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twitter-naziA short time ago, A friend sent a message to me asking for some assistance.  Her teenage daughter was spending more time online than was desirable, and my friend asked if I knew of an app or router setting that could limit her daughter’s usage.  I told my friend I assumed such things existed and that I would do a little research and get back to her.

Turns out I was lying.  I didn’t do any research at all.  Instead I just thought about it for a day, then got back to my friend and said “I think you’re looking for a technological solution to a behavioral problem.  This is a mistake.”

Luckily, my friend had already realized this and had taken appropriate steps.

I see a similar problem all over the Internet.  Specifically in social media.  In a nutshell, social media seems to be heavy on the ‘media’ and light on the ‘social’.

By nature, most humans are not inherently nice.  This is a by-product of being a species that clawed its way to the top of the food chain.  However, we are also very social creatures, so we have had to develop a toolkit we can use so that we can occupy the same spaces without resorting to violence.  And we have done so, in a variety of ways (which I will hereafter refer to collectively as ‘the social contract’).  Unfortunately, this has led the social web to the erroneous conclusion that the social contract springs into existence spontaneously and organically.  It doesn’t.  Rather, the social contract is painstakingly constructed and is constantly renegotiated.  What makes this process possible is the fact that all participants are effectively empowered to enforce the social contract.  The reason people don’t walk into bars and scream obscenities at strangers is that doing so results in paying a real, usually immediate social price.

It is this characteristic that social media glaringly lacks.  In many ways, it actually provides an opposite situation.  In the real world, if a person enters into an ongoing social situation and begins to act belligerently toward the participants, the social group itself will deal with the intruder.  This most often simply manifests itself in the removal of the newcomer.  Sometimes this is managed by someone in authority (the owner of an establishment, or some form of security personnel, for example).  Other times it is handled by the social group themselves (in my experience it almost never necessitates any kind of physical intervention).  Regardless of the particulars, though, it is not the social group that pays the price for the intrusion but rather the intruders themselves.

Not so in social media.  In this case, if an existing social group (say a Twitter discussion thread) is joined by someone inclined to act belligerently, the group has no power to address the situation.  The few tools they are given to use in these situations are woefully insufficient.  Usually they amount to nothing more than some kind of block/mute/ignore function.  Because of this, in social media it is the group that pays the price for an individual’s antisocial behavior, rather the individual causing the problem.

The real-world equivalent would be someone walking into a bar and shouting obscenities, in response to which everyone in the bar simply puts their fingers in their ears and chants “I’m not listening.  I’m not listening.”

Foolishness.  Utter foolishness.  Not least because it would never – ever – work.  There is nothing about this kind of group behavior that in any realistic way would discourage said antisocial behavior.  Quite the opposite, actually.

This is why social media is inherently broken.  And it appears that it’s going to stay broken, because the people who are in a position to fix it show little desire to do so (for various reasons, most of which are money).

Which is why, I’m sorry to say, I have decided to pretty much cease my personal participation in social media.  Not completely – just mostly.  I just don’t find much fun in playing with broken toys.  I’m not deleting any accounts just yet, though, mainly because I have hope that in the future at least some areas of social media will figure this crap out and give the people the tools necessary to enforce the social contract.

This hope is not completely unfounded.  There are some areas of the Internet that have large social components and still manage to have a functioning social contract.  Most notable among these are video games (not all of them, unfortunately).  This typically manifests in the form of some kind of guild/clan system, where the players themselves are given the ability to administer the social contract.  These kind of systems allow for like-minded people to form their own social groups that are subject to a group-determined code of conduct that is enforced by the group.  Just like in the real world.

I’m not suggesting that Facebook or Twitter start using a guild system.  What I’m saying is that those systems prove that social spaces on the Internet can function properly.  All it takes is an awareness of where the actual power in the social contract resides.

So I’ll keep checking in from time to time.


I’ve been using Twitter since late 2008. At first I didn’t think much of it, viewing it (as many people do) as a vehicle through which people share the insipid minutiae of their lives.  But I had enough of a general interest in social media to check it out, so I took it for a spin to see if I liked it.  At first I had trouble “getting” it, and it was very difficult for me to get used to the character limit.  I decided to take this as a challenge and as an opportunity to develop some skills I obviously needed.  Once I got somewhat used to the platform and began to look around, I quickly became enamored.

This is because it wasn’t long before I discovered some of my fellow Map Dorks.  Having easy access to a group of people who shared my love of maps, software and data was a totally new experience for me.  And it was rather thrilling.  The number of Map Dorks I followed grew quickly, and it wasn’t long before I realized that the mapping community was using Twitter as a tool rather than a platform.  It seemed less like being hit by a firehose of the universe’s random verbiage and more like sitting around in a bar at a conference.

