follow’ing them on delicious.
Wanted delicious to be a harmonious system. That’s why there were no conversations. Didn’t want people to come in and have religious wars. You have to be willing to deal with abuse, spam, porn, etc. His last year this got really bad.
Pretty urls are important. It’s prime advertising space. People will copy paste and link.

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LiveJournal sacks almost its entire US workforce, including all US-based engineers, leaving only a few financial and support staff. Panic ensues, with perverts worldwide stocking up on emergency supplies of Harry Potter slash fiction in case it disappears.

Chances are, the obligatory jokes about disturbing online subcultures aside, LiveJournal won't disappear overnight. For one, the cuts are in the US office, and LiveJournal is now Russian-owned, and is much bigger in Russia (in America, the typical LiveJournal user is a thirtysomething goth-scene veteran with an IT job, whereas in Russia, it's a mainstream media site). Given that most of the money and ad revenue come from the Russian operation, it presumably won't cost them much to keep running an English-localised rump site on the same servers.

In any case, I hope LiveJournal survives, because it has one thing none of the other sites have: no, not Harry Potter slash fiction; fine-grained social-network-based access control, i.e., the means to specify that posts are not just friends-only but only accessible to a subset of friends. Which might sound like a symptom of some kind of geek social neurosis, but is actually useful. (Consider, for example, a Facebook friends list, containing everyone from coworkers to family members to people you met at a party or festival; as on Facebook, you can't control who can read a posted item (it's all your friends or no-one), there are a lot of things you cannot or should not post; from boasting about faking illness to planning surprise parties for contacts, to discussing personal situations, so your Facebook stream becomes a stream of lowest-common-denominator banalities.) Something with Facebook-level usability and LiveJournal-level access control would actually be useful; maybe once the world emerges from the New Depression, someone will write something like that?

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And Freemasonry's fightback from the brink of extinction continues; the Masons now have jumped on the social networking bandwagon with a "cool new website" named Masonic Planet. Though, curiously enough, the site itself doesn't seem to have any Masonic-specific profile features; there seems to be no entry for lodge affiliation in profiles (though it does have a "Looking for: [] Male [] Female" section; presumably they hadn't had time to customise the ex-dating-site software yet), let alone making information visible only to people above a certain degree or what have you. And, indeed, anyone can make an account without any introduction or invitation, or any proof of Masonic affiliation.

It does have some kind of "profile music" Flash applet. Perhaps this site wasn't actually created for or by Freemasons, but rather by someone who read about punks, hipsters and other members of prime youth demographics getting into Freemasonry and decided to get a piece of the action?

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The Untold History of Toontown's SpeedChat, or an account of what happened when some pioneering virtual-community software developers accepted a commission from Disney to build an online community site—one compliant with Disney's values, so that "there could be no swearing, no sex, no innuendo, and nothing that would allow one child (or adult pretending to be a child) to upset another ... No kid will be harassed, even if they don't know they are being harassed.".

"We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words - the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world."

"We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes he'd created the following sentence:

I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.

They added a method to allow direct chat between users that involves the exchange of secret codes that are generated for each user (with parental permission). The idea is that kids would print them out and give them to each other on the playground. This was a great way for Disney to end-run the standard - since Speed Chat was an effective method of preventing the exchange of these codes, and theoretically the codes had to be given "in-person", making the recipient not-a-stranger. Sure, some folks post them on message boards, but presumably those are folks who 1) are adults, or 2) know each other, right? In any case, as long as no one could pass secret codes within Toontown itself, Disney feels safe.
The author, Randall Farmer, coined from this the SpeedChat Corollary: "By hook, or by crook, customers will always find a way to connect with each other."

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The Napsterization blog (which is not about craptacular DRM-shackled music-rental services but about the social and economic implications of disruptive technologies) has a piece on the lengths Facebook application authors go to get people to install their applications, such as doing sleazy things like not only requiring users to install their application to see messages from friends, but wilfully misleading them into believing that if they don't forward a message (of a pornographic tone) to some friends, they won't get to see it. As a result, the maker of the app gets a juicy boost to their installation figures, whilst pissing all over people's social relationships and making your user experience that much crappier.

In this case, the culprit was Slide, with their popular FunWall application, though neither Slide nor Facebook will accept the blame for this:

