Social Networks are Boring

A common refrain. People will complain that Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, is boring. What’s usually going on is

  1. their friends are boring,
  2. they’ve reached mental exhaustion,
  3. they try to use social networks less as a social pulse or passive awareness and more as active entertainment,
  4. they reached exhaustion of new content, or
  5. they’re boring.

In a previous job, I’d do 12-hour shifts watching social media, 2 or 3 days in a row. Like, say, on overnights on a weekend. By 6AM on Monday morning, I wanted nothing to do with looking at a computer, and I say that as a completely internet-wired junkie. Sometimes there’s just nothing going on at all. No news. Even the Associated Press wires are just posting baseball recaps. Even the most loserish folks online aren’t busy bashing something on Sunday evenings.  Social media on Sunday overnights is dead.

So hearing from anyone else that one needs to unplug for a while is understandable. What isn’t understandable is the lack of recognition that your boring feeds reflect boring friends or your boring interpretation of what your friends do.

There are variations of this problem: sometimes people don’t follow a critical mass of content creators, so that when they try to view a stream or feed, they barely see any new content, and what content is actually there is boring as fuck.  Some present evidence that Facebook or whatever is dying — well, if you want to cast your widest social net, what’s better than Facebook?  What will possibly be better than Facebook any time soon?  Best place for photos?  Instagram has got that locked up tight, with several derivative competitors trying to offer alternatives (Snapchat).  Social networks are entrenched.  The verdict is still out on video, private social networks, etc.  Maybe reddit is the least secure of the large social media companies.  But I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you claim you’re bored, then your only alternative is to opt-out and go offline, or maybe go underground.

Self-Censored Data

Another variation of the problem, and the main one I want to talk about, is that the types of content that we want to and are able to post lead to limited and boring outcomes, as a result of our ambivalence about personal privacy online, legal norms for data, corporate apprehension toward data liability, etc.

I took some time off working on Galapag.us after thesis presentations ended — I was handling personal matters including moving to a new place with my girlfriend, graduation from school, parents visiting, job interviews, and so on — but I’ve recently started wading back into my code again.

For Galapag.us, I created tons of categories for data for people to enter the moments that occur in their lives every day, such as memories, interactions, loves, hates, etc. Making the data entry part as accessible and as fluid as possible is key since I think anyone who’s done any quant selfing has tired of entering in what food they ate, where they checked in, etc. constantly every day.

My logic is that while physically-generated data is easier to quantify, even the results (aggregation and charting) of it are not very exciting. What good is it to know the flawed number of steps or relative activity level we achieve per day, without further context like diet, circumstances? (sitting at a desk at work, traveling in a plane, skydiving)

Qualitative Data

And so, perhaps as an alternative to that physically-generated data, what we really find meaningful over time might be when and where we had an interaction with someone else, or how our preferences change over time.  Those are the things we remember for years afterwards.

I grew up in a command line interface type world, one of BBSs and MUDs and prompts.  So I started working on an API for Galapag.us so one could access JSON responses via curl, via the web site, or via a command line on the web site (similar to github’s).  The command line on the site let me use angular.js for two-way data binding and for making a nice interface for commands to output.

I started having to think about what new data I could make reachable through the API.  I don’t have a large user dataset yet, so I was considering external APIs. APIs are bad enough these days, as the former best one (Twitter) has been jailed, and most APIs expose almost no interesting public data. It’s cool that data.gov releases a bunch of government data but to be honest 99% of that data is completely fucking boring.  The rest of it is most likely useful only to some NYTimes data scientist who will make some sexy d3 or raphael dataviz that people will cream their pants over.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. are most useful through the data exposed within their networks’ metadata — tracking how circles of friends and followers are related — but the rest of their content is fairly boring. One could say the same about the data that the NSA is collecting.

Instagram is the beneficiary of being the leader for photos, which are the king when it comes to immediate gratification, entertaining content, and pageviews/clicks/PR. The photos we take power today’s social media, now that our networks algorithmically have been around long enough that they’re reaching adolescence (I would think our networks will reach “adulthood” when most of the userbase is old enough that network graph sizes begin to shrink from old age deaths, and the social network providers begin to change their site designs to reflect that contraction in connection to the external self).

