Bots may be determining all our futures

social bots

We’ve all seen the stories and allegations of Russian bots manipulating the Trump-Clinton US election and, most recently, the FCC debate on net neutrality. Yet far from such high stakes arenas, there’s good reason to believe these automated pests are also contaminating data used by firms and governments to understand who we (the humans) are, as well as what we like and need with regard to a broad range of things… Continue reading

All teens make mistakes, but hyperconnected Generation Z faces steeper consequences

Teenage Young Teen Youth Portrait Tween Casual

Last week a young contestant on a British reality TV show was left humiliated after producers chose to remove him from the program’s Australian jungle setting after just a couple of days. Their reason? Tweets and social media messages sent in 2011, when the vlogger was in his teens.

Now let’s be clear, the things that Jack Maynard said were unpalatable and offensive. They are not acceptable sentiments in any scenario, and certainly not from someone with a YouTube reach of several million and an incredible leverage over (predominantly) teenage girls.  Nevertheless, watching a young man’s fledgling media career left in tatters should prompt us to sharpen our focus on an increasingly important question: in our hyperconnected era, to what extent can we punish and pillory the adult for the sins of the teen?   Continue reading

The rise of the tech police: Are we handing too much power to our digital masters?

police2

It was reported this week that Twitter had stripped several far-right and white supremacist accounts of their blue “verification” badge. According to Twitter spokespeople, the badge – which was introduced to verify the authenticity of accounts belonging to high-profile individuals – had come to signify an implicit endorsement from the company. A sort of stamp of Twitter approval.

Now, it is understandable, if not laudable, to retract anything that so-much as hints at approval when it comes to such ignorant and warped individuals. But, it does also open a rather large bag of worms.  Continue reading

Facebook wants you naked…and it’s for your own good

revenge porn

***UPDATE: Contrary to yesterday’s reporting, the BBC has now corrected its article on Facebook’s new “revenge porn” AI to include this rather critical detail:

“Humans rather than algorithms will view the naked images voluntarily sent to Facebook in a scheme being trialled in Australia to combat revenge porn. The BBC understands that members of Facebook’s community operations team will look at the images in order to make a “fingerprint” of them to prevent them being uploaded again.”

So now young victims will have the choice of mass humiliation, or faceless scrutiny… Continue reading

Facebook accused of limiting, not championing, human interaction

facebook reactions

Facebook have been in a press a lot this week, and there have been a flurry of articles asking how they might be brought back from the brink. The New York Times asked a panel of experts “How to Fix Facebook?”. Some of the responses around the nature of –and limitations to– our user interactions on the social network struck me as very interesting.

Jonathan Albright, Research Director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, writes:

“The single most important step Facebook — and its subsidiary Instagram, which I view as equally important in terms of countering misinformation, hate speech and propaganda — can take is to abandon the focus on emotional signaling-as-engagement.

This is a tough proposition, of course, as billions of users have been trained to do exactly this: “react.”

What if there were a “trust emoji”? Or respect-based emojis? If a palette of six emoji-faced angry-love-sad-haha emotional buttons continues to be the way we engage with one another — and how we respond to the news — then it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Negative emotion, click bait and viral outrage are how the platform is “being used to divide.” Given this problem, Facebook needs to help us unite by building new sharing tools based on trust and respect.”

Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and author of “The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network”, suggested:

“It would be interesting if Facebook offered a “vintage Facebook” setting that users could toggle to, without News Feed ads and “like” buttons. (Before “likes,” users wrote comments, which made interactions more unique and memorable.)

A “vintage Facebook” setting not only would be less cluttered, it would refocus the experience of using Facebook on the people using it, and their intentions for communication and interaction.”

According to recent reports, “reactions” are being algorithmically prioritized over “likes”. Why? Well, we might suppose, for the same reason most new features are developed: more and greater insight. Specifically, more insight about our specific emotions pertaining to items in our newsfeed.

Understanding the complexity of something we type in words is difficult. Systems have to understand tone, sarcasm, slang, and other nuances. Instead, “angry”, “sad”, “wow”, “haha”, and “love” make us much easier to interpret. Our truthful reactions are distilled into proxy emojis.