Facebook pointed the finger at Slide (the app maker in this case), and said, "There is nothing we can do. We have no control over the apps people make or the stuff they send." Oh, and if I wanted Facebook to change the rules for apps makers? I'd have to get say, 80k of my closest Facebook friends to sign on a petition or group, and then they might look at the way they have allowed porn spam to trick people into forwarding, but until then, there would be no feature review.
Slide said that they thought Facebook was the problem, because as the "governing" body, Facebook makes the rules and "Slide wouldn't be competitive if they changed what they do, and their competitors weren't forced to as well." In other words, Slides competitors use the same features to get more users (or trick more users as the case may be) and Slide didn't want to lose out on getting more users with similar features, regardless of the effect the features have on us and our relationships.
And things aren't likely to change by much. Human psychology being what it is, people are willing to put up with a lot of annoyance in software as long as it provides a social function. (How else could you explain MySpace, with its spammy, craptacular user experience, going from strength to strength and maintaining its position as the dominant social software site?) Some people may generally amused by every piece of spam that comes in, or believe that, like billboard advertising, it brightens up people's otherwise dull lives. Others may put up with it due to the peer pressure to not seem cranky and antisocial; after all, the argument would go, that's what they do here, and if you don't like it, why did you join? (The corollary to this argument is, of course, the attrition rate as people who get sick of having three wall applications and being awash in a sea of silly surveys and chain letters stop logging in one day.)

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The Irish Independent has a piece on how social networking websites are changing relationships, and in particular, how they end and what happens afterward:

I started getting clues that I might be about to become a free man when my girlfriend's friends posted messages to her that read: "Good luck with tonight -- it's for the best."
First came the announcement online of my new 'Single' status. Deftly inserted into Facebook's running newsfeed, it informed everyone that both she and I knew that I had been dumped, in much the same way that Reuters proclaims the engagement of a minor member of the British royal family. There was no way of deleting it, so it sat there haunting me.
But then her status updates started to tell a story. Just three days after we broke up, she changed hers to: "2008, new job (check), new flat (check), new man (working on it)."
Your ex's blog may only be read by five and half people, but you still don't really want them telling complete strangers how you were unable to put the loo seat down and never really gave the choosing of shelves the attention it deserved, and how these things were symptomatic of your lack of commitment to the relationship.
It makes me think that our grandparents had an easier time. If one of their relationships went bad they could always go to sea -- or at least the next village -- and never see the other person again.
The whole issue of relationship breakups in the age of the internet recently hit the spotlight spectacularly with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' breakup with his girlfriend, FoxNews journalist Rachel Marsden. Wales apparently dumped her on Wikipedia, and she retaliated by releasing transcripts of their online chats, the major upshot of which was a revelation that these lofty public figures were, scandalously, quite into having sex with each other while they were going out.

It'll be interesting to see how the standards of socially acceptable conduct evolve once it is literally impossible to dissociate oneself from an ex without becoming a hermit. Will slagging off one's exes and their failings in public blogs become taboo, or restricted to some acceptable bounds of fair play? Or will people get used to the fact that anyone in the dating marketplace probably has several scathingly negative references from their various exes? (Perhaps there is a niche for a site which aggregates exes' references, along with reputation scores for the referers?) Will things like Rachel Marsden's release of the chat transcripts become unacceptable, the social equivalent of a nuclear first strike?

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French broadsheet Le Monde has published a map of the popularity of various social network sites across the world. This map reveals that MySpace dominates in the USA and Australia, whereas the UK, Canada and Norway prefer Facebook. Which brings to mind the statistics about average IQs of countries, which place the UK's average at 100 and the US and Australia's at 98.

Interestingly enough, the chart lists LiveJournal as a Russian website, despite the fact that it began in, and operates out of, the US, though Russia has been a significant market for it and is now owned by a Russian concern.

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Something I didn't know until today: the Facebook API includes a complete SQL-style query language for querying one's social graph, which allows you to do things like:

SELECT name, pic, status, music FROM user WHERE uid in (select uid2 from friend where uid1 = 1234567890)
FQL, as it's called, can be called from the Facebook API, or you can play with it here (using the fql.query method).

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Facebook and Google anounce that they are joining the Data Portability Workgroup, a body advocating open standards allowing users of social web sites to easily move their data from one site to another. (This is not long after Facebook suspended Robert Scoble's account for attempting to, well, port his data from their site.) More interesting is who's Google's representative in this organisation: none other than Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of LiveJournal and one of the originators of OpenID, who more recently has turned his attention to the social graph problem.

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Writing in InformationWeek, Cory Doctorow delivers a scathing indictment of Facebook, and its eyeball-herding business model:

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"
If there was any doubt about Facebook's lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you're the kind of person who likes the sound of a benevolent dictatorship this clearly isn't one.
To be honest, Facebook doesn't seem quite as bad about this as other (such as MySpace, which has the chutzpah to make logging-in users click through interstitial ads, knowing that cool-obsessed teenagers will endure any amount of intrusive advertising as long as it's bright and flashy and ugly-nu-rave enough). Though all this could change if it does start using your name and picture to endorse some product which you once bought. (Though if it does this, it could be on shaky legal ground. It's quite likely that its retroactively amended click-through agreement would, following the great click-wrap power-grab tradition, state that users will consent to endorsing all products they buy without their knowledge in return for their fix of zombie vampire monkey robot ninja action, though whether any sane court of law would find this reasonable is another matter.) Certainly, them having removed the ability to opt out of their marketing programme does feel rather sleazy.)

