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.

Facebook Pivots its News Feed Yet Again

Big news in social media this week, with Facebook announcing it is changing the algorithm of its news feed to focus on “friends and family,” and less on publishers/media. The New York Times reports:

The side effect of those changes, the company said, is that content posted by publishers will show up less prominently in news feeds, resulting in significantly less traffic to the hundreds of news media sites that have come to rely on Facebook.

The move underscores the never-ending algorithm-tweaking that Facebook undertakes to maintain interest in its news feed, the company’s marquee feature that is seen by more than 1.65 billion users every month.

It is also a reminder that while Facebook is vastly important to the long-term growth of news media companies, from older outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post to upstarts like BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox Media, publishers rank lower on Facebook’s list of priorities.

The idea that Facebook is trying to help you connect with your friends and family more via Facebook is an illusion. The only reason Facebook is changing its algorithm is that it is trying to monetize your attention by keeping you on the site more frequently and longer. They have internal metrics that have shown that posts from friends and family provide “more engagement” and therefore, Facebook is doing whatever it takes to keep you (and the other one billion+ daily active users) coming back and refreshing your Facebook news feed.

Sheryl Sandberg on Loving and Grieving for Her Late Husband

Dave Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey and husband of Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, died suddenly last month. A month after his death, Sheryl Sandberg is still grieving. She has penned a profoundly beautiful, brave post on how she is coping and how her love for her late husband will endure:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.

I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.

I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.

I have learned that resilience can be learned. Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry.” To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.

For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.

At the same time, there are moments when I can’t let people in. I went to Portfolio Night at school where kids show their parents around the classroom to look at their work hung on the walls. So many of the parents—all of whom have been so kind—tried to make eye contact or say something they thought would be comforting. I looked down the entire time so no one could catch my eye for fear of breaking down. I hope they understood.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

I can’t even express the gratitude I feel to my family and friends who have done so much and reassured me that they will continue to be there. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces pull me out of the isolation and fear. My appreciation for them knows no bounds.

I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”

Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, “There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.” I love you, Dave.

Thank you, Sheryl for your kindness to share your vulnerability and your wisdom with the rest of the world.

How Do Rumors Spread on Facebook?

How do rumors propagate on Facebook? And what propels them to go viral? One component seems to be whether people try to stop false rumors by linking to Snopes.com debunking such a rumor. From the Facebook Data Science team, their blog post and paper titled “Rumor Cascades” explains:

Tracking rumors on Facebook requires two types of information: a corpus of known rumors, and a sample of reshare cascades circulating on Facebook which can be matched to the corpus. The website Snopes.com has diligently documented thousands of rumors, and provides the starting point for our analysis. To match known rumors to this anonymized set of reshare cascades, we identify uploads and reshares that have been snoped — someone linked to a Snopes.com article in a comment. Those comments are posted by people to either warn their friends that something they posted is inaccurate or to the contrary, to validate that a rumor, though hard to believe, is in fact true. 

We gathered 250K comments, posted during July and August 2013 on 17K individual cascades, containing 62 million shares…

A summary from the abstract:

We find that receiving such a comment increases the likelihood that a reshare of a rumor will be deleted. Furthermore, large cascades are able to accumulate hundreds of Snopes comments while continuing to propagate. 

Happy 10th Birthday, Facebook

Today is the 10th anniversary of the founding of Facebook. The social network has come a long way, and in a blog post, Mark Zuckerberg reflects on its trajectory from a Harvard-only network to the worldwide use of it today:

When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it. 

The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more. 

While some doubted that connecting the world was actually important, we were building. While others doubted that this would be sustainable, you were forming lasting connections. 

We just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else. And we still do today.

That last sentence? I believe it was true at the time, but it’s no longer as applicable. Today, as a public corporation, the customers/users are less important that the big shareholders. The biggest evidence I see of this is the repeated pronouncements by users who say their content is viewed/shared less after Facebook tweaked its algorithms. But, if you are willing to pay a few dollars, Facebook will make sure to show your posts in your fans’ news feed. That’s a far cry from really caring about caring to connect the world, if what I have to share/say with my friends/fans literally comes at a price.

 

What Apps and Services Does Barack Obama Think Young People Use?

A young associate editor at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, reflects on how he accidentally met Barack Obama at a local cafe. The takeaway of what the young people use (apps, services) seems to be in constant flux, but based on the subtitle of the piece, it seems “that even Obama knows young people don’t use Facebook anymore”:

Obama sat down at the head of the table. There was a brief photo op at the opposite end of the table. I surreptitiously took a picture to remember what being on the other side of a wall of cameras felt like, but now it seems more remarkable that I can see the president’s undershirt.

He had come to my local cafe to meet with five young people. According to White House background, provided to me after he left, they met to discuss how to get more 18-34 year-olds to sign up for the coverage under the Affordable Care Act. (The law depends on 18-34 year-olds signing up for healthcare.) One of the five was a navigator, someone employed to help families sign up; another helped explain the law at a mall over the holidays.

They talked about health care stuff for the first 20 minutes. The five shared their experiences, and some of them spoke quietly, so I couldn’t hear them that well.

At one point the president said, “Now, this isn’t public yet.” I perked up.

“Thirty percent of somethingsomethingsomething is mumblemumble,” he said.

I didn’t hear. I had failed as a journalist, so I went to the bathroom.

Failure

When I got back, they were talking about music. Circumstantial evidence indicates that, while I was in the bathroom, they talked about Beyoncé. 

The conversation moved on. They talked about cell phones, and Obama mentioned how Malia did not receive one until she was 16. One of the young people pointed out that, unlike most parents, the president could always argue that he’d know where she was.

They segued to talking about social media (I couldn’t hear their exact words).Now, I thought. Now I could do tech journalism.

The president said something—I could not hear all of it—about new social media apps that were for messaging, new apps that only somethingsomething’d for eight seconds.

“Snapchat,” said one of the young people.

The president made a comment about how different apps were now popular. Someone—it might have been the president—said the word “Instagram.” 

I guess that they were talking about the difficulty of doing political outreach on Snapchat or one of this newer, less textual ilk? I’m not sure. Then the president drops this:

“It seems like they don’t use Facebook anymore,” he said.

Facebook is so uncool even the president of the United States knows it.

I’ve been saying this for a while, but I am disliking using Facebook as of the last year or two. I prefer Twitter and Instagram.

The story is worth the click simply for that SnapChat photo at the end.