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.

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.

“The Facebook Experience Has Failed”

An articulate blog post on why Facebook is on the decline (or why you should consider it to be so):

While the social network is in a way similar to real world associations, the way sharing works on Facebook is completely disconnected from reality. In the real world, you don’t have information that you need to share with every single person you know.

But that’s how it works on Facebook, unless you jump through hoops to make lists and share selectively.

I don’t agree that Facebook gets worse the more you use it (on the contrary), but I think this this observation is astute (but sad):

The way Facebook advertising works, it bumps the spamming potential of a ‘Like’ up a notch. A ‘Like’ on a product or service will make a paid story visible not just to the person who liked it, but also to their friends.

Inevitably, there is an entire industry working non-stop creating low quality, emotionally appealing content that gets ‘likes’ from gullible users.

 

Zack Arias on Signal, Noise, and Social Media

Zack Arias, an Atlanta-based photographer, pens a guest post on Scott Kelby’s blog about signal and the noise, social media hiatus, and finding inspiration. It’s worth reading in entirety, but here were my favorite bits:

– Build an inspiration wall :: I had stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines and photography books. I would thumb through them every now and then. Most of the time they just collect dust. I keep them for “inspiration” but they aren’t in front of me all the time. Since opening the lab I have started to rip out all the stuff that inspires me and have started taping this stuff to the walls in my production office and hair and make up room. Everyday I walk in I’m confronted by walls of stuff I find cool. At first I thought I was building a wall of intimidation but I see that it is a wall of inspiration. I see a picture, something about it speaks to me, I rip it out and tape it on the wall. Do this in your garage, basement, garden shed, hallway, somewhere.

Maybe I like the colors. Maybe I like the pose. Maybe I’m responding to the light. Whatever it is I tape it up and recycle bin the rest of the zine or book. It is cutting down on the clutter on my shelves and giving me cool stuff to look at each day. It starts to tell you some things about yourself as well. Currently my inspiration wall is about 90% black and white. Much of it is dramatically lit. There’s a lot of multiple exposures, motion, and projection.  It’s also nice to have it hanging up in a client area (hair and makeup room) because you can easily point things out like styling cues, posing ideas, emotional aspects of what you are wanting to make, etc. Don’t rip stuff out and put it in a binder. Get it on the walls in a place you’ll see it every day.

The nice thing about seeing this stuff everyday is you can begin to build ideas that you’ll start with on your next shoot. Grab one photo that you like for the light. Grab another that has a color palette you respond to. Another shot is a pose that you like. Another one has an idea for a background or location. You then start to build a shot with that light, this pose, that color palette, at this location. Signal. Showing up on a shoot with zero ideas can be a lot of noise.

For a different type of inspiration wall, try this.

On my recent trip to New York City, I took this to heart. I walked around with only the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 35mm prime lens:

– One lens. One light. One something :: Simplify your gear. You pick up a camera for the photograph. You pick up a camera for the photograph. It’s the photograph stupid. Not the Nikon. Not the Canon. Not the 8×10. Not the new 24-70 whatever. Not the new Octabank. Limit your gear usage for a week or for a month or for a year. One camera. One lens. One light source. Master it. MASTER it. Know it. Inside and out. Do everything you can with that one camera, one lens, and one light. My thing right now is one background. I shoot on a white background all the time. ALL the time. What else can I do with it? I know, from looking at my inspiration wall, that I can do more with a simple white wall than what I’m doing now.

Using only one set of gear is both constraining and liberating. Constraining because you can’t, for instance, get everything in the frame. But once you get over this barrier, it becomes liberating because you’re forced to think a bit more about getting the shot.

Lastly, something that I’ve only been able to do with limited success but plan on trying harder in 2013:

– Turn off facebook / twitter / flickr for awhile :: Get offline. Say adios to everyone and go make stuff. Work on a personal project. Get all the honey-do stuff off your list. Clean your basement. Organize your crap. Get all that stuff that lingers over your head off your plate. All those loose ends are noise. Social Media, as much as I LOVE it, is filled with noise. Social Media plays an important part in my life. It’s also a time suck. It’s a place where ideas, questions, and thoughts scatter in a million different directions from a million different sources 24 hours a day. Turn it off. Clear your plate. Let your brain quiet down.

Read the entire post here and don’t miss Zack’s video, Signal & Noise:

A Life Less Posted

A nice bit of nostalgia to days without Facebook and Instagram from Rian van der Merwe, in his post “A Life Less Posted”:

We checked our email maybe once in every city — if we could find an Internet cafe. For the most part we were on our own. Just one couple amongst a sea of tourists. There was nothing different about the bottle of wine we had in that one Italian restaurant. Except that it was our bottle of wine, and we shared it just with each other. Not with anyone else. It was a whole month of secret moments in public, and we were just… there. We didn’t check in on Foursquare, we didn’t talk about it on Facebook, we didn’t post any photos anywhere. I now look back and appreciate the incredible freedom we had to live before we all got online and got this idea that the value of a moment is directly proportional to the number of likes it receives.

Guilt, anger, envy… Those are the emotions that fuel all social networks, but perhaps Facebook more than the others. They’re the emotions that make us share/like/comment on things. And then I thought about our Europe trip, and how much I long for that time before we became obligated to carry the burden of the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of every single person we’re connected to online. It’s what Frank Chimero once called “huffing the exhaust of other people’s digital lives.”

I’ve been reading more and more of posts aching in a similar fashion. Ted Nyman’s piece on packaged lives, for instance, was excellent.

Instagram, Foursquare, Facebook: Ten Nyman on Packaged Lives

Ted Nyman hypothesizes in his post “The Horrible Future of Social” that our obsession with digital services is cheapening our lives:

We have begun to pollute and desecrate and cheapen all of our experiences. We are creating neat little life-boxes for everything, all tied up with a geo-tag, a photo, a check-in; our daily existence transformed into database entries in some NoSQL database on some spinning disk in some rack in suburban Virginia.

The end-game is this. Slowly, gradually, without realizing: we stop participating in our own lives. We become spectators, checking off life achievements for reasons we do not know. At some point, everything we do is done soley to broadcast these things to casual friends, stalkers, and sycophants.

It’s a profound observation.

Today, I got my first Mayorship badge on FourSquare. But I didn’t know how to feel about it. Was it an actual accomplishment? A momentary boost of ego, sure, but what does it matter a week from now? A month? A year?