Fear not, though, as Cory says that Facebook, like all other social networks before it, is doomed, by a simple law which limits the lifespan of a social network to the initial period of growth:

Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).
Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.
As more people join a social network, the tensions increase. Turning down a friend request is socially awkward, and unfriending someone literally says to them "you're dead to me". (OMG, teh drama!) As people from all walks of life join your friends list, the range of things that are suitable for discussion among all of them narrows considerably. Eventually, with your boss, your relatives and your friends all reading your profile, you're restricted to the most innocuously content-free of communications, until you stop bothering to log in, and your Facebook account goes the way of your long-moribund Friendster, Tribe and Orkut logins.

Of course, then comes along the next social network service, and the cycle begins again. Perhaps the next service will learn from its predecessors' mistakes and offer users the vitally important ability to compartmentalise information, to make certain parts of one's profile visible only to certain subsets of one's friends list. This is not a new idea; LiveJournal has allowed its users to do this with journal posts for a long time, and Flickr has a somewhat more limited version of this concept (allowing photos to be restricted to people flagged as "family" or "friends"). However, if a social network system is to be able to cope with real-world social relationships, and the fact that people present different aspects of themselves to different friends and acquaintances, such a mechanism is essential.

(via Boing Boing) cory doctorow facebook social software society 4


One useful feature which Facebook, the social network site of the moment, lacks is the ability to compartmentalise information. Whereas on LiveJournal you can define filters and make posts visible to only some of them, on Facebook, every piece of information you published is visible to all your contacts. (Except for those who can only see a limited profile, who are forever stuck in a purgatory of sort-of being "friends" with you whilst being left out of all the fun.)

Being able to compartmentalise your information is useful; there are undoubtedly things you want to tell some of your friends whilst not letting the rest know, other things you're happy sharing with a different (though possibly overlapping) subset, and others you're happy letting anyone know. Think, for example, of talking about work without pissing off coworkers, or confiding about your lovelife, or discussing health issues without overwhelming others with "too much information". As social software becomes an integral part of the social support networks of today's compulsively multitasking, digitally connected population, such controls become more a necessity than a luxury.

Fortunately, Facebook's users have come up with a workaround: creatign members-only groups in lieu of privileged posts. So next time you see a group with an otherwise uncompelling name like "Emma has a new phone number", you'll know what's going on.

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Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of LiveJournal and architect of OpenID, has put forward his thoughts on the social graph problem — which is to say, the present state of affairs in which each social software application has its own social graph (of which user is connected to whom) which its users have to independently maintain — and how to go about aggregating these graphs into something less unwieldy:

Currently if you're a new site that needs the social graph (e.g. to provide one fun & useful feature (e.g. where are your friends traveling and when?), then you face a much bigger problem then just implementing your main feature. You also have to have usernames, passwords (or hopefully you use OpenID instead), a way to invite friends, add/remove friends, and the list goes on. So generally you have to ask for email addresses too, requiring you to send out address verification emails, etc. Then lost username/password emails. etc, etc. If I had to declare the problem statement succinctly, it'd be: People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing "Social Applications" is too much work.
Facebook's answer seems to be that the world should just all be Facebook apps. While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there's a lot of hesitation in the developer / "Web 2.0" community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc. That hesitation I think is well-founded. A centralized "owner" of the social graph is bad for the Internet.
Brad has written down a set of goals for a project to open up the social graph, in a way that allows sites to interoperate gracefully. This will include a common infrastructure that manages the social graph data, within an architecture which (much like OpenID) allows anyone to operate their own servers, and prevents any one entity from owning the graph. This will have an API, which returns all equivalent nodes of a node (i.e., given an identity on one service, the owner's identities on all other services registeded), the edges in and out of a node, the aggregated friends of a node across all services, and any missing friends (i.e., any pairs of nodes connected on one service but not another).

From the user's point of view, this will allow some fairly nifty magic to happen, saving users the hassle of registering on yet another social network site and rounding up their friends:

A user should then be able to log into a social application (e.g. for the first time, ideally but not necessarily with OpenID, and be presented with a dialog like: "Hey, we see from public information elsewhere that you already have 28 friends already using dopplr, shown below with rationale about why we're recommending them (what usernames they are on other sites). Which do you want to be friends with here? Or click 'select-all'."
Brad acknowledges that there will be uncooperative sites, who, owning the lion's share of the social-networking sphere, don't see it in their interest to prioritise interoperating with other sites (no names are named, though I'm betting that it'll be a cold day in Hell before MySpace plays nice with something like this; after all, it may tip their users off to the existence of other sites and depress banner-ad impressions). Thus he proposes a browser add-on which implements the system on uncooperative sites, by means of screen-scraping.