I was completely sold the night I tried to follow a tutorial to set up a personal GeoServer map server in my home office.  I couldn’t get it to work, and after trying for a while I got frustrated and gave up.  I tossed a mention of my frustration into the void of my Twitter stream, and before long a guy named Steve sent me a Tweet to see if he could help.  Turned out Steve was the guy who wrote the tutorial, and his initial Tweet turned into a lengthy real-time support session (I don’t think we ever got it running.  The problem was that I thought I was good enough to get it up and running on an early beta version of Windows 7.  I wasn’t).

It was like answering a knock at the door to find a Jedi Knight saying “I felt a disturbance in the Force”.

I was floored by the experience, for a couple of reasons.  First was the sheer power of leveraging Twitter in such a fashion.  I still don’t understand why businesses don’t use Twitter in this manner to provide needed but not necessarily asked for customer support.  Seems to me like it would be a gold mine.

Second was that Steve was a nice enough guy to spend a bunch of his time helping somebody on the Internet that he had never met.  And as I looked back in time (and as I paid attention going forward), I found that Steve wasn’t the only Map Dork out there who behaved this way.  In fact, being open, accessible, helpful and informative turns out to be the norm for Map Dorks.  The reason my experiences with Twitter turned out so differently than other people I knew – the reason my experiences were so overwhelmingly positive – was simply because I had fallen in with good companions.  Because through Twitter I had met a group of people who were using Twitter as a tool to communicate, support, help, share and learn from each other.  In short, we were leveraging Twitter as a vehicle through which we could build a community.

And this process has proven to be ongoing and shows no signs of slowing.  Emily noticed the nature of this community when she started GISTribe.  At least, I assume she did since she chose the word ‘tribe’ rather than ‘committee’ or ‘twitter group’ or some similar nonsense.  GISTribe has done a great deal toward maintaining and growing our online community, as have a slew of channels on Slack.  People too numerous to mention have dedicated and continue to dedicate enormous amounts of their time and energy to the community, and because of it the network keeps growing and the support structure keeps getting stronger.

Like every community, ours sometimes encounters problems.  An incident occurred last week, the details of which I know little about.  I do know there was some teasing (I even participated a bit) and there were some hurt feelings.  While I don’t know the details (as I said), it appears that the entire thing started as a misunderstanding about the nature of this community.  That it is a community of peers (but not the kind that sit in Parliament).

An important, fundamental part of our community is our lack of hierarchy.  As people we are individualists, as professionals we are dedicated to the discipline, and as a group we are egalitarian as fuck.

And we all contribute to the community, as far as we are willing and able.  There are some who contribute more to the community and/or profession than others (some significantly so), and for this the community happily responds with gratitude and respect.  But not by bestowing celebrity.  In an egalitarian community, distinction is applied with an even hand.

As a community, it falls to all of us to maintain the social contract.  To see to it that our discussions are exchanges of ideas rather than hyperbolic assaults.  That our disagreements (even arguments) are differences of opinion rather than contests of will.

Sometimes this isn’t so easy and we screw things up.  But we’re human and we make mistakes so that’s okay.  And sometimes we just can’t make things work.  You may find yourself unable to reconcile your differences with another community member.  This also is okay.  It can and does happen to anyone (it has happened to me more than once).  Sometimes it’s best for the community if some of its members simply avoid contact with one another.  Twitter provides a variety of tools for use in such situations.  Use them, if need be.  The community will benefit.

Lastly, as an egalitarian community the only assigned tasks any of us have are the ones we assign to ourselves.  All other tasks become the responsibility of the group as a whole, and it falls upon all of us to see that they get done.

So what do you say we all grab a broom and clean up this mess so we can move forward?


SithThere was a time – not too long ago – when a new social media contender appeared on the horizon.  It was supposed to be the first real threat to Facebook, and it was called Diaspora (I’m not really sure what they were thinking when they chose the name.  While the word technically can simply mean a scattering of people, it’s common usage implies a scattering that takes place against the people’s will).

At first, Diaspora got a lot of press.  The guys proposing it hyped it as a privacy-minded alternative to Facebook – a social network that wouldn’t sell off our private data to the highest bidder.  This proposal was well received.  The developers asked the world for money for startup costs via Kickstarter.  They initially asked for $10,000.  They ended up receiving more than $200,000.  All this without writing a single line of code.

I watched Diaspora with interest, as it sounded like a fine idea to me.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I thought the world could use an alternative to Facebook.  I was also intrigued by the fact that Diaspora intended their code (when they finally wrote it) to be open source, thereby allowing us to run it ourselves on our own servers if we so desired.

