Sacha Baron Cohen recently spoke about how social media services have become the “greatest propaganda machine in history”.
Much of the media’s focus, when reporting on his remarks, was on his attack on Facebook. While he certainly targeted Facebook, he also spoke about how Google, YouTube, and Twitter shape online discourse, and how they help spread lies, bigotry, and attacks on fact-based discussions.
Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”
As much as we embrace free expression, we find it difficult to draw a line when liars and bigots abuse their right to free expression because doing that feels like hypocrisy.
Free expression isn’t unlimited, though. And pushing back against channels that help propagate misinformation, abuse, and false statements that impact substantial segments of the population is becoming more important.
At the very least, it’s worth watching Cohen’s talk, or reading his remarks:
We should also think carefully about how much trust we place in services that profit from the social chaos we see around us.
I noticed a curious sequence of events this morning. I responded to a tweet about Donald Trump’s latest tweet where he referred to his “great and unmatched wisdom” using the Twitter app on my Android phone –
I then turned to our Android TV box where we were watching YouTube videos in the YouTube app, and I saw a recommendation for this Late Late Show video about Trump’s tweets:
That’s some pretty snappy algorithmic matching there, Google!
There simply wasn’t enough room to have the kind of nuanced conversation the subject requires. It was symbolic of Twitter’s broader problem: It’s almost impossible to have a smart, healthy argument on Twitter because no one has the space needed to share their thoughts.
Anyone remember Friendfeed? Actually, perhaps a more interesting solution could have been Google Wave.
Neither of these options are around any longer, and their successors don’t have the traction or appeal for this sort of use case.
Jamie Rubin recently wrote about abridgement going too far when it comes to books in his post “Abridge, Too Far“.
I’ve been thinking about abridgments lately because of an ad that keeps popping up on Facebook. It’s for a service called Blinkist. The service claims it allows you to “fit reading into your life.” It does this by providing short (15 minute or so) key takeaways of popular nonfiction books. I took a look at some titles in the History category. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I recently finished, is summarized in 19 minutes of audio. The actual unabridged audiobook is over 15 hours long. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read last year is summarized in 19 minutes. Actual unabridged audiobook length: 41 hours 32 minutes. This, to me, is abridge too far.
Arendt argued that a moral society depends on thinking individuals. In order to think we need solitude and mental freedom. “Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in,’” Stitt writes. She warns that in our hyper-connected world, the risk of losing a connection to ourselves and the ability to think independently is greater than ever.
These extreme abridgements are like Twitter, but for reading. I mean this both in the sense that they’re short (well, they’re abridgements), but also in the sense that they seem to fit this notion of reading as something to churn through so you can rush off to the next thing. All while completely skipping past the substance that reading offers.
Reading is an opportunity to be still for a time, and delve into ideas, stories, other worlds. It’s not about scanning some quick gist, deluding yourself into thinking you’ve somehow grasped the essence of the book.
As Rubin points out, this is partly about exploitation –
My worry is that the revolt, in this case, is against reading. These millions are not consuming the works, they are instead like vultures, tearing away at the liver and intestines of a book that has already been gutted by profiteers playing on people’s desire to feel well-read without doing the actual work of reading.
More than that, though, I think this is indicative of a social trend away from substance, and thoughtfulness, towards a much more impulsive and superficial approach to how we live our lives, and engage with the issues we face.
Everything is meta sized. Information, choices, inputs, and outcomes. As a result, our biological makeup is being put to test. How long can we live with an unending dopamine hits? What about the thumbs, eyes and our hearts which are facing new stresses? What about our diets that are full of sugar and are re-configuring out gut microbes?
I think there’s certainly merit in shifting your social network over to something like Micro.blog, in the near term at least. As Enslen explains –
As the name Micro.blog implies the primary thing you can do on it is write short form posts like Twitter and Facebook. But you can also post long form posts just like you would on a conventional blog, just keep typing and when you hit 280 characters in a post a Title Field appears and you are long form posting – effortlessly. There is no friction or barriers between you and just writing.
Posting is easy, like posting on Twitter and the blog just auto-generates itself. You can post, “I like pizza.” You can post a picture of your cat plus a poem about your cat. You can post a 600 word essay about the Chicago Cubs. Whatever you want, however short or long you want. It’s one of the features I like the most. Posting photos is very easy on MB. There are quite a few dedicated photoblogs there.