What's happening with this proposal? so far, they have prototypes of the APIs, working on the data for 5 sites (LiveJournal and Vox are, not surprisingly, two of them), the start of a Firefox plug-in to drag MySpace, kicking and screaming, to the party, and the start of a website allowing users to register their points of presence in social networks; a limited beta is expected at some time in the future. There are apparently a lot of people from different organisations working on this, much as there were on the OpenID project, and a Google group has been set up for discussion of the details.

Note that this only covers social network (i.e., "x is a friend of y") data, and not the actual content (birthdays, photos, favourite movies/bands). There is another project named Move My Data, which aims to make the actual user data portable between accounts, though so far it seems to consist of a vague proposal.

(via /.) facebook firefox identity livejournal myspace openid semantic web social graph problem social networking social software tech web 0


A study of social network website users in the US has shown a class divide between MySpace and Facebook users. Apparently Facebook has more users from wealthier homes and more academic backgrounds, while MySpace has more working-class teenagers, minorities and members of social groups ostracised by the popular kids in high school (this may include music- and fashion-related youth subcultures).

class facebook myspace social software society status usa 1


MySpace outage leaves millions friendless; aid workers fear long-term psychological damage:

"I lost 6,456 of my best friends in an instant," said Minneapolis resident Peter Steinberg, 20, who has loyally befriended as many profiles as possible over the past two years. "Nothing can describe how devastated I feel. Some of these people I've exchanged two, even three comments with, and I can't tell you how many ROTFLMAOs we've shared, too."
Corey "Aqualad" Friesen, 18, of Danville, IL appeared to share Mancuso's fears about manual and analog socializing. "I vaguely remember trying to make friends pre-MySpace, but in 16 years, I only made three real friends," Friesen said. "If I have to revert back to face-to-face friend gathering, I would be middle-aged before I built that number into the double digits. I'd definitely never get back into the hundreds again."
"Without an 'About Me' section, I've lost all sense of self," said Imbrescia, 17, who depends on the site to convey his innermost thoughts to millions of extended-network friends. "Do I want kids? How tall am I? What's my body type? These are questions I can't answer anymore. I'd pray to a god for help, but I've lost my religion field."

humour myspace social software the onion 0


An article in New York Magazine argues that a confluence of recent technological phenomena (the rise of the internet, social software, the decline of privacy) has produced the greatest generation gap since the dawn of Rock and Roll. Whereas subsequent "gaps" (punk rock kids rebelling against their Buddy Holly-listening parents, mall-goths and gangsta-rap kids rebelling against their new-waver parents, and such) were merely the new generation individuating itself by adopting a different dress code and slang, this one is a much more substantial rift, as kids who have grown up with the internet think differently, and their parents (much like the bemused parents of the young rockers of the early 1950s) don't quite know what to make of it all:

It's been a long time since there was a true generation gap, perhaps 50 years--you have to go back to the early years of rock and roll, when old people still talked about "jungle rhythms." Everything associated with that music and its greasy, shaggy culture felt baffling and divisive, from the crude slang to the dirty thoughts it was rumored to trigger in little girls. That musical divide has all but disappeared. But in the past ten years, a new set of values has sneaked in to take its place, erecting another barrier between young and old. And as it did in the fifties, the older generation has responded with a disgusted, dismissive squawk. It goes something like this:
"Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry--for God's sake, their dirty photos!--online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention--and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.
Those on the younger side of the generation gap differ from their elders in several ways. They consider themselves to have an audience, and where older people have discarded the ephemera of their adolescence, the kids are archiving it, keeping a bridge to the past. Most tellingly, as the article puts it, their skin is thicker than yours. Where older people might consider concealing their private lives (in the name of privacy, security or just in case), the kids recognise that privacy is futile, and are more likely to reveal all.
And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, and if being seen is inevitable, one might as well embrace it and make the best of it:
This attitude manifests itself in various ways:
From their perspective, it's the extreme caution of the earlier generation that's the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, "Why not? What's the worst that's going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone's gonna find your picture? Just make sure it's a great picture."
Consider Casey Serin. On, the 24-year-old émigré from Uzbekistan has blogged a truly disastrous financial saga: He purchased eight houses in eight months, looking to "fix 'n' flip," only to end up in massive debt. The details, which include scans of his financial documents, are raw enough that people have accused him of being a hoax, à la YouTube's Lonelygirl15. ("ForeclosureBoy24," he jokes.) He's real, he insists. Serin simply decided that airing his bad investments could win him helpful feedback--someone might even buy his properties. "A lot of people wonder, 'Aren't you embarrassed?' Maybe it's naïve, but I'm not going to run from responsibility."
"If that girl's video got published, if she did it in the first place, she should be thick-skinned enough to just brush it off," Xiyin muses. "I understand that it's really humiliating and everything. But if something like that happened to me, I hope I'd just say, well, that was a terrible thing for a guy to do, to put it online. But I did it and that's me. So I am a sexual person and I shouldn't have to hide my sexuality. I did this for my boyfriend just like you probably do this for your boyfriend, just that yours is not published. But to me, it's all the same. It's either documented online for other people to see or it's not, but either way you're still doing it. So my philosophy is, why hide it?"
Of course, as this phenomenon is in the early stages, nobody knows entirely what kind of society will emerge from this:
For anyone over 30, this may be pretty hard to take. Perhaps you smell brimstone in the air, the sense of a devil's bargain: Is this what happens when we are all, eternally, onstage? It's not as if those fifties squares griping about Elvis were wrong, after all. As Clay Shirky points out, "All that stuff the elders said about rock and roll? They pretty much nailed it. Miscegenation, teenagers running wild, the end of marriage!"
Because the truth is, we're living in frontier country right now. We can take guesses at the future, but it's hard to gauge the effects of a drug while you're still taking it. What happens when a person who has archived her teens grows up? Will she regret her earlier decisions, or will she love the sturdy bridge she's built to her younger self--not to mention the access to the past lives of friends, enemies, romantic partners? On a more pragmatic level, what does this do when you apply for a job or meet the person you're going to marry? Will employers simply accept that everyone has a few videos of themselves trying to read the Bible while stoned? Will your kids watch those stoner Bible videos when they're 16? Is there a point in the aging process when a person will want to pull back that curtain--or will the MySpace crowd maintain these flexible, cheerfully thick-skinned personae all the way into the nursing home?

