Archives For social media

grumpy cat

Some days I read stories about machine learning being deployed to fight crime, exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again, or supercomputers modeling new spacecraft, and feel very lucky to be in my current profession. Computers changed the world, and the discipline behind making these computers work is based around the egalitarian concept of tinkering. You need electricity and a little bit of money to get started, true, but the path from wanting to build something useful to doing it has never been more straightforward or shorter. Anyone with enough dedication can make something from scratch, even without formal training, though it’s highly recommended for those who want to become professionals. And then, other days I read about things like Peeple, the app that lets you review other humans, currently valued at $7.6 million, and groan that what people like me do is both helping the world while slowly ruining it by letting awful ideas like this spawn into existence with little effort. Because there’s no way this can possibly end well…

Just consider that out of a hundred people who read something online, just one might respond, or somehow interact with the content. People are not going to go through the effort of creating usernames, passwords, and e-mail or social media verification unless they are really motivated to do so. And when are people most motivated? When they’re upset or are expecting a reward in return for their trouble. Consider that when a business is in the news for an ugly misdeed, its pretty much a given that the first thing to happen to them will be angry torrents of one-star Yelp reviews which the admins of the have to clean up. It’s not going to be any different with people, and whereas businesses are just legal entities that can be re-branded or ran by someone new which would give them the benefit of the doubt, a person is a person, and reviews about him or her will be around for years, no matter whether this person turned a new leaf, or the reviews for past bad behavior are actually legitimate complaints, a misunderstanding, or just malicious, and it’s likely that negativity will quickly trump whatever positive feedback the apps encourage.

As an example, take last year’s flash in the smartphone app pan Lulu, which allowed women to rate men as sexual partners. Negative reviews vastly outnumbered the positive ones, and while the app’s goal may have been helping women to avoid selfish partners and bad dates, it turned into a place for women to complain about men they didn’t like. I’m sure that the same exact app made for men to rate women would have the same results. For Peeple to really be any different would require human beings to fundamentally change how they interact with each other. And to add to the unpleasantness of dealing with judgmental, demanding, and hypersensitive people in the real world, all their unfiltered, nasty remarks now have a megaphone and are searchable by future romantic partners, landlords, and employers who have only these strangers’ opinions as their introduction to you. Have the creators of Peeple or Lulu thought whether it would be better for all of us if someone could type in a name and in an instant see our sexual history, a laundry list of opinions and complaints about us by friends and strangers alike on top of everything that already was made public about our lives through social media, or the potential for abuse?

We live at a time when revenge porn and social media turned leaked sex tapes and nudes into quaint mishaps and you have to develop a strategy to deal with your most intimate details in an enormous data dumpof millions of others’ most intimated details and fantasies. Isn’t that a sign that we’ve taken this social media thing far enough? When banks are mulling the idea of giving you loans based on your friends’ social media profiles, and employers are poking around your tweets and Instagram pictures, do you need to give malicious hackers or exploitative friends an additional way to take advantage of you? Even worse, just think about the fact that a third of all reviews on the web are likely to be fake and imagine a future where you have to buy a positive review bundle to offset nastiness said about you on Peeple, or make up a small horde of really, really satisfied and vocal sexual partners on a Lulu follow-up, which would be inevitable when a people rating app catches on. The bottom line is that apps that let you rate people like products are a textbook example of why being able to do something doesn’t mean you should, without a second thought about the potential consequences of what you’re unleashing on the world.

reddit aliens

Gawker really has it out for reddit and has for years. Blithely ignoring the many millions of users who’ll browse everything from makeup tips and funny pictures of animals, to relationship advice and startup ideas, engaging in perfectly civil exchanges of stories and perspectives, every post they publish goes after a small, seedy underbelly of the enormous site and pretends that every single subreddit is full of nothing but racists, bigots, misogynists, and trolls. From the very same site which slut-shamed a punchline of a politician it didn’t like, published celebrity revenge porn, and in general behaves like the TMZ of social media, recently came a high and mighty treatise of a man whose poor soul can’t bear to enjoy a million programmers trading tips on a site which can’t shut down recurring white supremacist forums with thousands of subscribers. Right. As all of us who spent any time on the internet know, deleting stuff on the web once means it forever vanished, never to return. It’s not like the white supremacists of reddit just set up new subs and new alts every time they get banned or their subreddits get shut down. Oh wait, they do.