And you can move. If you decide to move you can export all your posts and import them on a different blogging platform. This is exactly why MB strongly encourages you to use your own domain it makes moving easier.
There are two challenges, as I see it at the moment:
If your social graph/network isn’t using Micro.blog, it’s value for you may be pretty limited (or you can create a new network!); and
I worry that shifting over to another, single service is repeating the same mistake we all made focusing our social streams into a small number of social networks that we don’t control. Micro.blog is certainly more open than Twitter or Facebook, and you don’t even need to host your blog there to participate, so it’s better in that respect.
I’ve been using Micro.blog as a pseudo-Twitter for a little while now. My blog posts publish there automatically, and I’ve discovered some fascinating people there along the way.
The syndication aspect is why I think there’s definitely something to adopting Micro.blog as a social network, even if it’s more of a stepping stone to something else. I’d love that “something else” to be a distributed social fabric that’s informed by posts on our personal sites/blogs.
I don’t think we’re quite there yet (wherever there is?), but I’m hopeful that we can move beyond a site as a static site or as a chunky blog, to a point where a site/blog can be a source of articles, and also simpler shares like status updates, Instagram-like photos, and so on.
Micro.blog is the closest to that, that I’ve seen. Here’s Manton Reece’s overview of Micro.blog. I think it offers a pretty good perspective on what this distributed social experience could look like:
I’m not really interested in moving my site away from WordPress, and that’s not because I work at Automattic. Overall, I enjoy using WordPress, and I think it’s one of the best options out there for publishing just about everything from a personal blog, to more complex publications.
Hopefully WordPress will evolve, and incorporate technologies that feed this loose vision of a federated social Web based on personal sites that talk to each other seamlessly. In the meantime, there’s a growing collection of plugins that add these pieces along the way (such as the wonderful IndieWeb plugins).
So, perhaps Micro.blog is a good candidate for an alternative to Facebook, and Twitter*. It’s certainly a couple steps in the right direction, while we figure out what a post-Facebook/post-Twitter social Web looks like.
*well, certainly Twitter given that Micro.blog doesn’t support privacy options you may want to use in a Facebook alternative, and assuming that the people you want to follow are on Twitter too …
Twitter threads make no sense to me. I also find then to be pretty frustrating.
I’ve read some really interesting, and engaging Twitter threads (you probably have too). Every time I read one, I ask myself two questions:
Why is this person going out of their way to share this story/their thoughts on a format that breaks the flow with every tweet?
Why doesn’t this person value their ideas/content/thoughts enough to give them/it a dedicated home on the Web that others can return to?
Sure, Twitter is great for firing off missives on the go. It’s both a real benefit, and the reason why Twitter’s becoming the seedy part of the Web.
It’s also a space that you don’t control, don’t own, and have no guarantee will still respect you in the morning. Taking the time to formulate your thoughts, and share them one tweet at a time, over multiple tweets, reflects a degree of dedication, and a determination to share them with the world.
Why, then, would you do the digital equivalent of carving your thoughts into beach sand, only to see it washed out when the tide comes in?
There are so many opportunities to share your ideas in a more resilient format, such as a blog, or even a collection of static HTML pages on a server somewhere. You can even tweet the link, if you want to get it out to your Twitter followers.
The cost of setting up, and maintaining a blog, are almost negligible. Do that instead. Your future readers will thank you.
Oh, and on a related note …
I occasionally come across tweets that attach images of typed documents. Please don’t do that. See above.
Some platforms present a little something special on your birthday. Twitter has balloons that float up over your screen when you visit your profile page on your birthday. I get a kick out of seeing this every year!
I suppose Twitter still has its good use cases. Tweeting to preserve history isn’t one of them. I came across this fascinating Twitter thread by Marina Amaral about the Sami people, who’ve been living in what’s now Finland for thousands of years:
The thread runs for several tweets, and it includes wonderful resources such as maps, old photos, and more recent photos that illustrate how these people have adapted to a modern world.
As much as I enjoyed reading Marina’s wonderful overview of these people’s history, I couldn’t help but wonder why she chose to tweet this, instead of blogging it? She has a remarkable blog that covers a range of historical events, and themes.
When it comes to digital preservation of these sorts of cultural and historical legacies, surely publishing it to a blog would be a far better medium?