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There 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.
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.