Unoffensive and Boring Data Schema

The data itself being exposed for public consumption is fucking boring. The most exciting stuff you might see (outside of, once again, awesome photos from life-changing events that people post, and those swimsuit pics of those people you just friended) are who viewed your profile on LinkedIn (imagine if you could see that on Facebook), or an occasional drunk post signalling the rare chaos added to the polite, custom-filled order of our normal social feeds.

If you need an analogy, the personal data we disclose on our social networks is the equivalent of reading some small midwestern company’s corporate site.  Our front pages (Facebook and LinkedIn) are using, I guess, some shitty flash animation interstitial.  We probably have a shitty about page that barely contains any actual timeline info.  There’s no contact info available.  Check-ins on FourSquare?  A little racier, but maybe that’s just some scantily-clad photo we posted as a camgirl.  Most of the links on our shitty sites are broken or old.  Altogether it’s just a whole shitty experience.

At the same time, we can barely accept this “free use in exchange for using your data to advertise off you” compact we have with large siren servers like Google and Facebook, and we’re scared we’ve already contributed too much data online.

But it’s all so, so boring.  Few of us have the talent and courage to share what’s most dazzling and interesting and inspiring about our personalities and deeds online.  Those who do succeed because they are fulfilling their potential and fulfilling the powerful medium of expression that the internet was supposed to give us.  The rest of us hide our personalities and flaws and desires and failures and weaknesses because that would diminish our carefully curated statures online.

Few of us have enough details online to verify our reputations or trust, show proof of temperament or sound judgment under different bad circumstances, etc.  At the very least, most of us contribute nothing yet consume a lot every day.  People are afraid Facebook and Google and the rest know too much about us, but in reality, we’ve all agreed to some sort of social norm where we conceal what’s really interesting about us and only post the most fluffy, superficial information about ourselves.  We’ve all signed up to a social norm that we must be safely boring.

Dangerous Data

What I envision one day is seeing, over time, how other people and groups of people changed their body types after they had children, or as a result of increased work hours, or seeing the patterns of their lives through the 24 hours of their days.  What I envision is seeing hard data on failed dates vs. attempted dates, aggregated opinion of participants at concerts, sexual data, tracking peoples’ young potential vs. their older outcomes.

You know.  All the data that can be embarrassing to share — the data that often defines us more than any other data.  The data that shows when we’re vulnerable, emotional, petty, impulsive, breaking our own habits and patterns.

And what if the schema, API, and backend architecture also encouraged more scandalous insight? What if the data we collected, and the representation and sharing of it, did, as Jer Thorp wrote in his article “Art and the API”, bring us closer to what we really want to express?

[The] conceptual API. A piece of software architecture intended not only to bridge but also to question. The API as a software art mechanism, intended to be consumed not only by humans, but by other pieces of software. (Promisingly, the API also offers a medium in which software artists can work entirely apart from visual esthetic.)

Burnham wrote in 1968 that ‘the significant artist strives to reduce the technical and psychical distance between [their] artistic output and the productive means of society’. In an age of Facebook, Twitter & Google, that productive means consists largely of networked software systems. The API presents a mechanism for artistic work to operate very close to, or in fact to live within these influential systems.

There’s a reason people love to read the gossip sites all day.  The stories are glitches in the matrix regarding people we know (celebrities).  When order breaks down, we get interested.  Within our digital networks, order rarely ever breaks down.  People tailor their content to fit an identity, maybe not to improve their reputation, but very rarely to degrade it, unless they sacrifice some of it to pursue an issue worth it to them, like politics or sports.

If you want to know why social networks are “boring”, it’s because we’ve censored ourselves into being safe, and boring.

Identity

If anything, this is a stark argument for virtual identities, pseudonyms, and anonymity.  They allow us to act out in ways that we can’t within our main imprisoned identities.  They allow us to interact and experiment without the shaming that could come back to our physical identities.  The inference here is also that our other identities are inherently dangerous.

To me it is not shocking that the government can collect on any of us.  One should always assume that the US keeps the blade of its sword sharpened, and if it chooses to target you, anything you have linked to you is compromised.  What is shocking is the breadth for which the government is trying to piece together disparate datapoints together.  A huge piece of that puzzle is linking random datapoints collected online back to a MAC ID on your network card, so that it knows that “Xeus” and “Ben” are the same person.  Google is trying to do the same thing to get better data on pageclicks vs. pageviews across sessions and page transitions.  This is the key data.