(via culture generation y internet social software society 0


An interesting article, by danah boyd, on the social dynamics of Friend relations in social software, predominantly Friendster and MySpace:

The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:
  1. Actual friends
  2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
  3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
  4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
  5. It's a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
  6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
  7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
  8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
  9. It's the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
  10. Being Friends lets you see someone's bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
  11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
  12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
  13. It's easier to say yes than no
Boyd, er, boyd describes some ways in which the design of a social-network implementation (i.e., is Friendship transitive, what information is displayed about users, how access to information is controlled, and whether or not friendships can be ranked) influences the social dynamics:
Collecting is advantageous for bands and companies and thus, they want to make it advantageous for participants to be fans; because there is little cost to do so, those who connect figure, "why not?" When Friends appear on someone's Profile, there is a great incentive to make sure that the Profiles listed help say something about the individual.
When a Friend request is sent, the recipient is given two options: accept or decline. This is usually listed under a list of pending connections that do not disappear until one of the two choices is selected. While most systems do not notify the sender of a recipient's decline, the sender can infer a negative response if the request does not result in their pages being linked. Additionally, many systems let the sender see which of their requests is still pending. Thus, they know whether or not the recipient acted upon it. This feature encourages recipients to leave an awkward relationship as pending but to complicate matters, most systems also display when a person last logged in on their Profile. Since it is generally known that the pending list is the first thing you see when you login, it is considered rude to login and not respond to a request. For all of these reasons, it's much easier to just say yes than to face questions about why the sender was ignored or declined.
There is more fodder here for those who hold that MySpace is evil; the site, it seems, is designed to clutter social networks with "junk friends" (i.e., strangers and brand campaigns) and deliberately amplify social drama. Case in point: its "Top 8" feature, which allows users to say who is and isn't their bestest friend ever, and/or to whine about not being in someone's Top 8.
"As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. 'If you let me play I'll invite you to my birthday party.' Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it's the MySpace Top 8. It's the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off."
When Emily removed Andy from her Top 8, he responded with a Comment [13] on her page, "im sad u took me off your Top 8." Likewise, even though Nigel was never on Ann's Top 8, he posted a Comment asking, "y cant i b on ur top 8?" These Comments are visible to anyone looking at Emily or Ann's page. By taking their hurt to the Comment section rather than privately messaging Ann and Emily, Nigel and Andy are letting a wider audience know that they feel "dissed."
"Myspace always seems to cause way too much drama and i am so dang sick of it. im sick of the pain and the hurt and tears and the jealousy and the heartache and the truth and the lies ... it just SUCKS! ... im just so sick of the drama and i just cant take it anymore compared to all the love its supposed to make us feel. i get off just feeling worse. i have people complain to me that they are not my number one on my top 8. come on now. grow up. its freaking myspace." -- Olivia
Small design decisions make a profound difference to how a social web site works. MySpace seems to be designed to maximise social pressures and exacerbate social anxiety and drama. This may be out of thoughtlessness (which wouldn't surprise me, given the generally inelegant design of the site), as part of some kind of Milgram/Zimbardo-esque psychological experiment (see also: Reality TV), or just an externality of maximising appeal to advertisers and youth marketers. LiveJournal, in contrast, goes out of its way to minimise drama; for example, its notification engine won't tell you if you've been unfriended.