Really, not only does Gawker seem to be willfully unable to understand how large websites for sharing user-generated content work, which is suspicious enough, but it also used this sudden moral epiphany as a prelude to their conspiracy theory about Pao’s outster as CEO. As usual, I wouldn’t trust Nick Denton to report that two plus two still equals four without fact-checking it on my own, so my very strong recommendation would be to take this reddit bashing as simply one more hypocritical salvo at a site he uses as a punching bag and a repository of scandals when his existing well runs dry. Directing users to the very worst of an enormous set of forums just to pretend that the entire community is like that, or prime readers to go into the site looking for an evil bigoted misogynist to fight only sets them up for a terrible experience. Jezebel will tell you a swarm of MRAs trawl the site looking for any excuse to post something awful about women and yes, you’ll find a few every once in a while. What it conveniently omits is that they will quickly get voted down into oblivion, their offending comments requiring action on your part to view.

This pattern applies to homophobes, racists, and every other kind of bigot. Among hundreds of millions of voices, the statistical probability of running into some user with regressive or hateful opinions he or she is proud to voice is high enough to be a certainty. There are simply way too many people surfing the site to avoid it. However, they’re either a punchline or a subject of very vocal derision among the biggest, most trafficked, and most visible subreddits, which is why the average reddit MRA, or white supremacist, or homophobe, has to stick to small communities in which he could preach to his choir. He’ll be run out of any other one. Could reddit delete these evil subreddits then? If they’re aware of what they’re currently being called, yes. But think about it from the following perspective: why should they? They’ll just come back. Hate is like a zombie, its only urge is to perpetuate itself through assaults on the rest of us. Deleting a subreddit that’s dedicated to insulting women like r/redpill is not going to make the misogynists within suddenly have an epiphany and recant their tracts on why women should be abused and manipulated. It will just give them another annoyance in life to blame on women. Same idea with racists.

Sure, we can employ armies of moderators in the Philippines who are getting PTSD from trying to fight humanity’s darkest impulses on the web, and keep hitting the delete button. Then, we’d pat ourselves on the back for creating “safe spaces” with the mentally scarring work of a digital day labor sweatshop that will have to continue in perpetuity to keep them that way, and pretend that after sanitizing a few big sites we now live in a post-racial, gender-equal, sex-positive world where the sun is always shining and the clouds are a fluffy virgin white. This is what Europe has done with its criminal statutes against racist and bigoted speech. It still has just as many racists and bigots as ever, and its policies still encourage subtle but constant segregation between the natives and immigrants advocated by very popular right wing parties. Censoring hate speech is not doing them any favors and neither will it for reddit, or even Americans at large. When we let those with regressive, archaic, and downright repugnant viewpoints speak their minds, they will never be able to claim the mantle of free speech martyrs speaking truth to power. 

They will just self-identify as people with whom we don’t want to associate and let the hate filling their minds speak for itself. It won’t be “safe” or “respectful,” but it will let us know exactly where we stand as a society in regards to race, gender, and sexual attitudes. We can police the most egregious, threatening, and out of control hatred because we do need a mechanism to prevent hate form turning into real world violence, and either censor our way to deluding ourselves into thinking that we’ve done away with bigotry and hate, or choose to face the harsh truth. We can choose to be mad at reddit for not playing whack-a-mole with its worst members, or we can be happy that among the tens of millions of members, these tens of thousands are pariahs whose fanatical hatred is mocked, downvoted, and chased from subreddits they try to infest, limited to the very fringes where they’re constantly ostracized from the outside. And we can even use the hateful content they generate as a perfect counterpoint to the raving ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s cousin’s uncle on Facebook preaching that there’s no such thing as racism anymore with a few links showing racists he claims don’t exist celebrating behaviors he claims are no more…

facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]

metal gear solid surgeon

Remember the big news that an Italian surgeon was dead set on performing a head transplant on a human received an enthusiastic volunteer? Well, that story just got really, really weird this week, and yes, there is something more bizarre than an attempt at putting one person’d head on another person’s body. According to a conspiracy theory born on reddit and investigated by several gaming sites, Dr. Canavero might actually be doing this as a marketing stunt for Metal Gear Solid 5 from Konami. Not the surgery of course, but talking about it and getting the press worked up just so game designer Hideo Kojima can unveil his latest game. Some outlets wrote about this story in their usual fashion, omitting the steak for the sizzle, and missing the fact that people actually did ask Canavero head-on — hey, you try to resist when appropriate puns write themselves — about this, and not only did he deny the rumors, but promised to sue Konami for using his likeness without authorization and use the winnings to fund his research.