If you want your social networks to be more interesting, you’re going to have to give more online.  You’re going to have to play more, experiment more, fail more.  You’ll have to expand your friend networks to areas you’re not as comfortable in.

And of course you can argue: hey, who gives a shit?, it’s just an online waste of time.  But I wonder how many peoples’ lives are not actually enriched at least a tiny bit by the passive awareness granted by online networks. I actually consider it beneficial knowing almost subconsciously that distant friends and acquaintances are busy raising that newborn or are changing jobs and moving to another country (you know, the heavy lifting of our timelines) even though we haven’t talked.

I think everyone’s going to have to suck it up a bit and realize that a digital life is one worth living to the fullest. The digital life can no longer be neglected or made fun of.

One of the more recent influential articles for me was by Nathan Jurgenson, who wrote about the IRL fetish:

Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.

Completely fetishized.  The reality:

Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.

Publicy vs. Privacy

The power of the people is publicy whereas the power of siren servers, cartels, etc. stems from privacy.  I would argue that we’re fighting a losing battle if we try to pursue even more privacy, government data retention laws, and oversight into surveillance.  We should still pursue strict controls on authorized surveillance as a matter of course, as it’s the only way to solidify gains legally, but the underlying strategy should be more openness, more sharing, more creation of public alibis to verify our reputations and livelihoods.  By withholding information from others, we give those who can still get that information power, since they then have access to data others don’t.  By sharing information, we not only take it out of play in the interconnected data market, we free that data for use in silly experimental games, behavioral economics studies, and so on.

I feel as though the conservatives have been particularly absent from the NSA story, probably because they are conflicted: on one hand, whistleblowing is a fine line between treason and heroism, whereas Big Brother and mysterious government agency behavior is a mainstay of the skeptical conservative.  The liberals on the other hand have gone full-retard.  Their shock that an agency tasked with collecting and analyzing information might try to game the internet is just downright laughable, particularly after almost a decade of encroachment into our communications networks painstakingly whistleblown by brave but mostly unheard individuals.  The liberals are also in disbelief that Obama could do this (!) and have begun equating what “he” has done with the horrors under Bush and Cheney.  It’s like some sort of retarded amnesia.  The final absurdity is that there has been no even half-constructed policy suggestion from the liberals on how to deal with maintaining intelligence superiority through surveillance versus maintaining first amendment freedoms in an interconnected hyperglobalized hybrid digital-actual world.  The NSA of course has blown almost every opportunity to win by just laying out an honest case for the nation requiring such systems in order to maintain superiority in foreign affairs.  I assume it squanders this position because it knows it really doesn’t have to do anything except keep its head down until this passes (like gun control, Gitmo, and a litany of other liberal causes abandoned when the next fauxtrage comes about).  You know, at least the Tea Party advocates turned out for rallies.  Digital liberals will just mock Occupy and Anonymous and Like Kony 2012 and anti-NSA causes on Facebook, slacktivism at its finest.

There’s absolutely no informed debate about this issue at all, yet it permeates every damn site right now.  So frustrating.  I would maintain that you can have 3 legitimate stances on it: 1) you don’t care, 2) you delete all your social data online and encrypt all your email along with friends who agree to it, or 3) you try to see the issue as a balance between national security, technological advancement, and public freedoms.  I choose #3 as a matter of pragmatism.  But I respect those who choose #1 and #2 as well.  I also allow for the criticism of being more open, which Jaron Lanier partially explains:

Metadata has proven to be a tool for certain kinds of behavioral change. Facebook can use metadata to find people who are more likely to agree to share information with each other, because they share history with each other anyway. This, in turn, increases the amount of metadata available to the algorithms. Once enough people are signed up, a new sphere of social mores is created and even more information is shared. … Young people, weaned on free Internet services that spy on them, seem to have accepted an America in which their financial prospects are reduced, and in which no one should expect “privacy.” The acquiescence of our young people is historically exceptional and bizarre. In the metadata age, privacy needs a new definition, and it might be “freedom from being profiled.” Or “equity with those who use the biggest computers.”

So in short: I wish there were more people clamoring for more openness, more transparency, starting with our own personal data.  If agencies and corporations draw power from controlling the distribution of our data, then we need to dump it out there into the public domain.  Aren’t open sourcing, transparency, openness, public domain the things digital liberals and other civil libertarian groups always say they want?