(via Boing Boing) culture design friendster myspace social networks social software sociology 0


Web entrepreneurs are attempting to adapt the MySpace formula, massively successful with teenagers and twentysomething, to the huge baby-boomer demographic. One attempt is, which replaces the pop music and cool animated ads with brain-exercising games, a longevity calculator and an obituary notification service:

"Many people no longer live where they grew up so the idea of a rich story about someone's life in a local newspaper is often lost," said Taylor, who sees online obituaries replacing the traditional death announcements in newspapers.
He said baby boomers, the 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, also wanted to have a greater input into their own funerals. This prompted to look into a service where people could plan for their favorite songs to be played at their funeral and where friends and family can go afterward for food and drink.

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Wal-Mart, the US retail behemoth that manages to be both socially atomising and socially conservative, is now attempting to launch its own teen networking site, sort of like MySpace, only with its own unique values. Hilarity ensues:

The opening page shows video of four teens -- a bubbly fashionista, a Texas football player, a quirky skateboarder and an aspiring R&B singer from New York -- who are clearly actors reading a script, although the videos are positioned to appear authentic. Within, there are pages such as "Beth's Backyard Club," where you find a picture of her in a strapless prom dress above the approved quote: "I'll school my way by looking hot in my Wal-Mart clothes to school to catch a cute boy's eye. ..."
No doubt leery of all the problems with, Wal-Mart's site disqualifies any video with "materials that are profane, disruptive, unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, hateful, or racially or ethnically-motivated, or otherwise objectionable." That's why "pending approval" notes dominate pages already created and content is limited to a headline, a fashion quiz and a favorite song. Wal-Mart also plans to e-mail the parents of every registered teen, giving them the discretion to pull a submission.

(via /.) amusing fail social software unclear on the concept wal-mart 0


LiveJournal (which was something like the MySpace of the 1990s, only not owned by the forces of evil and not spammy with ads) is testing its own instant messaging service. The service is technically a Jabber/XMPP server connected to LiveJournal, and using authentication and social-network data from LiveJournal's database. And, being XMPP, it can communicate with other open XMPP networks, such as Google Talk.

-- your Jabber Roster ("buddy list") is integrated with your LJ friends list. If you friend bob and bob friends you, both of you can see each other online. It has to be mutual. Friends that haven't friended you back show up as "pending subscription" in your jabber client, kinda grayed out, depending on the client.
-- if you add a LJ person in Jabber, it won't automatically friend them on the site, but next time you use the site, it'll prompt if you want to. It's imaginable there's people you want to chat with, but not befriend. Our strategy is "least surprises".
According to the comments, once the server works, there are plans to add an AJAX messaging interface, sort of like GMail's Chat mode.

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flickrGraph is an applet for graphically browsing social networks on Flickr, not unlike the TouchGraph LiveJournal Browser in concept. Except, of course, it is a Flash applet, which means that it (a) looks k3wler, as large full-colour icons jiggle, bounce and rotate, and (b) is less usable, as large full-colour icons take up lots of screen space, bounce unstoppably and obscure controls.

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A user of the social-network site MySpace has found a novel way of making lots of friends: by inserting a piece of JavaScript code into his page which caused all viewers to friend him:

The next step was to simply instruct the Web browser to load a MySpace URL that would automatically invite Samy as a friend, and later add him as a "hero" to the visitor's own profile page. To do this without a user's knowledge, the code utilized XMLHTTPRequest - a JavaScript object used in AJAX, or Web 2.0, applications such as Google Maps.
Taking the hack even further, Samy realized that he could simply insert the entire script into the visiting user's profile, creating a replicating worm. "So if 5 people viewed my profile, that's 5 new friends. If 5 people viewed each of their profiles, that's 25 more new friends," Samy explained.
For a brief time, Samy had more than one million new friends. Then MySpace noticed that something strange was happening, shut the site down and cleaned the script off users' pages. Google's Evan Martin has an analysis of the code.

(via /.) hacks making friends myspace risks security social software worms 1


A number of video game designers were posed the question of how to design games for grandmothers. Here is Keita Takahashi (of Katamari Damacy fame)'s answer:

He introduced his presentation, "I thought really hard about this one, I haven't thought this hard since I was coming up with the idea for Katamari Damacy. I decided that I wanted to get old ladies playing games and bring a little of the sunshine that they end up losing when they stay indoors all the time back into their lives." The focus of his talk began with the controller, he explained that current hardware designs are inorganic and difficult to understand. He introduced the design of his new controller specifically tailored for the Granny, and a picture of a cat appeared on the screen to great amusement. He explained, "the shape of the cat and the heat waves that it gives out really gets the old ladies going as they get quite cold. They like the cat shape. The cat is designed to be rested on the old ladies knees." The cat controller was met with rapture from the audience as Takahashi went on to explain the gameplay concept.
The game would begin with the family suggesting to Granny that she wear the cat because, for example, her knees looked cold. Embedded in the cat is the capability for it to communicate wirelessly with other cat controllers (on other Grannies' knees) in the neighborhood. When the cat connects to another one, "..the onboard a.i. kicks in." This causes the cat to speak, paraphrased as "meow, meow, grandma, meow". Takahashi explains that the family are required to participate in the game by pretending that they haven't heard anything, because of this--Grandma begins to build the perception that she is able to communicate directly with the cat.
As the dialogue with the cat develops, it suggests that Granny make some soup -- but faster than the other granny down the street who has also received the instruction. A competitive element emerges and gradually the cat suggests more and more group activities that Grandma might engage in, culminating in trips to the park. "..So they all go outside and eventually they meet other old ladies with cats and they all become friends."
Takahashi then said that he would put the cat proposal to Namco/Bandai.