Of course this lawsuit is unlikely to go anywhere because according to a Belgian site for MGS, the doctor in the game bearing an uncanny resemblance to Canavero is actually Ian Moore, a UK-born actor based in Japan, who was definitely aware of the game, and was more than likely compensated for his appearance. That Moore and Canavero look so similar that they could be mistaken for brothers, surely wouldn’t be Konami’s concern according to the courts. Likewise, according to the gamers who spotted the similarity, MGS features a plot line about a surgeon performing a head transplant on Snake, but there’s no official word on whether this is the case, just a teaser in which some fans concluded this is what they were glimpsing. Kojima, known for teasing his fans, has only doused the flames in kerosine with a tweet of headless Snake bodies widely open to interpretation, and saying that the game deals with “taboo” topics.

Here’s my guess at what may be happening. One scenario is that Kojima was very aware of the controversial surgeon and is basically trolling the living hell out of Metal Gear Solid fans with all this teasing in which he winks, nudges, but never provides any real specifics, and wanted to do that from the start. The other possibility I see is very similar to it, but in which Kojima caught the TED talk by Canavero, made the connection between something important in his game, like say the question of giving Snake a robot body or whatnot, and decided to run with it to get free viral marketing done by game reporters. Finally, he could have changed a plot point in development and if there were no head transplants in MGS, there will be now. It wouldn’t be the first time the web ceased on some coincidence, spun an elaborate conspiracy theory, and inspired some big changes. But the bottom line is that Kojima definitely knows how to market games and if even a little pop sci blog like this is talking about his latest creation, that’s just proof of his talent…

surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…

server connections

One of the most frequently invoked caricatures about computer illiteracy involves some enraged senior citizen demanding that something he finds offensive or objectionable is deleted from the internet because we all know that once something is out on the web, it’s out there until there are no more humans left anywhere. This is actually kind of cool. We’re a civilization that’s leaving a detailed, minute by minute account of who we are, what we did, and how we did it, mistakes and flaws included, in real time, and barring some calamity, hundreds of years from now, there could well be a real web archaeologist looking at your Facebook profile as part of a study. But that’s also kind of scary to EU bureaocrats so they’re arguing for a kind of right to forget for the web, a delete by date for every piece of content out there. This way, if you say or do something stupid when you’re young, it won’t come back to bite you in your future career or social interactions. It seems like a good, and very helpful idea. Too bad it’s pretty much technically impossible.

Sure, you or someone could delete a certain file on cue from a server. But the web isn’t ran on just one server and all major sites nowadays run in a cloud, which means that their data leads a nomadic life and had been replicated hundreds if not thousands of times over, and not only for caching and backups, but also for the purposes of anycasting. Without anycasting, getting your data from the cloud could be a miserable experience because if you’re in LA and the server that hosts your data is in say, Sydney, there’s going to be a lot of latency as it’s traveling through an underwater fiber pipe thousand of miles long. But if the closest data center is in Palo Alto, there will be a lot less territory for the data to cover and you’ll get your data much faster. Though this means that the same compromising picture, or post, or e-mail is living in both data centers. And on their backups. And in their caches. Oh, and all the other "edge servers" in all the other data centers used by the website’s cloud, directly or through third party arrangements.

Additionally, marking each piece of data with a self-destruct feature is very problematic. If data can be marked for deletion, it could easily be un-marked, and knowing that all data now has its use-by timestamp will mean a lot of very painful and expensive changes for the databases and the data centers expected to support this functionality. Putting a price tag of a few billion dollars on this sort of rewiring is probably very optimistic, and even then, it’s a certainty that a hacker could disable the self-destruct mechanism and keep your data forever. Likewise, what if you do want to keep a certain picture or e-mail forever for its sentimental value and lose track of it? Will you still be able to stumble on it years later and relive the precious moment? Yes, embarrassing stuff on the web for the foreseeable future and beyond is a big deal, but there is a purely non- technical solution to it. Think twice before posting, and understand that everybody has done an embarrassing thing or two hundred in the past, and will continue to do them in the future.