Well, as my final point, I would argue that those values are not really what they want.  They want everyone else to share more, but they won’t do it themselves.  Other people can fight the war, they’ll stay home and watch the Daily Show “destroy” some FOXNews pundit.  Other people can put the leg work in, they’ll make sure to catch that sweet rooftop party tonight.  Other people can dirty their hands with campaigning and fighting for causes, they’ll just photograph it to feel like they’re a part of it.  No associations, no taking a stand.  Just criticizing, critiquing, “doing no harm”.  Useless.

Tech Fetishism

At the same time, the obsession over drones, NSA surveillance, and other aspects of the “military-industrial complex” borders on tech-fetishism.  Behold the awesomeness of that drone turning that pickup truck into glowing-white heat signatures.  Think of the sexiness of that NSA terminal poring a search query through petabytes of data!  Are you getting a boner yet?  It plays into every Ayn Rand teen’s wet dream about how insidious and dangerous the government is, yet it’s ignorant of the reality of today’s world, where columns of tanks and infantry are so rarely seen, but code — and data — runs 24 hours a day, every day.  The thing about that is, tanks and infantry always cause destruction — they were built to destroy — whereas code can be good or bad, depending on the policy and the actors behind it.  Anti-NSA tech-fetishists would have the code and tech destroyed, while in awe of it, but a more sensible approach would be for a citizenry to push a responsible use of that tech through Congress and POTUS: acknowledge the necessity of it, yet create sound policy to govern the use of it.

And a nation won’t use it as much if the nation’s priorities don’t require so much of it.  Right now under a paranoid post 9/11 security apparatus (worldwide and even in the holier-than-thou Europe, I might add, and not just under Nobama’s America), the threat vector includes just about any potential self-radicalizing self-pitying dumbass who read a pamphlet about how x or y is oppressing z.  So you take away the siloed cartel control of distribution of our data, establish reputations and publicize them, and you take away much of the potential for abuse by over-zealous states who either through blunder or through antipathy go after non-targets and then claim confidentiality and parallel construction (a technique as old as the hills by any type of law enforcement, I might add) as a defense.

I don’t know where the fuck this post is ending :) so I’ll wrap it up here but right now there’s some sort of weird disconnect between the reality of a world I thought we all witnessed in the last decade or so and the Sesame Street world that the old Tea Partiers, anti-NSA libertarianers, and uninformed liberals are living in.

And so it will continue.  Sigh.

  • Senor Equis

    Also don’t just make tweets up to portray your opponent as a raging anti-Semite when he’s actually a pro-Israel non interventionist, especially when you’ve just lost a @TwitterFight. Dick move, @RobertCaruso.

    http://xxtwitterwarcommittee.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/robertcaruso-is-a-lying-piece-of-trash-he-will-make-stuff-up-if-you-ever-debate/

  • James Baicoianu

    The more interesting (and troubling) part about Facebook isn’t so much the information people share voluntarily, but the information they share inadvertently by being logged into Facebook as they browse the web.

    Every time you view a website with Facebook Connect, Like buttons, the facepile, or any of their other social widgets, Facebook knows that your userid viewed that page. So even if you never liked that shoe on Zappos, Facebook knows you saw it. If your stoner friend sent you a link to supercool420weedphotos.com and they have Like buttons on their pages, Facebook knows you saw that too (it’s still a federal crime, remember?). Or if my friend sends me a link to a liveleak video of some newly-leaked and highly-controversial wikileaks scandal, well, that’s now a tidbit of information that’s linked to me too.

    Extrapolate this with some of the allegations Snowden made about NSA having tapped into traffic of major internet backbone routers – something that’s been public knowledge without much real fan-fare ever since we learned about Room 641A over at the AT&T building – and all that information and its relationships are knowable by people whose job it is to cast a wide dragnet to detect “dangerous” people. For all I know, the fact that I’m the kind of person who is interested in watching leaked videos of military personnel casually blowing up civilians, combined with the fact that I encrypt much of my traffic and regularly have Skype conversations with family members who live overseas in countries our government has painted with vague links to terrorism might have just knocked my unknowable ThreatScore™ up to the level where I get harassed when I try to cross the border.

    It’s worse than credit scores, at least those agencies are required to give you the details of your report when you ask for it.