1. Quitting Facebook

    Posted February 7, 2019 in social media  |  2 Comments so far

    Quitting Facebook wasn’t that hard.

    It started almost by accident, in November last year, with a busy period at work leaving me no time to see what was happening on the blue forum. Once the busy period ended, I realised that it had been around two weeks since my last login. So I decided not to look at Facebook for a little while longer and instead spent all my time in growing my DIY Youtube channel. At first, I went through the usual channels of getting likes which is by contacting friends and family, and asking them to like it, but very soon realised that not all youtube likes are as good as those from TheMarketingHeaven.com and got in collaboration with them to grow my channel and get all my videos more likes.

    Christmas came and went, and still no Facebook. New Year also passed without Facebook.

    You have to bear in mind that this wasn’t like quitting cigarettes where abstention is an act of conscious will. When I write about it here it might give the impression that I was sitting in a cold sweat, rocking back and forth in the twilight, gritting my teeth and staring at the clock as hour after after Facebook-free hour dragged past. It wasn’t like that. Life was just going on.

    January also came and went. By the end of January I was beginning to get a bit anxious, not because I missed the blue forum, but because I thought people who knew me might be drawing the wrong inferences from my inactivity: that I was ignoring them, that I had died. That’s what made me decide it would be better to delete my account rather than leave it there, present but mute.

    To delete my account I had to log in. 57-odd notifications were waiting for me. I had a quick look at them. Maybe something in there could have changed my mind. But all I learned from my quick glance at the notifications was that Facebook was doing OK in my absence. People had liked other people’s posts, some people had posted some things, yet others had shared content from the wider world: the wheel in the sky was still turning.

    So I went through the deletion process, which I had expected to be a showcase of just how clingy and dark-pattern-y UI design can be when the best-paid minds in Silicon Valley really don’t want you to do something. In reality, though, it was quite clean and straightforward, other than the slightly sneaky way that Facebook tried to guide me towards deactivation rather than deletion.

    As part of the process I also downloaded my data. There wasn’t too much as I only started going to Mark Zuckerberg’s website in 2013 and was never its heaviest user. If you’re a heavy user, of course, your download will be much bigger than my paltry 157Mb ZIP file. And even if you don’t plan on deleting your account I recommend you download and read through the data – it’s certainly an interesting experience, diverting and nostalgic on one hand, mildly paranoia-inducing on the other. The files you end up with on your hard drive are a lot easier to read than you might expect.

    And that’s that, no more Facebook. I partly feel like being able to delete Facebook is down to privilege, something that’s easier for me to do than it would be for various others, so I’m not going to nag you or disapprove of you for not deleting Facebook yourself. But if you want to join me in the world beyond the blue forum, you’re more than welcome.


  2. Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations

    Posted January 6, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    It might be lunchtime or nearly lunchtime where you live. If so, you’ll probably want some lighthearted cyber-dystopian reading material to peruse at your desk while you eat your Pret sandwich. Well here you go.

    Ai Weiwei Is Living In Our Future by Hans de Zwart on Medium: a famous artist’s experience of live under permanent, overt surveillance, a life we may all be experiencing in the not too distant future. But it’s not all about the state eavesdropping on us, because guess what? We’re doing it too:

    Put a collar with a GPS chip around your dog’s neck and from that moment onwards you will be able to follow your dog on an online map and get a notification on your phone whenever your dog is outside a certain area. You want to take good care of your dog, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the collar also functions as a fitness tracker. Now you can set your dog goals and check out graphs with trend lines. It is as Bruce Sterling says: “You are Fluffy’s Zuckerberg”.

    On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman: triggered by, among other things, a discussion thread on Scott Aaronson’s blog, this piece looks critically at the sense of persecution often experienced by male geeks. It’s not unsympathetic but rightly points out that teenage trauma, although authentic, doesn’t negate the privilege that male geeks enjoy later in life. Now, you might say this isn’t really cyber-dystopian, but I’d say it is. As technology exerts a greater influence of our lives, the great risk is that it will be used to enforce and amplify the social advantages enjoyed by those who control it: and, for the time being, that tends to be white male nerds (like me). Addressed the issues raised in this article would go a long way to making a technology-driven future far more inclusive and a little less dystopian.

    Finally, in Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, Eric Meyer talks about the emotional effect of Facebook’s “Year In Review” app appearing uninvited on his timeline. The app chose, as its main image, a photo of Eric’s six-year-old daughter, who had tragically died that year. As you can imagine, it was a deeply upsetting experience. Yes, it’s an example of the insensitivity of computer algorithms, but it’s also an example of the failure of design (not for the first time at Facebook) for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above. Eric Meyer has since posted a follow-up where he states, rightly, that this isn’t a Facebook problem but one common to design teams everywhere — worst-case scenarios or even slightly unusual ones are often labelled “edge cases” and then dismissed. Either way, this is a horrible example of how technology can still cause harm without anyone intending to be harmful.


  3. A snapshot of modern human life

    Posted April 26, 2013 in visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    I enjoyed reading Stephen Wolfram summarising his team’s analysis of Facebook data. The infographics aren’t just neat and easy on the eye, they offer up their insights without fuss or clutter. The writing is pitched well, informative without being intimidating or patronising. And among the graphs and the science you can detect something organic, something messy, something that can be faintly painful if you think about it too much.

    Relationship status by age, taken from Wolfram's analysis of Facebook data

    Relationship status by age, taken from Wolfram’s analysis of Facebook data

    For me, it comes out most strongly when I look at the greyish sliver that opens up towards the top-right of the above graph, which represents the proportion of people whose relationship status is “widowed”.

    This isn’t the most interesting or surprising piece of information on the page, nor is it the most novel or engaging graphic, but it’s the one that most brought home to me that beneath this sea of data, and beneath the sterile light-blue facade of Facebook, there’s something else going on: real, human, life.