(via bOING bOING) keita takahashi social software videogaming 1


It looks like they're now making a romantic comedy about Friendster (remember that? It was a somewhat dating-centric social-networking click-toy; everyone gave up on it after hitting the limit of their social group who have time for these things). What next: a Heathers-esque comedy about LiveJournal (Subtitle: "OMG the drama!")

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Orkut-style brownie points for LiveJournal; i.e., a page which lets you say how cool/hot/trustworthy the people on your friends list are, and whom you're a fan of. Not without its share of problems; anyone can impersonate anyone else, and (perhaps for this reason), there's no way of seeing how many brownie points you gave people before. Also, annoyingly enough, it makes no distinction between people in your friends list and people who have friended you; coupled with its lack of memory, this means that every time you run it, you have to pick the serial adders, trolls and prehensile idiots off, and then reassign points to all the people you've selected.

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jwz on what's wrong with the idea of groupware, and how a focus on groupware (imposed from above by management) killed Netscape:

If you want to do something that's going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy. When words like "groupware" and "enterprise" start getting tossed around, you're doing the latter. You start adding features to satisfy line-items on some checklist that was constructed by interminable committee meetings among bureaucrats, and you're coding toward an externally-dictated product specification that maybe some company will want to buy a hundred "seats" of, but that nobody will ever love. With that kind of motivation, nobody will ever find it sexy. It won't make anyone happy.
So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid? That got me a look like I had just sprouted a third head, but bear with me, because I think that it's not only crude but insightful. "How will this software get my users laid" should be on the minds of anyone writing social software (and these days, almost all software is social software).

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A funny thing has happened on social-network site Orkut: by some quirk of social network dynamics, Brazilian Portuguese speakers now outnumber English speakers 2 to 1, and the Anglophones are getting a sudden taste of what it's like to be in a marginalised linguistic minority:

"Orkut maps one's social prestige, and Brazilians are by nature gregarious," said Beth Saad, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo's School of Communications and Arts.
Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English. Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a "nazi" and "xenophobe."
"Since we can invite anyone we want at Orkut, and my friends are Brazilians, it doesn't make sense talking to them in English," Reis said in Portuguese. "I use the language I know." His compatriot Pablo Miyazawa has a more moderate view. "Brazilians have the right to create anything they want in any language they want," Miyazawa said. "The problem is to invade forums with specific languages and write in Portuguese. Brazilians are still learning how to behave in the Net."

This posits a dilemma: if English is no longer the language of the majority on Orkut, what reasonable rationale could there be for asking Brazilian users to use English in non-Brazilian-specific forums, rather than asking English-speakers to learn Portuguese (the new majority language)? Not so much on one web site (where the management could, in theory, dictate the site's language) but on the internet at large. I wonder how long it will be until (American) English is displaced as the global language and Americans/Australians/Britons have to learn another language (be it Portuguese, Chinese or something else) to engage in the intellectual mainstream of internet discourse, or else become increasingly marginalised and ghettoised?

brazil language orkut social software unintended consequences 2


Danah Boyd's critique of Friendster and similar social software, delivered as a presentation at the recent O'Reilly digeratifest, seems quite interesting:

Friends on these sites are not close ties. In fact, they're barely weak ties! I'll explain why in a moment. Thus, anything that can be assumed about transitivity across ties is 100% lost. This only gets worse as we go down the chain. As one of my informants reminded me, why would i want to date my hairdresser's brother's drug dealer's second-cousin?
The reason that this became quickly apparent for people is because they usually signed on with one group of friends. On Friendster, it was most clearly demonstrated by the Burning Man crowd. If your Burner friends joined, you signed up and created a Burner profile. This didn't mean that you were only a Burner, but it was the image appropriate to your group of friends. You dress and act differently amongst Burner friends than you do amongst colleagues. Then the colleagues appeared. Do you shift your profile to look like them? Do you find a middle ground? Doesn't matter, really... Because your colleagues can see that all of your friends are Burners. Guilt by association.
Take this a step further. They expose the PEOPLE from each facet to each other with us as the only bridge. If the focus of our interactions between two groups were similar, we would comfortably expose them over time. If you find out that your colleague likes jazz, you might take him with you to meet your jazz-going friends. But if he hates jazz, you probably won't think to introduce him to the jazz aficionados. On Friendster, your ability to connect people because of their similarities is lost. The only similarity that matters is you. Furthermore, they get to interact through the system without you even negotiating whether or not they should meet. All of a sudden, your drunken friends are asking your boss out on a date cause she's hot. Yikes! Not only does this disempower you, remove the ability for you to connect them as need be, but it now makes you have to deal with the consequences of two different groups with two different standards of social norms.

