Cal Newport on Social Internet vs. Social Media

I’ve been following Cal Newport for a number of years online. Cal Newport has a polarizing stance in that he is NOT on any social media channels (he even wrote a New York Times piece titled “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” illuminating his view.)

In two of his most recent posts, Cal Newport outlines the distinction between social internet and social media. “On Social Media and Its Discontents,” Newport explains:

There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

Continuing:

If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.

In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.

Cal Newport then offers a couple of suggestions on how social internet can be implemented, including a social protocol built on the blockchain.

In a subsequent post, Cal Newport offers two solutions on how to embrace the social internet today. The first option is to slow down (in other words, practice slow social media consumption):

  • Only use a given social media service if it provides valuable benefits that would be hard to replace. Use these services only for these purposes.

  • Delete all social media apps from your phone. (Few serious uses for social media require that you can access it wherever you are throughout the day.) Instead, access social media through a web browser on your laptop or desktop, once or twice a week.

  • When logged onto a social media service, don’t click “like” or follow links unrelated to your specific, high-value purposes — these activities mainly serve the social media conglomerate’s attempts to package you into data slivers that they can sell to the highest bidder.

The second option, perhaps even more important, is to own your domain. If you want to connect and express yourself online, the best way to do so is to own your own website. Cal Newport admits that owning your own domain is…

“harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.

It’s also, however, humbling.”

The challenge, of course, is that if you start blogging and offering your thoughts online, it is increasingly difficult to find or build an audience. However, if you have something substantial to offer by sharing your thoughts online, eventually people online will find you and they will respond with much greater authenticity than what you could ever get via immaterial Facebook or Instagram “likes”. Just consider how much more effort it would take for someone to write a thoughtful comment or an email to a post that has resonated with the reader.

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Related reading: Cal Newport on building a remarkable career.

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Facebook is a Surveillance Machine

I’ve been increasingly weary of posting status updates on Facebook over the last few months, and the latest revelations of the data harvesting by a firm Cambridge Analytica only heighten my anxiety about what Facebook is becoming: a massive surveillance machine. From a recent New York Times piece by Zeynep Tufekci:

This wasn’t a breach in the technical sense. It is something even more troubling: an all-too-natural consequence of Facebook’s business model, which involves having people go to the site for social interaction, only to be quietly subjected to an enormous level of surveillance. The results of that surveillance are used to fuel a sophisticated and opaque system for narrowly targeting advertisements and other wares to Facebook’s users.

Even if you aren’t a user of Facebook (or have ever had an account), facebook may have built a “shadow profile” of you. That’s kind of frightening.

Tufekci is mindful that it isn’t as easy as just deactivating Facebook for many users—it is the de facto internet in portions of the world, to others it is a place to organize civic events or protests, and for the rest of us, it is still a useful tool to keep up with friends and family. The point is: before you make your next social media update, be mindful of what you are sharing and that for every incremental post you make on Facebook, you provide additional data on which some (unbeknownst to you) third party will build an extensive profile of you.

Paul Ford on Bitcoin

Paul Ford has written an entertaining essay on Bloomberg, in which he shares his thoughts on Bitcoin:

Whenever I hear people talk about Bitcoin’s limitless future, I think about Dow 100,000. I first saw it in the old Borders bookshop at the World Trade Center. A few years later, the store was destroyed, and the book title was a sad joke. The markets lost interest in tech for years. Today all the Borders are gone, too.

I loved this sentence:

Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger.

Ford’s view on how monetization can possibly happen:

Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets. “Figure out the business model later” was the call of the early commercial internet. The way you monetize vast swaths of humanity is by creating products that people use a lot—perhaps a search engine such as Google or a social network like Facebook. You build big transactional web platforms beneath them that provide amazing things, like search results or news feeds ranked by relevance, and then beneath all that you build marketplaces for advertising—a true moneymaking machine. If you happen to create an honest-to-god marketplace, you can get unbelievably rich.

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Also worth reading is Paul Ford’s 2015 Bloomberg piece on “What is Code?”