But then Google+ hit the interwebs.  It was immediately given the title of Facebook killer, and it seemed like everybody was talking about G+ for weeks.

And nobody – but nobody – seemed to be talking about Diaspora anymore.  I even asked about it a couple of times, at Google+ as well as at Twitter, but no one seemed to have heard anything from or about Diaspora since Google+ launched.  As far as I could tell, the project seemed to be pretty much dead in the water.

Until Diaspora reappeared, just a couple weeks ago.  I first noticed activity on the official Diaspora Twitter account, shortly after which I received an email inviting me to join in on the beta.  Of course, I did so.

And I have been greatly disappointed.  Not by the software but by its user base.  See, Diaspora had a real shot at the limelight, and if they had just gotten off the pot after they received twenty times the funding they asked for, they may have given Facebook a run for its money.  But Google beat them to the punch, and it was a serious beating.

Fact is, the overwhelming majority of Facebook users are really quite happy with Facebook, warts and all.  When it comes to all the various privacy issues, the average user just doesn’t give a crap.  And for most of those who do give a crap, Google+ serves as a perfectly adequate alternative.

So when Diaspora finally hit the scene, they were no longer the only alternative to Facebook.  In fact, they were now just a feature-poor substitute offered by a relatively unknown company with comparatively no resources at their disposal.

And their pickings were pretty slim.  Of the many, many people who actually want to participate in some form of social network, Facebook had already sewn up the majority of the pie.  Of the remainder, Google+ met the needs and/or desires of all but the most rabidly paranoid of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd, who (sadly) have flocked to Diaspora and claimed it as their own.

As you may have guessed, finding a rational discussion at Diaspora is virtually impossible.  Like previously mentioned Quora, Diaspora’s narrow and esoteric user base has led to Rule By Douchebaggerati.  I have tried a few times to engage people at Diaspora, and the universal response has been attempts to pick fights with me.  Kind of sad and laughable at the same time, especially the latest instance.

Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of the ‘discussion’ at Diaspora revolves around Facebook- and/or Google- bashing.  My latest exposure to extreme douchbaggery occurred when a guy claimed to ‘know’ of Google’s evil, due to the vast amount of ‘research’ he’s done on the subject.  I politely (really – I worked at it) asked him to share his research.

I got no response from the Google scholar, but I did get numerous responses from the rest of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd.  Their eventual consensus was (I’m not kidding) that the ‘truth’ about Google is only meaningful to those who do the research themselves.   Seriously.  One of them even went so far as to reference a series of ‘scholarly’ works on the subject of research and how it only really ‘works’ when we do it for ourselves (I’m not really sure how this works.  How far back along the research trail do we have to go ourselves?  Should I start each day by inventing language?).  So it’s not that they can’t back up their claims, but that they choose not to.  For my own good.  And they were quite happy to explain ad nauseam the reasons for this choice.  I don’t know if they’re intensely dumb or if they just think I am.

Which got me to thinking (about Google, that is).  I have, in fact, wondered about Google.  About whether or not it is evil.  My initial assumption was that it is.  I mean – it stands to reason, doesn’t it?  It’s an enormous, ridiculously wealthy and powerful corporation – how could it not be evil?

Being the kind of guy I am, though, I took the time to look into it.  I figured an enormous, wealthy, powerful evil empire would leave some sort of conclusive, verifiable proof of evildoings.  So I looked for them.  And I didn’t find any.  So I looked harder.  And I still didn’t find any.  So I looked even harder.  And still nothing.

What I found was a company that has made a fortune off of advertising.  One way in which they have done this is by gathering data about their users (us) and selling it to the highest bidder.  As far as I can tell, Google has never tried to hide this.  And while the data they gather (data we freely hand over to them, by the way) is – technically – private data, it’s not private in the way most people think.  Google doesn’t sell our account numbers to anyone.  Nor do they sell our email addresses.  In fact, they don’t sell anything that could be called PII (personally identifiable information).  Not even here in Massachusetts, the home of insanely stringent PII legislation.  The kind of data Google gathers and sells about us is data that we generate but that we don’t generally have a use for ourselves.

Years ago, my mother was a regular participant in the Neilsen Ratings.  Every so often, she would get a package in the mail from Neilsen.  It would contain some forms, a pencil and a ridiculous fee (I’m pretty sure it was $1).  For the following couple of weeks, she would religiously (and painfully honestly) record every television program watched in our household.  When the forms were completed, she would send them back to Neilsen.  The idea behind this was to find out what shows people were actually watching so that programming and advertising dollars could be spent appropriately.  I don’t know if the system actually worked, but it came close enough to make all involved happy.