In five to ten years, we would’ve been living online for roughly two decades and seen generation after generation enmesh themselves into social media with mixed results. Barring something far too alarming to ignore, like current proud and vocal bigotry, someone’s past missteps shouldn’t be held against them. We’ll eventually forget that the pictures or posts or e-mails are even there and when we unearth them again, we’ll be dealing with a totally different person more often than not, so we can laugh them off as old mistakes not worth rehashing because that’s exactly what they are. The current legal tooth-gnashing about the eternal life of digital information is coming up because this is all new to the middle aged lawyers and senior judges who have been used to being able to hide and forget their youthful indiscretions and being unable to find out anything of potential shock value about someone’s past without digging for it on purpose. Generations used to a life in public are almost bound to have a very different, much more forgiving view.


Recently, word got out that a major defense contractor has been working on Riot, an application that tracks people across the web to figure out what they’re doing, and give those using it some sort of an idea of their routine. In the demonstration video, an employee is accurately placed as a morning gym rat who can be found on a treadmill at 6 am, should anyone want to ambush him with a warrant or start trailing him for one reason or another. Sounds kind of creepy, huh? It’s a massive computer system that knows where people are, their friends, and gives faceless agents of various three letter entities a deep look into their lives. But of course there’s a caveat to how scary Riot really is and that caveat should worry you, the average internet user, a lot more than anything that can be done by Riot. For all its predictive and tracking abilities, Riot can only use public data, data you shared with social media sites which can be read with an RSS feed. So the efficacy of Riot is essentially based on its victim rather than a backdoor into his digital life.

Don’t want yourself targeted by Riot or whatever Riot 2.0 is being cooked up? Keep as much as you can off Facebook and make sure you and your friends stay on top of your current security settings. Turn off any automatic geolocation services on your smartphones and on your favorite social media sites and clients, and don’t check in on any of them. This would make you virtually invisible to the application. You’d be little more than an occasional blip on the radar which isn’t all that easy to decipher. Now, if Riot was able to crack your passwords or install a backdoor into your social media accounts and your phone, then you’d have to start worrying. But what I saw in the demos shows a sales pitch for an automated way to do something many intelligence agency analysts can do by hand nowadays and reliant on internet savvy but security naive users to do much of the data mining on themselves, handing over their lives via FB and Twitter.

If anything, the leaked video shows how easy it is for those who live on the web to expose a lot more than they think they’re exposing to the outside world, that is if they’re even aware of how freely they release intimate details about their lives and daily routine to complete strangers. And of course, those who are mindful of how much data is being collected on them and how easily an overlooked security setting can put information meant solely for friends and/or family can spill in the social media world, will take care not to expose themselves the way Raytheon’s test subject did, rendering the use of this app to find potential terrorists and spies rather moot. The digital medium allows for all sorts of interesting cat and mouse head games and false trails can cover a spy’s trail, leading analysts to dead ends and making them waste hours on wild goose-chases as they try to establish routines and patterns from fictional data being fed into social media sites on a daily basis. And this is why Riot is likely still in its proof of concept stage…

[ illustration by Sven Prim ]

locked door

An obscure company called Silent Circle wants to secure your smartphone using nifty tricks you wouldn’t think are out of place in a Bond film, if movie studios could manage to get a technically literate edition of the franchise out there. Not only will its app secure your data with some really powerful encryption algorithms, it will also allow you to build a self-destruct into e-mail, text, and media messages, and the data about how you used the company’s services will be deleted from their servers after a week, data that could easily be anonymized to protect you even further. Oh and the servers happen to be in Canada, where digital privacy laws are much stricter than in the United States, meaning that by the time anyone wants to file a subpoena to get to your data, the data in question will either be long gone by the time it could be reviewed, or not exactly usable. It’s nice to have this sort of data protection and privacy as a consumer, isn’t it? And if anything, Silent Circle’s approach to your privacy should be adopted by the next iteration of the web.

Basically, the whole Web 2.0 business model is predicated on giving you free tools in exchange for the ability to mine data about everything you do. Social networks are basically stalking you, not for something nefarious mind you, but to show you ads, thinking that somehow they can use your online data to predict your tastes. Unfortunately, this has the nasty side-effect of leaving a lot of digital fingerprints easily accessible to pranksters, criminals after your credit card number, and hackers working for an authoritarian regime that would like to see you silenced. Likewise, it allows any company offering a service tied to a mapping app on your phone to see not only the places you go, but how often you go there, how long you stay, and thanks to Facebook’s utter lack of respect for your privacy settings from version rollout to version rollout, with whom you go there should you fail to keep on top of every setting on a regular basis. To be blunt, very few of your tracked behaviors, if any, offer any real predictability in your buying habits, so most of the free Web 2.0 services just log everything, hoping to find the magic formula for ad makers.