I see two problems with this:

  • The first is that we are misunderstood as users. Distilling all human emotions/reactions into five big nebulous ones is unhelpful. Like many of the old (and largely discredited) psychometric tests questions, these reactions allow us to cut complexity out of our own self-portrayal. This means that, down the line, the data analytics will purport to show more than they actually do. They’ll have a strange and skewed shadow of our feelings about the world. We’ll then, consequently, be fed things that “half match” our preferences and – potentially –change and adapt our preferences to match those offerings. In other words, if we’re already half-misinformed, politically naïve, prejudiced etc., we can go whole hog…
  • The second problem is that discouraging us from communicating our feelings using language, is likely to affect our ability to express ourselves using language. This is more of a worry for those growing up on the social network. If I’m not forced to articulate when I think something is wonderful, or patronizing, or cruel, and instead resort to emojis (“love” or “angry”), then the danger is that I begin to think in terms of mono-emotions. With so many young people spending hours each day on social media, this might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

If there’s a question-mark over whether social network’s cause behavior change, then it’s fine to be unbothered about these prospects, but given Silicon Valley insiders have recently claimed that the stats are showing our minds “have been hijacked”, then perhaps it’s time to pay some heed to these mechanisms of manipulation.

Online dating’s hints of Stoicism

couple

Yesterday, I examined why some believe that data and the internet are conspiring to limit both our attention, and the fields of our knowledge/interest. Today I’m presenting something entirely different, namely the results of a forthcoming report which demonstrate how the phenomenon of online dating is actively altering the fabric of society by expanding our worlds.

An overview of the paper is available here, but in a nutshell, researchers from the University of Essex and the University of Vienna have been studying the social connections between us all, and have revealed how so many of us meeting (and mating with!) complete strangers through online dating is having the effect of broadening out our whole society.

Economists Josue Ortega and Philipp Hergovich argue that, whereas just a couple of decades ago most new people arriving into our social circle (e.g. a new partner) were just a couple of connections away from us to begin with (i.e. someone you meet through existing friends, or that lives in your local community), now our digital “matchings” with random folk from the internet mean that for many of us, our social reach extends much further than it ever would have done – i.e. into completely separate communities.

Looking at the bigger picture, this means that our little clusters of friends/family/neighbors no longer exist in relative isolation because: “as far as networks go, this [dating strangers] is like building new highways between towns…just a few random new paths between different node villages can completely change how the network functions.” This bridging between communities is perhaps most vivid when considering the growing numbers of interracial couples. Indeed, the report’s authors claim that their model predicts almost complete racial integration post the emergence of online dating.

This put me in mind of the concentric circles of Stoic philosophy (further popularized by the modern philosopher Professor Martha Nussbaum). This simple image has existed for centuries and has been described by Nussbaum as a “reminder of the interdependence of all human beings and communities.” It is supposed to encapsulate some of the ancient ideas of belonging and cosmopolitanism, and is similar to the expanding circles of moral concern explained by Philosopher Peter Singer:

hierocles-concentric-circles

As its inventor, Hierocles, imagined it, the most external circles should be pulled in as strangers are treated as friends, and friends as relatives. This happens as we increase our own efforts to recognize the habits, cultures, aims and aspirations of others and consider them akin to – and even constitutive of – our own.

In many respects, the evolution of the internet (as well as other media) has built upon the foundations of global travel to help us realize Hierocles’ rudimentary diagram. Though we still have strong ideas about personal, familial and community identity, the broadening out of our non-virtual social network – as exemplified by this work on online dating – means that our connections and concerns are not limited to the smaller, inner circles any longer. We increasingly draw those from the furthermost circles inward. As Singer argues, this must also mean that our ethical/moral concern emanates outward beyond our immediate vicinities.

Yet, not only can the internet (and in this case, data matching) bring those outer circles in, but in some ways it also seems to enable the distribution of “the self” and – more pertinently – a community…

I remember back in 2012, when I was working in PR and public affairs, there was a lot of talk about current “trends”. One of the ones that has stuck with me was nicknamed something like “patchwork people”. It referred, I think rather observantly, to the notion that so many of us feel better defined by the virtual/global communities we inhabit (perhaps communities based around hobbies or research or careers or fandom) than we do our immediate physical communities, within which we might rarely interact.

Whether the internet is allowing us to draw others into our understanding of the world, or whether we feel that our understanding of the world is mainly constituted by connections to others outside of the “natural” inner circles, there seems to be no doubt that the natural order of priority is evolving, and it will be fascinating to see how and if it continues to progress.