This is the sort of data Google gathers.  The kind of data advertisers really care about, but that is not terribly meaningful to most of us average users.

And Google doesn’t force this upon us.  If you don’t want to give them your personal data, all you have to do is refrain from using their products and services.  There are other search engines out there.  There are other email providers (actually, if you want to use Gmail but don’t want Google to gather your personal information while you do so, all you have to do is pay for it.  It’s the free version that gets paid for though data).  On the other hand, if you’re willing to let Google gather and use your personal data, all those products and services are the payment you receive for the deal.

The other thing I found in my travels is scores – no, hundreds (possibly even thousands) of people who know that Google is evil.  They know because they’ve seen proof.  They’ve walked the walk, they’ve done the research, and they know – beyond doubt – that Google is The Evil Empire.  And every time I have encountered one of these people I have made the same simple request:  that they share this knowledge with me.

Not a single one of them has done so.  In fact, most of them get quite angry as part of the process of not doing so.  Usually I get told how painfully obvious it is – how the universe is practically littered with the proof of it – but no one has actually gone so far as to show me the proof they profess to have, or point me to the proof they profess to have seen.  Other times (like the recent one mentioned above) I get lengthy justifications as to why they are not sharing what they know (always that they are not – never that they cannot.  An important distinction).

At first I wondered if Google was just that good at covering up their evildoing.  They’d have to be better at it than the CIA (who’ve been eating and drinking cover-up for generations), but that wouldn’t be impossible.  Just unlikely.

But that didn’t make sense in light of all the people who have seen evidence of Google’s wrongdoing (they have!  Really!).  Instead, it would mean that of all those people, not one of them was willing to put their money where their mouth is (I mean, they’re all able to, right?  It’s that they’re not willing to).  Of all those people who know how evil Google is, not a single one of them is willing to produce any real proof of it.  Not a single conclusive, verifiable piece of evidence.  Not one.

Of course, the other possibility is that they’re all a bunch of asshats and Google is just a legitimate business.


In my time, I’ve seen my share of Zombie films.  Some of them I’ve enjoyed (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), some I’ve actively disliked (28 Days Later), and many others have fallen somewhere in between.  Until recently, though, there was one aspect of zombie films that confused me greatly:  I couldn’t figure out why zombies displayed a form of social cohesion.

I mean – we’re talking about mindless, shambling, ravenous, flesh-eating monsters here.  Why do they run in packs?  Why do they work together?  Why, I wondered, do they cooperate?

It just seemed inexplicable that zombies would exhibit a tendency to strive toward a common goal.  I expected more anarchy and less teamwork from the shambling masses.  Just the other day, however, I began to understand the complexities of zombie social dynamics.  Unsurprisingly, this onset of comprehension coincided with my latest foray into the seedy underside of the Social Web.

It occurred to me that zombies were not born zombies but were, in fact, once human.  Therefore, their behavior patterns (both within the narrative and without) would logically fall into line with normal human behavior patterns.  And most humans, I think, are less likely to form a community and more likely to form a mob.  You know – a large group of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.

I take a great interest in the Social Web.  On some level, I guess you could say I am a student of it.  Because of this, I am quick to study any new movement/website/idea of the ilk that comes down the road.  This often results in membership and a trial of the newest fad, but not always (see my posts on Facebook.  Sometimes my research shows me that membership is a step I’m unwilling to take).  The Social Web is not terribly different from many other aspects of life – sometimes the best way to get to know it is to just take a deep breath and dive in.

Which is what I did with the latest fad to appear on my radar: Quora.  Quora bills itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  On the surface, this sounds like a good idea (unfortunately, the reality is nothing of the sort.  The general consensus over at Quora seems to be that ideas need to be edited in order to have value.  It’s more like the Ministry of Truth than the Social Web).  So I joined, looked around a bit, then posted a question.  I checked back now and again over a week or so, until I found that someone had edited my question.  Curious as to what I had misspelled, I went to have a look, and discovered that an entire paragraph had been removed.  This made me wonder about the person who had done the editing, so I clicked upon his name to check out his profile.  What I saw disturbed me a bit.  The profiles on Quora show users’ activities on the site.  Specifically, the numbers of questions asked, answers given and edits provided by the user.  This particular user had asked 6 questions, given 8 answers, and provided 1,122 edits (you read those numbers correctly).

Naturally, I assumed I was dealing with some sort of Quora troll.  Being the fan of crowdsourcing that I am (see any of my posts discussing OpenStreetMap), I leapt to the erroneous conclusion that the community’s ability to edit each others’ questions was geared toward fixing errors (like spelling and/or grammar).  It never occurred to me that other users would feel free to radically alter the content of a question.  Such behavior would seem to negate the point of posting questions at all.  How could you expect to get answers to a question if anyone could easily change its meaning?