Now, with cloud storage easily accessible to all, and more and more of us trying to keep rather important data online just in case, hopefully in encrypted file lockers, we need more privacy and social media data that allows hackers to guess answers to our security questions, narrow down our password guesses, or track when we’re out of the house and about how long we’ll be gone, compromises this privacy. So for the sake of their users, companies need to track users less, to log fewer of their actions, to stop following them around with ads they didn’t opt to see, and do a periodic log purge not to hand hackers treasure troves of sensitive data should anyone ever get into their backend servers and snoop through a few of their databases. This would mean that a typical online user would have to pay a small fee to make the service viable, but considering the return on investment will be security and privacy, isn’t a few dollars a month worth erasing huge, exploitable chunks of data about him or her from the web? Of course no security scheme can ever be perfect, but any security and anonymity is better than the flimsy pretenses of it used by major online services now. And that goes double for their vast logs of everything you do…

internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.


During the heady, pre-IPO days of Facebook, the tech world was being told that because half a billion people were registered on the site, not only would it become the platform for virtually any business venture or marketplace, it would also harness the contents of its massive data farms to drive customers to the right advertisers. The concept was that mapping out the connections and likes between people and their favorite pages could target ads to precisely fit someone’s profile and served as part of a news feed or a handy sponsored link in the sidebar. This social web was supposed to be the way, the word, and the light of all social media to a viable business model. If we go by the performance of Facebook’s stock, that’s not exactly what happened, and the rather mediocre returns on investment advertisers are seeing on the site only add insult to injury. Just as many users click on blank ads as they do real ones, suggesting that when they do click on a sponsored link, it’s likely to be a mistake. So much for hypertargeting as the future of social.

Here’s the problem a lot of large social media sites trying to make money can’t seem to solve. All the millions of users they have are so used to having everything free and have gotten so adept at filtering ads screaming at them from every direction, they’re using the tool for its social benefit while treating what’s now supposed to be the site’s bread and butter as an annoyance they just have to tolerate to use the awesome free tool. This is why Facebook or Twitter can’t even joke about a paid subscription to keep using their sites. Maybe about 1% of hardcore users who do need to keep using their tools will switch over while the other 99% flock elsewhere. If people are not used to paying for something, they sure aren’t going to start unless there’s simply no way to get what they want otherwise, and even then, many will just choose to go without, figuring that a monthly or even annual fee is asking too much for how little time they spend on these sites. And this is why we were being pitched the social web as the answer to the question of how any social media site should make enough money to truly live up to its hype. Instead of selling a small and controversial monthly subscription, they’ll just sell your data to companies instead.

However, the social web concept also suffers from an underlying flaw. It doesn’t account for a lot of human behavior because the interactions on the site effectively obscure them. You might get an ad for Nike running shoes because you liked a comment by your friend about how much she loves running in her new Nikes. From a computer standpoint, it makes perfect sense. You were friends for years, you comment on each other’s’ posts on a regular basis, you must be at least a little swayed by your friend’s opinion, right? But how does Facebook know that you’re friends on the site only because your parents know her parents and it would look bad if you declined her friend request? Where do you specify that you are on a completely different part of the political spectrum than her, couldn’t care less about running or tennis shoes, and only interact with her for the sake of appearances? She could say that Nike shoes cured her guinea pig’s cancer and you still wouldn’t care, mostly because you just ignored her status update in your feed, like you do for nearly every one of her posts. In this case, the social graph delivers a dud.

Human behavior is a very complex subject and there’s a wide variety of reactions humans have to the same ideas, events, and things. Trying to reduce them into predictable formulas to build a graph designed to predict how they’ll act is a fool’s errand. It will either be too specific, or vague to the point of being utterly useless. You’ll be relying on the belief that people are exactly who they are and what they are online, a real stretch considering that we have trouble figuring out if people are who they say they are or believe what they say they do in person. Add to that all the changes we experience throughout our lives, changes shaped by hormones, big decisions and their consequences, and even small events that inspire us to do something new and different at a moment’s notice, and you may as well try to call your social web Laplace since it would have to summon a variation of its metaphorical demon to get any sort of consistent accuracy when put into action. To ignore this was either wishful thinking on Facebook’s part, or an complete lack of familiarity with how humans generally tend to work out in the wild of the internet and IRL…

[ illustration by Bogdan Suditu ]