(via bOING bOING)

danah boyd friendster social graph social software sociology 0


Via message-threading algorithm guru jwz, a new way of showing message threads, as a 2-dimensional diagram not unlike underground railway maps. Which looks pretty nifty; of course, as it's from Microsoft Research and undoubtedly patent-pending, don't hold your breath for it to appear in the latest GNOME suite, unless you can go for 20 or so years without oxygen.

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Someone has written a program for spidering Friendster and rendering a graph of the social network (downloadable, Windows-only).

Sounds interesting in theory, though in practice it depends on how many people have signed up. When I played around with Friendster, my network was very sparse, with few people being bothered to sign up and hassle their friends into doing so. It wasn't that nobody would be my friend. I had plenty of those; just that very few of them bothered to actually add any other friends (or fill in more than the bare minimum of details about themselves). Mind you, the fact that Friendster is all but useless except for finding sexual partners sort of limits its audience; perhaps in Australia, using computers for getting laid is still seen as the last refuge of sad losers, rather than the playground of cutting-edge cyber-nerverts. would be somewhat more interesting to graph, as it's a multi-use system (useful for posting announcements, selling stuff, shooting the bull about your favourite TV show/band/sports team and meeting people), thus giving denser social networks. LiveJournal would probably yield even more densely interconnected networks; also, since LJ has an open API, it shouldn't be too hard to rig up something to spider it and plot a graph, possibly even correlated with a physical map of the real world. I wonder whether anyone has thought of this already.

friendster social graph social networks social software 1


A few days ago, a LiveJournal creation code fell into my hands (ta, jwz!); consequently, I now have a LiveJournal. It's probably going to be a bit on the sparse side, as I have this blog for most of my writing, though I may find a use for it.

The most interesting thing about the LiveJournal system is the social-software side of it; the interests/friends thing. It's a pity that one cannot fully participate in that with an external blog. It'd be good if there was an option to make one's journal get its content from an external RSS feed, whilst retaining control over one's profile.

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Distraction of the day:; it's a social-software thing, a bit like Friendster, only it's actually useful for things other than dating. It's a bit like the late lamented (now replaced by a commercial dating site which seems to have bought the original logo at a dot-com bankrupcy auction, but I digress), and has "tribes" (or interest groups) you can join (or create), as well as forums and listings.

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A fascinating article from Clay Shirky on why A Group Is Its Own Enemy, exploring some of the patterns of human behaviour in groups (in the context of "social software").

The article makes some interesting points: there are 3 patterns which pop up in groups: sex talk/flirting, vilification of external enemies (e.g., Penguinheads railing against Microsoft, or indeed left-wing and right-wing bloggers accusing each other of eating babies) and quasi-religious veneration of figures beyond criticism (i.e., try criticising part of an author's work on a group full of his fans and you'll get flamed for your diligence). Also, anarchy doesn't scale, and neither does naïve direct democracy; any group beyond the limits of a small social group (which Shirky doesn't mention, but which Malcolm Gladwell places at 150 people in The Tipping Point) needs a constitution, some form of hierarchy with different strata of participation and decidedly undemocratic and perhaps authoritarian powers for the core group (the "Listmoms" of a certain mailing list I'm on would be one example), in the interest of defending the group and its culture. Examples of the failure of egalitarian direct democracy include a 1970s bulletin board having been shut down after becoming infested with high-schoolers, and a campaign by Chinese Internet users to vote down the creation of soc.culture.tibet:

Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.

Shirky also makes the point that users should have identities (or "handles") they can invest reputation in, that there be some sort of member-in-good-standing mechanism, and that there be barriers to participation. And he knows; having been on Usenet since the early nineties, he watched it implode under the influx of The September That Never Ended.

All in all, an article well worth reading, whether you're a social-software/smart-mobs digerato, an anarchist/libertarian social theorist, a scifi writer looking to build a plausible fictional utopia, or just a student of human psychology. (via Graham)

clay shirky democracy majoritarianism mob mentality social software society 0


FOAF is a way of specifying personal information about a person, including nicknames, links to homepages and lists of people they know, in a XML document. The result is machine-readable "semantic web" homepages which can be traversed, forming social networks; in other words, something like Friendster, only open, XML-based and without the emphasis on bootywhang (though surely someone will come up with a namespace for that in due time), and traversable by any of the countless FOAF browsers due to be written in Perl, Python and Java any day now, or by the web-based FOAF Explorer; if your browser does SVG, there's even a graphical network browser there you can use.

So how do you make yourself a FOAF document? You can get started with the FOAF-A-Matic (Javascript required). (thanks, cos)

foaf social graph social software web services xml 0

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