So I posted a couple more questions to Quora.  The first simply asked if the user base was aware of this sort of thing (it turns out that they were.  Worse – they approve of it).  The second (which, of the two, I thought was less likely to offend) asked whether Quora should have more robust filters in place.  Since Quora provides space to further elaborate, I used it to describe the aforementioned troll and my desire to automatically block such users.

Enter the horde of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.  I was stunned by the vitriolic response my second question inspired.  While I am quite aware of the speed with which any group of humans will mutate into the Howling Mob (there’s a reason they make us read Lord of the Flies in school), I am often caught off guard by the seeming innocuous things that serve as catalyst.  I forget that the average human is a quivering mass of insecurities, and that their desperate need to belong often causes them to lash out at any perceived threat against the pony to which they’ve hitched their wagon.

As you probably know, this is not the first time I have encountered the Howling Mob online.  In fact, it seems to happen to me with alarming frequency.  Considering my own personality type, this is hardly surprising and it doesn’t actually bother me.

It did get me to wondering, though.  Since human nature is what it is, and since every aspect of the Social Web is necessarily teeming with humans, why is it that I’ve never been assaulted by the Howling Mob at my particular favorite corner of the Social Web:  Twitter?  What is it about Twitter that makes it so different from my other experiences with the Social Web?

Of course, this launched a discussion on Twitter.  After much discussion and even more thought, I think I finally figured out what the difference is:  it’s a question of exposure.  See, Quora does new users the disservice of immediately throwing them into the middle of the mob, there to claw their way to whatever position they can attain (Quora is by no means alone in this behavior.  In fact, most of the Social Web functions this way.  Just look at the stats and/or titles attached to users in any forum/group/site on the internet).  Just like in high school, newcomers are forced to find their way in an environment where all the social lines have been drawn and all the camps have been populated, their leadership positions filled.  Sometimes online communities can be open and accepting of new members.  Usually, though, the Lord of the Flies mentality prevails.

Twitter does it differently.  When you first join Twitter, you enter into their universe all alone, and you remain alone until you do something about it.  Until you start following other users, the mob doesn’t really know you exist.  And because you choose who you do and do not interact with on Twitter, the mob only enters into your life if you invite it (I’m pretty sure Facebook works in a very similar fashion, but I‘m not positive.  For obvious reasons).

Something else that sets Twitter apart is its general lack of score-keeping.  As far as I know, Twitter tracks precisely three things:  how many people you follow, how many people follow you, and how many times you have ‘Tweeted’ (posted a message).  And that’s it (again, I think Facebook is similar in this).  While this information is tracked and is accessible, it doesn’t appear as though Twitter actually does anything with it.  There never comes a time when you are ‘Super-Followed’ or become a ‘Global Tweeter’.

Herein lie the important differences.  The small area of the Social Web that works for me is the one where the group I spend time amongst is a group of my choosing.  More importantly, it’s the area where people aren’t necessarily trying to prove anything.  Where it’s more about connecting and communicating than about score-keeping and imagined popularity.

So thanks but no thanks, Quora.  If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on your Howling Mob and just stick with my neighborhood pub.

Internet Kill Switch

As you probably know, Egypt has been going through some crazy political shit as of late.  In a nutshell, the general populace of Egypt decided they weren’t very happy with their sitting government.  In fact, they pretty much concluded that they would prefer it to be a getting up and running away government.

Mubarak, of course, felt differently about this.  Being a reigning scumbag is rather habit-forming, and he obviously desired to keep his personal status as quo as possible.  Toward this end, he thought it would be a good idea to prevent his people from talking to each other.  This, to his thinking, was the crux of the problem – as soon as any group of Egyptians started talking together, the conversation invariably turned to everything that was wrong with Mubarak’s regime.

The solution was elegant in its simplicity.  To stop the conversations, all he had to do was plug the pipes.  To accomplish this, he turned off the internet in Egypt.  In response to which Egypt – well – exploded.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about Tahrir Square.

When all was said and done, Mubarak was out of power and Egypt began a series of political seizures that still haven’t finished playing out.

After watching these events unfold, some members of our political leadership started to revisit the idea of a U.S. government-controlled internet kill switch.  Seriously.  And these people are running the show.  What were we thinking?

Of course, this idea has surfaced before.  The rationalization is that the government may someday have to shut down the internet in the interest of National Cybersecurity (leaving aside the reality that by the time our government actually became aware of such a need it would be far too late).  I haven’t heard an explanation as to why the government would need to shut down the entire internet to achieve this, rather than just their pieces of it.  I assume this is simply because no one who works for our government actually knows anything about the internet, but it could be that they just don’t want to admit that the only real use for an internet kill switch is the one Mubarak employed.

The problem here in the U.S. is that We The People have all those pesky Constitutional rights.

When the Founding Drunkards were drawing up the documents that rule our lives, they produced a Constitution, which they swiftly followed with the Bill of Rights.  There was much arguing over the Bill of Rights (specifically, whether there should even be one), but eventually the majority decided that the document should be ratified.

It is curious that the Constitution – the document intended to serve as the foundation of our nation – was so quickly amended.  Not once but ten times.  It could be that they wanted to drive home the point that the Constitution is meant to be amended.  It’s the whole idea behind the document – that it be something that can change and grow along with the change and growth of the United States of America.

I also think it’s possible that the Bill of Rights was the Framers’ way of saying:  “These are the big ones, folks.  If you don’t have these freedoms, then you are not free.”

I bring this up because I think it’s important to note that an internet kill switch would be seriously flirting with infringing on our Constitutional rights.  Specifically in relation to the First Amendment.

You thought I was talking about Freedom of Speech (more exactly, Freedom of Expression), didn’t you?  Well, I’m not (although that argument could be made).

No, I’m talking about another First Amendment right:  Freedom of Assembly.  This, my friends, is what we do with the internet:  we assemble.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace – just to name some of the big guns – for many people, these are the internet.  These days, it seems more and more that the internet exists solely to give Social Media a place to hang out.  In case you haven’t noticed, what most of us do with the internet is connect, reconnect, and stay connected with each other.

You see, the Drunkards were well educated folks.  They had read their history and were quite aware that most revolutions begin in pubs.  They were also aware that this is not due to the presence of alcohol (although it certainly doesn’t hurt).  The reason drinking establishments so often serve as birthplaces for insurrection is that they are public venues where people are able to come together and speak openly.  Where We The People can assemble to discuss our grievances.

Which is precisely what Mubarak feared and tried to stop.  He wasn’t just trying to keep people from talking – he was trying to keep them from talking to each other.

anonymous There is an old, informal anthropological term that has always amused me:  Bongo-Bongoism.  A Bongo-Bongoism is the refutation of any argument by asserting:  “Well, the Bongo-Bongo do it differently” (where ‘Bongo-Bongo’ is replaced with your obscure culture of choice).  This is usually employed by an anthropologist who feels a need to underline the fact that there are blessed few characteristics shared by all cultures.  If I remember correctly, there are 2:  language and incest taboos (some cultures actually do allow for incest, but only in special cases, like for royalty.  Kind of asking for it, leadership-wise).

Until fairly recently, Bongo-Bongoism was well on its way to fading into obscurity.  Even among anthropologists, the ability to give a crap about such nit-picking was on the fast track to obliteration.

But then, of course, the mantle got picked up by the Internet Douchebaggerati (with a hefty assist from Wikipedia).  You know the type – the ones who think their pathological devotion to irrelevant detail will convince the world that they have an above-average intellect, are physically quite attractive, and probably play a musical instrument.  Update:  I just realized why the Douchebaggerati adopted Bongo-Bongoism.  Amongst the Douchebaggerati there are three basic cultures (with many sub-cultures):  Windows, Mac and Linux.  These cultures love to reverse the anthropological process and point to themselves, saying something like “If you used a Mac, you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”  Different ground rules, but still just as stupid.

I bring this up because one such Douchebag resorted to Bongo-Bongoism in a recent discussion of anonymity.  You know – that tired old Facebook crap again.  And the same old bullshit idea came up:  “We have a right to anonymity.”

Um… no.  No we don’t.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that it’s by design.

Here’s the basic difference – Privacy is about personal identity and information and (more importantly) exercising control over personal identity and information.  Anonymity is the lack of personal identity and information.  It’s the difference between unknown and unknowable.

True anonymity is pretty rare in modern society.  The illusion of anonymity, however, is fairly common.  For example, life in an urban setting certainly seems to be anonymous.  It’s quite easy to feel anonymous when walking down the street in the average city.  However, this feeling of anonymity is not a true one.  It’s far closer to apathy than anonymity.  It’s not that the city cannot identify you, it’s that it doesn’t care to.

The same can be said for much of the internet.  While it may feel anonymous, it really isn’t.  Computers are really quite honest and forthcoming when they talk to each other.  Anonymity can be achieved on the internet, but it isn’t easy.  And, for the most part, it’s unnecessary.  Most people don’t really care if they’re anonymous on the internet, and for those who do care, usually the illusion of anonymity is enough.

And I’m pretty sure that modern society depends upon a certain lack of anonymity in order to function.  Allow me to explain:

Human beings are not, by nature, moral creatures.  In fact, most are rather immoral (amoral at best).  In short, the average person is lying, thieving, raping, murderous scum, and the only thing keeping them in line is the threat of retribution.  Don’t believe me?  Just take a look at any situation in human history in which the rules were removed.  Wars.  Riots.  Blackouts.  To a much smaller degree, pay heed to the fashion in which most people behave while driving.  Do you think they’d act like that if they met you face-to-face in the street?  The internet serves equally well as an example of how-people-would-never-dare-act-if-their-noses-were-actually-within-reach.

The sad truth is that most people will only treat their fellow human beings with dignity and respect if they are forced to.  The upside is that forcing them to do so is usually pretty easy.  In most cases, all it takes is the lingering threat that someone may be watching.

And don’t think for an instant that the Founding Drunkards were unaware of this.  They were very (personally) cognizant of the depths of human debauchery, and I’m sure they were also quite aware of the ease with which the average person is controlled from without (far easier than instilling control from within).  I daresay there are damn good reasons the Founding Paragraphs don’t mention privacy or anonymity.  Society functions rather more smoothly if people feel a little more personally accountable.

Believe me, folks.  If real anonymity were to become commonplace and/or easily achieved in modern society, it would spell the end of civilization as we know it.  Because civilization really is just a very thin coat of manners painted onto a bunch of angry barbarians.



Those of you who read my last post know that I’ve been having some odd experiences with Facebook as of late.  Wave after wave of my real-world friends have been ‘friending’ me at Facebook, despite the fact that I do not now have, nor have I ever had, a Facebook page.  At first this was interesting, then it moved to comical, eventually graduating into the surreal.

Last night, though, it took a turn into the disturbing.

Like most people, I have multiple email accounts. Of the accounts I have, I use two extensively.  I separate these two into my ‘personal’ account and my ‘professional’ account, although there is a certain amount of overlap.  My first Facebook invite came to my ‘personal’ email – years ago – from my friend Jackie.  I declined and never thought much about it.  Later, I received another Facebook invite, also from a friend and also through my ‘personal’ email.  Because I had once received an invitation from Jackie, this new invite reminded me of the fact that Jackie had done so.  And this has been the way of it.  Each successive Facebook invitation I receive includes mention of all Facebook invitations gone before.  This makes perfect sense to me.

Last night, though, I received a new Facebook invitation.  This one was different than the others – for one thing, it arrived in my ‘professional’ email, a first for Facebook invitations.  Another oddity is that this was from someone I’ve never heard of.  The invitation mentioned five other Facebookites, suggesting that I might also like to peruse their pages.  One of these five was yet another person of whom I have never heard.  The other four are all people I know.

And this is where it gets disturbing.  While I know all four of those people, they do not know each other.  In fact, they only have two things in common:  they all have a Facebook page, and they’re all listed in my contacts. This means that someone is comparing my contact list to Facebook membership.  To make matters worse, this email account is my Gmail account.

Before you start making suggestions, allow me to answer some concerns.  There is no virus or trojan or worm or malware of any kind involved here.  I run a very tight ship, and I know that my system is clean.  Also, I don’t use any sort of Gmail-pimping browser extensions, simply because I feel that they entail unacceptable security risks.

So the logical conclusion is that someone is giving Facebook access to my contacts, as well as the freedom to peruse them at will.  And since this is my Gmail account, I think we all know where to point our fingers.

Shall we talk about privacy yet again?



Updated – see below.

Earlier today, as on most days, I was minding my own business and checking   my email.  The first of today’s messages was from Facebook, asking me if I wanted to check out my friend Pete’s Facebook page. This did not surprise me in any way, for it is far from the first such message I have received from Facebook (nor is it the first that mentioned Pete).  Every so often, Facebook drops me a line to see if I would like to be friends with – well – my friends.  I assume this is just a result of some part of the Facebook process, probably my friends occasionally search Facebookia to see if I’m wandering about the hinterlands or some-such.  Ostensibly, my email address gets batted around as part of this process.

To be honest, this set of circumstances doesn’t bother me.  Up ’til now it has only been an occasional, minor annoyance.  And since it apparently originates from someone who is, in fact, my friend, I don’t mind in the least.

Today, however, my inbox was inundated by Facebook fallout.  And it wasn’t the usual ‘invitation’ type crap.  Today, I received a series of ten additional emails, each informing me that one of my friends (many of them far-flung) has added me as a friend on Facebook (in order:  Chris, Scott, John, Susie, Bob, Patty, Drew, Frank, Barb and Ted).  All of these seemed to be the sort of message Facebook sends when one Facebookite attaches themself to another Facebookite.  The strangeness arises from the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Facebookite.  And since these emails arrived in a cluster, I started to wonder whether someone had set up a Facebook page in my name.  Following a link, though, just led to a page asking me to sign up for Facebook.

In the end, it seems as though it simply amounts to an odd but (mostly) harmless Facebookian glitch.  For some reason, the latest invitation that came my way in Pete’s name must have raised flags at everyone else’s page, in response to which they ‘friended’ (a curiously bizarre verb) me (not, in fact, the case.  See below).

So this is largely an open letter/response to Pete, Chris, Scott, John, Susie, Bob, Patty, Drew, Frank, Barb and Ted (and Ellyn, Jeff, Lisa, Doug, Peter and David.  And Steve and Dylan and Wendy. See below).  To start with: thanks, folks.  It’s nice to get occasional reminders who your friends are (not that I had any doubts).  Facebook, however, doesn’t figure into my version of the universe.

Not that I have anything against Facebook.  I mean – I know that there are a variety of security concerns (and I seem to hear about a new one every week or so), but they’re not the sort of security concerns that actually – well – concern me.  Read back a few posts and you’ll learn everything you need to know about my views of security on the internet.  In a nutshell, there’s no such thing as security on the internet.  This doesn’t bother me, though, because I know it and I behave accordingly.

In fact, I’m rather partial toward Facebook.  I’ve known more than one person who was reunited with an old, absent friend via Facebook.  From the looks of it, Facebook seems to be a corner of the Social Web that actually has something to offer adults.  I view this as a real, valuable service.  I’ve also heard that Facebook functions well as a form of ‘One-Stop Shopping’ when it comes to keeping up with your friends (this from Drew, who is usually actively and openly hostile toward technology in virtually any form).  So it’s not like I have anything against Facebook – it’s just that I, personally, don’t do it.

Why?  Mainly because I just don’t have the time.  I am an obsessive dork, and the last thing I need is one more web app to suck up my time.  But it’s not just the fact that Facebook is part of the ‘Social Web’ that’s stopping me.  I am not, in fact, afraid of the ‘Social Web’.  If you look in the sidebar (and/or if you read previous posts), you’ll see that I’m a fan of Twitter, another biggie on the ‘Social Web’ hit parade.  I have turned my scrutiny upon the ‘Social Web’, and in the end I chose to frequent only Twitter, because it just plain fits my lifestyle best.  And I’m not just repeating what I’ve mentioned previously.

You see, Twitter is the neighborhood bar of the ‘Social Web’.  It’s a ‘Web 2.0’ Boston-based sitcom.  It’s a warm, comfortable place where you are known and welcome, but not particularly obligated.  Signing on to Twitter is very much like walking into your neighborhood bar – you walk in, sit down, order a beer and look around.  You can talk to anyone else present – if you’re of a mind – but no one will be upset if you just sit in silence and enjoy your beer.  It’s a place remarkably devoid of expectations, except in the case of manners.  And you’re generally forgiven your stupidity, so long as you don’t abuse the privilege.

As I said, Twitter fits my lifestyle (and my attitude) quite well.  So I think that – for now, at least – I’ll stick with Twitter as my app of choice for the ‘Social Web’.  This may change in the future, but in the mean time feel free to stop by at any time.  I’ll be sitting at the bar, and I’ll save a stool for you.


Update: Today has added six (now 9) more to the list of those who have ‘friended’ me at Facebook (Ellyn, Jeff, Lisa, Doug, Peter and David.  And Steve and Dylan and Wendy.).  I also got an e-mail back from Pete, who informed me that he had simply sent along an invitation, along with a list of people he thought I’d be interested in ‘friending’.  He did not, however, send my e-mail address to any of them.  This means that Facebook did so.  Shall we talk about privacy, anonymity and internet security?  Keep in mind that I am not a member of Facebook, so I never agreed to any of their terms.  I’m willing to bet that this means they most certainly do not have the right to play fast and loose with my e-mail address.  Of course, e-mail addresses are probably – technically – public knowledge (like street addresses), so this sort of thing likely happens all the time.  Still, I’d rather Facebook asked my permission before tossing my e-mail address around like their personal plaything (this also makes me very happy that I don’t have a Facebook page.  I wonder how little respect they have for the personal information of people who have agreed to their TOA?).

The more important implications here are the metaphysical ones (as My Darling Wife was quick to point out).  My non-existent Facebook page now has 16 (19) friends.  Does this lend it a semblance of an existence?  In much the fashion that belief lends existence to small gods, elves and faeries, has life been breathed into my Frankenstein-like Facebook page because 16 (19) people now genuinely believe in its existence?


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August 2020